Pioneer:

Willie Park Jr

Mungo Park describes the life and work of his illustrious ancestor.

Some years ago, in 1995, I was lucky enough to play The Maidstone on Long Island, with club historian David Goddard. In a rare moment of golfing competence, I birdied an almost blind par three, designed by my great uncle, Willie Park Jr, to demoralise the overconfident. He had not reckoned with the last dregs of the family gene pool. I avoided the sea to the right, and the wide diagonal swathe of marram grass, lifting and falling in sympathetic motion. I watched in disbelief as my ball, to which I must have imparted, accidentally, just the right amount of backspin, bit and stayed on the crown of the tiny green, allowing me an easy putt.

At the time I suspected supernatural intervention, but rationally I believe the original design of the Maidstone demonstrates the coming of age for the first golf architect to use the title. For Willie Park, course design was the art of the possible. It was not his role to punish the club player for having a high handicap, but he didn’t shrink from making life a little more difficult for the scratch player. His involvement at the Maidstone spans over 25 years, productive years for Willie in Britain, Europe, America and Canada. His example showed the way for many who came after.

As a player and clubmaker, Willie, learnt his trade from family and surroundings. He was born in Musselburgh, the ‘cradle of golf,’ in 1864. His father, Willie Park Sr, had won the first Open four years earlier and, with Old Tom Morris, dominated the championship in its early years. His uncle Mungo (Old Willie’s brother) came back from the sea in the early 1870s and won the 1874 Open at Musselburgh, the first time it was played there. Old Willie won again the following year.

Fifteen years later, in 1889, Willie Jr was to play, and win, in the last Open to be played in his home town, as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers moved out to Muirfield in 1892. Golf was growing enormously in popularity, but there was not a living to be made as a professional golfer alone, even with the money matches that were popular, so Willie Jr learnt his trade as clubmaker and ball hammer in the family firm of William Park and Sons, and practised putting with marbles on the brick floor of his father’s workshop.

Willie was born at a critical time in the evolution of golf. The gutta percha ball had been invented just before he was born. This simple innovation transformed the game and indirectly led to the development of many new courses. The plentiful supply of relatively cheap gutty balls meant that golf was no longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy, as it had been when the feathery was the only adequate projectile of choice.

Willie was born in the right place at the right time. In 1880 he had mastered his trade sufficiently to take the post of ‘assistant professional, club and ball maker, steward and green keeper’ at Tyneside Golf Club, in Ryton to the west of Newcastle, where his uncle, Mungo Sr was professional. Mungo had just laid out the course for the Thompson brothers, two expatriot Musselburgh men, but he returned to Alnmouth shortly after, and young Willie, aged sixteen, became the club professional. In the same year he entered his first Open, and came fifteenth. Four years later, in 1884, he returned to Musselburgh to help run the business. It is likely that his father’s health was starting to fail.

In 1886, at 22, he laid out his first course at Innerleithen. He did not charge a fee, but instead obtained a preferential ‘franchise’ for the supply of William Park and Sons clubs to members. Fortunately for the profession, course design as a loss leader did not catch on! But it was the start of Willie’s rise to prominence in course design.

As a golfer Willie was approaching his best. In 1887 he won his first Open, and two years later, his second. After that, business took over from playing, to a great extent, as he built up the name and reputation of William Park and Sons. From 1890 Willie was effectively in charge of the firm. He opened branches in Edinburgh, London and Manchester, and in 1897 he opened a branch in New York.

The 1890s too saw a great demand for Willie’s skill as a course designer. In 1892, it seems likely that Mungo Sr and Willie Jr collaborated with Davie Grant of North Berwick to design and construct the course at Silloth on Solway. This was and still is a fine course, although it is much changed by a series of prominent architects. Bernard Darwin said: ‘I never fell more violently in love with a course at first sight’. In the same year as Silloth, Willie was working at Jedburgh and Peterhead.

As the century approached its close Willie was approaching the peak of his prosperity, although much of his best work was still to come. He had ridden the crest of the first golf wave in Britain, and like many of his Scottish colleagues saw the opportunities offered by the game’s growth in America. In 1895 he went across the Atlantic. In the same year he married his second wife Margaret, and also published his seminal work, The Game of Golf. The book was one of the first to look at the game in a theoretical way. It was applauded as being ‘a triumph of simple language.’

From a man who had had no formal schooling, certainly beyond the age of 15, and possibly younger, it is a considerable achievement, and makes cogent and sensible reading today. His written comments on the second edition are copious and astute. Many of them would apply today: “Holes which formerly required three strokes to reach the green can now be driven in two and hence larger greens are a matter of practical necessity unless scoring is to be reduced to an absurd minimum.” And again: “If it can be avoided, putting greens should not be laid down on a plain uninteresting piece of ground. There should be a suggestion of a terminus of the hole, or in other words the position should be suggestive to the player that there is the place to which he must aim to drive his ball.”

His comments show a thoughtful, confident mind, with clear design ability and a good working knowledge of agronomy and greenkeeping. “Rolling however, requires to be carefully done. In dry weather it is only good for polishing the surface, and if done too frequently may render the green so keen and fast as to make putting an impossibility.” With minimal intervention an expedient and economical way to build, Park’s courses concentrated on the celebration of natural topography and ecology. He employed high quality construction professionals and shapers, and, although he moved the design process from ‘walking the course’ to ‘planning the course’ he never lost his ability to use and enjoy the form and articulation of landscape, with the insertion of a little artifice to make a hole more challenging.

His par threes provide a library of devices by which to snare or disorientate the golfer. Often he used a diagonal hazard to distract the player, or to provide an artificial perspective to a hole. Transverse diagonal ditches or streams, as at Stoneham, or heather covered banks, as at Sunningdale are typical, but Willie was happy to try new devices, as at Aldeburgh, which he designed with James Braid, where a small cliff of vertical timber sleepers at the back of a long horseshoe shaped bunker contains the par three fourth green, reached over a landscape of brutal and engulfing gorse.

Willie’s greens were typically described as “a tipped platter with two fried eggs,” but like Colt, MacKenzie and Simpson, the next generation, he preferred to allow the strategy of the hole and the green’s location to inform its design, with as little help as possible from the construction team. Willie never embraced the ‘penal’ philosophy. As Geoffrey Cornish wrote to John Adams (The Parks of Musselburgh, Grant Books): “It is evident to me that Willie Park was practising strategic design in Canada and the US during his 1916-23 years… whether or not the words strategic and penal were being used at that time in relation to design.” The Game of Golf argues sensibly for the strategic approach, as the only practical way to cater for the diverse ability of golfers. Willie was in all things a pragmatist.

By 1900 Willie was at the height of his powers. He had designed and built Sunningdale, which opened to universal acclaim, and he had set up his own development company, Chiltern Estates, to build a new course and housing at Huntercombe. This too was greeted with critical acclaim, and the present course, substantially unchanged, is a testament to the quality of its early design. But the success of the design and construction of Huntercombe was to be transformed into a bitter failure. By 1906 it had passed into the possession of the Norwich Union Life Insurance Company.

This was a difficult time, but Willie continued to build, particularly around London, and on the Continent. After Huntercombe was lost he poured himself into work, and before the First World War he was at his most active and influential. Among a long list, he worked at Royal Wimbledon in 1907, West Lancashire, Temple, Lauder and Biggar in the Borders and Grantown on Spey further north. Nieuport Bains, Mont Agel (Monte Carlo) and Royal Antwerp were also carried out in this period, and Killarney in 1911. With the onset of war there was little to be done in Britain or Europe, and few people to do it. In 1916, thus, he went again to New York, where his younger brother John was already professional at the Maidstone. Willie developed the office of ‘William Park – Golf Architect’ with the same energy and application as in Britain. Between 1916- 1924 he built some of his best courses in North America and Canada. They remain a testament to his skill and aptitude.

At the end of his career, in 1923, with the assistance of his younger brother John, Willie once again undertook work at the Maidstone, which they had first laid out in 1895 or 96, and which John had constructed in 1899. But by 1924 Willie was losing his ability to run the business. It is possible that his mental health was suffering from the effects of thyrotoxicosis, which at the time was untreatable. In 1924, my grandfather, Mungo Park Jr, travelled from Argentina, where he was also a golf architect, to New York. He brought his older brother home to Musselburgh: he died at Craigiehall mental hospital on 22 May 1925 Willie’s lasting legacy was the breadth and span of his activities. He combined successful careers as a greenkeeper, professional golfer and club and ball manufacturer with the development of the new profession of golf architect. Arguably he was the first to coin the title. It is noticeable that when he first went to America he described himself on the ship’s manifest as a golf professional. By the time he returned to America in 1916, at the age of 52, he is listed as ‘Golf Architect.’

He, more than any other, provided the bridge between the players of the money match days and the new men of business who were driving the game forward in America and Britain. Henry Leach, writing in The American Golfer, describes his leaving as the breaking of “the only solid link remaining between the golf of today and the really great golf of the past, the time when the history of the game as we know it was being built up, that link being comprised in the human person of our Willie. For you see, Willie Park was ‘one of the boys of the old brigade.’ In this respect there was none like him.”

This legacy may be as significant to the overall history of golf architecture as his designs. His work at Sunningdale and Huntercombe inspired Colt, Abercrombie and many others. They demonstrated that successful new golf development of the highest quality was possible on inland sites. His work in America and Canada confirmed his position as the father of golf course architecture. Inevitably it is his built legacy for which he will be remembered, and it is a testament to the quality of his courses that so many remain relatively unchanged. Gullane, Huntercombe, Sunningdale, Mount Bruno, Ottawa, the Maidstone, Olympia Fields, Royal Antwerp, Mont Agel, Killarney and many others are a substantial legacy, but so too are lesser known gems, such as Silloth, Kilspindie, Aldburgh, Temple and Stoneham, where the great Willie Park encourages lesser mortals to practice the art of the possible in subtly considered landscapes, and to achieve, from time to time, those satisfying moments of unimportant personal greatness.

Mungo Park is an architect, specialising in clubhouse design and refurbishment. He is the great-nephew of Willie Park Jr, and the great-grandson of Old Willie Park. Any information on Park designed courses from clubs or club historians will be gratefully received by e-mail info@mungo-park.co.uk or telephone +44 (0)1684 274848.

This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.

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