Feature Interview with Tom Paul

Part OnePage Two

There is much more to tell about what I learned on the Ardrossan project with Bill Coore, as well as two other projects I followed him around on during the ensuing years but this answer is pretty long now (surprised?), and I will leave the rest of the details of what I learned from him on that project for another time.

However, some might wonder why the project of GMGC moving to Ardrossan never happened. The reason it ended is another of those little fates of life one rarely foresees. From the day I met Bill Coore until the presentation of the project to the club and the decision by the GMGC board to proceed with the Montgomery Scott family offer was about two years.

During that time the membership of GMGC had of course become aware of this potential move and they were all over me for perpetuating it. Many called me a heretic and a sell-out of my own family’s heritage for even suggesting they should leave their Donald Ross course. I could surely understand their point and their feelings and all I could do was to point out if my grandfather and his original ten principles had not decided to leave Merion in 1916 and move to create GMGC there never would have been a Gulph Mills golf club and its Donald Ross course.

After about two years GMGC board felt the time had come for me to present the Ardrossan project to the membership. Leading up to that decision it had become complicated because I had basically gotten Bill Coore to agree to do it but Ben Crenshaw was still ambivalent. Twice Ben had written the president of GMGC explaining that he felt uncomfortable being part of having a classic Donald Ross course got down the tubes. Finally the president convinced him that if we decided to move it was basically our call and not his, so he apparently signed on too (how Bill and Ben sign on to a project together or even if they do sign on together at the same time is another story for another time. A couple of their clients and I have had some laughs on that one).

But perhaps the greatest obstacle for me was Bill did not want to draw anything because as most know they like to work it out on the land. Unfortunately, I had to have something to show my membership and the Montgomery Scott family when my club sat down with them to get an over-all approval to go forward with the swap agreement. So I had to use my own design plan for the course. Bill had told me he didn’t want to draw anything but literally within the week he sent me some hole drawings with a note in the tube that said he did not want anyone to look at them other than me (to this day I don’t think I have ever shown them to anyone but in my opinion they are beautiful).

Bringing Bill back from the Hidden Creek project to the Philadelphia airport one day I showed him my Ardrossan plan. He looked at it carefully all the way, about an hour and a half. As we entered the airport I asked him what I should do and he told me to go with my plan and if they needed to alter it somehow they would do that.

I presented my plan to the board and they arranged a meeting of the entire membership for me to present it to them, and what happened next is a great lesson in psychology. I did not mean to say it for any particular reason but I could see when I got up in front of the membership that they were adversarial; I could see it in their eyes and some of their remarks before my presentation really were adversarial. I told them that I’d been working on the project for two years with an architectural company that I felt were the absolute best for our membership and what I thought they would enjoy in a golf course. Then I said the only problem is one of them, Ben Crenshaw, really doesn’t want to do it. It seemed to me most in the room were truly surprised by this and at least five people got up simultaneously and asked why he didn’t want to do it—-and I told them the truth—-he just did not want to see a classic Donald Ross course go down the tubes.

The reaction to that was not only incredible, it was almost instantaneous; there were some murmurs of “Oh, isn’t that nice; isn’t that sweet” and such, and in less than a minute it seemed most everyone in the room wanted to do it.
So the meeting was called between the GMGC Directors and the Montgomery Scott family and that was really amazing. The whole Montgomery Scott family was there and it was held in the incredible Ardrossan mansion which is patterned after one of those great English country estate mansions. Robert Montgomery Scott lived there and he was the patriarch of the family. He had also just served a stint in England with his friend Walter Annenberg who had been our Ambassador to England. Bob Scott was definitely a very polished gentleman. We had about forty five minutes of drinks and pleasantries until he finally called us all to get down to business.

I was asked to roll my plan out on an enormous table. Everyone looked it over for about ten minutes and finally Bob Scott pointed to one hole and said he could not accept it. Unfortunately, that particular hole was my favorite by about ten miles. It just had everything—-contours cascading all over the place and a beautiful long, narrow diagonal green site at the end of it on the left. The hole also was perhaps the biggest thing I’ve ever seen (it may have been over ten acres) and it needed nothing at all done to it. In my mind that hole probably would have been one of the great holes of the world right out of the box and certainly one of the most unique and unusual holes because of its landform and natural characteristics. It had so many options and routes for everyone, more than I’d ever seen. It also seemed that even if played at around 550 yards it might be possible for a really strong player to catch a 200 yard long cascading contour (turbo-boost) way out on its right with his tee shot and run the ball right along side the green albeit it well below it from which the next play was incredibly complex to say the least.

My board turned to me and asked what I could do about this hole. I’d not prepared myself for something like this and it seemed they were asking me to remove it and its area from the course. Bill had told me how problems can occur with routings if one got too wedded to any single hole, but it seemed to me if this one had to come out we might have to start all over again or at the very least go too far forward and backwards making too many routing changes. I will never forget my sensation. I think I was getting flushed and beginning to sweat and all I could really think about is how my club had told me to get the best there was or they didn’t want to do the project. So finally I just said; “I’m sorry, but I can’t give up THAT hole.” They all turned back to Bob Scott who said: “I’m sorry too because I cannot accept it.”

And so it was over. Everyone sort of put their heads down as if to say—-we have come all this way and it’s the end because of that one hole. A bit later Bob Scott’s lawyer asked him why he couldn’t accept that hole and he said: “It’s very simple; that hole is so big and considering where it is it completely cuts off my cattle’s barn from where they graze.” Later I realized if I’d known then what I know now I could have solved that problem with a unique English landscape feature across the middle of that hole known as a “HaHa” (essentially a  two walled trench through which the cattle could pass). But when I realized that it was too late; it was over.

I also realized later that had I thought to bring our architects to that meeting perhaps they would have thought of that solution on the spot and the whole thing wouldn’t have ended like that. And that fits in with another lesson Bill taught me back then which was it generally isn’t the good things that an architect finds about the site that makes the course work well in the end but how well he solves the few real obstacles one generally always runs into with any routing.

I’ve been involved with golf architecture for the last fifteen years or so and I think about it every day. I’ve read almost everything about it historically, and I’ve seen and played all kinds of significant courses over the years but in retrospect there was nothing that came close to the two years of the Ardrossan project and spending about a thousand hours out there trying to work everything out. I don’t think anyone can truly understand all the nuts and bolts of golf course architecture from bottom up without going through something like that. When good golf architects tell you a whole lot more of this golf architecture business is in the routing process than one may suspect, listen to them and take them seriously; it’s true.

Ardrossan Farm is on my way from my farm to GMGC; I’ve driven by it a thousand times and each time I look at it and wonder what might have been. In some ways it’s painful to me it didn’t happen and that it ended like that because I reacted as I did with that great hole. It takes me about 2-3 minutes to drive by it and generally as I get to the end of it I think of Ben Crenshaw and how maybe it’s a good thing that our classic Donald Ross course did not have to go down the tubes. Sometimes I even wonder what my grandfather or even my father would’ve said about that move. They were both gone when it happened so I couldn’t ask them but I feel confident in saying that if my grandfather thought it was a good thing to move to Ardrossan my father would have thought it was a bad thing and if my grandfather thought it was a bad thing to move there my father would have thought it was a good thing.

What is the genealogy of your family as it relates to the founding of Gulph Mills? Gulph Mills doesn’t have the aspirations of Merion to hold major events. How does that change its priorities in terms of how the course is presented on a daily basis?

Gulph Mills GC was founded in 1916 by A.J. Drexel Paul, my grandfather, and ten of his friends from Merion GC and St. Davids GC. Apparently the original St David’s course wasn’t much and they had become fed up with the crowded conditions with golf at Merion. Consequently, the original theme of GMGC was ease of play. Today, and throughout the club’s ninety five year history that theme has been preserved (the club never does more than about 12,000 rounds per year). The whole idea with the golf at GMGC is easy access to the course and the idea of starting times is still very much anathema to the club.

At the time GMGC was founded in 1916, St David’s GC wanted to move their golf club and course to another site and the men who started GMGC offered their site to St David’s GC. The St. David’s board refused the offer. Had they not refused the offer in 1916 my golf club, Gulph Mills GC, would today be St David’s GC and there never would’ve been a Gulph Mills GC. But ironically St David’s GC did decide to move about ten year later and the land they moved to was sold to them by A.J. Drexel Paul and his siblings whose estate at that time included the land St David’s GC is now on.

That approximately 300 acre estate known in those days as Woodcrest (today Cabrini College) was begun in 1900 by A.J. Drexel Paul’s father, James W. Paul, who had married prominent 19th century financier A.J. Drexel’s daughter, Frances. James W. Paul was the last Drexel family member to work for the partnership, Drexel & Co. Of the ten or so partners of the firm in the first and second decades of the 20th century, interestingly a number of them had to do with the development of golf and golf architecture in this area. One was Horatio Gates Lloyd, the man behind the move of Merion Cricket Club’s golf course from Haverford to Ardmore and the creation of the East and West courses. George Thomas Sr (father of famous golf architect George Thomas Jr.) whose estate is now Whitemarsh Valley GC is another as is E.T. Stotesbury who was one of the founders of Philadelphia CC and the first residential client in Palm Beach (El Mirasol) of famous building architect Addison Mizner.

To go back a few generations, this kind of land, town and club participation of the partners of the prominent financial firms in Philadelphia was not unusual. What is now known as the Main Line was a 40,000-50,000 acre tract of land originally called the Welsh Tract that had been given by William Penn to a group of Welsh millers and subsistence farmers in the 17th century. In the 19th century the remarkably powerful Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) via its principles and the industrialists who were its clients essentially took over the Main Line and began to turn it into an idealized replication of the English gentry-style countryside. A.J. Drexel and his closest friend, George Childs (owner of the highly respected Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper which A.J Drexel had effectively bought for him), had even created whole towns along the Main Line section of the PRR. Wayne (the town of St. David’s GC) and Narbeth were two of the towns they either renamed or created with massive spec-house building. It was obviously a small and tightly interwoven society around here back then business-wise and otherwise.*

GMGC has never had the aspirations of Merion to hold major events. How many golf clubs do have those aspirations considering Merion has held more USGA championships than any other club in America? GMGC has been quite generous over the years with hosting GAP and Pa Golf Association events but generally the club is remarkably quiet and understated and has long had that reputation. I’ve always referred to the course as an ideal “members” course and to the club as about as low-keyed as a club can get.

However, in the last few years due to certain factors, GMGC has had its course in a virtual constant program and set-up that could rival Merion’s on a day to day basis, particularly on green-speed. I’ve been on the green committee for about twenty years and I must say I’m not sure I understand why that is necessary for a club and membership like ours. The green committee asked for it and our superintendent, who is really good, has been able to deliver it even if I fear he doesn’t exactly think it’s the smartest idea either in playability or agronomics. For the last few years we have maintained what I call a “green-speed differential” (the consistent low to high) of about 11 to 13 plus on the stimpmeter. I think that is a foot or two too high for most members as it is with a lot of these clubs who can do it that have greens like ours. I think we just need to let it work itself out in play. The one thing I will defend now and always at all costs is that they will not make a decision to alter our greens in the name of maintaining or increasing speed.

*Just before the turn of the 20th century apparently the PRR had the largest stock capitalization of any corporation in the world! A few years later (1901), A.J. Drexel’s partner, J.P. Morgan, who Drexel had mentored, created the world’s first billion dollar corporate capitalization with US Steel or General Electric.

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