Carved out of the Heath - The Erratic Genius

Herbert Fowler Transforms a Wilderness
(An extract from the club's centenary history - Heather & Heaven)

William Herbert Fowler was a huntin', shootin' and cricketin' man. In the early 1880s, when Cosmo Bonsor was speculating about his speculating, Fowler, London-born son of a barrister, was in his mid-twenties, trained in law, partner in a private bank and a sportsman indulging himself in his fancies.

He fitted comfortably into an age of cricket when Grace ruled and apparently affluent young men judged, wisely or unwisely, that they had time and money enough to play for their counties during time off from their work.

Yes, above all he was a cricketing man. Over 11 years he played for Essex, Somerset and MCC. He is quoted as saying that he toured Australia with Lord Harris's team in 1877 but the reference books do not corroborate this. At 6ft 3 1/2in and approaching 15 stone he was a mighty hitter. Reputedly he once drove a ball 157 yards over Lord's pavilion, a yard or so further than one he struck off Grace at Gloucester.

In 49 innings he mustered 905 runs at an average of 18.46, while his fast bowling earned him 23 wickets at 22.65, so although Wisden once described him as Somerset's ‘most valuable hand,' he was not one of the game's historic figures. In the context of this story the significance of cricket is that it kept him away from golf.

Fowler encountered our game in September 1879 when, at 23, he went to Bideford (Devon) on business and Captain Molesworth, RN, a great golfing character, offered to take him to the Royal North Devon and West of England club at Westward Ho!

So off we went, the captain driving a tandem in a high dog cart, and as the road is of the switchback variety and the captain's driving rather nautical our voyage was of a somewhat exciting nature.

He borrowed some clubs, soon cottoned on to the game and became a member. In the club's autumn meeting he won the handicap prize and another day holed in one (‘And I've given you a shot here!' protested his opponent). He continued to play a little in the early 1880's, but in summer he was cricketing for Somerset and in winter it was back to hunting and shooting - plus billiards, at which he excelled.

Nearly 10 years passed before he returned to golf and grew serious about it. After diligent practice nearer his home in Taunton he rejoined Westward Ho!, got down to scratch and won a gold medal. When he first visited St. Andrews at the age of 36 the conversion was complete and he became prominent in competitions there and elsewhere.

But why should the Bonsors choose him to survey the heath and create their course? After all, not only had he never designed a course, he hadn't had any formal training to do so.

Well, nobody had. Course architecture was an infant howling and wallowing in its own ignorance. In the eyes of Horace Hutchinson, pundit, author and twice Amateur champion, it was ‘a wonderfully easy business, needing little training.'

Most courses were still being laid out as they had been for more than half-a-century - that is to say according to the ideas of professionals called in for advice. This did not always work: many of the pros thus summoned found that they were more adept at their trade of hitting balls than at the art of visualising holes or a biological science embracing everything from species of grass to loads of manure.

The most imaginative professional was almost certainly Willie Park Junior, twice Open champion, and when in 1900 and 1901 he produced Sunningdale and Huntercombe he exploded once and for all the theory that good golf was possible only on seaside links. Fowler thought that Woking, originally laid out by Tom Dunn but remodelled by Stuart Paton and John Low, was the first really good inland course, but now he personally had confirmed the glorious potential of the southern heathlands and exposed as dullards those men who had built so many poor inland courses on impervious clay soil.  ‘The London golfer played mainly on mud,' wrote Bernard Darwin, doyen of golf scribes.

Park would appear a serious candidate for the Bonsors to have considered, but one senses that Fowler anyway would have talked them out of using a professional. Besides, Park may not have been available: so busy did he become that he virtually worked himself to death.

So much for the professionals. As to amateurs with designs on designing there was scarcely even a short list to consider. The eminent Harry Colt, although credited with Rye (Sussex) back in 1894, was still secretary at Sunningdale - dabbling in design but several years away from full-time commitment to it. MacKenzie, Simpson, Campbell, Alison, Hutchison and Abercromby had not even begun.

All of which left Fowler - and in the circumstances our Herbert had a lot going for him. He was no ordinary amateur golfer. He understood the game; studied it, theorised about it, had grown obsessed with all branches of it - including architecture. He was also ambitious. On his own admission he was desperate to design a course and he passionately pressed his case on the Bonsors from his advantageous position as Cosmo's brother-in-law.

Fowler was desperate for another reason. Forty-six years old, married, with a nine-year-old daughter to educate, a substantial house in Taunton to run, servants to pay, visits to London and jaunts to St. Andrews and elsewhere to finance, he had been living beyond his income and was seriously in debt. He was embarrassed at his bank and with the family, had not repaid £1,000 Cosmo had lent him and was having to sell up in Taunton. A letter to his uncle Joseph in March 1902 spelt out his despair:

I have left Taunton only under stern necessity and with the intention of so regulating our expenditure as to fall in with your wishes, also with the hope that I may be able to get other work to bring in more income... at present the position seems rather too hopeless. In March 1897 the bank held no security for all my indebtedness. I was strongly advised by my brother-in-law to file my petition at once (and he promised to put me into some new business). I felt, however, that I could not do this.

Within months manna from heaven - or on earth, from the Bonsors - arrived. The promised ‘new business' came in the form of the golf course job.

All previous reports have suggested that Fowler began his task in August 1902, but plans certainly existed in 1901, indicating an earlier survey, and Bonsor and he had discussed the project two years before that. We have Fowler's word for this in his letter to The Times in 1935:

In 1899 my brother-in-law, the late Sir Cosmo Bonsor, consulted me as to the possibility of making a golf course on Walton Heath... In 1902 he bought the manorial rights and engaged me to lay out the course and form the club.

Contributing a chapter to a book on golf architecture, he recalled:

When I first saw Walton Heath there was very little to make one suppose that a first-class course could be made upon it...   it was all covered with heather of the most robust nature, some two to three feet high, and where there was no heather there were masses of giant whins.

Edwin Hanson Freshfield, appointed manor steward, explained to the commoners why this was so. The lifting and carting for sale of turf, loam and gravel had ruined the surface. Bracken, heather and gorse had taken the place of turf and threatened to destroy the grass altogether. Only a small part of the heath was fit for pasturage. These practices, he said, must cease.

Imagine the scene as Fowler - Norfolk-knickerbockered, tall on his horse, generously moustached - begins his survey and searches for hidden merits in the wilderness that may help him achieve his ambition and rescue him from the abyss of bankruptcy. One by one they emerge. First comes the dawning that the rough terrain on which he rides, walks and stumbles is, deep down, a ‘glorious open space, with rolling ground and no trees or ditches;' next, realisation that the grass on the bridle-paths is ‘of a very fine quality.' John Masefield would write of grass such as this:

...Short and sweet,
And springy to a boxer's feet.

...And to horses' hooves! Down the breeze has drifted the rhythmic drumming of the training gallops. Perhaps Herbert sees Moiffaa, who will be entered for the 1904 Grand National but with form so unimpressive that the villagers won't risk their money on him. He will win by eight lengths at 25 to one.

Fowler investigates further. The turf will improve when nurtured by men and fed by sheep. The ground is broken up by chasms and hollows which will help him make bunkers. More important, the drainage is good.

No really good grass is grown where the drainage is bad, but the heath is on the chalk hills of Surrey and, though there is from six to 20 feet of varying soils over the chalk, it is always perfectly dry and even in the wettest weather never becomes really soft.

Yes, a fine course could be created here. That was Fowler's report and the Bonsors, probably in August, 1902, commissioned him to go ahead. Herbert enjoyed benefits the professionals elsewhere lacked. Often they were called in for brief visits, asked for instinctive decisions and paid off quickly, leaving the interpretation of their ideas to others. At Walton Heath, thanks to Cosmo and his fellow investors who put up something over £6,000 for the course, money was available for the time needed to do the job properly, while Fowler could remain a permanent fixture able to dictate and oversee. Moreover, whereas most architects had only about 100 acres available for 18 holes, Fowler had far, far more.

The next thing was to settle where to go... Eventually I concluded that in a certain spot I could make two extra good short holes and I worked backwards and forwards from the sixth3 - happily named Port Arthur4 by Mr. Justice Bucknill. To help ease upkeep I decided to keep the outgoing and incoming holes fairly near together; also to arrange them so that it would be easy to play a short round - and by playing the first and last six holes a capital 12-hole round was possible.

Fowler called in J.H. Taylor, already three times Open champion, for his opinion. The great man gave the plans his nod and paid further visits. Meantime Fowler ordered his horses, sharpened his scythes and marshalled his workers:

Having settled roughly on the spots which I thought most likely to make interesting greens, we marked out the course and set to work to cut the heather and whins. This was a big job and cost a lot of money.

Once having cleared the various growths, we employed a steam plough to break up the ground thoroughly to a depth of about 12 inches, then worked it with harrows until we had it quite clean and free from the numerous bracken roots. The top soil is a sandy loam and in it are small flints: it took a long time to get these removed by women and boys.

Some of the locals were unhappy. ‘The gorse has been destroyed by hundreds of acres and the rides so cut up as to be almost impassable,' one of them wrote to the Surrey Mirror in May 1903, ‘Has it been done for the benefit of the speculative purchasers of the land adjoining the new railway? It is infamous that so beautiful a place should be so utterly spoiled.' Undaunted, Fowler pressed on:

The next step was to work in large quantities of manure. The ground was now ready for the seed, and in late August and early September 1903 we sowed 12 bushels to the acre of Dutch fescue. The greens were sown with a mixture of poas, fescues and agrostis. I had planned to clear the heather to a width of 70 yards, and of this we ploughed and sowed 50, leaving the rest rough.

We also left 100 yards in front of each tee rough. The ultimate result was that quite a good turf came at very little expense; I have found that at Walton it is only necessary to clear the heather and keep the ground well rolled and occasionally harrowed for the natural grass of the country to come of itself. Having got in the seed, we had to keep out rabbits with miles of wire netting.

We now set to work to form some of the hazards. There are all kinds of hazards and most of them are bad. Trees, hedges and ditches are all unsatisfactory and the best are sand bunkers so long as they are properly placed and constructed. We are fortunate at Walton in being able to go down as deep as we like in making a bunker, and in any cases where the water does not go away of itself we sink a shaft about three feet square nearly to the chalk, then fill it with old pots, pans or large flints. They are then always dry and much the best type of bunker.

Fowler felt that only side hazards should be put in during construction and that any cross-bunkers should be left until he could see how the ball would run. In any case he believed that bunkers on the sides and especially near greens were the prime requisite, that players sliced and pulled more than they topped and that as a slice was the greater fault more bunkers should be placed on the right. So long as a green was well guarded and the approach shot difficult the hole would always be considered a good one, far more so than if its main difficulty lay in the tee shot.

Bunkers, he thought, should be shaped like an old hip bath, not with a steep bank and flat base as at many inland clubs but having a gradual curve from top to bottom so that balls did not lie hard against the face but ran down towards the centre. However they should be deeper than on most courses. Indeed, they became known as ‘Fowler's graves.'

The seeds sown had come from James Carter and Company and were ‘of the type supplied to His Majesty the King at Windsor.' Reginald Beale, Carter's golf and sports manager, proudly advertised the fact that the sowing on the rough heathland produced mature grass in eight months - four months less than had been managed at Sunningdale and, so he claimed, a record. Fowler was delighted:

We had laid on water to every green and tee. By March 1904 we were able to start rolling the turf, working daily on the greens; in April we began to play; in the second week of May we would be able to open the course.

It is said that Fowler designed his courses on the grand scale with big hitters like himself in mind, but he frequently denied this and stressed that his aim was fairness to all, with a premium on straightness and accuracy as against length. This first course measured 6,424 yards, uncommonly long by the standards of the day, particularly inland. It was laid out, remember, as the new Haskell rubber-cored ball was beginning to threaten the ‘gutty' and, with its extra length, causing people to argue whether courses should be altered to cope with it.

So, Fowler's first course is almost ready and awaits its first test. At this point let us leave the heath for a short while and further consider the man - because in the five years since he and Bonsor had first put their heads together much had happened to him.

Fowler the golfer

His skill and prestige had increased. ‘A few years ago he was unknown and as he is now in his mid-forties his recent exploits appear particularly brilliant. He drives almost as far as James Braid, the Open champion' - so commented a 1901 newspaper.

He had finished equal 26th in the 1900 Open, made the first of three appearances for England against Scotland and reached the last 16 in an Amateur Championship. As befits a chap whose pockets now bulged with the membership cards of exclusive clubs, he entered the championships under different banners: R&A, Walton Heath and Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. So recently almost on his uppers, he was playing and hobnobbing with the most distinguished figures in the amateur game.

As a rank outsider in the 1901 Amateur, also at St. Andrews, he suddenly found himself in the last 16 against Harold Hilton, the defending titleholder and twice winner of the Open. At this point Herbert's wheels came off. He was unwell and how much this influenced things we shall never know. Anyway, after six holes he was six down and at the next retired from the fray, leaving Hilton, as one reporter wrote, ‘to enjoy the afternoon with his cigarettes,' Harold being a 40-a-day-at-least man.

Perhaps the walk-off was an example of Fowler's Achilles' heel as a golfer, what one writer many years later called ‘a temperament that was never over-anxious to oppose the adverse decisions of fate... If things were going his way he could be brilliant. If they were not he gave an impression that it was just not his day out and that was that.

Herbert was no ordinary golfer and no ordinary man. He played in a cocoon of study, theory and experimentation. We may term him an eccentric. Perhaps Darwin's description, ‘erratic genius,' is in all senses more accurate.

At one time he believed in small, pellet-like balls and had a press made to produce them. He went in for short clubs, then long ones, then apparently dirty ones. John Low, the Scottish international, thought they looked ‘as if they had been laid aside for some months in an unsuitable lodging house.' The steel heads were black and certainly not polished. Fowler's theory was twofold: first, the heads would retain their weight and shape if they were not constantly rubbed with sandpaper; second, the shining face of an iron attracted the eye away from the ball on the backswing. When Bobby Jones among others began forbidding his caddie to clean the centres of his irons people began to wonder if Herbert had been so eccentric after all!

Then there were his putters. The estimable Low had the most telling description: ‘Mr. Fowler putts sometimes with a driving iron but often uses a mallet which looks like a sandwich box with a stick stuck through the middle. I can remember my disappointment when I discovered that the head was made of solid wood. The appearance and capacity of the thing warranted the hope that some very cunning engine or clockwork contrivance lay embowelled within the mahogany exterior.'

Fowler the pundit

‘Mr W. Herbert Fowler is a true aristocrat if ever there was one,' wrote Arthur Croome, cricketer, athlete, golfer and course architect. ‘Had he lived in Paris at the time of the revolution the mob would certainly have searched the city for a lanterne high and strong enough to finish him off. The marks of your true aristocrat are a firm belief that the best dog must come out on top eventually, an instinct for discovering the best of everything and an unshakeable conviction that what he selects as the best is the best... You will very soon find that his real contempt is reserved for what is second-rate, ignorant or ignoble. That is why he has so seldom been proved wrong about golf, though he has given utterance in the most unequivocal terms to more categorical statements than most people.'

Yes, Herbert was becoming a pontificating pundit. An R&A member since 1894, he was elected to that club's green committee in 1902 and poured a torrent of letters, articles and arguments into newspapers, magazines, books, clubhouse lounges and committee rooms. He was the game's ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells;' compulsively controversial; an opinionated nuisance in committee, perhaps, but listened to for the intelligence that lay behind the waffle.

The closed-shop roster for the Amateur, confined as it was to St Andrews, Prestwick, Muirfield, Hoylake and Sandwich, was anathema to him. Bogey contests reduced him to apoplexy. And that wasn't all. To Golf Illustrated:

MATCH-PLAY OR MEDAL: ‘Match-play is the game of golf and medal play only a poor substitute.'
FOUR-BALL GOLF: ‘Its influence is altogether bad and will do great harm to your game.'
ST. ANDREWS: ‘The links are becoming less popular with R&A members owing to the hordes of women and children who are allowed equal facilities for play. The result is a horrible congestion and the hacking to pieces of the grand old course. If the town council do not soon wake up and get powers to regulate the play St. Andrews will become a kind of Margate, with golf thrown in.'

‘This seems rather unkind to Margate,' replied the Editor of Golf Illustrated, ‘especially as it has a golf course. We trust that by drawing attention to the superior attractions of Margate we may have done something towards relieving the "horrible congestion" of St. Andrews.'

Fowler at Walton Heath

The envelopes containing his letters and articles now bore Surrey postmarks. Fowler, his wife Ethel and their daughter Phyllis had left Somerset in 1902, but a comfortable life-style was still considered a necessity and eventually they moved into Chussex, an eight-bedroom villa in Nursery Road hard by the club, specially built for them, designed by the rising young architect Edwin Lutyens and named after the plain on the heath that was the site of the Roman villa.

Behind the scenes club affairs were swiftly gathering force. On August 5, 1903, the Walton Heath Golf Club Company Ltd, was incorporated with nominal capital of £3,000 divided into £1 shares and a first debenture issue of £8,000 at 5% interest was announced. Malcolm Bonsor would agree to lease the course to the company, of which he was to be a director, on a 21-year lease at £300 a year. He was awarded 2,993 shares plus £8,000 in cash.

For Fowler things were looking up. In November, happy with the progress of his course, he went to the Stag Brewery in London for the first meeting on record of the directors, whose chairman was The Hon. Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, third son of the first Earl of Cranbrook. Herbert was officially made managing director and club secretary and later Malcolm would transfer 1,000 of his shares to him.

An additional director was appointed - 40-year-old Harry Mallaby-Deeley, wealthy leading light of the Prince's Club on Mitcham Common. He was an expert on courses and their upkeep and would soon found another Prince's club at Sandwich on the Kent coast. Among his lesser claims to fame was his drive at Mitcham that bounced up into a horse's nostril - where it remained until the animal eventually sneezed.