This week’s PGA Tour stop at Bay Hill Club & Lodge is likely to be soaked in nostalgia for Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. And rightly so. Palmer owned and ran the place. Woods has won there eight times and is roaring back to form.
But one man’s name will be missing from the party: Dick Wilson, the architect who designed the course in 1961 and whose routing is still in place today, usually goes unacknowledged. And yet in his day he was a major figure. Or at least close to being one.
Louis Sibbett Wilson (1904-1965) was a native Philadelphian who grew up working on the maintenance crew at Merion Golf Club. After college at the University of Virginia, he went to work on the construction team of Howard C. Toomey and William S. Flynn, the Philadelphia classicists of the Golden Age who helped remake the face of American golf. Wilson worked for them in their renovations of Merion, The Country Club in Brookline and at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
That’s pretty good training, as long as there’s work. But all of that disappeared during the Great Depression. Wilson set up as a greenkeeper in South Florida, then spent World War II doing camouflage work on airfields. Interestingly, Alister MacKenzie, one of the great classic-era golf architects, had been a pioneer in camouflage trench work during the first World War – a craft he wrote about extensively and claimed to have learned much from it that proved relevant in course design.
It’s unlikely Wilson knew of that affinity. But after WWII, as the golf development market picked up, he quickly acquired a reputation for bold, brassy courses that featured attention to aerial play and angles of attack. He soon became a rival to Robert Trent Jones Sr. Wilson’s career was hampered, however, by a propensity for liquor – a habit that led to his untimely demise in 1965 just as his reputation had all but equaled Jones’.
Wilson’s work was marked by strong, angular doglegs and greens canted to exaggerate the line of play. He also put his bunkers close to the ideal line of play – a strategic nod to his classic training. The work was strongest in the early 1960s, when his construction team, Troup Bros. out of Miami, adhered to Wilson’s plans. This can be seen in two of his strongest works from that era: 36-hole NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio, from 1953; and Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, N.Y., a 1955 design recently restored by Brian Silva.
Wilson designed several public-access courses in the 1960s that showcased his flair for power golf. When it opened in 1964, No. 4 at Cog Hill Golf Club (Dubsdread) in Lemont, Illinois made a strong impression on Chicago-area daily-fee golfers. So, too, did the Blue Course at Doral outside Miami, a layout that Wilson and Lee created out of a mucky, featureless site. There and across Florida, Wilson perfected the art of creating golfable ground by creating lakes and using the cored-out material for plating hole corridors and the land that supported the surrounding home sites.
Wilson's work at Bay Hill
Wilson’s routing of Bay Hill dates to 1961. Back then, the land was undeveloped and entirely remote from downtown Orlando, much less in any one’s imagination as a resort destination. The land around what would become Bay Hill was all part of a massive citrus operation that had been developed by Dr. Phillips in the 1920s and remained productive for 30 years.
Wilson was paid $17,000 for his routing and construction supervision. Rather than Wilson's regular contractors, a local development team undertook the earthwork. But the flow, sequencing and close green-to-tee connectivity of the place was all a product of Wilson’s imagination. For the first few years, the nines were reversed, but all of the trademark character was there, including the 6th hole, a round-the-bend, 560-yard par 5. No one imagined then that professional golfers would be reaching the hole in two with a driver/5-iron.
The home site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard has been a PGA Tour stop annually since 1979. Palmer, a regular visitor to the property since the mid-1960s, led an investment group that took over control and ownership of the resort and residential community in 1976. Since then, his design firm has exercised considerable influence in making the course more spectator friendly, introducing more drama to the finishing trio of holes, and establishing more short-grass options for recovery around the raised greens.
But through all of the tweaking, they never fundamentally altered Wilson’s original design. It might be Palmer’s place, and with eight wins there Tiger Woods could be said to own the tournament, but the golf course they’ll be playing remains largely due to Wilson.