A short life and a lasting legacy – the story of Cobb’s Architect Hugh Wilson
Born in 1879 to a wealthy family, Hugh Wilson grew up in high crust society and spent his youth attending the best private schools in the area, which eventually led him to enrolling in Princeton in 1898.
A captain of the University’s golf team and an avid player, Hugh Wilson was an accomplished golfer in his own right. After graduation, his official profession was insurance and here he found some success owning the family brokerage with his brother, but history will remember him as a visionary architect of two of the best private and public courses in the United States.
His first project was Merion Golf Club. He was one of five selected for the committee to create the club’s newest course, all chosen on virtue of being the club’s top players. While this might seem odd today in the age of highly respected golf course architects, having a committee of the club’s elite craft their own course was a widely held practice at the time.
While great at golf, the committee’s skills didn’t necessarily translate into golf architecture. A fact that Hugh Wilson acknowledged by stating “the members of the committee had played golf for many years, but the experience of each in construction and green keeping was only that of the average member.”
Realizing their lack of expertise, Wilson began correspondence with Dr. Charles V. Piper and Dr. Russell A. Oakley, two of the earliest scientists conducting experiments in turf grass science and course management. The committee also sought advice from famed expert in golf course architecture Charles Macdonald.
Their many months of research and hard work paid off. Upon inspection of the course in 1911, Macdonald and Whigham declared it first class.
Later on, while the Merion East Course finished growing in, Wilson continued his research, spending two months abroad studying the ins and outs of Scotland and England’s golf scene. He was working to gain insights into continuing to improve and enhance the Merion Course with the addition of bunkers and other hazards. While there, he explored everything from Great Britain’s most revered courses to their lesser known. His notes and sketches were detailed and lengthy, examining shot values, variety of play, and overall challenge and charm.
His due diligence would continue to pay off in the form of not just the Merion Club Course, but also with his future projects that would help solidify Philadelphia’s already firm hold as a leader in golf architecture. His courses would go on to join venues such as Pine Valley, Aronimink, Huntingdon Valley, Philadelphia Cricket Club, Rolling Green, Manufacturers, and Philadelphia Country Club as some of the country’s most revered.
A few years after Merion’s opening in 1912, Wilson was appointed to a committee to open a public course in Fairmount Park. The committee included Wilson, A.H. Smith, George Crump, George Klauder, and J. Franklin Meehan.
Upon presentation of their initial design, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “experts who have seen the layout say the first course will be the best planned municipal links in the country.” By January 1915, the city of Philadelphia agreed to fund the course and construction soon began with a planned fall opening. As many building plans often do, it ran behind and finally opened in May of 2016.
Upon its completion, Cobb’s Creek was quickly hailed one of the country’s best public courses and had people lining up overnight. The course eventually became one of the first in the country where it didn’t matter if you were black or white, woman or man, novice or professional, you could spend the day playing hole after hole against the course’s lush green backdrop.
Although Hugh Wilson remained a big part of the Philadelphia public golf scene until at least 1924, his involvement was cut short with his untimely death in 1925. While short-lived, his architectural career was impactful, leaving the American golf community with two of its greatest courses and the Philadelphia community with a hub for golfers of all backgrounds and abilities.