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Herbert Fowler

Year of Birth1856
Year of Death1941 (aged 85)
Place of BirthEdmonton, London, England

The son of a barrister, Fowler was born in north London and educated at Rottingdean then Grove House School, Tottenham before becoming a partner in a private bank in the West Country. Bernard Darwin described him as ”an erratic genius… perhaps the most daring and original of all golfing architects and gifted with an inspired eye for the possibility of a golfing country.”

Unlike most of his peers, he did not attend university and his post-school education appears to have consisted of several tours to foreign countries, visiting Germany, France and Australia. In December 1878, he joined the newly established firm of Fox Bros. Fowler & Co. Bank, relocating to Taunton in Somerset.

Soon after arriving there, he took up horse riding and became a member of both the local gun club and archery club. He was also made a Justice of the Peace then served for six years as a town councillor before his election as Mayor of Taunton in 1892. Two years earlier, he had married Ethel Mary Brand, daughter of a wealthy merchant and chairman of the National Telephone Company.

He excelled at cricket, playing first class matches for Essex, Somerset and MCC. His batting record was 905 runs in 49 innings at an average of 18.46 and his record as a bowler was 23 wickets at an average of 22.65 runs so he was certainly a useful player.

Standing 6’ 3½” tall and weighing 15-stone, he was a big hitter and is reputed to have powered the ball more than 150 yards over the old Lord’s pavilion whilst playing for Somerset against the MCC in 1882. In that same match, he took a “hat-trick” of three wickets in consecutive balls and claimed four wickets in three overs for eight runs. When it was his team’s turn to bat, he scored 23 in six hits, with one of the sixes off bowler George Hay clearing the ground.

Fowler was introduced to golf at Royal North Devon when visiting nearby Bideford on banking business in 1879 and he became a club member – winning the Prince of Wales Medal two years after joining – but cricket remained his number one sporting pursuit, along with hunting and shooting in the off season.

When his cricketing days were over, Fowler took golf a lot more seriously. He practiced assiduously at Westward Ho!, quickly getting down to scratch, and before long he was a member of the R&A and serving on its Greens Committee. He placed 26th in the Open of 1900, reached the last 16 of the Amateur Championship the following year, then won the R&A’s top singles match play handicap competition, the Queen Victoria Jubilee Vase, in 1902.

Fowler was chosen to represent England – alongside the likes of Bernard Darwin, Harold Hilton and John Ball –against Scotland in the second amateur international match, held at Muirfield in May 1903. The Scots had won the inaugural event at Hoylake by 32 holes to 25 but the format was changed to nine singles contests over 36 holes of match play. Fowler, playing at number eight, won his match 6&5, with England recording a victory margin of five matches to four.

On the domestic front, Fowler was forced to sell his house in Taunton due to the collapse of the family-owned bank but he remained in debt to his brother-in-law, Sir Henry Cosmo Bonsor, who just happened to hold the rights to some land at Walton Heath, near Epsom. In order to pay back Bonsor, Fowler agreed to survey the heath with a view to creating a golf course – not that he had ever done so before or received training for that purpose.

In Walton Heath Golf Club’s centenary publication, Heaven and Heather, author Phil Pilley writes: “imagine the scene as Fowler – Norfolk knickerbockered, tall on his horse, generously moustached – begins his survey and searches for hidden merits in the wilderness that may help him achieve his ambition and rescue him from the abyss of bankruptcy... Yes, a fine course could be created here. That was Fowler’s report and the Bonsors, probably in August 1902, commissioned him to go ahead.”

In West Surrey Golf Club’s centenary book, Playing Through, author Derek Markham remarks as follows: “Fowler’s reputation was established by Walton Heath when it opened in 1904. He had painstakingly explored the 600-acre site, completely covered by heather between two and three feet high, on horseback. Having started with the placement of two short holes, he calculated the optimum sites for the other greens and fairways using many of his individual theories on course design.”

Fowler became managing director and secretary of the club in 1904 – just as James Braid arrived from Romford to become the head professional, a position he would hold for another forty-six years – but his duties at Walton Heath didn’t prevent him working on other projects and by the start of the Great War, he had laid out or modified another eight courses, including Delamere Forest in Cheshire and the Royal Automobile Club in Surrey.

He teamed up with Tom Simpson and arrived in New York in 1920 to set up an office in the United States. On the west coast, Fowler designed a few courses around the San Francisco area and remodelled several other Californian layouts – including the alteration of Pebble Beach’s 18th from a par four to a par five hole – but he’s probably best known in the US for setting out the course at Eastward Ho! on the eastern seaboard at Cape Cod.

Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler were joined by J. F. Abercromby and Arthur Croome in partnership for a few years and, by the end of the 1920s, the company was responsible for creating, adding to modifying a multitude of courses in Britain and the Continent of Europe. While Simpson worked mainly abroad, Fowler travelled far and wide at home, remodelling courses such as Aberdovey, Cruden Bay and Royal Lytham & St Annes.

Architect Ian Andrew had this to say on Fowler’s style: “His architecture was not full of grand flourishes and would be best described as understated. He kept his tee sites simple with many being on native grade. He used his bunkers sparingly, concentrating on key strategic locations on a relatively flat site like Walton Heath. He let the land become the challenge when he had great natural terrain to work with and the rolls and undulations stood out more than the features that he created.

His greens were often right on the natural grade and often simply extensions of the fairway. Others were carefully placed on small rises to add some additional difficulty. The one thing he never seemed to do was to add mounding or other backings to add definition, he chose instead to embrace what was always there.”

Financial problems were never too far away from Fowler. He invested in a myriad of commodity and mineral ventures around the world and at one time was even rumoured to be involved in the arms trade. In 1928, he was made bankrupt, with assets of only £634 against liabilities of more than six and a half thousand pounds.

Had Fowler been an ordinary member of Walton Heath, he would have been expelled from the club under its rules because of his financial situation but, as he was the managing director, he continued in his paid position as if nothing had happened, allowing him to vote on financial and other matters, as well as retain the use of a room in the club’s dormy house.

He chaired his last committee meeting in July 1938, and at the age of 83 attended his final directors meeting on 3 September that year, the day that war was declared. He transferred to a nursing home a few weeks after this, where he died in 1941, leaving an estate of £365-8s-3d.


From Herbert Fowler:

“God builds golf links and the less man meddles the better for all concerned.”

“Golf course designing is one of those businesses which is difficult to put down on paper. It is mostly a question of imagination and long experience, and making the best of the features of every piece of land one comes across.”


A Matter of Course: The life of William Herbert Fowler 1856-1941 by Derek Markham:

“William Herbert Fowler was no ordinary man. He threw himself enthusiastically into all manner of sport in an era when Britain developed and codified the rules of many games. A late starter in golf, he achieved great heights in the game. He indulged in the Victorian field sports of hunting, shooting, and fishing. Indoors, he became a top billiards player.

He took an active part in the administration of the sports which he had played with distinction. He sat on committees of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (and) as Chairman of the Somerset County Cricket Club he did much to ensure that club’s emergence and survival. He managed to find time to serve on the Billiards Control Council.

Fowler came from a family prominent in the Quaker community. His parents belonged to a wide network of wealthy and successful Quaker industrialists and bankers. He served two terms of office as Mayor of Taunton (and) his hobbies included horticulture and breeding a splendid herd of Guernsey cows. In both fields he won prizes on a national scale.

The ferocity with which he bludgeoned the golf ball brought to mind the aggression he displayed as a batsman in his younger days. He represented England against Scotland with distinction, and for a period of time was joint holder of the record score around the Old Course at St Andrews. It did not take him long to be invited to join a committee of the R&A.

Fowler was able to combine his duties as Managing Director of Walton Heath with a successful and lucrative course architecture practice. To his achievements in the UK he added a number of projects in the USA in the 1920s. The rewards enabled him to maintain a reasonable lifestyle. Sadly, he lived way beyond his means and made several ill-judged investments. Bankruptcy and marital breakdown followed. He died in poverty.

In many ways a colossus of his era, he lived life to the full as a Victorian sportsman and country squire before falling on hard times. A subsequent successful career which brought him international recognition was ruined by financial misjudgement and misfortune, but it is right that he should be remembered today for his lasting contribution to golfing history.”


From Donald Steel: “ Nearly every golf course architect can spin an unlikely yarn about how he came to seize the opportunity to do what every golfer would love to do, design golf courses – great golf courses. Few were ever trained with such an ambition in mind. However, the initiation of Herbert Fowler is as zany as any.

Thrust in at the deep end, he built 36 holes at Walton Heath although, with him, it was more a case of familiarising himself with the role and offering himself for it. By preferring to keep things in the family, Sir Cosmo Bonsor, Founder of the Club, chose his brother-in-law for the enviable task thereby igniting the spark of Fowler’s inventiveness that proved to be a lifelong flame.

It won him the soubriquet ‘The Erratic Genius’, Golf is forever in his debt.”

From Frank Pont: “Herbert Fowler must surely rank as one of the most underappreciated of golf architects. Many of us will have heard of Harry Colt, Alister Mackenzie and Tom Simpson, but a lot fewer will have heard of Fowler. That is both unfortunate and unfair, since the legacy that he has left behind for us is as impressive as it is important.

If there is one thing that makes Fowler stand out most relative to his peers, it is the fact that all his courses look quite different. Although one can see a central DNA residing within the body of his work, there is no such thing as a single ‘Fowler Style’. Not only did his architecture evolve over time, it was also very much dictated by the environments in which he worked.

When I compare his design principles to modern architects, I notice two aspects that are very different.

First, like many of those working in the golden age of golf architecture, he did not have equipment to move large amounts of soil. This meant that the devising of a good routing was even more important in those days than it is now. In stark contrast to many of those working today, Fowler’s golf courses seem to be literally draped on to the landscape.

Second, even though he had a set of principles that he usually followed, at their heart, his courses have different characters, because he lets the specifics of each site determine the look and the feel of what he was building. In that respect, Fowler was perhaps the first real minimalist in the world of golf course architecture.”


Heather and Heaven: Walton Heath Golf Club 1903-2003 by Phil Pilley (chapter 2, “The Erratic Genius: Herbert Fowler transforms a wilderness” and chapter 21, “The Success and Sadness of Herbert Fowler”) published in 2003.

Playing Through: West Surrey Golf Club’s first 100 Years by Derek Markham (chapter 5 is entitled simply “William Herbert Fowler”) published in 2009.

A Matter of Course: The life of William Herbert Fowler 1856-1941 by Derek Markham, published by Makham and Truett 2021.

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