The Philadelphia School of Architecture – changing the course for American golf
“A collection of primarily five or six close friends and golfing companions who became transfixed by golf architecture and the creative and adventurous possibilities of the art in the incipient years of golf architecture in America” – John Ott, the Mayor of Pine Valley and Merion Golf Club member
Consisting of Hugh Wilson, George Crump, A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas, and William Flynn, The Philadelphia School of Golf Architecture was formed over a shared affinity for both the game and the accompanying course architecture. At the time of their founding, golf was still in its infancy in the United States and had been in practice for no more than two decades. The courses of the time were rudimentary in design and planned in as quickly as a day or two with little to no forethought. These men upended the process, taking up to two years to plan out their projects, leading to beautiful naturally designed courses that appeased both the player’s skill and his eye.
Their style was very much influenced by their respective travels to the revered courses of Scotland and England, which ultimately led them to bring the philosophy of naturalism to the states. While the American farmlands were nothing like their seaside counterparts in Europe, the seamless blending of the links into the lush green lands was a visual upgrade to the more formal, symmetrical landscaping characteristic of the U.S courses.
Summing up the school’s philosophical approach, member William Flynn stated, “Naturalness should apply to all construction on golf courses, greens, tees, mounds, and bunkers alike. It is much more expensive to construct a natural looking golf course on account of the tremendous amount of material that must be moved but the money saved in the subsequent maintenance greatly offsets the original cost.”
Although thoughtful design was a large factor in their work, the men’s ultimate motivation for designing courses wasn’t strictly aesthetic but also competitive. With local golfers unable to compete with their more skilled counterparts in the surrounding cities due to the lack of proximity of championship courses to practice on, they decided to take it upon themselves to create their own.
For this reason, one of their greatest accomplishments was Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia’s first public course. As a group empathic to the plight of the local golfer, the course was a passion project. It both encapsulated their dedication to naturalism and provided the challenge the city had been lacking.
The Philadelphia School of Architecture in itself was short lived, but its legacy has been long lasting – boasting some of the country’s best golf courses. Unlike their predecessors, they weren’t designed for everyone, but for the highly skilled, helping to take the sport to a new level.
Fueled by passion alone, most of the men even made a dime from their designs, despite being credited with legendary courses such as Pine Valley, Merion East, and Cobbs Creek. Their work would later go on to have a profound effect on golf architecture, in not just the local area, but throughout the United States.