Date: Tue 01 Jan 2008

Tom Simpson: One Of The Great Golf Course Architects

By Tom Mackenzie, EIGCA Senior Member

My school history teacher will vouch for the fact that I am no historian and those who have seen my desk know that I am no archivist. Furthermore, anyone who knew the late Fred Hawtree would be crazy to write an article on which he had researched and yet here I am - a volunteer at that.

The reason for this article is that I believe Tom Simpson is one of the unsung heroes of golf course architecture, whose deserved position is alongside Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie as one of the greats. A frosty October University golf match at Cruden Bay brought him to my attention, but the more that I have learnt of him, the more I want to know. It marked the beginning of a journey.

One of the best ways to learn about architecture is to read the books that have been written on the subject and then to go out to a course designed by the author to see his work in practice. It is hardly surprising that my first instinct was to read MacKenzie’s works, but Augusta and Cypress Point were hardly down the road, so his words seemed remote and remained theoretical. With Simpson, I could visit Hayling Golf Club, some 20 minutes from my house and see exactly what he wrote about. His holes are every bit as good as his essays and reports, which merely encouraged me to see more.

Equally close to home was Liphook and this is where the most interesting leg of the journey started. Enthusiasts at the Club knew that their course was designed originally by Arthur Croome who later became a partner in Fowler, Abercromby, Simpson and Croome. It was, in its time, one of the great courses designed as a one-off, in the mould of Pebble Beach and Pine Valley, although such stories are never as simple as they seem. They also knew that Simpson had been a prominent member of the Club and later became its President. They were researching for their Club history and placed an advertisement in the local paper asking for old photographs. To their surprise, they received a reply from the daughter of Simpson’s secretary who had acquired one of his old scrapbooks packed full of press cuttings and reports when he died. These were copied and handed to the Club, providing and huge reserve of information.

Simpson was undoubtedly an eccentric character, almost certainly a little crazy and perhaps a little too obsessed with his own achievements. He was a great self-publicist and missed no opportunity to write about his own work and explain how good it was. The puzzling thing is that he wrote of Liphook in similar terms. Certainly, he was in business with Arthur Croome and he was also a member of Liphook, living for years close to the course, but it is hard to believe that he did not have a direct influence on the course. Why else would he have spent so much time expounding its virtues in print and in interviews on BBC Radio?

He was one of the breed of gentleman amateur architects as opposed to a golf professional turned designer. From a wealthy mining family, he was always financially secure and went to Cambridge to study law, leading on to a place on the Bar, although golf rather took over. His interest in architecture appears to have resulted from his golf membership at Woking Golf Club, where Stuart Paton and John Low were revamping their course in the “strategic” style, not that they called it that. They simply looked at the example of The Old Course and applied its principles to Woking. As ever with such work, there was uproar and Simpson wrote that “Everyone was agreed that such an innovation was a criminal outrage, and an insult as well, to the intelligence of the members”. He went out to inspect the work, expecting the worst. Not only did he like it, but it inspired him to change careers, applying his sharp legal brain to all things golf thereafter. He then became the greatest exponent of Strategic Golf Course Architecture where, in his own words, “poor players carry their bunkers with them” and “the brute, poor devil, can deserve no mercy”. He was a fervent believer that golf should be an intellectual battle and not a physical one.

Fowler, Simpson, Abercromby and Croome’s brochure expanded further on this explaining that they were businessmen and that the common belief amongst members that courses were only laid out for the top players was wrong. “On the contrary” it stated that “ we lay out courses for the enjoyment of all and sundry. If any one class receives more consideration than another, it is the 12 handicap man, who is perhaps the mainstay of most clubs.” This philosophy is crucial in the history or golf course architecture. No-one has stated it more clearly than Simpson.

So what was he like as a person? I mentioned earlier that he was a highly controversial character and he was a man that many did not care for. Fred Hawtree, in his “Colt and Company” book unearthed letters from John Morrison to Hugh Alison where Morrison concluded “I always thought he [Simpson] was a bit mad but now he appears to be completely 'bats'”. In a separate letter to Alison again, he wrote “Gwen, Mary and I had a week at Hayling…Tom Simpson has excelled himself and made the Widow into the worst golf hole I have ever seen on a seaside links”.

Henry Longhurst, however, clearly did not share their obvious distaste for the man. He was prepared to indulge Simpson who had mentioned to a friend that he would be intrigued to read his own obituary. This Longhurst duly did. It is a wonderful piece and is reproduced in full on the website, but one of the many enlightening quotes is: “In 82 years, Tom Simpson has touched life at an enviable number of points and I have always attributed to this fact his refusal to produce for golfing clients anything which he himself deemed humdrum, however much they desired it- as they often did”.

He was much more than just a golf course architect. He was a superb artist and art critic and his hobbies included needlework. His sketch plans and pen and ink illustrations also featured regularly in Bernard Darwin’s Country Life articles. He was also a collector of cigars, Persian rugs, walking sticks and wines. Having created two courses for the Rothschild family, it is not hard to imagine what his cellar contained.

Moving back to Liphook, the wealth of information that was passed to the Club provided a many details of his life and works and it was the inspiration for the formation of the Tom Simpson Society. It was set up to:

  1. To further the name of Tom Simpson in the game of golf;
  2. To learn more about his work and life;
  3. To gather and record information in the Society archive;
  4. To have at least one member from every Simpson course as a member of the Society;
  5. To have meetings at a Simpson course at least annually;

This all happened a couple of years ago, when the Society’s website, was launched. Further progress has been on the sedate side, but it now has an impressive archive of reports, articles and letters and a growing list of members. Every year, more of his reports are uncovered and added to the archive, helping to form an ever clearer picture but so much remains unknown. How much was he involved with Herbert Fowler at The Berkshire? Why did Philip Mackenzie Ross who became his partner leave to go on his own? What did he do at Liphook? Further information is always gratefully received and contact can be made firstly through the society’s website or direct to me.

The reason that he is, perhaps, still not held in the same high esteem as Colt, MacKenzie and Ross may simply be because he was not as prolific. He was in his prime during the 1930s, a career interrupted by World War Two, but the fact remains that his work was outstanding in a manner that was rather more under-stated than his lifestyle and character would suggest. His work is marked by the clear strategy that his holes possess. Another factor is that much of his work was in the redesign of courses, as opposed to new designs. County Louth at Baltray in Ireland is a great example and is possibly his finest work, but no-one can be certain just how much he did and what was there before.

An incomplete summary of his work is on the website, but notable highlights are Chantilly, Hardelot and Morfontaine in France, Des Fagnes and Royal Antwerp in Belgium, Hayling, New Zealand and Ashridge in England and Cruden Bay in Scotland. Ashridge is a mixture of holes redesigned by Simpson and other originals by Campbell, Hutchison and Hotchkin.

It is hoped that this article may tempt people to delve further into his life and works. It is certainly worth the effort.

This article originally appeared in Golf Course Architecture January 2008. Click here for further information.

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