Dean Knuth

February 2021

William Watson
Circa 1899 at age 39  –  Circa 1925 at age 65
(Compliments of Joseph Gladke, Minnesota Golf Historian)

William Watson was an important pioneer of early golf course architecture who is all but forgotten.

You know the names of Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie and A.W. Tillinghast. You may not know William Watson, a man whom history has passed over, but you should. William Watson had a successful career and designed more than 100 golf courses before his retirement in 1930, when the Great Depression began, at the age of 70. Many of his courses have survived for a century, including his first U.S. design, the Minikahda Club in Minnesota. That is where he also landed his first job as head professional.

Watson immigrated from Fife, Scotland, near St. Andrews to America in 1898 when he was 38. He was a prolific designer and a success in California and the mid-west. A number of his best-known California designs have hosted major USGA and PGA National Championships, including Harding Park, San Diego Country Club, the original Brentwood Country Club, Diablo Country Club, Berkeley Country Club, Virginia Country Club and Orinda Country Club. He designed the original The Olympic Club Lake and Ocean courses until a major rainstorm destroyed much of his brilliant work. Annandale in Pasadena is a terrific canyon course working up, down and crossways in canyons and fields. La Jolla Country Club continues to be a full-membership club which was recently renovated with a goal of recovering some of his original design. A favorite course for me is Lake Merced Golf Club near Olympic Club which Watson routed and constructed for Willie Lock. Within ten years, Dr. Alister Mackenzie re-modeled it.

In Minnesota his first design–Minikahda Club is excellent and has hosted numerous National Championships. But, arguably his best Minnesota course was White Bear Yacht Club with fantastic terrain and design. Interlachen also was a great course that was later remodeled by Donald Ross. His Westmoreland course (named for “West for more land”) in Evanston, IL which required a massive bottom-layer base, hosted the biggest championships of the time and later was remodeled by A.W. Tillinghast who improved its bunkering. Watson designed and built one of the original courses at Olympia Fields, IL and built a second one with Tom Bendelow, which did not survive. Many other Watson gems unfortunately also did not survive housing developments on populated land that became more valuable as America grew.

William Watson was mature, educated, smart and was comfortable communicating and working for wealthy men. He was guided by the primary principle of maintaining naturalness in his designs. Watson wrote: “A good rule is to stress the importance of fitting in all grading work to harmonize with the surrounding territory, mounds, slopes, grassy hollows, sand pits, all have their values in beautifying the setting of our greens and in giving them distinctive definition — if artificially arranged without appearance of artificiality.” He also believed that a course is more interesting if every green has a character all its own, giving the player something besides the flag to view in approaching the hole.

From my point of view, besides being a minimalist just as he said, Watson was a master at routing golf holes on the land that he was provided. While he preferred land with significant rolls, dips and terrain, he did very well in laying-out courses on all types of land where he could envision a unique feature for each hole—and all without moving much land. He could envision sidewalls to bound the ball right or left, he could use horses to create contours on flat areas, and he used other skills to keep his courses from ever producing monotony.

He didn’t believe in trees on golf courses. He made this statement to the media when he was building Interlachen Country Club in Edina, MN in 1910: “Completion of the course will require the cutting down of a great many trees on the 146 acres over which, it is laid; but you can’t have trees and golf too. The best golf courses in Scotland haven’t a tree or bush anywhere on them, and when the Interlachen club course is finished it will be one of the sportiest in the country and will be the logical course for any professional matches in this section.”

Watson’s arrival in the mid-west in late 1898 was followed with moving to Los Angeles at the end of the 19th century. He arrived in Los Angeles at a time when there were only 16 courses in California and the greens in southern California were mostly hard packed sand as described in Thomas Arnold’s 1900 book, Golfing in the Far West:

“Greens have gone the way of all grass in Southern California—burned up for want of rain. In California turf greens are a luxury that very few clubs can afford to indulge in. It does not rain enough to keep even an imitation of life in the grass, and it would cost a small fortune to irrigate the green properly. And so, it is that we find all of the putting greens there made of hard-packed earth sprinkled over with a fine layer of white sand. The course of the Oakland Golf Club and that at Del Monte are the only exceptions to this rule. About the most lucid description of the earth greens that can be given is that they look like huge grindstones sunk into the earth. Golf playing on sand-greens is a vastly different matter from playing on turf. Sand-greens are decidedly easier for putting, because the surface, being perfectly smooth, offers little resistance, and the ball rolls with a precision equal to what it would be on a billiard table. Accurate approaches are next to impossible for if the ball lands short of the green where there are sand-greens, it stops dead, and if it strikes on the green it shoots across and off the other side. This makes the game partake of a very undesirable element of luck.”

Course designs in America at the beginning of the 20th Century often featured rectangular shaped greens and trenched bunkers surrounding the greens edge. In the next 20 years, hole designs rapidly modernized, although many courses still were built with horses, which permitted shaping min-contours in the fairways and roughs.

1900 hole on left and 1920 on right
(Courtesy of Golf Course Architecture in America by G.C. Thomas)

Example of Watson’s early trench bunkering over the back of the green compliments of San Diego Country Club.

Another example, compliments also of San Diego Country Club, shows Watson’s construction crew in action in the early 1900s.

After becoming well-known, Watson also became a promoter of golf in California—including a challenge to Northern Californians to build more golf courses than were being built in Southern California. This interview given in Northern Cal is an example:


“WITHIN five years California will be known as the “golfing state,” according to William Watson, nationally known golf authority and links architect. “In Southern California.” says Watson, “there are forty-eight golf clubs and at least five new courses under construction. Hardly a week passes that I don’t read of some new club being organized. Practically all of the clubs in Southern California have waiting lists bearing hundreds of names. “In Northern California it’s different. Until very recently there was little talk of organizing any golf clubs. Now that a group of business and professional men have organised the Lake Merced Golf and Country Club the members of the Concordia Club have come forward with an announcement that they, too, want to have a course of their own. The fact that 120 members pledged their moral and financial support to the project seems to Ensure the success of the venture. “It is my honest opinion that within a very short time Northern California will have twice as many courses as there are at the present time. A city the size of San Francisco should not only have two municipal courses, but at least ten or twelve private courses. “The trouble is that most men when arranging the details of organizing a club all want to have their course within “twenty minutes from Powell and Market.” Property within such a distance will cost at least $32000 an acre. Between San Francisco and Burlingame there is room for at least four courses. The contour of the land is such that the courses would in each case be a real test of golf. What if it does take an hour enroute to your club? The idea of playing on an exclusive course should more than make up for the inconvenience of spending an hour to reach your club. When the average person realizes that, it is my humble opinion that there will be more golf courses in the vicinity of San Francisco.” Watson’s work in laying out courses here and in southern California has been commended by such experts as Jim Barnes, Jock Hutchison, Charlie Mayo and others. He designed and superintended the construction of the Chula Vista, Annandale, Flintridge, Long Beach, Culver City, Hillcrest and Berkeley Country Club courses. His work in rearranging the La Cumbre and La Jolla courses also earned for him considerable praise from close students of the game in the south-land. At the present time Watson is rearranging the links at Burlingame and has charge of the construction work there. He is also planning and carrying on construction work on the municipal links at Lincoln Park, besides completing plans for rearranging the first eighteen holes at Lakeside. He will also superintend the construction of the Lake Merced Golf and Country Club course, work on which is expected.”

The Chicago Evening Post in October 1918 classed Watson with other great “modern” architects of that time: “The modern architect stands squarely on his record. Men like Donald Ross, William Watson, Willie Park, Walter Travis and Billy Langford have given to the country courses which are conclusive proof of the architect’s ability. It is the true fine architects to turn to when they want a modern layout.”

William Watson’s Early Years

Watson was born March 31, 1860 at his family’s Dura Den Cottage in Kemback, Fife, just eight miles from St. Andrews. He was the first of five children to Mary & John Cobb Watson. He was born in the Dura Den cottages, seen below.

When this crescent of Dura Den cottages was built in the 1830s, the renters worked in a flax yarn spinning business owned by David Yool, a major employer. High quality flax was used for making linen. William’s father, John Cobb, was listed as a flax spinner in 1876. John became a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1869 when William was nine and John shared his love for golf with his son. William attended Madras Academy in Cupar which is now called Bell Baxter High School. He attended St. Andrews University for a year (1876-1877), taking a full schedule including mathematics 1 and 2, chemistry, literature, history and Latin. He then worked for his father’s business.

William played in golf tournaments at St. Andrews and won sometimes at his home course, Cupar. While Watson was playing at St. Andrews, four-time Open Champion Old Tom Morris was St. Andrews’ greenskeeper and professional and designed many great golf courses. One apprentice under Old Tom’s tutelage included Donald Ross from Dornoch who apprenticed in 1899 before going to America and designing 400 golf courses. The Foulis brothers, David, Jim and Robert, made golf equipment for the Forgan factory.

Watson had a major break because he was friends with and had played golf with banker and American golfing enthusiast David R. Forgan (1856-1931). David, four years older than Watson, was the son of the famous founder of Forgan Golf Club company in St. Andrews. He completed his secondary education at Madras College in St. Andrews before going to Canada and America to become a successful banker in Minneapolis and then to Chicago, where he rose to be the President of the First National Bank of Chicago.

David (pictured above) also won the first Western Amateur Championship in 1899 played at Glenview Country Club in Illinois. (He also is known for his popular “Golfers Creed”).

Watson’s First Two Summers in Minneapolis

Please note: The information contained in this section on Watson in Minnesota is largely thanks to Minnesota historian Joseph Gladke’s generosity in sharing his research material with me.

At the advice of his friend, David Forgan, Watson boarded the RMS Etruria in Liverpool, England, in October of 1898 and arrived in Chicago near the end of the year. Forgan must have made an introduction to the Minikahda club officials. C.T. Jaffray was assigned to find a golf professional and he brought-in Watson. (Ed. Note: In another source, there is a chance that Watson had met Judge Martin B. Koon (first club president) when the Judge reportedly visited St. Andrews).

At a special meeting of the Minikahda Club Board on December 31, 1898, the club authorized hiring William Watson as professional of the club.

Minneapolis Tribune, April 12, 1899 – “ON THE GOLF LINKS Minneapolis Players Anticipate a Lively Season: Minnekahda (sic) Club has engaged the services of a new man, William Watson, a Scotchman, who came to this country a few months ago from St. Andrew’s . . . Mr. Watson arrived in February and is busily engaged in making ready for the new links which will be put in shape as rapidly as the snow and frost leaves the ground. He is on the Bryn Mawr links, mornings from 10 to 12, and afternoons 3 to 6 o’clock, to meet the members. He is considered a decided acquisition for the club, being a very fine amateur player and an excellent teacher.”

Shortly after William arrived in Minneapolis, he must have sent word back to his father and brother to join him. The 1899 Minneapolis directory shows William Watson (who lists his profession as teacher) with his father John C. Watson, his younger brother John Martin (who lists his profession as golf club maker), and five other members of his family living at 35 Aldrich Avenue North. The house is no longer there, but it was located near the site of Dunwoody Institute, a short walk to the Laurel Avenue streetcar line that would take them to the Bryn Mawr Club.

While there was much excitement about the new course that was being created at the Minikahda Club, many of the prominent Minneapolis families also wanted to golf near their summer homes on Lake Minnetonka. During the summer of 1898, there had been discussion of creating a new country club on the site of the former 300-room Hotel Lafayette which was owned by James J. Hill and had burned down in late 1897. By the spring of 1899, the Executive Committee of the Minnetonka Pleasure Club (later renamed the Lafayette Club) had secured the 38-acre site.

The Courant’s July 1899 article entitled Minnetonka Pleasure Club informed the reader,  “According to Mr. Watson, the Minnetonka Club course is naturally qualified to be one of the best in this part of the country. A squad of workmen has been engaged in the clearing off of the grounds during the last two or three weeks and when the course is completed it will occupy the land around the club house very attractively. The links will be in nine holes, covering a distance of 1870 yards (with holes ranging in length from 150 to 275 yards in length).”

Then the Minneapolis Tribune reported on July 16, 1899 under the title ON THE GOLF LINKS, “When Judge Martin B. Koon, president of the Minikahda Club, teed up yesterday afternoon and drove his ball toward the first hole, he had opened the new club links. The pleasant occasion was attended by fully 150 club members, who expressed satisfaction with what they saw. The new links of the Minikahda on the west shore of Lake Calhoun (Bde Maka Ska) were used for the first time, and the club house was informally opened, although there was an accompaniment of hammer and saw, with a swish of the painter’s brush, as the club members exchanged compliments on their new possession. The golf links were designed and executed by William Watson, a canny Scot, who was brought to Minneapolis for the purpose. He did well, for the 40 men who played in the opening tournament, were not slow in pronouncing the links the best they had ever played over. This means in figures that the links comprise nine holes, averaging something over 300 yards each to make a total of 3,000 yards once around. There are plenty of bunkers and hazards and the bogey score has been placed at 38.”

Below is an early postcard from the club:

In this era, the top professional golfers were British — the great triumvirate of Harry Vardon, John H. Taylor and James Braid. The USGA was organized in 1894 and the top American amateur at the turn of the century was Walter Travis. Golf really took-off in America when Vardon came to America to tour golf courses and perform demonstrations. Vardon also won the U.S. Open during this visit in 1900, thirteen years before Francis Ouimet became the first American born U.S. Open Champion.

As was the practice of many early golf professionals, they would look for winter work in warmer areas. In late 1899, Watson moved to Los Angeles, where golf was just developing. His first job there was as greenkeeper and instructor at the Green Hotel course in Pasadena. Los Angeles Country Club first started in 1897 and moved a few times until, in 1899, it was built as the first 18-hole course in the region. The Southern California Golf Association was formed the same year with five clubs (LACC, Pasadena CC, Redlands, Riverside and Santa Monica). The population of L.A. in 1899 was just under 100,000 but growing rapidly as a winter haven for easterners. Golf was a game for the successful and these early courses were private. The average hourly wage was then 20 cents an hour.

In 1899, his first winter in Los Angeles, Watson laid out Casa Loma in the Redlands over the simply “skinned” fairways that had been built in 1897. A scraper like the one below was pulled by two horses to skin fairways.

This became the first 9-holes of Redlands Country Club. He also built a course for Hotel Raymond, the first major resort hotel of the San Gabriel Valley which served mainly as a winter residence for wealthy Easterners. The hotel was built by Walter Raymond of Raymond & Whitcomb Travel Agency of Boston, Mass., but was torn down during the Great Depression.

Also, in a significant move, the City of Los Angeles hired Watson to build its first public course in 1900. It was called Garvanza Links, named for the artsy Garvanza neighborhood (now known at Highland Park and close to what has become Pasadena) where Garbanzo beans grew wild. The course also was referred to as LA-Pasadena GC. It was nine holes with oiled-sand greens on land that remains a L.A. city park, although there is no golf. It now sports a skateboard park instead.

In the American GOLF, published in New York City and named ‘USGA Bulletin’, this was a noteworthy 1901 mention: “The first public links to be established on the Pacific coast have been opened in Los Angeles, which already boasts two strong clubs and several minor organizations. The course is within a couple of miles from the centre of the city, is beautifully situated, and is well laid out for good golf, William Watson, an old St. Andrews graduate, having superintended the work. These links, on which any one can play by the payment of a nominal green fee, will be of great value in accommodating the over- flow of golfing visitors during the winter months.”

Garvanza and a sand green.

The Minikahda Club’s board must have been pleased with William Watson’s performance and wanted him to return for the next season. On October 27, 1899, the Minikahda board voted that the chairman of the Sports and Pastimes Committee (C. T. Jaffray) be authorized to offer William Watson the sum of $330 for his services as professional for the club for the term of April 1 to November 1, 1900. So, Watson was back to Minneapolis by spring for the new season.

Late in 1899, William Watson and his brother John Martin Watson must have decided to become business partners and he came to Minneapolis with their father, John Cobb Watson. J. Martin was 14 years younger than William and a better golfer. He also had training in making golf equipment and balls. This advertisement is from the November 1899 issue of the Western Golfer Magazine. This is the first known documentation of the Watson Brothers business and Joe Gladke shares the image below.

According to Joe Gladke’s research, the 1900 Minneapolis City Directory shows John Cobb Watson, along with his two sons living at 3020 Lyndale Avenue South. From here it was a one-block walk to Lake Street, where they would catch the streetcar to the east shore of Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun), where they would then transfer to a boat to get to the Minikahda Club on the west side of the lake. The business section of the Minneapolis directory lists Watson Bros., Minikahda Club under the GOLF CLUB MNFRS heading.  The March 18th, 1900 article in the Minneapolis Tribune stated:

“The golfing season is not as far away as may seem compatible with overcoats and mufflers. In a very few weeks the links will be open and the golfers will have returned to their element. Golf was in high favor last year, and the three local clubs, including the Bryn Mawr Club, that organized late in the summer, were the most active properties in the two cities. The royal game will have lost nothing of its hold on popular fancy this year, and the golf talk indicates that there will be more playing this year than ever. Locally the Minikahda Club stands first in numbers, with its, membership of 730 practically the limit. Should there be any resignations this spring, when time for paying the annual dues comes around, there will be vacancies for those on the waiting list, but not many at that, and they will be quickly filled. The Minikahda Club is a very interesting proposition, and the success of its first year lends zest to the prospects for the coming season. The planting of trees around the club house will add to the landscape beauty of the grounds, and little besides will be attempted this season, except on the golf course, to which attention will be directed to make it the finest course in this part of the country. The desire for larger links will be granted if land is available. . . . It is early yet to plan for games and tournaments. Watson, the profes¬sional, who has been spending the winter in Pasadena, Cal., where he is continually on the golf links, will return by April 1, and as soon as the weather permits the golfers will bring out their clubs and go at the sport again.”

Upon his return to the Minikahda Club, William set out to make additional improvements to the course. He laid out eight new bunkers to better define some of the holes and make it more challenging. In the image shared below by Joe Gladke of the ninth hole, note the new bunkering on the right with high revetment of soil on the greenside that created a forced carry.

Meanwhile, his brother J. Martin decided to accept a better offer after the 1900 season with the Minneapolis Tribune reporting on  June 24, 1900:  “The Bryn Mawr Club will suffer a loss in the departure of their instructor, Martin Watson. He plays in excellent form and as an instructor he has few rivals in the country. Mr. Watson has been contemplating a move for a long time, and as he has had several good offers, he has decided to go to Des Moines, Iowa.”

By the start of the 1901 golf season, the Watson brothers having decided to go in separate directions for a few years, John Martin returned to Minnesota and was living at 3100 Hennepin Avenue South (with his profession now listed as GOLF CLUB AND BALL MKR). William decided to stay in California and pursue growing the game of golf by designing and building courses. Also, he and his father opened a retail golf shop at West Third St. in Los Angeles named William Watson Golf Accessories, which showed great foresight. It was the first of its kind in southern California. His father, John Cobb, helped operate the store, made golf clubs, balls and gave lessons.

At a time when essential golf supplies were scarce, especially in the West, William soon opened William Watson Golf Accessories, a mail-order equipment company which showed great foresight–a distribution office in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce building, where he also drew his course designs. Together they also operated the Garvanza Links course in the winter months close to their home. In the summer months John Cobb would return to work in the mid-west and William spent the summer of 1904 remodeling the Hotel Frontenac Golf Club on Round Island, NY and teaching golf there. (The hotel burned down in 1912).

Watson’s nine-hole course at Frontenac Island surrounded by the St. Lawrence River.

Watson was proud of his Scottish heritage and later in his golf club design and sales business, he began to stamp “Far and Sure” on his clubs below his name as in the photo below. It is a well-known golf motto that has its roots to  the 1681 match in Edinburgh when John Patersone and the Duke of York teamed to defend the Scottish origin of golf against two English nobles who claimed that the game was English. The Duke (and future King) put the famous Far and Sure motto below Patersone’s coat of arms over the house that was paid for with his share of the purse. “Far and Sure” became the motto of the Royal Burgess golf club, the oldest golf club in the world (1735), then of Royal Liverpool and Chicago Golf Club amongst others.

The famous British author Charles Dickens, wrote a chapter on Far and Sure in his 1869 book of articles, “All the Year Round”. On page 546, he wrote:

“Far and Sure is not alone the motto but the rule of golf. Strike the ball that it may fly far; strike it also so that it may fly sure towards the hole, which is its ultimate destination; such is the whole theory and practice of the sport. At St. Andrews people seem only to eat and drink that they may play golf. They sleep at night that they may rise refreshed for golf in the morning. They make money that they may have leisure to play golf in their holidays, and in the afternoons of their busy lives. No position is too high in life to prevent the occupant from playing golf, none is too low to debar him from the privilege. All ages, ranks, and classes, and both sexes, give way to the fascination of the game. “

Photograph compliments of the Joseph Gladke, Minnesota Golf Historian.

The most significant early course remodel for Watson was in the winter of 1900 for the Hotel Green in Pasadena. It was a nine-hole course for this elegant hotel filled in the winter months with the wealthy from the east and mid-west. Watson got the contract to remodel the course on the condition that he also would become greenkeeper. It was here that he met the important insurance business owner from Seattle, E.A. Strout, a founder of Seattle Golf Club which would soon be designed by Watson. Los Angeles Herald, 31 Dec 1900 : “E.A. Strout…is spending a few weeks at Pasadena, playing with the professional William Watson, at the Hotel Green links. Last Thursday he beat the amateur record for the course, making eighteen holes in 79.” Below is an image of golfers on the 9th-hole by the Hotel Green clubhouse.

Here is a description of the course in American Golfer, December 1900 issue: “HOTEL GREEN GOLF LINKS. —A nine-hole course situated about a mile from the hotel and quickly reached by conveyance or by electric car. The course, which is excellent, extends over fifty acres of land of a rolling nature. On the northwest corner a cozy clubhouse has just been erected, with excellent accommodation for golfers. The holes are: 1, Get Away, 265; 2, Cross Road, 195; 3, The Hollow, 218; 4, Trouble, 230; 5, Gauntlet, 220; 6, Tourist, 320; 7, The Swing, 235; 8, Elbow, 245; 9, Pasadena, 215, a total of 2,143 yards. Greenkeeper, William Watson.”

Watson also pulled-off a major deal for the hotel when he convinced Willie Anderson to spend several winters at the Hotel Green teaching golf to its guests. Willie had won the U.S. Open in June 1901 at Myopia Hunt Club. He had emigrated from North Berwick Scotland at age 17 and went on to win four U.S. Opens and four Western Opens (another most important major of that era. He died suddenly in 1910).

This is a description from Golf in the Far West by Arnold in 1900 when there were only 16 golf courses in the state:

“The course of the Hotel Green is situated a mile from the Caravansary, on the electric car line that connects Pasadena and Altadena and is the best hotel course in the State. It consists of nine holes. the distance from back tees being something over 2,700 yards, and bogey 37. The ground is rolling, with a small ravine and an old railroad right-of-way to offer natural obstacles, while a number of great oaks, standing in excellent positions, form hazards that if disregarded in the least will prove very disastrous. Two earth bunkers, one on the fourth and the other on the eighth hole, complete the list of obstacles. On the northeast corner of the grounds a pretty little clubhouse has recently been erected, with reception rooms, lunch room, lockers, etc., and a large veranda on three sides. There is nothing lacking in the golf grounds, and it is thoroughly in keeping with the Hotel Green, which, by the way, is one of the most magnificently constructed and equipped and most perfectly operated resort hotel of this continent. It is the property of Col. G. G. Green, of “Green’s August Flower” fame, and is under the management of Mr. J. H. Holmes.”

The first California Open championship was held in 1901 at the Del Monte course in Monterey, CA and Watson competed in it. However, it was won by Robert (Bob) Johnstone who was much younger and had emigrated from North Berwick, Scotland the year before. Johnstone won commandingly, as he did for years until he moved to Seattle Golf Club and won for years more in that area. It is interesting that Johnstone re-built Presidio’s 9 holes in 1901 and Watson further remodeled it in 1905. In 1910 Johnstone returned to lay-out nine more holes.

Watson’s architecture career in the west quickly took off. In 1911-1912, he built courses that included Pasadena GC and the first Seattle Golf Club (picture below), a nine-hole course in Laurelhurst, near where the University of Washington football stadium stands today.

The club had only 54 acres on which Watson could work but had great views over Lake Washington. To get to the course, members took a streetcar to a small boat owned to transport them to the club’s private boat dock. Eight years after it opened, the land on which it stood was sold, and the golf professional Robert Johnstone designed an 18-hole course north of Watson’s. Watson’s first course, Minikahda, also had a popular boat dock to receive members.