A maverick, innovator and artist, Tom Simpson left his mark on many of Britain and Europe’s best golf courses, including Morfontaine which is ranked top of the Golf World Top 100 Courses Europe. “It is only the mad masterpieces that remain in the memory,” he once stated, yet Simpson’s masterpieces were not the work of insanity but artistic flair and fearless genius. Now, more than half a century after his death, Duncan Lennard explains why Simpson’s reputation should be significantly higher than it is.
Take a look at last month’s listing of Continental Europe’s top courses and you’ll see only one architect solely responsible for three of its top 20-ranked courses. That man is not the esteemed Harry Colt, nor even the estimable Robert Trent Jones Snr, both of whom boast two, but the somewhat less-vaunted Tom Simpson.
A key player in golf’s post-Great War architectural production – he is in fact credited with coining the phrase ‘Golden Age’ – Simpson lacks the profile of its leading lights, Colt and Alister MacKenzie. Yet his artistic hand can be seen today in some of the UK and Europe’s finest courses.
Alongside that high-lying French trio of Chantilly (17th), Fontainebleau (5th) and our number-one course, Morfontaine, Simpson either created or reworked the layouts we see today at Ballybunion, Hardelot, Royal Antwerp, Rye, Ashridge, Cruden Bay and Royal Porthcawl. Amongst his other projects, he also made significant contributions to The Open rota linkslands of Muirfield and Carnoustie.
Uncompromising, unconventional and reassuringly expensive, Simpson’s 50-year journey in golf course design was marked by controversy; indeed, writing in 1964 Henry Longhurst observed: “I dare say that golf clubs in Britain have spent more money in undoing his work than that of all the other architects put together.”
Simpson, for his part, echoed Oscar Wilde’s sentiment that the artist should educate the critic and reserved a particular disdain for golf club committees. “Ninety per cent of criticisms made by club members," he believed, "are due to invincible ignorance.”
It was against this discordant soundtrack that Simpson’s career often played out. During his most regular assignments – reworking old-style courses into modern, strategic tests – the typical outcome was to see some of his alterations accepted, and some rejected.
It is however interesting to note that – as at Morfontaine – when his work was trusted and left alone, its status has improved throughout the decades. Throughout his career, Simpson maintained the stance that he knew better. And time appears to have borne him out.
A date with destiny
Tom Simpson was born in 1877, the son of a Lancashire mine owner who was wealthy enough to employ a staff of five and send his only son to Cambridge to study law. Simpson did not take up golf until university but would become a proficient amateur, achieving a plus-one handicap in 1908.
But just three months after Simpson completed his education – he received an MA in early 1902 – a chance event would change his future career and his destiny. Playing at Woking one spring day, he overheard members grumbling about a new bunker, positioned in the 4th fairway by two fellow members.
His interest piqued, he wandered out to see the offending trap and soon discovered a couple of small bunkers, close together, just left of the centre of the fairway, and at driving distance for the day. In 1902, this was bordering on insanity. The logic of the day was very much based on positioning hazards to penalise bad shots – those hit off-line and those foozled along the ground. These bunkers were the first hazards Simpson had seen that were deliberately placed to punish a good shot.
Possessed of a powerful intellect ever looking for the enlightened view, Simpson instantly grasped how such a hazard redefined the very concept of a ‘good shot’. He also understood the possibilities it threw up. Penal side hazards, he had already noted as an improving player, were of little consequence to skilled players, better able to direct the ball where they wanted.
In fact they acted as markers to plot a safe passage to the green. Those penal side hazards came into play more for the lesser player who hit the ball offline as a matter of course. In other words, they were trapping rabbits while letting the tigers roam free.
But maybe even more interestingly to Simpson, penal hazards encouraged a one-dimensional playing strategy, with everyone having to plot the same line between them. Through more strategic use of traps, he noted you could create alternative playing lines for different skill levels, while making a more intense and interesting use of natural angles, contours and hazards. The test would become more versatile, and more cerebral.
Simpson walked out of Woking clubhouse a lawyer but back in a golf architect. Officially, he remained a lawyer until 1910. But from 1902 onwards, he knew that would not be his path. A keen artist whose etchings and watercolours were exhibited in London, his aesthetic juices were stirred by golf’s beautiful landscapes.
And with golf booming in turn-of-the-century England and golf courses increasingly in demand, he fashioned a new vision of himself as a creator of new, natural, dramatic and, above all, strategic golf courses.
Simpson was at the right club. In John Low he found a kindred strategist, and one eager to share his own thoughts on golf course design. From Low Simpson learned that, so far from being revolutionary, the bunkers on the 4th were obeying the playing principles of the world’s oldest course; indeed, they were inspired by the par-4 16th at the Old Course, where the Principal’s Nose traps performed a similar office.
Conversations with Low – “What he doesn’t know about golf architecture is not knowledge,” Simpson once said – helped him crystalise his own unshakeable tenets on course design. In particular, Simpson believed:
That a golf course should be enjoyable to all standards of player – providing entertainment for the longer handicapper yet a challenge for the strong golfer.
That the middle of the fairway and/or the shortest, most direct route to the hole “should be fraught with danger, imminent or deferred to the powerful player”.
“That a hole must either be more difficult than it looks or look more difficult than it is; it must never be what it looks.” For Simpson, the architect’s job was to disguise his purpose. He liked to create uncertainty in the golfer’s mind. He deplored any features that made a hole’s challenge more evident.
That natural beauty should be maintained to the fullest extent, with any earthworks sympathetic to the landscape.
That risk-taking was at the heart of the game. “Golf at its best is a perpetual adventure,” he opined. “It consists in investing not in gilt-edged securities but in comparatively speculative stock; it ought to be a risky business.”
But perhaps as one sixth, overriding characteristic, Simpson demanded that his courses would only ever be “interesting”. “After all,” he once said, “it is the mad masterpieces that live in the memory and make the game of golf worthwhile.”
“Simpson, more than any of his contemporaries, pushed design to its limits in the search for interest and excitement,” believed fellow architect and biographer Fred Hawtree. “He recognised that, only a little further on, a hole became fluky and silly. But he regularly produced design which went right up to this point.”
Well connected, buzzing with ideas and full of passion, Simpson soon found employment. In 1910 he became a partner to Herbert Fowler, whose views on natural, daring design echoed his own.
With Fowler taking the cream of the UK assignments, Simpson’s most significant early work took place in France. He soon forged a relationship with the Duke of Gramont, who invited him to Paris to build his own nine-holer. The result, Valliere, is now Morfontaine’s second course, but in its creation Simpson served notice of his intent.
Extraordinary sweeping green contours joined generous fairways and audacious use of the region’s rich natural landscape to deliver a superbly stirring experience that has far more in common with rollercoasters than motorways. As one observer put it: “Sandstone outcrops are left as features in the fairway, and look like Henry Moore sculptures, fixing the course within its landscape and bringing the land itself into the course.”
In a stunning early salvo, Simpson also completed comprehensive redesigns of primitive layouts at Fontainebleau and Chantilly. At Fontainebleau, Simpson took advantage of a sublime, rocky, rolling forested setting to create a rare, raw test through the trees.
The wooded, boulder-strewn hill that frames the 1st green reveals Simpson’s touch for the artistic; the disorienting cross bunkers that block your path are typical of his use of diagonal hazards, and the premium they placed on plotting your course.
But perhaps best of all are the substantial rocky outcrops left in front of the green at the short par–5 12th – an early example of Simpson’s innate flamboyance and a truly tantalising consideration for anyone considering getting on in two.
Some 30 miles north at Chantilly-Vineuil, Simpson had the benefit of another lovely, forested site. His work here – completed in 1920 – is testament to his growing mastery of angles, with most longer holes subtle dog-legs.
Perhaps the best example is the par-4 10th. The hole moves slightly from right to left, with a lone fairway bunker on the inside of the curve plaguing the better player looking to cut the corner. While skirting the bunker leaves the best line in, a wider, safer line up the right is always available to the less-accomplished, or more cautious.
Working alone, Simpson’s UK activity stepped up. Throughout the '30s he undertook extensive remodelling work on some of the countries best golf courses, with the likes of Ashridge, New Zealand, North Hants, Hayling and Felixstowe Ferry coming into his sights.
That said, in 1931 he completed work on another, famed original at Hardelot, on France’s northern Cote d’Opale. “The routing here is pure Simpson,” says Dutch architect Frank Pont who, along with Patrice Boissonnas, renovated the course in 2013. “He liked to create constant changes of direction, and used a lot of triangulation. You see this even more at Morfontaine and Fontainebleau.
“But I would also argue the greens at Hardelot are Simpson’s best. They are wild, but not too wild. They contribute to a challenge full of variety and creativity.
Unfortunately, encroaching tree lines had compromised much of his tee strategy and taken some of the green surrounds out of play. Our work was to return these elements to the course, and bring back the sheer playfulness of Simpson’s design.”
But despite the obvious flair Simpson brought to golf course creation, his ideas were not universally popular. His unique ‘customer-is-always-wrong’ approach did him few favours, but the plain fact was that Planet Golf did not wholly buy into his practices.
His belief in trapping the centre of the fairway to promote strategy was a tough sell, and whenever he did so, he was criticised. His famous fairway trap at Carnoustie’s par-5 6th – the one that created Hogan’s Alley – was one of the few that was actually built; many others, like those advised for Muirfield’s 12th, were not, though Muirfield did adopt his suggestion of a more central trap – ‘Simpson’s Folly’ – some 40 yards short of the 9th green.
Neither did Simpson’s relish for causing mental mayhem endear him. A confirmed amateur, he enjoyed and encouraged luck; he liked to use slopes and shapes to confound the golfer; something of a design satirist, he especially enjoyed trapping the golfer who flexed his muscles before engaging his grey matter; and he had no problem with blind shots, apart from shots inside 120 yards “when the target becomes the pin and not the green”.
His contrary nature meant that, at times, he seemed to bring these elements into his design just to goad the more sober and staid golf course committees who had commissioned him. As Bernard Darwin wrote, “No architect has greater relish for twisting the tiger’s – or everybody else’s – tail, nor a more devilish skill in doing so.”
Surely the best example of these issues came at Harry Colt’s Sunningdale New. In 1934 Simpson created four new holes, the 6th-9th, as part of a comprehensive redesign.
However they proved so unpopular – “setting a particularly fierce examination to the powerful player,” noted Longhurst – that within two years, Colt himself had been drafted in to literally reverse them. Simpson suffered a similar fate both at Royal Porthcawl and Rye where some of his comprehensive 1930s revisions were later redesigned.
But he was ever undaunted. Arriving at jobs in a silver Rolls Royce, he conveyed an attitude of superiority and continued to apply his principles at such prestigious venues as Ballybunion, Ashridge and St Enodoc, before WWII brought activities to a close.
After hostilities ceased, he spent time in Spain rebuilding courses lost during the Civil War, but his major work was done. Even then, he would not retire until 1953, when he was 76.
Ever the character, Simpson was delighted when, having lamented the fact he would not get to read his own obituary, Longhurst obliged him by writing it in 1959, five years before his death.
The famed Sunday Times scribe spelled out Simpson’s views, noted his opinion of St Andrews’ 13th as golf’s best hole and Liphook – a course he joined – as England’s finest inland course. He also noted his refusal “to produce for his clients anything which he himself deemed humdrum, however much they might desire it – which they often did.
“Anyone,” Longhurst added, “with such a coterie of courses to his credit deserves to be heard with respect, if not always with agreement.” Sixty years later, Kyle Phillips confirms that is still the case. “I love the artistry of MacKenzie, and Colt’s ideas are still applicable today,” he says.
“But for my money Tom Simpson should always be part of that conversation. That Golden Age period set the standards of golf course architecture. So much of what we do today is informed by it – and Tom Simpson contributed to it as much as anybody.”