The Pioneer: Hugh Alison, the sadistic sidekick

The Pioneer: Hugh Alison, the sadistic sidekick
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Adam Lawrence explains why Harry Colt’s longtime partner should be more highly regarded as a designer in his own right

To be the number two in any organisation can be a difficult position. Sometimes the deputy is the administrator, allowing the charismatic front man to be a public figure and build a reputation that way. On other occasions, sidekicks chafe under their boss’s regime, wanting only their own chance to shine.

Double acts in every sector work best when the characters of the main players are a contrast. Not a contradiction, for such pairings rarely hold together, but equally, two people who share the same traits and abilities will often find themselves treading on each other's toes. The straight man and the comic may make a perfect duo, but two comics will compete for laughs, while two straight men will struggle to raise a titter.

Charles Hugh Alison (always known to his friends as ‘Hugh,’ although he is Charles in much literature) might just be the best sidekick in golf architecture history. The long-time partner of Harry Colt, Alison played a crucial role in the spread of golf around the world in the years before the Second World War, although his legacy has been hidden in the rush by many courses to claim a Colt heritage.

A typical scion of the late Victorian/Edwardian upper middle class, Alison was born in 1882 in Preston, Lancashire, and educated at Malvern College in Worcestershire. Malvern was not an ancient school like Eton or Winchester; it was founded only in 1865; but the emergence of the Malvern Hills as a fashionable spa resort in the middle of the nineteenth century saw it expand rapidly, and it was one of only 24 schools listed in the Public Schools Yearbook of 1889.

It isn’t clear when Alison took up golf, but by the time he arrived at New College, Oxford (paradoxically one of the oldest colleges of the ancient university, founded by William of Wykeham in 1379), he must have been an accomplished player. He was a double golf Blue at Oxford, representing the University in the annual match against Cambridge in both 1903 and 1904. Those matches, though, were the high point of his university career.

His chosen degree course included papers in history, law and divinity, but, as Jennifer Thorp, archivist of New College, puts it ‘it is clear his relationship with academic work was not a happy one.’ The Oxford degree course of those days included two sets of exams, Moderations, typically taken at the end of the first year, and Finals, taken after three years. Alison sat for Mods in 1902, but failed in divinity, and only passed the subject after three attempts. The college’s register shows that he was sent home for two weeks three times during 1902-1903.

He never made it to Finals. New’s Warden and Tutors committee minutes of 8 March 1904 record that ‘an application from Mr Alison to stay a fourth year was refused,’ and worse was to follow when on 16 May, he was sent down (expelled) from the college, the committee minutes recording ‘It was reported that Mr Alison had been brought to college on Saturday night in a motorcar, drunk and incapable; and that he had ignored a message from his tutor desiring to see him before his case was considered. It was ordered that he should go down the same day and that, unless some satisfactory explanation of his whole conduct be forthcoming, his name should be removed from the books.’ A minute for the following day confirmed ‘The account which Mr Alison had given his tutor since yesterday’s meeting was considered and it was decided to abide by yesterday’s resolution.’

Alison’s undistinguished academic career notwithstanding, he had clearly made some useful acquaintances during his time at New. Bernard Darwin recorded that, during the 1904 University match at Woking, his ball came to rest on the clubhouse, and, undaunted, he climbed up onto the roof, pitched on to the green and managed to gain a half in his match. He toured America with the Oxford and Cambridge Golf Society in 1903, and he also played first class cricket for Somerset (he recorded his address as Glastonbury, Somerset and his father’s profession as Chief Constable of that county in the New College records). Given this sporting whirl, it is perhaps unsurprising that his studies took a back seat.

As the writing of Darwin and, later, Henry Longhurst, attests, the pre-war British golf scene was a small family, and thus it isn’t surprising that a sportsman of Alison’s calibre was able to parlay his expertise into a career in the nascent golf industry. He reached the fourth round of the 1906 Amateur Championship, playing out of Burnham and County (now Burnham and Berrow) Golf Club in Somerset, and, it’s believed, it is in that year that he began to assist Harry Colt in his course design business, which was just starting to take shape.

It was a pretty amorphous shape at that point though. Colt himself did not resign his job as secretary of Sunningdale until 1913, by which time his design activities had accelerated to a point where he was unable to combine the two, and his protégé took the same route. Alison was appointed secretary of the newly-formed Stoke Poges club (now Stoke Park) in 1908; Colt had designed the course, which opened for play in 1909. With a – presumably fairly undemanding – base at Stoke Poges, Alison was able to give more attention to course design.

Golf boomed in the ten years before the First World War, and Colt, who really created the profession of golf course architecture, saw his business boom with it. As his assistant, Alison worked across the UK; he is known to have contributed to a number of Colt’s prewar courses, including Northamptonshire County, Denham, Camberley Heath and St George’s Hill, which is generally accepted as being the first master planned golf and housing development.

He is believed to have worked in ciphers during the war, and the New College archive records that he joined the Army Publishing Directorate on 12 February 1918 as Captain Paymaster. But it was after the war that Alison’s career as a designer took off, not in Britain but in the US.

Colt had been to North America before the war, designing the Toronto and Hamilton courses in Canada, and spending a crucial week with George Crump at Pine Valley, during which he made some key contributions to the design of the course. The exact level of Colt’s design input at Pine Valley remains a hotly-debated subject, but it is clear from his advertising that he himself was quite happy to claim at least partial credit for the course. After Crump’s death in 1918, the club – which had opened fourteen holes but was struggling to complete the last four – convened an advisory committee to oversee the design and construction of the remaining holes. Alison joined the committee in lieu of his boss, who had clearly decided to remain based in the UK, and produced a five page report that saw significant changes made to the course, including rebuilding five greens.

Alison’s nine year stay in the US saw him design more than twenty new courses, with high profile projects including the Country Club of Detroit, which is part of an elegantly masterplanned Tudor-style housing estate, perhaps showing the impact of his work with Colt at St George’s Hill, and the Sea Island course in Georgia, and redesigning a number of others. But his experience at Pine Valley seems to have been extremely important in crystallising his design beliefs, and the influence of Pine Valley, especially its difficulty, would continue to show itself on his courses.

His greatest influence would be felt in Japan where, during a three month visit in 1930, he laid down a legacy of similar importance to Alister MacKenzie’s famous Australian trip a few years later. Just as MacKenzie’s visit effectively set out the way Australian golf design would develop, so Alison’s time in Japan left behind courses that dominate the country’s golf scene even now. The scale of this influence can be seen by a quick look at a ranking of Japanese courses: five of the six courses regarded by most observers as the country’s best have his fingerprints on them. Only MacKenzie in Australia dominates a major golf market in a similar way.

Alison arrived in Japan on 1 December 1930 by ship from California, accompanied by George Penglase, an American greenkeeper who would serve as his construction foreman, and would remain in the country after his departure. His first project was Tokyo Golf Club, located at Asaka to the north of the city, and built on a flat plain. Penglase wrote later that it had taken 300 men three months to clear the site, entirely by hand, with each man being rewarded with the timber he had cleared, thus keeping the cost of the work to a minimum. A crew of 600 men then built the course, again almost entirely by hand; it opened in 1932.

Tokyo GC was the first sight the nascent Japanese golf world would get of the large, sinuous bunkers that Alison favoured (perhaps, again, influenced by Pine Valley?), and which became known as ‘Alisons’ in that country. More Alisons were built at Hirono, near Kobe, which to this day is regarded as Japan’s greatest course. Compared to flat Tokyo GC, the wild Hirono site was perfect for golf, with lakes, ravines and streams. Of the property, Alison wrote: “In 1930, wild boar were said to flourish there, but I am thankful to say that my acquaintance with them was made only at the dinner table. On 300 acres available for golf, there was no human habitation, nor view of one.” He also designed the Fuji course at Kawana, though this was not completed until 1936, remodelled five holes on the (now) East course at Kasumigaseki GC, originally created by amateur architect Kinya Fujita, and almost completely redesigned the Naruo course near Osaka.

Alison’s wanderings continued throughout the 1930s. While in Asia in 1930-31, he remodelled the Royal Selangor course in Kuala Lumpur, which had been established in 1893, and worked in countries such as Morocco, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He was also primarily responsible for the creation of the Royal Hague course in the Netherlands.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, at the age of 57, he rejoined the forces, again, it seems, working in the cipher service, though little is known of his specific work. He left Britain for good not long after the war ended, settling in South Africa. Some jobs came his way, at Bulawayo in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in East London and at Johannesburg, but little else transpired. He died, aged 70, in Johannesburg, on 20 October 1952.

Alison’s design style differed significantly from that of his partner Colt. Both, of course, subscribed to the strategic school of design that Colt himself had done so much to create, but a close inspection of some of Alison’s courses shows him to be a more severe examiner of golfing skill than his mentor. The extent to which this can be put down to his experience at Pine Valley is a matter for debate – did he, perhaps, take that style to Pine Valley? – but it can be seen on much of his work. There is his well-known fondness for deep bunkering that is so famous from his Japanese work, but his 1927 report for Toronto Golf Club, which Colt had designed before the war, shows his emphasis. “[The course] has been constructed as a playground for elderly businessmen, and hitherto it has no doubt fulfilled that function,” he wrote. “But as a school and a test for young and ambitious players, it is a back number.” Repeatedly he called for bunkering to be tightened, arguing that even weaker players would come to realise the benefits of such work. “As a general rule the short player ultimately enjoys a closely bunkered green, when he finds how much more interesting the game becomes,” he told the club.

He described Tokyo GC as a ‘long difficult course’, and clearly intended this as a compliment. At Royal Hague he built a course that even now is tremendously tough, with deep bunkers, elevated, often crowned greens and the need for stout hitting to achieve a decent score. The epic sixth hole at Royal Hague, named by architect Kyle Phillips as his favourite par four in the world, remains one of the most difficult holes this writer has ever seen.

Not scared of earthworks, as the scale of construction at Tokyo GC shows clearly, Alison shared Colt’s belief that visibility was important. This may come as a surprise to modern observers, who have concluded that, given the level of blindness on some Golden Age courses, the designers of those courses were in favour of blind holes. The truth is slightly different. Certainly, Alison and his contemporaries were more prepared to leave blindness – and to use partial blindness as a tool to fool the player – but he clearly felt that golfers should generally be able to see where they are going. Of a proposed alteration at Toronto he wrote: “A long two-shot hole, if introduced at this point, would be a complete failure, as it would be impossible to achieve visibility. That is to say, if the green were tilted so much that its surface became visible it would be on so steep a gradient that one could only hole out on it occasionally.”

This article first appeared in issue 23 of GCA, published January 2011. Our thanks go to Jennifer Thorp, archivist of New College, Oxford, for her assistance