Dick Wilson designed Bay Hill Club & Lodge over a decade before Arnold Palmer purchased the property. He is pictured in front of the original 7th hole, which is now the 16th.  (Courtesy of Bay Hill Club & Lodge)

The original, forgotten golf course architect of Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge

This week’s PGA Tour stop at Bay Hill Club & Lodge is likely to be soaked in nostalgia for Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. And rightly so. Palmer owned and ran the place. Woods has won there eight times and is roaring back to form.

But one man’s name will be missing from the party: Dick Wilson, the architect who designed the course in 1961 and whose routing is still in place today, usually goes unacknowledged. And yet in his day he was a major figure. Or at least close to being one.

Louis Sibbett Wilson (1904-1965) was a native Philadelphian who grew up working on the maintenance crew at Merion Golf Club. After college at the University of Virginia, he went to work on the construction team of Howard C. Toomey and William S. Flynn, the Philadelphia classicists of the Golden Age who helped remake the face of American golf. Wilson worked for them in their renovations of Merion, The Country Club in Brookline and at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

That’s pretty good training, as long as there’s work. But all of that disappeared during the Great Depression. Wilson set up as a greenkeeper in South Florida, then spent World War II doing camouflage work on airfields. Interestingly, Alister MacKenzie, one of the great classic-era golf architects, had been a pioneer in camouflage trench work during the first World War – a craft he wrote about extensively and claimed to have learned much from it that proved relevant in course design.

It’s unlikely Wilson knew of that affinity. But after WWII, as the golf development market picked up, he quickly acquired a reputation for bold, brassy courses that featured attention to aerial play and angles of attack. He soon became a rival to Robert Trent Jones Sr. Wilson’s career was hampered, however, by a propensity for liquor – a habit that led to his untimely demise in 1965 just as his reputation had all but equaled Jones’.

Wilson’s work was marked by strong, angular doglegs and greens canted to exaggerate the line of play. He also put his bunkers close to the ideal line of play – a strategic nod to his classic training. The work was strongest in the early 1960s, when his construction team, Troup Bros. out of Miami, adhered to Wilson’s plans. This can be seen in two of his strongest works from that era: 36-hole NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio, from 1953; and Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, N.Y., a 1955 design recently restored by Brian Silva.

As his drinking took a toll, Wilson spent less time in the field supervising construction, leaving that to his associates, chief among them Joe Lee and Robert Von Hagge.

Wilson designed several public-access courses in the 1960s that showcased his flair for power golf. When it opened in 1964, No. 4 at Cog Hill Golf Club (Dubsdread) in Lemont, Illinois made a strong impression on Chicago-area daily-fee golfers. So, too, did the Blue Course at Doral outside Miami, a layout that Wilson and Lee created out of a mucky, featureless site. There and across Florida, Wilson perfected the art of creating golfable ground by creating lakes and using the cored-out material for plating hole corridors and the land that supported the surrounding home sites.

Wilson's work at Bay Hill

Bay Hill

Wilson’s routing of Bay Hill dates to 1961. Back then, the land was undeveloped and entirely remote from downtown Orlando, much less in any one’s imagination as a resort destination. The land around what would become Bay Hill was all part of a massive citrus operation that had been developed by Dr. Phillips in the 1920s and remained productive for 30 years.

Wilson was paid $17,000 for his routing and construction supervision. Rather than Wilson's regular contractors, a local development team undertook the earthwork. But the flow, sequencing and close green-to-tee connectivity of the place was all a product of Wilson’s imagination. For the first few years, the nines were reversed, but all of the trademark character was there, including the 6th hole, a round-the-bend, 560-yard par 5. No one imagined then that professional golfers would be reaching the hole in two with a driver/5-iron.

The home site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard has been a PGA Tour stop annually since 1979. Palmer, a regular visitor to the property since the mid-1960s, led an investment group that took over control and ownership of the resort and residential community in 1976. Since then, his design firm has exercised considerable influence in making the course more spectator friendly, introducing more drama to the finishing trio of holes, and establishing more short-grass options for recovery around the raised greens.

But through all of the tweaking, they never fundamentally altered Wilson’s original design. It might be Palmer’s place, and with eight wins there Tiger Woods could be said to own the tournament, but the golf course they’ll be playing remains largely due to Wilson.

Mar 12, 2018

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Realtor Rick Boschen's avatar
Realtor Rick Boschen wrote at 2018-06-06 20:12:45+00:00:

REES JONES and DICK WILSON .... My favorites. Any course designed by either of these men should be played A.S.A.P.

Emil Miller's avatar
Emil Miller wrote at 2018-03-17 17:50:26+00:00:

DW has long been a favorite of mine. From Doral to Pine Tree to WPBGC to HITW. I've also spent a lot of time at Indian Creek CC in MB, and can see Flynn's influence on him.

Jay Bloxsom's avatar
Jay Bloxsom wrote at 2018-03-16 02:29:36+00:00:

This was great thank you!!!

Timothy White 's avatar
Timothy White wrote at 2018-03-15 12:52:16+00:00:

Love that story Bill. Wilson has some stellar tracks that are going on my bucket list.

BERT's avatar
BERT wrote at 2018-03-14 00:23:45+00:00:

Mystery Valley near Stone Mountain GA has been one of my favorites, haven't played it n years, need to get back.

John McNey's avatar
John McNey wrote at 2018-03-13 20:37:06+00:00:

Local legend in Fort Worth was that Ben Hogan brought in Dick Wilson in the late 50's or early 60's to flatten some of the greens at Colonial Country Club, which at the time had some Maxwell rolls that Hogan didn't like. Don't know if that is true, but it's a good story if it is (and I think I heard that from Dan Jenkins).

JasonDeeganGA's avatar
JasonDeeganGA Staff wrote at 2018-03-13 19:23:37+00:00:

Cool piece and great background. Wilson almost made Golf Advisor's top 10 list of architects who have influenced major championships. https://www.golfadvisor.com/articles/major-championship-architects-16413.htm

TimGavrichGA's avatar
TimGavrichGA wrote at 2018-03-13 18:03:14+00:00:

Thanks for the piece, Brad.

I've had a chance to play a small handful of Dick Wilson courses and have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge they pose. Pine Tree Golf Club, in Boynton Beach, FL, is superb and I'm a big fan of Wilson's Mountain View Course at Callaway Gardens Resort in Georgia as well. Both courses are full and fun tests of ball-striking, as well as bunker play. You can score if you stripe it, but if not, you'd better have an adaptable short game. Would love to see NCR and Meadow Brook someday, as well as Deepdale on Long Island and Bidermann in Delaware.

MikeBaileyGA's avatar
MikeBaileyGA Staff wrote at 2018-03-13 17:56:18+00:00:

Never knew much about Wilson, except that his name was on lots of courses, especially in Florida and the East Coast. Some good insight there, Brad.

CoachBP's avatar
CoachBP wrote at 2018-03-13 16:22:02+00:00:

Wilson also did Laurel Valley, Palmer ruined 18th hole there

Bill Bieberbach's avatar
Bill Bieberbach wrote at 2018-03-13 15:50:10+00:00:

That is not the original 16th hole that Dick Wilson is in front of.

Bill's avatar
Bill wrote at 2018-03-17 15:32:42+00:00:

My least favorite architect is Arnold Palmer. I purposely steer away from them.

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Bradley S. Klein

Senior Writer

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects.