The Essential: Hugh Alison

By Thomas Dunne

Kawana Resort (Fuji)

Charles Hugh Alison, who was known to the world by his middle name, was born in 1883 in the small English city of Preston, about 30 miles north of Manchester. A powerfully built and athletic young man, he played first-class cricket and earned his “Blue” competing for Oxford against Cambridge in the University Golf Match. His experience in this storied event did not pass without incident. On the 18th hole at Woking, Alison airmailed his approach onto the clubhouse roof. Finding a ladder, he climbed up and “played a niblick shot…laying the ball four yards from the flag.” He went on to halve the hole.

Hugh Alison

Alison likely first encountered Harry S. Colt, 14 years his senior, through the chummy circles of Oxbridge golf, but they seem to have had an informal design partnership in place as early as 1908, when the former was hired as the club secretary of the new Stoke Poges Golf Club, with the latter serving as architect for the new course. While other notables, including J.S.F. Morrison and Alister MacKenzie, came and went from the firm, the Colt and Alison dyad endured for the rest of their lives.

While Colt often focused on the British Isles and Continental Europe, Alison was dispatched to North America and, later, the Pacific. One of their critical points of overlap was at Pine Valley, where first Colt lent his insight to George Crump in cracking the routing and Alison, after the founder’s passing, rebuilt a handful of greens as part of a larger effort to bring the colossus to completion. This experience had a profound impact on Alison’s subsequent career.

Alison spent his final years in South Africa, where he designed several courses. He died in 1952, having outlived Colt by 11 months. It speaks volumes about his talent that even as the “junior” partner in his company, he is known today as the defining architect in one major nation (Japan), while in this country his work has begun to gain the veneration it is due.

Design Signature

Alison’s work tends to be more punishing than Colt’s, with a more engineered look. Alison courses are grand in scale, with low-profile tees, wide fairways, and proudly upwelling greens with gentle-yet-noticeable internal rolls. His deep, imposing bunkers often feature flashed sand faces and grassy noses. He usually favored a single huge greenside bunker over a cluster of three, but would sometimes mix it up and surround a green with a dozen sandy pits.

Best Course

Alison had the stage to himself in Japan in the mid-1930s, so his handful of designs there are some of his most dynamic and personal work. Hirono Golf Club, near Kobe, has the unmistakable aura of the rarest of clubs—those that marry serious exclusivity with architectural greatness. Hirono offers a master class in maximizing the strategic value of abrupt elevation changes: At the par-four 14th, nicknamed “Quo Vadis?” (“Where are you going?”), indifferent drives are shunted down the sidehill of an ultra-wide fairway to produce awkward, blind seconds.

Hirono Golf Club

Most Representative

Although the U.S. doesn’t have examples of his untouched work, the restoration boom of the past decade has been exceptionally kind to his private clubs. Ron Forse and Jim Nagle polished up Kirtland Country Club, near Cleveland, and Iowa’s Davenport Country Club. Keith Foster revived Orchard Lake Country Club, in suburban Detroit, and is currently working at Century Country Club, outside New York. Tom Doak’s company has long been involved at Milwaukee Country Club. All of the above (and it’s only a partial list) feature layouts that are both sporty and tournament-tested, and memberships dedicated to ensuring that the Alison style will endure.

Sleeper

Timber Point on Long Island’s south shore was considered one of the greatest courses in the world when it opened in 1927. Today, it’s a shadow of its former self, but a handful of Alison holes are still intact and open to the public at muni prices. The most spectacular is the 5th on the Blue nine: Nicknamed “Gibraltar,” it plays 207 yards to a high pedestal green pushed against the shoreline. 

Most Famous Hole(s)

If Hirono is Japan’s Pine Valley, it could be said that Alison’s 1936 Fuji Course at the Kawana Hotel is its Pebble Beach—a broad-sloped, majestic oceanfront layout open to all. There are many thrills to be found here, but the run along the cliffs at the par-five 15th is certain to bring the camera out of the bag. Stateside, Tom Fazio made numerous edits to Colt & Alison’s Seaside nine at Georgia’s Sea Island, but the Cape-like 13th remains a beachy, windswept classic. 

Sea Island (Seaside)

Further Reading

Colt and Alison collaborated on the 1920 volume Some Essays on Golf Course
Architecture
, reproductions of which can be affordably found online. The late historian Tom MacWood’s golfclubatlas.com feature on Alison’s time in Japan, “Gliding Past Fuji,” is one of that website’s most significant works. Adam Lawrence penned “The Sadistic Sidekick,” a well-
researched 2011 feature on the architect’s life and work, which can be found at
golfcoursearchitecture.net.

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