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HONORING ALISON AT DAVENPORT C.C.

An in-depth look at the history and evolution of the C.H. Alison designed Davenport Country Club.

Sam Snead arrived in the Quad Cities in 1951 in pursuit of a three-peat in the Western Open, staged that year at Davenport Country Club. The Western, which was first contested in 1899, was one of the early major tournaments, with a list of champions including a veritable who’s who of American golf. The only man previously to win the title three straight times was Ralph Guldahl, who coincidentally started his run in 1936 at Davenport. Anticipation was high as a strong field prepared to take on Charles H. Alison’s design on the bluff above the mighty Mississippi River.

The tournament got off to a cracking start on the first day with George Fazio taking an early lead. A local newspaper colorfully described Fazio’s Western Open record-breaking performance:

“A human hurricane lashed the middle of the Davenport Country Club fairways here Thursday and wrecked everything the Western Open had to offer in the way of one-day scoring records. It was George Fazio, a seasoned blue-eyed killer on the loose who swapped for a new putter Wednesday and made it play a big part in a fabulous 63 with which he opened his bid for the championship.”

Going into the final round, Fazio was joined by Sam Snead at the top of the leaderboard, which became even more crowded as the day progressed. By the time the leaders reached the closing stretch, it appeared to be a three-horse race among Snead, Cary Middlecoff and Marty Furgol. On the tee of the brilliant par-4 16th, Snead pulled a one iron in an attempt to play safe. It was a curious club selection given that Slammin’ Sammy had won the long drive contest on Tuesday, staged on the 16th hole, lacing three consecutive drives down the fairway including his winning 292-yard poke. His one iron did not find safety, instead landing in Spencer Creek. Snead’s double bogey opened the door for Furgol to claim the championship. An infamous name was bestowed upon the 16th, and a stone now commemorates the watery end to Snead’s three-peat quest.

An underrated architect

Sam Snead was not the first golfer to be taken on a ride on a course designed by Charles Hugh Alison. Hugh, as he was called in his youth, grew up outside of Manchester, England. He was known more for his sporting accomplishments than his academic record. In his profile for GCA Magazine, Adam Lawrence relates a particularly representative story from Hugh’s University days. While playing a match at Woking for the Oxford golf team, Alison hit a shot onto the clubhouse roof. He climbed up, played the ball and squeaked out a half in the match. An attention-getting performance, to say the least.

Alison gained the attention of famed architect Harry Colt, first becoming Colt’s protege and then his partner in 1919. Hugh traveled to America on behalf of their design firm after World War I, where he built notable courses including Milwaukee CC, Knollwood Club, Orchard Lake CC, Kirtland CC and Country Club of Detroit. He also contributed to the redesign and renovation of a number of other courses, primarily in the midwest and northeast.

Although Alison designed in the same strategic vein as his mentor Colt, his courses are best known for their bold bunkering. He was not afraid to intimidate players visually and punish errant shots. Alison’s bunker sketch and notes below hint at his style, as well as his inclination to build bunkers of meaningful depth.

The text reads, “This represents the face rise of a bunker. The continuous line at the top represents the top line of higher ground behind the bunker face. The (horizontal) lines represent the revetted vertical portion of the bunker face. The (diagonal) lines represent the sand splashed up onto the face of the bunker. Note that the top line is broken, and that the revetting is at uneven heights.”

Alison’s skill as a router of golf courses is also top notch. According to architect Ron Forse, all twenty of Alison’s U.S. designs display this strength. “He was given good properties, but he was talented enough not to turn out any clunkers. His routings are strong from start to finish in part because he did not try and squeeze a formula into the landscape.”

After nine years of work in America, Alison migrated to Japan where his designs at Hirono, Tokyo GC and others would set that standard for golf architecture in that country going forward. His association with Colt causes some to underestimate the contribution that C.H. Alison made to the craft, but those fortunate enough to visit courses like Davenport know just how good he was in his own right.

Present-day Davenport

Members and guests who take on Davenport now are playing a somewhat different golf course than the one the Western Open entrants faced in 1951. Trees were planted in the name of “beautification.” Both the opening and closing holes were rerouted in the 1980s, and opinions vary as to whether these changes made the course better or worse. Additional renovations were made at that time that were arguably out of character with the original style. Greens shrank and trees grew over the ensuing decades, resulting in the course losing the bold scale that was Alison’s hallmark.

In 2012, the club engaged Ron Forse and Jim Nagle, who have been as prolific in restoring and sympathetically renovating classic parkland golf courses as Sam Snead was at winning tournaments. The duo tag-teamed a master plan in 2013 and then partnered with Superintendent Dean Sparks on a highly efficient renovation in 2014.

As was Alison’s practice, Forse and Nagle started with the land. Davenport has wonderful topography with distinctive features. A ridge cuts through the middle of the property. On the near side of that ridge, exposed limestone cliffs rise above a valley criss-crossed by Spencer and Condit creeks. “Lakes are a dime a dozen, but creeks are special,” says Forse. On the far side, the land has gentle sections and pronounced rolls. “Alison used both scale and subtlety to contrast his features with the landforms of the knob-and-kettle topography,” points out Nagle.

Alison’s original routing plan for Davenport

Two holes had been changed, but Alison’s “tootsie pop routing”, as Forse calls it, was still intact. “There is a genius to the structure of it. Alison used routing tricks like consecutive par-5s, five par-3s and four straight short par-4s because that is what the land gave him.” The course has tremendous variety as it works around, over and across the ridge. Forse and Nagle did make one critical change to put an exclamation point on the end of every journey around Davenport.

Alison’s original routing ended at an uninspiring green site below the clubhouse, and when the home hole was moved during the previous renovation, the result wasn’t much better. The closer now winds through the valley, where the creek is very much in play, to a green set against a hillside in the shadow of the iconic bridge that connects 10 tee to its fairway.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

The renovation also included rebuilding all of the bunkers and greens. Forse and Nagle’s experience with Alison allowed them to draw inspiration from both the existing course and several others. “The contours of the greens are an extension of the ground in front,” Nagle explains. “Alison used subtle slopes and contours that we worked hard to replicate.”

The size, shape and position of the bunkers was well set by the time ground was broken for the renovation. The team struggled to decide on a style from Alison’s prior work, however. As Nagle recounts, “We were looking at photos in the Quad Cities airport when I came across one of Hirono. I showed it to Ron and we immediately agreed that that was it.”

The 7th at Hirono provided design inspiration

With the features rebuilt in Alison’s bold style, and extensive tree removal, the scale of Davenport was returned to a level experienced by Western Open competitors of yesteryear.

Players visiting Davenport today will experience equal parts challenge and beauty, just the way Alison intended. The course works its way out to the ridge with holes 1 and 2, and then explores the knob-and-kettle terrain with standout holes like the par-4 7th. The outward half closes with a thrilling tee shot down to the fairway of the par-5 9th.

The back nine begins with a tee shot up to the ridge on the stout par-3 10th. A series of strategic holes over gentler land follow before the course heads toward the closing stretch.

The par-3 15th runs along the ridge to a tiered green set at an angle. The famous 16th heads down into the creek valley where players must contend with a pronounced rock outcropping on the right. The 17th is the final of Davenport’s strong one-shotters, playing uphill to a canted green. And not to be outdone, the redesigned 18th is a tough par-4 in a breathtaking setting.

Forse and Nagle continue to make visits to Davenport as Dean Sparks and his crew carry on the process of polishing Alison’s gem. Tree and brush clearing carries on, revealing more of the stone cliff and specimen trees. Iowa native prairie areas are also being restored, adding to the course’s variety and beauty.

C.H. Alison beat up Sam Snead one Sunday afternoon in 1951, and his course is still tough. But beat up is not primarily how the course makes players feel today. More likely, spending an afternoon at Davenport makes them feel grateful.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Awakening to Alison – Milwaukee CC & Orchard Lake CC

My golf adventures here in the midwest have recently exposed me to the work of another Golden Age architect – C.H. Alison.  Prior to the past month, I had only played one other course credited to the design partnership of Colt & Alison, and that course had been meaningfully altered.  In playing Milwaukee Country Club and Orchard Lake Country Club, my eyes were opened to just how skilled Mr. Alison was at creating golf courses that are at once demanding and beautiful.

Charles Hugh Alison was a protege and partner of the great Harry Colt.  He worked on projects with Colt in England, and then set off to head the firm’s U.S. office.  According to Adam Lawrence’s profile in Golf Architecture magazine, Alison spent nine years in America, and designed more than 20 courses.  He is known for his routings, and large, deep bunkers that he used to test players’ mettle.

That reputation held up in my experiences at MCC and OLCC.  However, I would also point out that Alison’s bold bunkering is nicely complemented by the subtlety of his greens.  A player who can successfully navigate the hazards to find the green is often rewarded with a straightforward, makable putt.  That kind of balanced restraint is sometimes missing in modern architecture where holes that are wild tee-to-green conclude with wildly undulating greens.  Alison seems to have known a round of golf is more enjoyable if the difficulty ebbs and flows.

Photos with light commentary are below.  My conclusion is this: Based on visits to these outstanding courses, Alison’s other greats such as Bob O’Link, Kirtland, and Country Club of Detroit have risen to the top of my wish list.

(click on images to enlarge)


MILWAUKEE COUNTRY CLUB

Milwaukee Country Club plays over a beautiful piece of ground adjacent to the Milwaukee River.  The holes meander up, down, and around a ridge, as well as skipping across the river.  The four one-shotters play in different directions to take advantage of the wind.  Simply put, Milwaukee CC is a routing masterpiece.

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The course’s signature bunkers have to be seen to be believed.  They are straight out of the Melbourne sandbelt with deep flat bottoms, and massively high faces.  MCC is also a standard bearer for artful grass lines – I have never seen better.  Collaborating with Renaissance Golf, Superintendent Patrick Sisk and his team continue to polish this gem through the detail work that separates the good from the world class.

#1 – Par 4 – 434 yards

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The opener sets the tone for the round at Milwaukee CC, playing dramatically downhill.  It is a slight dogleg right flanked by the signature Alison bunkers.

#2 – Par 4 – 425 yards

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The second is a sharper dogleg right played to an elevated green.  As a part of the renovation work, fairways have been extended and bunkers moved to place a premium on choosing lines of play.

#3 – Par 5 – 493 yards

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The five-pars at Milwaukee CC might not be longest, but they are demanding on the player’s strategic thinking, and ability to execute.  The third is a double dogleg that exemplifies Alison’s strategic design principles.

#4 – Par 3 – 181 yards

The uphill fourth is fronted by a large bunker left and has a green with significant slope.  Unfortunately, not only is the hole tough, but it foiled my attempts to take a decent picture.

#5 – Par 4 – 433 yards

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The fifth plays up over a hill to a blind landing area.  The approach plays downhill to an elevated green set an angle to the fairway.

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#6 – Par 4 – 409

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The uphill sixth requires the player to avoid the left bunker which juts well into the fairway.  The green sits atop the hill making depth perception tricky.

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#7 – Par 5 – 481 yards

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The beautiful downhill seventh leaves plenty of room to play from the tee, but tee shots must challenge the bunker right to have the best angle into a green surrounded by bunkers set at distances that create the potential for awkward recoveries.

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#8 – Par 3 – 174 yards

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My pictures do not do justice to the scale of the bunkering surrounding the green at the par-3 eighth.  Standing on the tee staring down those monsters is a knee-knocking affair.

#9 – Par 4 – 325 yards

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The short par-4 ninth plays back to the clubhouse over a valley to a wild fairway.  It tempts longer hitters to have a go at a heroic drive.

#10 – Par 5 – 484 yards

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Simply one of the most elegantly beautiful holes I have ever played, the tenth has benefited from tree removal that has returned scale, and opened up vistas in the river valley.  Both the tee shot and the approach on this reachable par-5 have to fight against the slope running away from right to left.

#11 – Par 4 – 375 yards

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The first of the river holes, the eleventh gives the player options to lay up short or take on the bunkers at the inside of the dogleg left.  The green features a false front the magnitude of which I have never seen before on a push-up.

#12 – Par 3 – 182 yards

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The twelfth plays over the river to a green beautifully set on the bank with bunkers guarding every side.  The green is canted and subtly contoured to foil birdie attempts.

#13 – Par 4 – 388 yards

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The thirteenth is a dogleg right playing around a large bunker complex to an elevated green surrounded by more gloriously bold bunkering.

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#14 – Par 4 – 411 yards

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The fourteenth is a slight dogleg right, with the tee shot played over the river.  The green has been relocated, and is guarded by a bunker front left.

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#15 – Par 5 – 585 yards

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A large left-center bunker complex guards the fairway on the tee shot of the par-5 fifteenth.  Bunkers short left and front right make the player think strategically about how to approach the elevated green.

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#16 – Par 4 – 452 yards

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The long and straight par-4 sixteenth plays up over a hill and then down to a green guarded front right by a deep bunker.  This hole requires two well struck shots to have any chance at a green in regulation.

#17 – Par 3 – 196 yards

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The seventeenth is an uphill reverse redan with plenty of room to run a left-to-right shot onto the large, front-to-back sloping green.

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#18 – Par 4 – 426 yards

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The home hole is a solid two-shotter with a blind, uphill drive.  Cresting the hill not only provides the player with the thrill of discovering the fate of their tee ball, but it also reveals the phenomenal setting of the final green, with the classic clubhouse behind.  One of my favorite finishes in all of golf.

For more on Milwaukee Country Club:


ORCHARD LAKE COUNTRY CLUB

Milwaukee Country Club blew my mind, but Orchard Lake captured my heart.  Some courses just look right in a way that stirs the spirit, and for me, OLCC is one of those courses.  The course is routed over wonderfully rolling land, and it works its way up and down hills in a manner that provides both moments of serene seclusion and thrilling vista reveals.

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I don’t have the reference point of seeing the course before the renovation work done by Keith Foster, but it is easy to see why the work has been so well received.  The bunker design and treatment is artfully rugged.  The tree management is among the best I have ever seen, and the fescue throughout is gorgeous.  With loving care from Superintendent Aaron McMaster and his team, the course is an immaculate joy to play and a visual treat of contour and color contrast.

#1 – Par 4 – 381 yards

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The opener is a slight dogleg left that plays uphill to a green perched on one of the high points of the north section of the property.  It gives an indication of the movement of the land to come.

#2 – Par 5 – 471 yards

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The second features a challenge that Alison likes to throw at players on the tee – angles that are just enough to make confident line selection and alignment maddeningly difficult.

#3 – Par 3 – 175 yards

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The third has redan qualities, playing over a valley to a large green that runs from high front-right to lower back-left, with large bunkers guarding the left.

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#4 – Par 4 – 352 yards

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The fourth is the first of three consecutive par-4s with more of a parkland feel.  It plays as a slight dogleg left to a canted green guarded on both sides by bunkers.

#5 – Par 4 – 395 yards

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The fifth plays straightaway down to a large green featuring subtle internal contouring that makes holing putts a real challenge for newbies.

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#6 – Par 4 – 380 yards

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The sixth turns back and again doglegs slightly left to an elevated green guarded by a deep bunker front-right. Placement of the tee ball is at a premium to gain the best possible angle into the green.

#7 – Par 3 – 207 yards

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The seventh is a wonderful long par-3 playing up to a green guarded by a very deep bunker left, with views of clubhouse beyond.

#8 – Par 4 – 380 yards

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My favorite hole on the front nine, the eighth is a roller coaster ride of a par-4 playing over heaving fairway to an infinity green benched into a hillside.

#9 – Par 4 – 442 yards

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The ninth is a tough par-4 dogleg right that finishes in a sea of bunkers in the shadow of the clubhouse.

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#10 – Par 4 – 371 yards

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As we finished the outstanding front nine and walked over the road to begin the back, our host commented that he thought the inward nine was better.  At that moment, I couldn’t imagine how that could be possible – 9 holes later, I knew what he meant.

The tenth plays up over a hill and slightly doglegs right.  It features a canted green that is one of the coolest on the entire course, in both its shape and contours.

#11 – Par 4 – 440 yards

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The eleventh is a stout par-4 calling for a drive to a landing area that can’t been seen from the tee.  It doglegs right down to an elevated green guarded by a lone, deep bunker right.

#12 – Par 5 – 520 yards

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The par-5 twelfth plays along the edge of the property and turns left, with a green set serenely in a wooded corner.

#13 – Par 3 – 170 yards

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The thirteenth plays over a deep valley to a green guarded by bunkers left and a steep drop-off right.  The tee shot has a pulse quickening do-or-die feel to it that makes it a thrill to play.

#14 – Par 5 – 498 yards

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The fourteenth demands that the tee shot navigate several large fairway bunkers and then plays straightaway down to a green surrounded by more bunkers, with a lovely fescue-covered hill behind.

#15 – Par 4 – 420 yards

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The final hole in the south section of the property, the fifteenth is a straight two-shotter playing over terrain where level lies are next to impossible to find.

#16 – Par 3 – 145 yards

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The short sixteenth is the final of Orchard Lake’s outstanding one-shotters.  The green is set beautifully in a valley with bunkers on all sides.

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#17 – Par 4 – 367 yards

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The seventeenth is a dramatic par-4 playing uphill between nasty but beautiful fairway bunkers.  The approach plays over a valley to a green set at the highest point on the property.

#18 – Par 4 – 361 yards

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The home hole plays down a severely sloped fairway and then back up to one last thrilling green setting, with the classy white clubhouse behind.  One final reminder of just how beautifully Alison’s routing makes use of the land.

For more on Orchard Lake Country Club:

Many thanks to my gracious hosts at Milwaukee CC and Orchard Lake CC.  They are proud of their special golf courses, and for good reason.  I am grateful to have had these incredible experiences, and to have discovered the work of C.H. Alison.  Yet another architect from the Golden Age whose work is a gift to golf geeks.


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Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf