Alison Lives: Knollwood Club

The architectural and competitive history of C. H. Alison's Knollwood Club


Knollwood Club has history, and we have history with it. A young Andy Johnson spent his formative years forging his game while working at the club, and can still point out the best spots for sneaking a midday nap. My first golf lesson was with legendary pro Sherm Finger. After watching for a few minutes, he gave my mom advice that any parent would do well to heed, “Just leave him alone. Don’t try and teach him anything. Let him fall in love with the game.” Simple, yet profound, guidance.

Knollwood’s historical roots run much deeper than the stories of a couple of north shore golf bums though. The club has a competitive and architectural pedigree dating back to the mid 1920s. Club founders contracted Charles Alison to build their course on what was originally farm land. They wanted the course to feel more expansive than neighbor clubs, and so they provided their architect with 175 of the 220 acres they owned, much more than the 120 acres that was commonplace at the time. The big property played to Alison’s strengths – routing and the creation of big, bold features.

A sketch of Alison's routing at Knollwood

The course remained unchanged for decades, until Larry Packard was brought in to make “updates” in the early ‘70s. He added ponds, changed some bunkers, and altered several greens and surrounds. Packard’s work was well received at the time, but is now slowly but surely being undone. Keith Foster made the first pass of restoration, and the reins have now been turned over to Drew Rogers for the next round. The Club hopes to have any additional work completed so that the course truly shines for its centennial.

Drew Rogers is excited to be charged with moving the course forward, in part because he knows he has a great partner in Superintendent Drew Barnett. We caught up with both Drews to pick their brains about the course, and the project. In discussing the strengths of Alison’s design, Rogers is quick to praise. “One of the most noticeable traits of Alison’s work at Knollwood relates to scale. The layout is immense, and the scale of Alison’s features is appropriately compatible and balanced in that large space. The bunkers, the fairways, the greens – all fittingly large.  Both Alison and his partner H.S. Colt were masters of proportion in their designs, and Knollwood is typical of that trait, not unlike Old Elm, Milwaukee CC, Swinley Forest, or Sunningdale Old, for example.

Alison also made terrific use of the terrain at Knollwood. With the clubhouse campus positioned on the high ground, the holes have been arranged to not only take advantage of the elevation change, including the direct and shouldering slopes, but also feature the long views from many vantages that are only lightly interrupted by native hardwoods.”

Short of the imposing 5th green

On our recent visit to Knollwood, we found Drew Barnett out doing what he does best – carrying on the continuous fine-tuning of the course. He was excited for even more improvements to come, as he collaborates with Drew Rogers in preparing the elements of the plan that will soon be presented to the membership. Pending discussions of the bigger picture are not halting progress however, and fall projects are underway. According to Rogers, “Right now, our primary course improvement focus really centers around the landscape and the way all those elements fit and accentuate the setting and the course itself, particularly the way Alison originally intended in his descriptions of the course. By that, I mean we will dial in the vegetation. We’re also looking at treatments that will strategically reduce the maintained footprint of turf, which now exceeds 170 acres! Not surprisingly, we’ve already prepared and over-seeded roughly 25 acres of fescue throughout the property that will really help with the framing, depth and contrast of the holes, adding dynamic color and texture to the setting along with the reduced maintenance and the associated demands on resources.”

Knollwood’s strong design has also allowed it to have an equally robust competitive record. The 1956 U.S. Amateur was won by outstanding amateur Harvie Ward, playing partner of Ken Venturi in the match with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson made famous by Mark Frost’s wonderful book, The Match. The USGA returned in 1982 for the Mid-Amateur, won by William Hoffer, right before the commencement of the Jay Sigel era. The WGA contested its prestigious Western Amateur at the club in 2016, won by Dylan Meyer.

The competitive tradition continues at Knollwood as Northwestern University hosts another playing of the Windon Memorial Classic there this year, featuring a solid D-I collegiate field. NU Men’s Head Coach David Inglis, an accomplished amateur player in his own right, thinks highly of the course. “Knollwood is a great championship test and I think the teams competing in the Windon Memorial will love it. It’s big and brawny with the fantastic gaping bunkers that Alison loved to design. Staying out of them, especially off the tee, is critical to scoring. If you get up near the face of the fairway bunkers it’s usually just a wedge out. I like that it keeps you honest off the tee!”

As Knollwood Club nears its 100th anniversary, it has a rich architectural and competitive history of which the membership can be proud. Based on the current trajectory, it’s a safe bet that the next 100 years will be even better.

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