Jess Stiles on Tom Simpson

Added on February 14th, 2017 by Lorne Smith
Posted in book, General, Greenkeeping, The ball

Jess Stiles is an officiado on Tom Simpson, the golf course architect of the ‘Golden Era of strategic design’ (1900 to 1930s). He is the keeper of the Tom Simpson Society

He kindly penned for FineGolf some thoughts on the great man which were incorporated into the review of Liphook in 2015, titled “The Importance of Firm Greens on Strategy“.

With the recent Rhod McEwan publication of a book on Tom Simpson, FineGolf felt it appropriate to republish parts of Jess’s essay that are particularly pertinent to today’s golf world of how the ‘receptive green’ undermines the requirement for a golfer to think strategically how he is to play a hole, rather than just banging it down the middle.

Jess describes the two fundamentals of strategic golf course architecture in Tom Simpson’s writings :-

Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson

“Tom Simpson addressed the first principle when he stated that there should be a need for as much or more mental agility than physical effort, and this was to be achieved by designing a course that was “strategic” rather than “penal”.

He “defined” strategy both in words and in his numerous sketches, illustrating again and again the need for the player to place his drive near a “hazard” if he is to be able to reach and remain on the green (on a two-shot hole). The player who did not place his drive correctly could still reach the green with the second shot, but the ball would not remain on the green. The emphasis on strategy was highlighted when he stated:- “No tee shot can be described as good if the proper place to be is in the centre of the fairway.”

Tom Simpson, along with Herbert Fowler, Harry Colt, Phillip MacKenzie Ross, James Abercromby, Alistair MacKenzie and others of the Strategic School spent considerable mental effort designing holes and courses with “strategy”, but much of their work has been neutralised by “improvement” in clubs and golf balls, brought about by engineers and technicians, and by modern greenkeeping practices, and in particular by the advent of the “receptive” green.

This loss of strategy is particularly evident at Liphook (where Tom Simpson lived in the 1930s and loved) where there was limited possibility of lengthening the course and where the greens have become “receptive”. It is now difficult to identify a hole at Liphook where a drive to the centre of the fairway is not a good one, as it is possible to reach and remain on the green with the second shot from any location in the fairway. A good example is the 9th where the strong player can carry Simpson’s Folly and still remain on the soft receptive green”.

Simpson’s second principle is:  “It is important that the course should be a good course from the point of view of playing golf, but it is infinitely more important that it shall be satisfactory from the ascetic point of view. Unfortunately work that is artistic costs much more than work that is necessary merely from the point of view of the game”.

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