St. Andrews’ gift to Belvedere
By: Dennis “Marty” Joy II
William Watson, Belvedere Golf Club’s architect, was born March 31, 1860 at his family’s Dura Den Cottage in Kemback, Fife, Scotland to Mary & John Cobb Watson. William was the first of seven siblings – three boys and four girls. His father, John, was a very successful businessman employing over 260 men & women in his flax seed mills and on his farms. The Watson’s cottage was eight miles removed from the holy grail of golf, St. Andrews golf club. As luck would have it, John was a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and he shared his loved for the game of golf with an eager William.
William grew into a formidable force on the links and won championships at both St. Andrews and at his nearby home course, Cupar Golf Club. Throughout the period of time when William Watson was playing at the R&A, four time Open Champion & pioneer of professional golf, Old Tom Morris was St. Andrews’ greenskeeper and professional. It is also interesting to note that concurrently the apprentices under Old Tom’s tutelage included the Foulis brothers, David, Jim & Robert, and an unassuming & quiet lad by the name of Donald Ross. Watson, Ross & the Foulis brothers would all eventually leave Scotland for the United States where they would undoubtedly design some of the most prominent golf clubs in America.
When not on the links, William keep busy managing his father’s flax seed mills and studying at St. Andrews University. Father John and mother Mary entertained often and both were known as very exuberant and engaging hosts. One of their guests was a gentleman from Minneapolis, MN by the name of Judge Martin B. Koon. Judge Koon was introduced to William & the Watson family by Minneapolis banker & golfing enthusiast David R. Forgan (formally from St. Andrews, Scotland) & the judge was impressed by William’s golfing knowledge and enthusiasm. Upon his return to Minnesota, Koon and a group of influential Minneapolis businessmen discussed the need for their own golf links. It was decided that they would summon William Watson to America to design their course, the Minikahda Club. Watson enthusiastically boarded the RMS Etruria in Liverpool, England in October of 1898 and ventured to the Minikahda Club, where he was paid $2,500 for his design services.
The Minikahda Club was Watson’s first American architectural design and he would go on to design or redesign over 120 golf clubs from Virginia to California. He began designing golf courses during a time period when most people in the United States knew nothing about the game of golf much less how to play or had access to golf clubs. Consequently, Watson was immediately understood to be one of the foremost experts on the game of golf and an authority on the design of courses. He would draw large, curious crowds from far and wide when word that “Professor William Watson”, the golf expert, was going to be in town.
In the summer of 1914, The Chicago Club arranged for Mr. William Watson to be “professional in charge” of their Charlevoix Golf Club whose links, on the north side of Charlevoix, were gaining a national reputation for its superior routing and course condition. Watson returned seasonally to the Charlevoix Golf Club from 1914 until 1935.
Opposite the Chicago Club, on the south side of Pine River in Charlevoix, stood the venerable Belvedere Club. The Belvedere Club began in 1878 as a Baptist summer camp & soon developed into a 100 acre summer resort destination with the finest of clay tennis courts, large clean beach frontage and a handsome 90 room hotel. What Belvedere lacked was a golf club. So in 1925, a group of Belvedere golf devotees found and purchased two large and somewhat swampy parcels of land two miles south of Charlevoix.
On August 25, 1925, the Belvedere Golf Club was organized as a private club for the purpose of operating the golf course and the club house. Mr. A.B. Scarborough was elected temporary chairman and Mr. J.W. Fristoe temporary secretary. They were then authorized to enter into a lease and contract with the Belvedere Realty Company for the use and occupancy of the golf course under construction.
Having spent the previous twelve summer seasons in Charlevoix, William Watson was not an unfamiliar face to the Belvedere membership. By 1925, his reputation as golf course architect had earned him national distinction and his counsel was requested by some of the best golf engineers of the time including George C. Thomas, Donald Ross, Billy Bell, Tom Bendelow, Sam Whiting & Robert Hunter. Since his first design in 1898, Watson had now designed over 100 golf courses throughout the United States. The Belvedere membership knew who they wanted to design their golf course and Watson was their man.
Ironically, Watson would spend twenty-two summer seasons in Charlevoix yet Belvedere Golf Club is his only known original Michigan design. He walked the purchased Belvedere property in 1925 laying out tees, bunkers and green complexes. By early 1926, the design work for Belvedere was completed by Watson & it was time for the Lavern A. Miller Landscape service of Sterling, Ill., to do the landscape work. Miller would and had done landscape work on several of Watson’s other national projects.
In late summer of 1926, Watson was ready to show his new masterpiece off to the Belvedere membership.
“Members of the Belvedere Golf Club were given an opportunity for the first time to try out the New Belvedere golf course and from expressions made by those who enjoyed the privilege extended, it is apparent that the new 18-hole course measures fully up to expectations and when fully completed as it soon will be, the same will be a source of unending pleasure to both the promoters of the club and its enthusiastic patrons.”
“There is a distinct charm in the new course from every point and at all angles and it is questionable whether or not there is another golf course in Michigan that equals in point of beauty, broad perspective, contour and satisfactory surroundings as does the Belvedere golf course. The grounds are already famous and with its formal opening in the early season of 1927 the grounds will be the mecca for golf enthusiasts throughout the entire resort region” as reported by the Charlevoix Sentinel, September 2, 1926.
In the summer of 1927, Belvedere Golf Club officially opened and Mr. William Watson was retained as its first professional. Watson fulfilled dual professional responsibilities at both the Belvedere Golf Club and the Charlevoix Golf Club seasonally from 1927 – 1930. He would arrive in Charlevoix in late June and leave for California about one week after Labor Day.
Although Watson probably would have continued designing golf links until his final days, the stock market crash of 1929 financially impeded the creation of new courses. Watson’s last known design was the El Sobrante Golf Club in San Pablo, CA in 1929. He spent his later years at his sunny Los Angeles home, with his wife Ada, until his death September 2, 1941.
Of the over one hundred Watson designed golf courses, the following are of significant note: Annandale Golf Club, Pasadena, CA – Berkeley Golf & Country Club, Berkeley, CA – Brentwood Country Club, Brentwood, CA – Harding Park, San Francisco, CA – Hillcrest Country Club, Los Angeles, Ca – Interlachen, Edina MN – Midwick Golf Club, Los Angeles, CA – Minikahda Club, Minneapolis, MN – Olympia Fields, Olympia Fields, IL – Olympic Club, San Francisco, CA – Orinda Country Club, Orinda, CA – San Diego Country Club, Chula Vista, CA – Seattle Golf Club, Laurelhursst, WA – The Country Club, Salt Lake City, UT – Westmoreland Country Club, Wilmette, IL & Belvedere Golf Club, Charlevoix, MI.
The “Golden Age” of golf course architecture is a loosely defined period during the early part of the twentieth century, sometime between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, where the number and quality of golf course designs greatly increased – and William Watson found himself in his heyday.
Golfers, of this period, played with hickory shafted clubs called brassies, spoon’s & cleek’s, as well as mashies, bulldog’s & niblick’s. Hickory golf was a form of golf played largely along the ground in stark contrast with today’s game of soaring drives and towering approach shots. Consequently, architects of the day often made their greens accessible in the front for shots played along the ground while greenside bunkers and hazards were positioned left and right to catch errant shots. Fairway hazards were also strategically positioned to make the hickory golfer decide whether to challenge it with a driver or lay-up with a brassie or a spoon.
William Watson achieved this hickory design famously at Belvedere Golf Club. Only three forced carries traverse the links and all of the greens invite straight low approach shots. Couple this with golf course conditions ahead of its time and it’s no wonder that Belvedere Golf Club immediately enjoyed a national reputation as a championship tournament venue worthy of challenging the best golfers of the day. Watson’s design was an appealing challenge for many of the early Michigan Amateur Championships and subsequently hosted three Northern Michigan Open Golf tournaments – later to be named the Great Lakes Open. These open championships attracted the best professional golfers of the era. Professionals like Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour, Horton Smith, Leo Deigel, Jock Hutchison, Denny Shute, Abe Espinosa & Al Watrous all braved to conquer Watson’s laudable achievement.
Today the era of hickory golf is not dead, at least not at Belvedere Golf Club. The Society of Hickory Golfers, an international group of golfing historians, hickory aficionados and gentlemen who enjoy preserving this celebrated game, converge upon Watson’s links annually to compete in the Belvedere Hickory Open. The Belvedere Hickory Open is one of five nationally recognized tournaments that the Society of Hickory Golfers designates as “Major Hickory” championships. Points are accumulated similar to the FedEx point system on the PGA Tour & at the end of the season, in Pinehurst, NC, a national champion is crowned. Belvedere is in its thirteenth year of hosting hickory tournaments and has had the honor of being a “Major Hickory” championship venue from 2012 – 2018. Belvedere also enjoys the honor of being the #1 favorite hickory tournament venue among participants on the national hickory tour. Because of its popularity, Belvedere was selected to host the 2019 U.S. Hickory Open – the National Championship for hickory golf.
Dennis “Marty” Joy II is Belvedere Golf Club’s head PGA professional. He is a hickory aficionado and has been a professional on staff at Belvedere since 1999.