The Philly School
Philadelphia resident Gil Hanse explains how one city shaped the game
By Gil Hanse
Philadelphia is my adopted hometown. I’ve lived here 20 years. My children have been raised here, and my family has learned to appreciate everything that makes Philly so utterly charming and at times equally aggravating (think Eagles). So it is with at least a little bit of bias that I put forth the following proposition: the Philadelphia School of Golf Course Architecture has created some of the finest courses in this country and arguably the world and has had enormous influence throughout the game.
Art and architecture fans might scoff at the comparison, but I liken the Philadelphia school to the French impressionist painters or the Chicago School of Architecture. All three groups were the products of a region and exerted an influence over their field that was both innovative and transformative. The impressionists (Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among them) changed the face of modern art. The Chicago School (Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, George Maher and Jens Jensen, among others) created a new vocabulary for architecture and altered its relation to the landscape.
I think that when you consider Pine Valley, Merion, Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Riviera, Los Angeles Country Club, Shinnecock Hills, Cherry Hills and countless other works of golf landscape art, the comparison does not seem as far-fetched, at least to those of us beguiled by this wonderful game and the grounds on which it is played. All of these courses sprang from the minds of a group of friends and associates who sprouted their golf roots in the City of Brotherly Love.
Within the context of golf design, George Crump, Hugh Wilson, A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas and William Flynn hold up alongside the names of Monet, Renoir and Wright. The golf designers’ canvases were playing fields covering hundreds of acres, but their imagination and creativity in the creation of these courses can’t be underestimated. The arrangement of a golf course is as much about soul and beauty as it is about technical expertise.
The Philadelphia School designers were not only lovers of the game, but friends, competitors and visionaries who sprang from similar social circumstances in Philadelphia. With the exception of William Flynn, the lone “outsider,” Crump, Thomas, Tillinghast and Wilson were all born within eight years of each other, with Crump being the oldest and Wilson the youngest. They frequented the same establishments in and around Philadelphia, but golf was what brought them together. Around the game they built the camaraderie and confidence that allowed them to take individual design paths, but also retain a collective approach that sprung from and culminated in their collaboration on the finest golf course on the planet, Pine Valley.
The first to take the plunge into golf course architecture was George C. Thomas Jr. In 1907, at the behest of his family, Thomas designed Whitemarsh Valley Country Club on his family’s estate in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. A true Renaissance man, Thomas’ attentions were soon directed elsewhere. He spent the next decade or so dabbling in course design, but he focused more on the war effort and on flying planes for a unit that he funded. He achieved the rank of captain and survived three plane crashes during World War I to return home safely.
Back in the U.S., he became enchanted with the cultivation and hybridization of roses, and that pursuit led him to relocate his family to the more temperate climate of Southern California. Philadelphia’s loss was golf’s gain, as Thomas soon became a member of the LACC, where he oversaw the execution of Herbert Fowler’s 36-hole design. His passion for golf course architecture reignited, Thomas left a lasting impression on the California golf landscape. Among his designs are courses at the Ojai Valley Inn, Bel-Air, Riviera, Stanford University Golf Course, and his redesign of the North Course at LACC. He built some of the most eccentric yet perfectly conceived golf holes ever created, and also left behind one of the seminal works on golf course design, Golf Architecture in America, in which he put forward his innovative and imaginative thoughts on design strategy.
Next off the platform was A.W. Tillinghast, who also began his design career in 1907, taking on a project for a family friend in the resort community of Shawnee on Delaware. His design of Shawnee Country Club was a preview of his ambitious nature, as it was populated by design features that set out to make a grand statement. Tillinghast was a larger-than-life bon vivant whose courses reflected that personality.
Over the years, he went on to design San Francisco Golf Club, Somerset Hills, Quaker Ridge, Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Ridgewood, and the Bethpage complex of courses, among many others. Closer to home, Tillinghast designed the Flourtown course for his home club, The Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1922. Tillinghast prided himself on creating different courses for every particular setting, which made it hard to pinpoint his style. This chameleon-like approach resulted in some of the most challenging designs in this country. His 36-hole masterpiece at Winged Foot possesses some of the most brilliantly contoured putting surfaces ever prepared by man.
Soon after his friends began to design courses, Hugh Wilson was happily tasked with planning a new course for the Merion Cricket Club. His creation of the East Course at Merion set the standard for the quality of golf in Philadelphia and showed how good golf could be on an inland property. His routing uses every nook and cranny of the oddly configured piece of ground and accomplishes the maximum in interest and variety available on the site. Wilson used his background as a player and captain of the Princeton University golf team to visualize the shots required to play the course, and his creative use of bunkering and green contouring at Merion has withstood the test of time. Unlike his fellow schoolmates, Wilson never strayed far from home. His only other works are the West Course at Merion, Cobbs Creek (in collaboration with Crump and Flynn) in Philadelphia, and the nine-hole Phoenixville (Pa.) Country Club course.
While he did not design courses over a wide area, Wilson expanded the Philadelphia school into a new generation when he took on William Flynn as his construction superintendent at Merion. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Flynn quickly became an important part of the Philadelphia golf scene through his talent and connection to Wilson. When construction was complete, Flynn stayed at Merion to be its first golf course superintendent, and along with Joe Valentine, his successor in the role, perfected the beautiful presentation of the East Course, which incorporated seaside vegetation — Scotch broom — on an inland site.
Flynn then supervised Wilson’s renovation of the East Course starting in 1924, a dramatic improvement which yielded most of the course as we know it today. The pair intended to keep working together, but Wilson’s early and untimely death in 1925 cut short those possibilities. Flynn instead formed a partnership with Howard Toomey, and they went on to design some of the best courses in the country, including the present routing and design of Shinnecock Hills, Cherry Hills, and Indian Creek. And Flynn had the greatest impact on the Philadelphia golf landscape of any of the members of this group, building gems such as Rolling Green, Huntingdon Valley, Philadelphia Country Club, and Lancaster Country Club.
Wilson was also responsible for creating successive generations of the Philadelphia school, sending associates William Gordon, Red Lawrence and Dick Wilson into the world of golf course design and inspiring George Fazio through his designs in Philadelphia. Dick Wilson went on to become famous in his own right, designing great courses such as Doral’s Blue Monster and Pine Tree in Florida. Fazio created many fine courses of his own, including his crowning achievement, Jupiter Hills Golf Club, and he started the career of his nephew Tom Fazio, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown.
When one looks at these diverse personalities and their impact on the game, the range is astounding, but there was a distinct unifying moment when all these men participated in the creation of something truly grand and special: The building of Pine Valley starting in 1913. The club’s founder, George Crump, embodied the shared Quaker ethic of hard work and modesty more than any of the others, and his selfless dedication and tireless effort in building Pine Valley ultimately cost him his life. But his willingness to invite those he trusted and respected — the other members of the Philly School — to weigh in on the creation of his life’s legacy endeared him to all and resulted in a greater course than any of them could have built alone.
Crump provided the perfect golf laboratory, where the spirit of collaboration was alive and well. Ultimately the secret to all successful collaborations is that someone needs to make the final decision. If control of this decision is too tight, creativity is strangled; if it is too loose, anarchy and indecision reign. It speaks volumes to the character of Crump that he was able to herd the collective opinions of all of these talented individuals into a cohesive, brilliant design. At Pine Valley, Crump found a property where he could create a course on a scale that remains incomparable in the world of golf. His attention to detail and his belief in creating a course with a wide variety of shots had to resonate with his fellow designers and serve as a great model for them moving forward. It’s quite telling that upon Crump’s sudden death in 1918, with four of the holes not yet finished, all the other members of the Philadelphia School rallied to complete his grand vision.
Besides Pine Valley (perennially considered the finest in the world on various lists), Philadelphia School courses have hosted numerous major championships, including 25 U.S. Opens, and exerted a reach that extends into the best modern golf courses. It’s a wonderful legacy for any school of design. Especially a school that developed from a small classroom in the sand on the outskirts of Philadelphia that became Pine Valley, and a group of students who enjoyed each other’s companionship. The collaborative nature of their work and their individual talents have left behind a legacy as moving and wonderful as any piece of art or architecture. Look around as you watch the U.S. Open at Merion, and I am sure you will come to the same conclusion.
Gil Hanse is a highly regarded golf course architect who has been chosen to design the 2016 Olympics golf course in Rio de Janeiro. His architecture firm is located in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern, Pa.