An English eccentric who built many of the best courses of continental Europe, Tom Simpson is a true unsung hero of course design, says Tom Mackenzie
My school history teacher will vouch for the fact that I am no historian and those who have seen my desk know I am no archivist. Furthermore, anyone who knew the late Fred Hawtree would be crazy to write an article on a subject he had researched. 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 university golf match at Cruden Bay one frosty October brought his work 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. While researching their club history, they 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 a 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 selfpublicist 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 close to the course for many years, but it is hard to believe that he did not also have a direct influence on its design. Why else would he have spent so much time expounding its virtues in print and in interviews on BBC Radio?
Simpson 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 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: “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 among members that courses were only laid out for the top players was wrong. “On the contrary, we lay out courses for the enjoyment of all and sundry,” they stated. “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 of 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 book Colt and Company 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. So Longhurst duly obliged him. It is a wonderful piece and is reproduced in full on the Simpson Society 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 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:
• Further the name of Tom Simpson in the game of golf
• Learn more about his work and life;
• Gather and record information in the Society archive
• Have at least one member from every Simpson course as a member
• Have meetings at a Simpson course at least annually.
Tom Mackenzie is a Scottish golf course architect and a partner of Mackenzie and Ebert.
This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008