- Top 100
- Tom Simpson
In 1895, Tom Simpson matriculated into Trinity Hall, Cambridge to read Law, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1898, followed by a master's degree in 1902. He married Edith Baynes a year later then was admitted to the Bar in 1905. Strangely, there’s no record of him playing golf competitively whilst at university, though he was subsequently elected to the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society in 1934.
A biography of Tom Simpson was published in A Century of Golf at Cruden Bay: "A scratch golfer, he played most of his golf at Woking, and became interested in golf course design as he observed the remodelling of Woking's course by club members John Law and Stuart Paton."
Simpson, the only son of mining and printing magnate William Simpson and his wife Mary, spent only five years as a barrister in the legal profession before leaving behind the stifling offices at the Temple in London for a career as a golf course architect with Herbert Fowler in 1910.
Some of his best work was conducted right at the very start of his design career, when he laid out the 9-hole Vallière course at Morfontaine and extended the 9-hole Fontainebleu course to an 18-hole layout. These early French assignments were by no means be his last in that country; in the latter half of the 1920s, he would return to work at Morfontaine and Chantilly, in addition to laying out new courses at Chiberta and Deauville.
The outbreak of World War I curtailed much of Simpson’s design efforts whilst employed with the Ministry of Munitions during hostilities but his architectural talents were put to full use when he became a partner in the Fowler, Abercromby, Simpson and Croome design firm in 1920. Three years later, Simpson moved with his wife and son from Eastbourne to ‘Quinces’ in Bramshott, the next village to Liphook, which then became the firm’s main office (and the family home for more than twenty years).
Simpson handled most of the company’s business in Europe, mainly in Belgium and France, where he laid out or refashioned some of the finest courses on the continent, including Chantilly and Morfontaine, which is widely regarded as his architectural pièce de résistance. He also designed quite a few private courses for the likes of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Sir Mortimer Singer and the Rothchild family.
By the end of the 1920s, his association with Fowler, Abercromby and Croome had ended but he engaged Philip Mackenzie Ross to work with him for a while around that time, renovating the likes of New Zealand and Royal Fagnes. Sutton and Sons built nearly all his golf courses, at home as well as abroad, and they formed a formidable design/construction team over many years.
His next star pupil would be Molly Gourlay, the 2-time English Ladies Amateur Champion, who became a director in Simpson & Co. in 1936. Together, they remodelled four courses in Molly’s native country, namely Ballybunion and Kilkenny (1936), Carlow (1937) and County Louth (1938). Simpson was the first designer to employ a woman's architectural skills.
During the Second World War, Simpson relocated to Humbly Grove, close to Basingstoke, bringing with him his collection of wines, walking sticks, cigars, paintings, etchings and Persian rugs. Many may have thought he was near to retirement but Simpson was far from finished.
After World War II, Simpson worked for a few years in Spain, collaborating on a few projects with local designer Javier Arana. He also worked for a while with C. K. Cotton before finally retiring in the mid-1950s. From then until his death in 1964, much of his time was spent at his estate in Hampshire writing magazine articles and essays as well as preparing texts for lectures.
In the book The Golf Courses of Javier Arana by Alfonso Erhardt, the author observes: “Simpson was a noted eccentric: a collector of walking sticks, Persian rugs, 18th century furniture and cigars. He made a note in a book of every wine he tasted; he took up needlework and sewed maps of his favourite golf holes.”
Donald Steelpaid this tribute to Simpson: “He believed the real architectural masterpiece is born and not made, but he belonged to the generation with little or no access to heavy machinery. Some see it as an advantage that he and his contemporaries could only build a certain way. It is a triumph for their ingenuity that they managed so well.” He also described Simpson as “a man of rich and varied talents, a distinguished golf course architect never afraid to speak his mind. It was a combination that made him a colourful and controversial figure although his controversial side, coupled with a whiff of eccentricity, was the offshoot of a penchant for the spotlight.”
Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten describe him as follows in their book The Golf Course: “Always a colourful figure, Tom Simpson toured the English countryside in a chauffeur-driven silver Rolls Royce and [he] often appeared for inspections in an embroidered cloak and beret.”
Tom Mackenzie, partner in the design firm Mackenzie & Ebert, has no doubts about where the architect ranks amongst his fellow practitioners: “Tom Simpson is one of the unsung heroes of golf course architecture, whose deserved position is alongside Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie as one of the greats.”
Kyle Phillips fully endorses that opinion: “I love the artistry of MacKenzie and Colt’s ideas are still applicable today. But for my money Tom Simpson should always be part of that conversation. That Golden Age period set the standards of golf course architecture. So much of what we do today is informed by it – and Tom Simpson contributed to it as much as anybody.”
Tom Simpson illustrated his works with pen and ink, at times embellishing images with water colour, and his illustrations featured regularly in articles written by Bernard Darwin for Country Life. He was a very good painter, acting as the art critic for the Saturday Review, and he had a hundred watercolours (mainly of Cornish coastal locations) exhibited at Victoria Galleries in 1911. He could also turn his hand to needlework, which was a skill he used to illustrate pictures of golf holes, and he was known to produce scaled plasticine models of greens he was working on.
Simpson was a man of considerable financial means so he was never reliant on golf to earn a living and this was evident in the way he went about his business. Henry Longhurst, in his autobiography My Life and Soft Times, asserted that Simpson “didn’t gave a damn for anyone, particularly golf club committees.”
Bernard Darwin wrote the following in the introduction to Martin Sutton's 1933 book Golf Courses - Design, Construction and Upkeep: "'The main essential of a great course,' as Mr. Simpson succinctly observes, 'is that it should provide an interesting and fair test of golf for every player, irrespective of handicap.' That sounds simple, but there are a few people born with a talent for producing this result better than the rest, and when they have cultivated that talent by anxious thought and long experience, why then they do it ever so much better."
A biography of Tom Simpson was published in A Century of Golf at Cruden Bay: "Although Simpson experimented with golf holes, he believed the Old Course at St Andrews to be the only enduring test on course design. There are five basic principles that all golf course architects must surely adhere to when considering the design of a golf course:
1. Each hole must be interesting
2. The must be a variety of hole design
3. The natural beauty must be impaired as little as possible
4. The premium must be put on good golf
5. The course must be equally interesting to both the scratch player and high handicap player
Simpson was an accomplished artist, and illustrated his works in colour sketches."
Two extracts from Simpson & Co. Golf Architects by Fred Hawtree: “Simpson, more than any of his contemporaries, pushed design to its limits in the search for interest and excitement. There were limits, however. He recognised that, only a little farther on, a hole became fluky and silly (sometimes people thought he had crossed that line). Design which went all the way up to this point produced a ‘mad masterpiece’. It would begin working on the player’s mind even before he got to the tee. St Andrews 12, 13, 14, 16, & 17; Prestwick, Sea Headrig; Woking, No.4; West Sussex, No.13 and Addington, No.8 – all these qualified as ‘mad masterpieces’. A hole must either be more difficult that it looks or look more difficult than it is. It must never be what it looks.”
"Simpson's ‘Bible’ consisted of a 272 page notebook, thumb indexed alphabetically, into which he wrote or pasted every scrap of information which he thought might ever be useful to him in his work while on travels. They covered design, building, greenkeeping, surveying, watering, estimating, stock replies to enquiries, standard forms of report and arrangement, fees, useful quotations, equipment and much more. All this was bound in an old leather binding apparently removed from another book… Almost all the pages of the book have been used, but some are blank, or absent. It starts with two salutary inscriptions:
‘N.B. The really wise lawyer is not the one who knows and memorises the law but rather knows where to find it. Hence this book. This is true of The Golf Secretary & The Golf Architect.’
The second is shorter:
‘Almost ninety percent of criticisms made by members are due to Invincible Ignorance.’”
Tom Simpson’s “Bible” was handed down to C.K. Cotton and was subsequently gifted to Donald Steel, who commented as follows in his book Thin End of the Wedge – a life in golf; “but perhaps Ken’s greatest act of kindness to me was his bestowal of Tom Simpson’s ‘Golf Architect’s Bible’ which is an amazing leather bound miscellany of architectural and greenkeeping ‘secrets’. The fact that there is only one copy is because it is predominantly hand-written.”
Keith Cutten in The Evolution of Golf Course Design has this to say about the architect: “Ever the quintessential artist, Tom Simpson is thought to have been eccentric. Simpson was always happy to promote his own work, and was never short of an opinion. Upon attaining a new commission, his habit was to arrive at the club in a silver-coloured Rolls Royce: just to prove that he did not need the money.
However, although perhaps outwardly arrogant, Tom Simpson frequently held those of merit in high regard. In The Game of Golf, Simpson credits Harry Colt, John Abercromby and Herbert Fowler with saving golf from ‘the Dark Ages’“.
Duncan Lennard, in an article for Golf World magazine, made mention of Simpson’s natural ability to court controversy: “Despite the obvious flair Simpson brought to golf course creation, his ideas were not universally popular. His unique ‘customer-is-always-wrong’ approach did him few favours, but the plain fact was that Planet Golf did not wholly buy into his practices. His belief in trapping the centre of the fairway to promote strategy was a tough sell, and whenever he did so, he was criticised.
His famous fairway trap at Carnoustie’s par-5 6th – the one that created Hogan’s Alley – was one of the few that was actually built; many others, like those advised for Muirfield’s 12th, were not, though Muirfield did adopt his suggestion of a more central trap – ‘Simpson’s Folly’ – some 40 yards short of the 9th green.
Neither did Simpson’s relish for causing mental mayhem endear him. A confirmed amateur, he enjoyed and encouraged luck; he liked to use slopes and shapes to confound the golfer; something of a design satirist, he especially liked trapping the golfer who flexed his muscles before engaging the grey matter. His contrary nature meant that, at times, he seemed to bring these elements into his design just to goad the more sober and staid golf course committees who had commissioned him.
Surely the best examples of these issues came at Harry Colt’s Sunningdale New. In 1934 Simpson created four new holes, the 6th-9th, as part of a comprehensive redesign. However they proved so unpopular that within two years Colt himself had been drafted in to literally reverse them. Simpson suffered a similar fate both at Royal Porthcawl and Rye, where some of his comprehensive 1930s revisions were later redesigned.”
Tom Simpson and H. N. Wethered (the father of Roger and Joyce) co-wrote The Architectural Side of Golf (published in 1928).
Simpson also contributed four chapters to Roger and Joyce Wethered’s Game of Golf (1931)and to Golf Courses: Design, Construction and Upkeep by Martin Sutton, published in 1933, revised in 1950.
Simpson & Co. Golf Architects by Fred Hawtree was published by Rhod McEwan in 2016 and it’s essential reading for anybody interested in Simpson’s work: