Story of Hugh Wilson, Merion's architect, is clouded

Hugh Wilson
Hugh Wilson
Posted: June 08, 2013

The painting of Hugh Irvine Wilson that hangs inside Merion Golf Club's clubhouse shows an unremarkable, earnest-looking businessman in a high collar as stiff as his pose.

Yet it might as well be the portrait of a ghost.

Surprisingly, for a 117-year-old club that cherishes and painstakingly preserves its history, the life and contributions of the man credited with Merion's design remain as foggy as a morning on the Scottish heather.

Whatever Wilson's role in the creation of one of the world's most prestigious courses, its exact nature been shrouded by time.

He died 88 years ago at 45. The father of two daughters, one of whom succumbed as a child, he has no known survivors. None of his original notes and sketches for Merion remain.

So while Wilson's name will be ubiquitous next week when the 2013 U.S. Open comes to historic Merion, several questions about him and the course's origins will go unanswered.

Did he alone map out Merion's 18 holes? Did he rely instead on his more-experienced adviser, C.B. Macdonald? How large a role was played by Macdonald; H.J. Whigham; and Wilson's future design partner, William Flynn? Was Wilson, as one golf historian has postulated, primarily the construction superintendent? If he was the primary architect, did he derive inspiration from Scottish and English courses as was long believed? And if so, why is there no known record of him traveling to those places before construction began in 1911?

"Anything [about Wilson] prior to 1912," one Merion member said, "is pure conjecture."

Accomplished player

The confusion surrounding Wilson extends even to his birthplace.

Records at the U.S. Golf Association archives in Far Hills, N.J., clearly indicate he was born in Trenton on Nov. 18, 1879, but at least one website cites the locale as Scotland.

His father was William Potter Wilson, a Princeton graduate and an Army colonel who eventually settled in Philadelphia. Wilson's mother, Ellen Dickson, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. As a prominent Main Line socialite, she later became an influential benefactor of Virginia's Hampton Institute.

Their son would attend Penn Charter and early on discover the game of golf, then in its American infancy.

A member of the Belmont Golf Association, whose Aronimink course then was located at 52d and Chester Streets in West Philadelphia, Wilson was an accomplished enough player to win a club championship. Later at Princeton, he would captain that school's golf team.

After graduating from college in 1902, Wilson went to work in the maritime insurance field, eventually partnering in a Philadelphia company that bore his name.

On Oct. 16, 1905, at a highbrow Philadelphia wedding whose guests included the wife of former president Grover Cleveland, he married Mary Warren. They would have two daughters, Louise (1906) and Nancy (1910). Nancy died in 1916.

Eventually, he became a Merion member. In 1910, when that Haverford club was looking to create a new 18-hole golf course, it turned to Wilson. Perhaps because he was both an accomplished golfer and a Princeton grad, he was the choice to head the five-man committee tasked with its design and construction.

A novice in golf-course architecture, Wilson, with Merion's approval, apparently turned for advice to Macdonald, who had designed the nation's first 18-hole course in Chicago, and Macdonald's son-in-law, Whigham.

And that's where the story gets fuzzy.

Squeezed in 18 holes

It was long assumed that Merion sent Wilson to the British Isles to study the great courses there. But though the club has extensive records from that era, there's not a single entry indicating it ever funded such a fact-finding excursion.

Also, subsequent searches of ship manifests by Merion researchers have not turned up Wilson's name on a Europe-bound boat before 1912. That's the year Merion East opened, and the majority of its grading and seeding had taken place in 1911.

What seems most plausible is that Wilson, with input from Macdonald, Whigham, and very likely Flynn, the future Merion superintendent who acted as the project's construction supervisor, took the small, V-shaped property and squeezed 18 holes into it as best he could.

There are many who believe Merion's best holes mirror some on well-known British and Scottish courses. But, again, research by several club members has failed to turn up any evidence.

Portions of Merion, which was ready for play on Sept. 14, 1912, would be revised several times in the next decade - before the 1916, 1924, and 1930 U.S. Amateurs. Again, the exact author of those changes has been lost to history.

Bitten by the design bug, Wilson, who would partner in the field with Flynn, went on to design Cobbs Creek, Seaview, Phoenixville Country Club's nine-hole course, and Merion West.

And when fellow course architect George Crump died in 1918, Wilson finished his design of Pine Valley, widely considered to be America's finest course. Wilson is credited with holes 12 through 15 at the famed Clementon, N.J., layout.

With Wilson at the forefront, Philadelphia soon became the cradle of golf design. He, Flynn, Crump, George Thomas (Riviera, Whitemarsh Valley), A. W. Tillinghast (Baltusrol, Bethpage, and Winged Foot), and William Fownes (Oakmont) made up what was known as the Philadelphia School of Architects.

That highly respected group was renowned, according to Philadelphia Golf magazine, for its "understanding of the fundamental principles of naturalism and how best to apply that to golf architecture."

Curiously, Wilson never lived to see most of the history created at Merion. In 1925, he contracted pneumonia and died.


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, Follow @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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