The Essential: Dick Wilson

By Thomas Dunne

Pine Tree (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

 

These days, many define the post-war period in golf design as the “Robert Trent Jones Era,” but it’s sometimes forgotten that for nearly 20 years he had a rival matching him course for course. Louis Sibbett “Dick” Wilson, born in Philadelphia in 1904, dropped out of the University of Vermont (which he had attended on a football scholarship) to join the firm of Toomey & Flynn in 1924. The son of a contractor, Wilson was a skilled engineer and shaper and was charged early on with executing Flynn’s plans, which included Miami’s Indian Creek and the Homestead’s Cascades course in Virginia. He also played a central role in the Flynn renovation that transformed Shinnecock Hills into the championship venue we know today.

After serving in WWII, Wilson began his own architecture career. He was proud of his ability to build his own courses and sometimes used this as a bludgeon against RTJ’s plan-based method. Working out of Delray Beach Country Club north of Miami, he built a string of well-regarded Florida layouts, then began to move north, where his two 18s for the National Cash Register company, near Dayton, Ohio, garnered a great deal of attention in the early 50s. He also made inroads with elite destination club developers, producing several designs in the Bahamas, including the tony Lyford Cay Club. 

Sadly, alcohol abuse ruined Wilson’s life. Still, quality projects kept coming his way, though in later years the work was increasingly delegated to his protege and partner, “Gentleman Joe” Lee.

In July of 1965, Wilson stumbled off the curb at Pine Tree Golf Club and hit his head on the pavement. As Tim Cronin writes in the club’s history: “The official cause of death was [cited as] a pulmonary embolism. But friends and family knew better.”

Design Signature
Wilson responded to the distance gains of his era by building courses that favored the aerial game, with deep, amoeba-like bunkers guarding elevated, pitched greens. On occasion he would fold up a side slope or backstop, creating something of a molar-like green appearance. If water was in play he would offer a bailout, but otherwise the golfer was usually expected to produce crisp, high iron approaches. Like Trent Jones, he employed the runway tee. Wilson was fairly restrained in his shaping from tee to green, lending his courses what registers today as a “traditional” appearance—a look that is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

Best Course
In his biography of Joe Lee, Ron Whitten states that Colinas de Villareal, on an oceanfront bluff east of Havana, was “generally considered to be Wilson’s masterpiece.” This layout is most famous for hosting the photo-op golf outing of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who played in military fatigues. It is reported that Fidel shot 150, though this probably had little bearing on why the course did not survive long after the revolution.

Of Wilson’s surviving courses, Pine Tree, in Boynton Beach, Fla., was referred to by no less than Ben Hogan as the greatest flat course in the world. It also has the distinction of being the only club where Sam Snead actually paid to be a member. Here, Wilson’s demanding design concepts meet stiff Atlantic Ocean breezes. A prime example comes at the 13th, a par three of under 160 yards that still strikes fear thanks to its combination of a devilishly angled green and sweeps of sand stretching halfway back to the tee.

Most Representative Course
Many of Wilson’s best-known designs have been renovated by other architects, such as Laurel Valley and Bay Hill by Arnold Palmer, Royal Montreal and Cog Hill (Dubsdread) by Rees Jones. One of the clearest expressions of Wilson’s design intent is found at Long Island’s exclusive Deepdale Golf Club. Herbert Warren Wind considered this 1955 design to be “unusual”—perhaps due to its hilly, compact site—but it is a highly memorable shotmaking test. Though architect Tripp Davis softened a pair of greens in the ’00s (you’d never guess which ones, as their slopes are still terrifying), it is otherwise a nearly perfect match for Wilson’s original routing map.

Cog Hill – Dubsdread (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

 

Sleepers
Sunnylands, in California’s Coachella Valley, set on the sleek estate of the late diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, squeezes an 18-hole routing out of nine greens, which works because it gets so little play. Rather more “gettable” is The Garrison, an affordable public course that occupies a magnificent highland site overlooking the Hudson River 60 miles north of New York City.    

Most Famous Hole(s)
Many holes changed during Gil Hanse’s 2013 renovation of Doral’s Blue Monster, but its world-famous finisher remained mostly untouched. It’s essentially a variant of the old Cape template, but Wilson’s use of proportion—the relationship, on a flat site, between the massive lake and sliver-like fairway—dialed the fear factor up to a volume that registers even with Tour pros.

Further Reading
Wilson did not leave behind a design manifesto, but was the subject of a number of illuminating magazine features in his prime. Two of the best can be found in Sports Illustrated’s online “Vault.” Herbert Warren Wind penned a 1955 rave of the newly opened Meadow Brook Club that covers a lot of ground, while Gwilym Brown’s 1962 piece about the rivalry between Wilson and RTJ is highly entertaining.

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