The Pioneer: Archie Simpson

The Pioneer: Archie Simpson
Sean Dudley
By Richard Goodale

Few will have heard of him, but many have played the holes he laid out. Richard Goodale argues that Archie Simpson deserves far more attention.

Ask the average golf course architecture fanatic about ‘Simpson’ and he will almost unfailingly assume you are talking about Tom, the writer, illustrator and designer who partnered Herbert Fowler, and had a hand in some of the finest courses in Europe, including Morfontaine, the Berkshire, Ballybunion and Cruden Bay.

The last-mentioned course is intriguing, though, in that the proper attribution for the design should probably read “Morris, Simpson, Fowler and Simpson.” This fact has confused even some of the most ardent scholars of this modern age, who think it was Tom Simpson who worked with Old Tom Morris in the late 19th century. It was not.

That Simpson was Archie. Born in 1866 at Earlsferry, Fife, he was the youngest brother of Bob Simpson, the famed clubmaker at Carnoustie, who had moved there from Elie/Earlesferry in 1883, when Archie was 17. Bob helped Old Tom Morris in his 1888 redesign of Carnoustie and also significantly improved the Balgownie (Royal Aberdeen) course in 1886. One of his other brothers, Jack, won the Open in 1885 and became the keeper of the green at Elie. It was a famous golfing family. The 1870s and 1880s must have been heady days for golfers at Elie. In addition to the Simpson clan there was Douglas Rolland, who nearly won the Open several times, and his nephew, James Braid, who went on to great things as a player and architect.

Because of that fame, and Archie’s obvious prowess, he became expert at four separate but related professions — player, teacher, clubmaker and golf course designer. As a player, he developed into the finest golfer of this very distinguished family.

While Archie never won the Open, he finished second twice (firstly in 1885, when he was still in his teens) and in the top ten for most years between then and the early 20th century. In his 20 Open appearances, he never finished out of the top 20 — a remarkable and possibly unprecedented and unequaled feat. He was a fierce competitor and a serious gambler, having a standing challenge to any man to play against him for a stake of one hundred pounds, a very large sum in the late 19th century – the salary of a top class golf professional was 50 quid in those days. Few took his wager, and even fewer were successful in winning the bet. The list of people he beat was legion.

In 1887, for example, he thrashed the reigning Open Champion, Willie Park Jr, in a famous 72-hole match home and away match (Carnoustie and Musselburgh). Archie won by 11 holes, winning at both home (Carnoustie, two up) and away (Musselburgh, nine up). As a teacher, Archie was the model for the famed ‘Carnoustie Swing.’ Youngsters would follow him like puppies around Carnoustie, trying to copy his swing. That swing was then exported around the world, including by a young professional named Stewart Maiden, who emigrated to the States, and eventually and famously passed on Archie’s swing to a young man named Bobby Jones. As a clubmaker, he was highly competent, although not as prolific or creative as his brother Bob. That being said, he custommade the driver which Arnaud Massey used to win the Open in 1907, and his clubs are avidly sought by collectors today.

As an architect, in this first period of his professional life, Archie was fortunate to be located in Carnoustie and connected to the great players of his day though his own accomplishments. In the mid-late 1880s, his brother Bob remodelled Carnoustie with Old Tom Morris and significantly extended the links at Balgownie (Royal Aberdeen). Archie was very likely involved in these activities, and was surely involved with Old Tom in his pioneering work at Dornoch (not then Royal) in 1886 (in 1889, he set the course record there at 73). Archie is also listed as the designer of the original course at Nairn, in 1887. Carnoustie, Balgownie, Dornoch and Nairn — not a bad start to one’s portfolio. While it is impossible to identify any specific architectural features deriving from Archie in those early days, as a top class player (finishing in the top five of the Open for each of the years 1885-1887), he would at least have been listened to by Old Tom, as well as learned from the great man.

Then, in 1891, aged 25, Archie abruptly left Carnoustie, to become the pro at a relatively new club almost as far away as possible while remaining in Britain – Royal Isle of Wight, at Bembridge. One can only speculate why he moved there (possibly because there was no place for him in brother Bob’s business), or why he moved back to Scotland six months later (to be an assistant at Prestwick), under the legendary Charlie Hunter, or why he moved back 15 months later to work again with his brother Bob at Carnoustie in 1892. These were to the first of many flits by our Archie. The next one was to become keeper of the green and professional at Balgownie (later Royal Aberdeen) in 1894.

Archie stayed at Balgownie for 17 seemingly happy and productive years. He was paid a modest fee as professional, but was given his shop rent-free, and allowed to pursue other activities, such as exhibition matches and golf course design, at the Council’s discretion, which must have given him a comfortable income. In regards to the former, arranging and playing matches was an essential element of the duties of the high-profile professional in those days. Being able to bring players like Vardon and Braid to play at one’s course was a very sought after promotional skill. In regards to the latter, it was increasingly becoming of importance to him.

When he arrived at Balgownie in 1894, there were no other courses of any note in the Aberdeen area. He set about over the next decade or so building new ones, mostly on inland sites, much as Tom Bendelow did in the USA at the same time. Archie’s primary area of interest in those days was the land astride the River Dee, a beautiful and historically important waterway that starts in the Highlands, and flows past Balmoral Castle until it empties into the North Sea at the port of Aberdeen.

Along that river, Archie dotted fine little courses ranging from Royal Craggan at Mar Lodge to the workingman’s course of Balnagask at Torry. They were little, because little was the standard of the day — when even the finest golfers such as Archie struggled to break 80 at the Open venues, and the average golfer was very new to the game and unlikely to hit the ball much more than 100 yards at each go. Some of these courses (such as Deeside and Ballater) thrived and were later expanded. Some, like the courses on private estates (Mar Lodge, Invercauld and Glenmuick) no longer exist. None are or ever were, ‘great’, but each brought the game of golf to those communities.

During that period, however, Archie was involved in two significant courses. Firstly, he laid out Stonehaven, in three phases over a ten year period (1896-1906). The course is, again, not great, but it is an architectural tour de force, fitting 18 fine golf holes onto a very difficult cliffside piece of property. Secondly, he laid out (with Old Tom Morris) the first rendition of Cruden Bay in 1898. The few histories of this effort give Old Tom most of the credit, but Archie, in an article written in 1908, said: “I regard Cruden Bay as my masterpiece. It was laid out ten years ago (but has been improved from time to time) as a better knowledge was gained of the ground, (and) the round upon the whole still follows the original plan.”

In a previous article for this magazine (GCA issue 5, p26) I argued that Old Tom deserved much more credit for Cruden Bay than normally given. I’m happy to have Archie share in that credit, as it seems most likely to be true.

During Archie’s early tenure at Balgownie, there are numerous references in the club minutes of bunkers being changed or slightly moved, but little on significant changes to the course. I think we can assume that the course Archie inherited in 1894 was still pretty much the same as had been created by his brother Bob, and that it hadn’t changed much by 1904, when Archie was in his tenth year at his post. That, however, was a very important time.

Around the turn of the century, Coburn Haskell patented a rubber-cored golf ball which was not only more durable, but also flew significantly farther than the gutties of the day. In 1904, the respected golf writer John Low said that Balgownie (now Royal Aberdeen) suffered from ‘Haskellitis.’ As a result, the club extended the course, in two phases (1905 and 1910) in a northeasterly direction, adding around 1,000 yards to the course, and creating the fine course which it enjoys today. Archie was particularly involved in the front nine, amalgamating two holes to make the current second in 1905, and adding the magnificent eighth and ninth holes that cap off one of the finest front nines in the world of golf in 1910. But, that latter panache was just after he had created his masterpiece.

At the soon to be end of Royal Aberdeen, there was a stretch of glorious linksland stretching up the coast, and he was approached by some locals as to whether he would be interested in helping them build a course there. The land was much more rugged than at Balgownie, and was bisected by a huge ridge that had to be played over rather than through, but Archie found a routing that took advantage of the terrain without losing the flow of a proper game of golf. In eight months of 1909 from concept to play, Murcar Links was created. It exists today largely as Archie routed and built it, with only minor changes such as new bunkers and new tees added over the past 98 years. While different in look and feel to the (rightfully) highly acclaimed Royal Aberdeen, it is every bit as good.

That point in time was a seminal one for golf course architecture. In England, Harry Colt and Willie Park Jr were beginning to create great golf courses out of heathland scrub. In the USA, Fownes was perfecting Oakmont, Macdonald was building NGLA and Crump (and Colt) Pine Valley. Older courses that had been rendered irrelevant due to the Haskell ball were being renovated or recreated. So what did Archie do?

Well… he flitted to America.

In early 1911, he handed in his resignation to Royal Aberdeen, citing poor health and the need to be in a more salubrious climate. At that time he had already secured the position as head pro at the Country Club of Detroit (CCoD), (probably not knowing what winters in Detroit might be like!). Archie arrived in Detroit in March 1911 to take up his new post. After that, very little is known, but what is known is both informative and provocative.

Firstly, almost simultaneously with his arrival, Harry Colt was scheduled to meet with the powers that be at CCoD. Nobody can confirm whether or not Harry made that meeting, but it is certain that he designed a new course for the club in 1913. Was Archie involved? How could he not be?

Archie stayed at CCoD until 1921 and then came back to Carnoustie for a couple of years. Why? Nobody knows. He worked for brother Bob, shot a 72 in his last round on the course (aged 56) and then flitted back to America in 1922. From there the trail gets colder and warmer and colder and more poignant.

We think he was the head pro at Vincennes GC in Indiana from 1922-1926, but it is unclear whether or not that club still exists. His son Archie Jr became head pro at Clovernook CC, in Cincinnati, in 1924, while Archie moved around, staying a few years at Tam O’Shanter (as the club pro to Tommy Armour’s touring pro). When his son died early, in 1932, Archie took over at Clovernook for two years. After that, there is no information other than he died ‘of old age’ in Detroit in January 1955, aged 88.

That is 44 years in four small paragraphs for a man whose first 44 years lit up the skies of golf in Scotland. How could the man who worked with Old Tom Morris, made Royal Aberdeen what it is today and designed Murcar fade away so completely and for so long? Somewhere out there, there is more of this story to be told…

This article first appeared in issue 9 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2007