Thursday, May 31, 2007

Architect #20 – Hugh Wilson

Best Course: Merion Golf Club

Other notable work: Merion West, Cobb’s Creek, (finished last 4 holes at Pine Valley)

Overview: Merion Cricket Club like so many other clubs decided to move to upgrade their facilities. Lucky for them that Hugh Wilson had both the time and the interest to spend seven months abroad studying the great courses of the British Isles. He even sought advice from C.B. MacDonald and went to see the National Golf Links to assist him with ideas for the new course he would build.

Praise for the work: There have been many suggestions that Wilson adapted and borrowed famous holes to create the holes at Merion but I personally don’t see the some of connections that have been drawn. Merion has a full set of unique holes each in response to the land that Wilson was given to work with. What makes Wilson’s work at Merion special was how he found these eighteen great holes on such a small and tight site. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the perfect routing for this property.

The famous 11th green site

Wilson also brought with him a few architectural innovations of his own. The bunkering was outstanding not only for the placement and the strategic implications it had, but also for how visible they were and the aesthetic quality they brought to the golf course. The “white faces” created a beauty not seen at other courses, but also a new level of intimidation by there size and placement. It is believed that Wilson used bed sheets in the field to review the bunker locations and lines until he was happy and then the crew would set about building the bunkers. Wilson’s bunkering at Merion taught architects that bunkers had a visual importance as well as a strategic importance.

Criticisms: The questions on his inclusion will always stem from the fact that his place in architecture is built on one great course and that the fact that his other courses are only interesting at best. The role of evolution, Joe Valentine and William Flynn also deserve some credit for Merion. Finally, that the course is too short to be great. All I can say is that I feel sorry for anyone who can criticize the course after playing it.

The West course at Merion

Great Quotes: “Looking back on the work, I feel certain that we would never have attempted to carry it out if we had realized one-half the things we did not know.”

His best: Merion Golf Club - I personally feel there is no finer routing in golf. The course has 18 great holes and the most interesting flow of any course I know. It begins fairly strong, which forces the player to work hard at the beginning. The course then becomes short and full of decisions through the middle where the player is under self imposed pressure to score. Finally the last 5 holes are as hard a run of golf as you can find anywhere and the player is literally trying to hold on. The flow is as important as the holes themselves in creating greatness.

The 12th at Merion in 1924

What I take from him: He routed the course as the land gave it to him. He didn’t worry about par, mixing holes, or any other trivial standard. He took the time to find the best holes that the land would yield. The bunker visibility and scale is certainly something all architects have been inspired by and I think his influence in this area is underestimated.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Architect #21 – Herbert Strong

courtesy of Ron Whitten

Best Course: Engineers Golf Club

Other notable work: Ponte Vedra Golf Course, Canterbury Golf Club, Saucon Valley (old), Manior Richleau

Overview: Strong left for the United States in 1905 and became the professional at Apawamis Club, a course featuring pronounced land forms and blind shots. When you combine this with his time spent at Royal St. George’s, you start to see a lot of his architectural influence. In 1911, he moved to Inwood Country Club and remodeled the course over several years eventually leading to the course hosting both a PGA Championship and U.S. Open.

He believed in the need for good shot-making and felt that a player should pay the price for a poorly executed shot - occasionally with very dire results. His greens were what set him apart and often set more of the strategy than the more famous bunkers. He designed boldly contoured that required careful approach, from the ideal side of the fairway to avoid running through the green and into trouble beyond.

3rd hole

Praise for the work: At Engineers, Strong's routing approached the hills from every conceivable angle making a full and varied use of the available topography. He routed holes that play straight up the hill, had holes that are routed along the crests with second shots to green sites placed below, and even from one hill to the next. He brought you in at an angle and off the top depending on what topography he could take advantage of. His routing skills were even more impressive at Manior Richleau where he managed to find a great course on a very severe piece of topography with 400 feet of elevation change.

11th hole

The more subtle joy of Strong’s work was the positioning of play. Players were left often to figure out the need for position off the tee. While a play to an open area in the fairway would seem initially ideal, in reality the contours of the green would be extremely tough to access from that angle and the approach would run off the surface and into trouble. This left the player to think that they simple failed to execute the shot, when in reality they failed to play to the right position to approach the green.

The 2 or 20 hole

Criticisms: The criticism is pretty consistent about the severity of his architecture – even today Engineers appears to be looking to soften the contour of his greens for playability. He architecture has been labeled “a bag of tricks” used to make his course tough rather than good. Most struggle with the boldness and aggressiveness of the architectural forms that he used.

My favourite: The original Manior Richleau was fully of fascinating holes that tumbled up and down one of the most severe properties you’ll ever see.

The 16th

What I take from him: The ability to find good holes on land that seems far too severe for golf. The guts to build very bold and distinctive holes that are open to criticism but clearly are more thought provoking and interesting than most other architects work. That green slopes are still the single best defense of a hole.