- Top 100
- Dick Wilson
In 1904, Louis Sibbett (”Dick”) Wilson was born into construction as the son of a golf course contractor, helping his father as a young man during the building of the West course at Merion Golf Club.
He enrolled in the University of Vermont on a football scholarship but dropped out in 1924 to join the design partnership of Howard Toomey, where he then worked on the revision of the East course at Merion.
While he was at Toomey and Flynn, Wilson graduated from construction superintendent to design associate, assisting the firm at the Country Club in Brookline, Philadelphia Country Club and Shinnecock Hills. Wilson moved to Florida during the late 1930s, overseeing the construction of Normandy Isles Golf Club and renovation work at Indian Creek in Miami. He remained with his employer until 1942, when he contributed to the war effort by constructing and camouflaging airfields in Florida.
After serving in World War II, Wilson started out on his own as an architect. Originally working out of Delray Beach Country Club as the golf course manager, he designed a string of well-regarded Florida layouts, starting with West Palm Beach Country Club in 1947.
He then moved further north, where his two 18-hole layouts for the National Cash Register company in Ohio gained a lot of attention in the early 1950s. Keith Cutten, in his excellent book The Evolution of Golf Course Design, takes up the story:
“A six-year period, from 1956 to 1962, saw Wilson at the peak of his architectural powers. His new-build projects included the following: three courses at Royal Montreal (1959); two courses at Doral Country Club (1962); and Pine Trees Country Club (1962).
He also completed some excellent renovations to the following classic layouts: Colonial Country Club (1956); Winged Foot West course (1958); Aronimink (1961); Bel-Air Country Club (1962); and Cog Hill Country Club courses 3 and 4 (1963).
In 1964, Wilson completed a renovation to the East course at Merion: the facility where his career in golf had begun. Less than twelve month later, in the summer of 1965, Wilson suffered a fall at Pine Tree. He died three weeks later, aged sixty-one, of a pulmonary embolism.”
It’s not exaggeration to state that during the 1950s, Dick Wilson and his great architectural rival Robert Trent Jones Senior became the most sought after golf course designers in the United States, following the death of William Flynn in 1945 and Donald Ross in 1948.
His design traits included broad fairways and large greens and in the flat landscape of Florida he developed a style in which the putting surfaces were slightly raised, making them more visible and also helping with drainage.
The greens would often be offset at a 30 to 45-degree angle to the fairway, with a large bunker guarding the approach. Wilson's courses typically included man-made lakes, largely to provide fill for the elevated tees and greens, but also for the sake of adding challenge.
Wilson also did some work for the Metropolitan Club in Melbourne, Australia in 1960. Land had been taken from the club's course for a school development and he used adjoining ground for replacement holes that are now fully integrated with the originals.
Along with Joe Lee, he designed the 18-hole layout for the private Lagunita Country Club in El Hatillo Municiplaity, Venezuela, a prosperous part of Caracas, and this course (part of a real estate development) opened in 1964.
Unfortunately, many of Wilson’s course were softened over the years (sometimes by his associate Joe Lee) to the point that only the routing was left intact. The design trend of “hard, tight golf” in the 1950s-1970s period gave way to the philosophy of making things easier (and, in fairness, more enjoyable) for the average golfer. Still, it’s especially pleasing nowadays to rarely lose a ball on a Dick Wilson-designed course – most of which were largely routed for ease of walking, with short green-to-tee walks that fit nicely with the flow of the round.
“Wilson did relatively few courses in the later years of his life in an attempt to give personal attention to each work bearing his name. He maintained a staff of loyal and talented assistants who handled much of the actual design and construction work on some projects, including Joseph L Lee, Frank Batto, Robert von Hagge, Ward Northrup and Robert Simmons.” The Golf Course by Cornish & Whitten.
In an excellent golfclubatlas.com article by Joe Sponcia in January 2023 entitled Unraveling the Much-Maligned Dick Wilson https://golfclubatlas.com/in-my-opinion/sponcia-joe-unraveling-the-much-maligned-dick-wilson/ the author states:
“Dick Wilson’s design philosophy was rooted in the strategic, aerial game vs. the preceding, golden age-era architecture, which leaned more towards front-facing greens with wide openings, and run-up shot options. Wilson’s green complexes, often raised and set at 30-45 degree angles, were clearly the chief defense of par. From the fairway, the player could easily visualize the challenge ahead, with many of his signature false fronts in plain sight. Wilson was fond of incorporating rear and side fall-offs, concealed by creative, flash-faced bunkering that was often knitted directly into the putting surface.
Wilson’s fairways were slightly more narrow in width than his historical counterparts, but were by no means considered ‘bowling alleys’. He would often add a fairway bunker (or cluster) that the better player could challenge to gain a distinct advantage and easier second shot, but was careful to leave space for the higher handicap to still enjoy his round. Occasionally, on his more ‘Championship’ layouts, he would stagger fairway bunkers, which added options and visual intimidation for the better player.
Wilson’s chief rival, Robert Trent Jones, favored straight-lined, narrow fairways, that were flanked by bunkers on both sides of the landing area. Wilson liked a little movement in his fairways and was not afraid to add hard dog-legs. Wilson’s greens tended to be sympathetic (not overly done) with interesting interior contours, which could confound players who short-sided their approaches.
While Robert Trent Jones insisted on pushing water features to the edge of his greens and at times, to near-fairway landings, Wilson made use of natural and manmade water surrounds to build up his distinctive green shapes, tee boxes, and to add interest to his already excellent course routings; but rarely made water an integral part of his course strategy.
Wilson also loved ‘puzzle piece’ bunkering, which became a signature. While many would consider Dick Wilson’s approach shot difficulty to be on the upper-end of his predecessors, the toughest shot on a Wilson design might well be the 40-50 yard, short-sided recovery.”