Monday, 27 December 2010

#12 – Charles Alison

Best Course: Hirono

Other notable work: Hirono, Kasumigaseki, Kawana, Knollwood, Milwaukee, Fresh Meadow, and Sea Island

Notable Renovation Work: assisting Colt at: Sunningdale, Wentworth, Royal St. George’s, Royal Lytham and St. Annes

Overview: Charles Alison is better know as H.S. Colt’s partner than as a great golf course architect, but the body of his work clearly indicates that he was an outstanding designer in his own right. He met Colt while he was building Stokes and Pages and later joined as a construction superintendent. Later on he was made a full partner in the firm with Colt handling most of the work in the British Isles and Europe while Alison became a globe trotter building from North America to Japan. It is the work in Japan that clearly indicates how good Alison was as a designer to the point where he set the standards for all future Japanese architects.

Charles Alison likely had seen more examples of great work than just about every other architect before or after him. He was able to watch Park, Colt and Fowler first hand transform the Heathlands into excellent golf. He was also able to watch contemporaries such as Ross, Tillinghast and Thompson produce some of their best and most influential works. Think about this - he was familiar with all the great links of the British Isles and all the landmark courses in the United States from the National Golf Links through to Pine Valley.

7th at Hirono (all photos courtesy of Tom MacWood)

Praise for the work: All these influences contributed to create the Alison style. This style begins with his distinctive bunkering that was not only grand in scale but deep and intimidating at times. Bunkers were occasionally as large as the greens that they were guarding. They usually featured high flashes of sand and irregular lines in both the bunkers and the surrounding mounds, providing a very unique a beautiful line to his courses. He preferred his bunkers to encroach upon play and loved to create very distinct carry angles for players to consider. He believed that risky lines should be justly rewarded with exceptional position.
He loved to reinforce that idea by tilting the green to one side or the other to emphasize a preferred line. His greens were exceptional the way he used the surrounding mounds as the basis of contour that flows into and through the greens.

He certainly found great routings and made wonderful use of natural undulations but he was one of the earliest architects who was not afraid to push a little dirt around to change a fairway or create a better green site. Often his skill to blend grades into the surrounds hid the work that he did so well, leaving most people to admire a seemingly natural plateau.

Sea Island's use of marshlands

Most criticisms come from the features that make him unique. Some have questioned the depth and amount of bunkering at some projects, but the more common criticism is his occasional use of cross-hazards and forced carries. Many feel that even on a diagonal that Alison relied too much on water to be a critical hazard in his work. From the ponds at Hirono to the use of marshes at Sea Island, it seems an odd choice for a man who had spent quite a great deal of time denouncing the water hazard as to severe a penalty.

Great Quotes: “Water is a bad feature in that the ball cannot be played from it, and in consequence it does not test the golfer’s skill. Its hideous charm lies in the fact that it is inexorable, and its landscape effect is often very valuable.” In regards to Japan he observed, “The Japanese love of ponds and lakes, and their exquisite skill in making them, is known throughout the world. Their love of water-hazards, were it not for their self-control, might develop dangerously.”

Favourite Course: Hirono While I have not seen the course personally, I do have multiple images of all eighteen holes just after completion providing me with a stunning window into what he built. The course makes tremendous use of the natural undulation particularly on the par threes. The bunkering is stunningly beautiful featuring high flashes that work beautifully in the landscape of Japan. The water features created by damning the valley and to the tranquility of the setting making this feel somewhat like a Japanese Garden as well as a golf course.

The famous Timber Point, one of the three or four best in its day

What I take from him:
Alison reminds me of the great landscape designers of England, where you are left guessing where nature ends and the architects hand begins. Very few architects can match his ability to provide so rich and beautiful a composition, and yet underneath find a course so rich with playing options and compelling lines. He inspires me towards perfection.

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