Troubled Genius

Dick Wilson was one of the best course architects of the post-World War II era, but alcoholism kept him from greater achievements

Dick Wilson

Public Favorite: Wilson designed 74 golf courses, including Cog Hill No. 4, which was recently updated by Rees Jones.

February 9, 2009

When Joe Jemsek hired Dick Wilson to design a championship-caliber course at his Cog Hill facility in Lemont, Ill., in the early 1960s, Wilson rivaled Robert Trent Jones as the best architect in golf. Oddly, though, Wilson didn't have the run of the place when he made site visits to create Jemsek's vision of a public layout to stand up to nearby Medinah No. 3.

"Dick told [design partner] Joe Lee, 'That's the most exclusive damned clubhouse I've ever seen in my life,' " Jemsek's son Frank recalls. "Dick complained, 'They won't ever let me in the clubhouse.' "

Joe Jemsek was a man of the people if there ever was one, his doors open to all. He also knew, however, Wilson was in the midst of a losing battle with alcoholism. "My father didn't want him to have any alcohol," Frank Jemsek says. "My father knew he would start drinking if he went in the clubhouse and the day would be over by noon. They bought him lunch out on the golf course."

Brawny and beautiful Cog Hill No. 4, also known as "Dubsdread," is a testament to Wilson's skill as an architect, but Jemsek's clubhouse ban typifies how dramatically Wilson's drinking affected him, particularly near the end of his career. "It was a love-hate relationship with Dick, with intensity of both feelings," says architect Robert von Hagge, a long-time associate who worked on 40 courses with Wilson. "He was a true Jekyll and Hyde."

More than four decades after his death at age 61 in 1965, Wilson is back in the spotlight. Cog Hill No. 4 will re-open this spring after a renovation by Rees Jones, one of Robert Trent Jones' two sons. Regarded by many as an everyman's gem—it was No. 29 on Golf Digest's 2007-08 ranking of America's 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses—the longtime home of the Western Open will host the BMW Championship as part of the FedEx Cup Playoffs this September. Joe Jemsek had a life-long dream of having a U.S. Open on Dubs, and Jones believes his update of Wilson's layout, where Tiger Woods has won four times, could make it Open worthy.

If Cog Hill—lengthened to more than 7,600 yards and boasting Jones-revamped greens, which now feature a SubAir drainage system—lands the national championship, it will be a fitting tribute to Wilson, whose 74 designs include some of the game's best-known courses. He did Doral's Blue Monster, Royal Montreal, Pine Tree, Laurel Valley, PGA National and Moon Valley in Phoenix, site of Annika Sorenstam's memorable LPGA record 59 in 2001.

The son of a contractor, Wilson grew up in Philadelphia and got an early taste for the business as a water boy during the construction of Merion GC. A fine athlete who attended the University of Vermont on a football scholarship, he joined the design team of Bill Flynn and Howard Toomey after college. Wilson became a construction superintendent with Toomey and Flynn, and oversaw the implementation of Flynn's design at Shinnecock Hills in 1931. The Depression impacted the design business and Wilson was forced to take a job as a pro/greenkeeper at Delray Beach (Fla.) CC.

After serving in World War II, where he constructed and camouflaged airfields, Wilson formed a design company and added Lee as his partner in the 1950s. The pair collaborated on many projects—Lee was the safe and conservative voice, Wilson innovative and daring, according to von Hagge. "He always preached to stay within the history and tradition of the game, but push it out as far as you can," von Hagge says. "He was doing stuff that hadn't been seen before. He loved bold expression. If you turned the hole right to left, it was like a speedway; you were high on the right, low on the left."

Wilson put a premium on requiring players to work the ball and control their trajectory. He liked doglegs as well as strategic, artful bunkering. Pine Valley and Merion were favorites. "A golf course should appear more vicious to the player than it actually is," Wilson told Sports Illustrated. "It should inspire you, keep you alert. If you're playing a sleepy-looking golf course, you're naturally going to fall asleep."

A third of Wilson's courses were built on the flat terrain of Florida, where he was known for building up his greens four to eight feet so golfers would have a defined target. Pine Tree, in Boynton Beach, Fla., generally regarded as Wilson's finest work, is built over a 168-acre stretch of sand and scrub pines. The layout features several doglegs and is known for its exceptional bunkering. Ben Hogan once called it, "The best course I have ever seen."

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