Herbert Fowler

Course Designer

William Herbert Fowler was a fine amateur golfer who began the task of laying out the course in August 1902. In his letter to The Times he wrote: "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.

Imagine the scene as Fowler begins his survey and searches for hidden merits in the wilderness that may help him achieve his ambition. 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 is 'of a very fine quality.'

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. 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."

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.

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.