Commander John D. Harris (1912-1977)
I can’t understand it”, wailed my fellow competitor as he three-putted into oblivion. Bill Baker, a 2-handicapper from Yorkshire was out of the 1964 French Open at the halfway stage, played over the charming and sweet-smelling course at Chantilly. We dined together later that evening, outside in the ancient town square of Senlis, a little to the north of Paris. Bill explained to me that he was there to supervise the construction of a new 36-hole golf course at Ormesson. He had my full attention.
It was late July and I was enjoying my annual summer spell away from the US Tour, playing in the British Open at St Andrews, the Dutch Open, here at the French and a week with my parents in Essex.
John Harris was the golf architect for whom Bill was overseeing the construction works. I recall it as if it were yesterday, sitting enthralled as he described his work… he’d already built a couple of courses for Harris. As he chatted away, the sadness of his day on the greens at Chantilly temporarily forgotten, something clicked deep down as it began to dawn upon me that here is what I really should be doing – designing and building golf courses!
Sensing a keen interest, Bill arranged for me to visit Commander Harris at his house in Surrey after the French Open. And so it came about that my next week was spent in the company of this delightful and distinguished man who had, it seemed, designed golf courses all over the world.
Born in 1912 and later educated at Pangbourne Nautical College, he had come with civil engineering and surveying qualifications to join the family construction firm, Franks Harris Brothers, in the 1930s. Founded in the 1890s, Franks Harris Brothers were the first British golf course construction company. They had built golf courses for among others, noted architects Harry Colt and Dr Alister MacKenzie, Sir Guy Campbell, J.F. Abercrombie, Herbert Fowler and Tom Simpson. In 1923, they built Moor Park golf course, clubhouse and residential estate, known universally as the very first ‘Golf course Residential development’ of that popular genre. A short time later they built the East and West golf courses at Wentworth Estates to Harry Colt’s design.
An accomplished golfer, after graduating from Pangbourne, John Harris joined the family firm during those ‘golden years’ of golf course building between the two wars. He became a director upon his father’s death in the early 1930s. John’s tasks included translating into legible drawings for his foremen, those sketches and word pictures of putting greens, bunkers and tees that his firm received as working drawings… drawings ‘often illegible and sometimes even childish’.
Harris reinterpreted the sketches and produced drawings which his men understood without needing to be informed by the architects directly, who were not always available when needed. Importantly, his drawings were able to be quantified for contracting purposes. Under such agreeable circumstances, Harris’s knowledge grew swiftly as he drew from the experience of working with those distinguished architects of the time, for whom his family firm were building and renovating golf courses.
Thus his own career evolved, only to be rudely interrupted in 1939 at the age of 28, when he was drafted into the navy, eventually to become a commander of minesweepers. Later, as a member of the Fifth Sea Lord’s staff, he was engaged in the planning and construction of airfields – in the Azores, at Gibraltar, Malta, The Orkneys and Shetland. He was also occupied with the planning of Heathrow, originally foreseen in wartime as a base for British transport aircraft, ferrying men and materials to the Far East theatre. After the war, he rejoined Franks Harris Brothers, retiring from the business in 1957 to take up a full-time career as a golf architect. Commander John Dering Harris was 45 years old.
That first group of legitimate golf architects in the UK rarely acted alone – at least not for long. Most formed associations. And so it was for John Harris who joined with C.K. Cotton, an established golf architect who lived and operated close by. They were eventually joined by Frank Pennink and Charles Lawrie, well-known figures in the golfing pantheon of the times, all very much the ‘old style’ architects; and John Harris fitted the pattern – almost.
As a civil engineer and surveyor, he had evolved a method of drawing, by no means as splendid as the lovely sketches which flowed from the pens of Hugh Alison and Tom Simpson, nor as sophisticated as working drawings were to become; the Harris drawings were practical and quantifiable with scaled dimensions, easy to follow by contractors and clients alike. Successful results generally relied, as they still do, upon first-hand supervision which meant that most architects of the time had their own preferred construction team and foremen.
Harris tended to be cynical when it came to practising in the UK, warming to the lack of red tape and absence of the shackles of local government which he encountered on the continent. Italy, Spain, Portugal and France were his preference and he loved the West Indies with its splendid climate and easy style… he happily left the UK to his partners and took his pencils and crayons abroad!
Such was his charm and presence, Commander Harris became a popular figure with entrepreneurs in those early ’60s interested in resort development. Indeed I believe it was John Harris who first termed the phrase “golf courses create valuable land”… he had found his element! (An early project of those times was a stunning resort at Costa Smeralda, for the Aga Khan, an exciting adventure which after a great deal of effort, foundered at the first site, due to a lack of water. Though the project began as a loser, it was very good while it lasted! It was resurrected in 1972 at Pevero Bay by Trent Jones Sr. where water was found.)
The time spent during that summer of 1964 when I stayed with the Harris family at their lovely house in Surrey, Commander John D. Harris (1912-1977) PHOTO: Gary Lisbon/GolfPhotos (left) had remained with me. I found John Harris to be pleasantly eccentric, not the least due to his possessing an enviable collection of motor cars. A ‘pair’ of Talbots: one a formidable 1930s sports car, which he had occasionally raced himself at nearby Brooklands (see photo opening spread); the other Talbot, designed in 1932 as a ‘family car’ possessed a steel roof capable of supporting a set of specially made chairs for such occasions as point-to-point meetings and a fishing tackle compartment with separate lockers for rods, reels and spinners. There were sundry Bentleys, a Daimler SP250 hard-top sports car, an Aston Martin and his little BMW ‘shopping car’. Ever a sailor, he kept a 20-ton ketch on the South Coast to indulge his other passion.
Meanwhile, back on Tour, my interest in golf was shifting – I was yet a young man, with benefit of an excellent English education and according to my current frame of mind, ‘wasting time trying to hit golf balls against bigger and better opponents on the USPGA Tour’, whilst a quite wonderful life of designing and making golf courses beckoned. Regular chats and correspondence with John Harris found that I had but to find a spectacular project to his liking somewhere in the warm sunshine and I would be ‘shown the ropes’. And so by the year’s end, during my regular end-of-season “swoop” down to the Antipodes, playing in the New Zealand Open at Christchurch, the opportunity I had been seeking, most happily presented itself.
“Do you know of a really good golf architect to design 36 holes for me on a fairly flat, sandy site near here… something we could play a New Zealand Open on… start straight away”! Well, there was never such a flurry of excitement and activity as Agent Wolveridge went into action that splendid Christmas of 1964.
In the New Year of 1965, Commander Harris arrived in Christchurch to much fanfare. He had a fine presence about him, charmed his new clients, liked the site and was most relieved to be escaping another English winter. There was a new assistant too! John Harris stayed for as ‘long as he could’ that first visit; six weeks was enough time to design the new courses in Christchurch and visit and advise a great number of golf clubs in that most beautiful country. I stayed as organiser and willing assistant for the whole time… our association proved a happy and successful one and I was left with a huge amount to get on with. I played very few tournaments that year, including memorably in the British Open at Royal Birkdale, won by Peter Thomson – his fifth Championship win.
In making the transition to the fascinating new world of golf architecture, I managed to garner the significant interest of Peter Thomson who said after his win: “What a good idea, it’s time for another great interest and this has long been on my mind.” John Harris was thrilled…. to have the current Open Champion on his team was a coup indeed!
Shortly afterwards, South Pacific Golf was formed in Christchurch under the canny professional eye of New Zealand’s famous cricketer, Walter Hadlee. Later, in 1968, Harris Thomson & Wolveridge (HTW) was formed, with offices in Melbourne and Hong Kong.
John Harris’ European work and his projects in the West Indies continued to garner most of his time and he retained those projects under either his own banner or one of myriad associations he formulated in the various countries and states to which his wanderlust took him, setting aside a month or two to leave the cold European winters behind and join HTW in Australia and South East Asia. In fact he had already visited Canberra, designing a new 18-hole championship course for Royal Canberra Golf Club in 1961… a connection which we maintained for some 30 years, acting as their golf course advisors and even making a third nine holes in the 1990s.
John Harris loved to visit the warmth and exotic golf resorts in Indonesia and especially at Bali Handara, a very beautiful course located in the crater of a volcano at 4,000 feet which was completed for President Suharto in 1972, a golfing home for his ASEAN conferences. He marveled at ‘impossible’ sites in Japan where a spectacular course at Fujioka was emerging. The new firm had found itself very busy indeed. South East Asia and Japan was our new theatre. Along with Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Arnold Palmer’s golf design company, HTW were prominent among our peers in the region during those halcyon times – and did we go to it. The reputation and skills of John Harris brought major projects for the NZ Government Tourist Board at Wairakei and in Hong Kong to design a third course for the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling. The great drawcard as a five-time Open Champion and contacts of Peter Thomson brought HTW to the very beginning of the great ‘golf boom’ in Japan and took us through it for the next decade, designing more than 30 new courses. We found the Japanese to be most honourable people to do business with, never to record an unpleasant dispute or bad debt. By 1973, HTW had designed five of the top 50 courses in the world at the time.
John Harris was a grand partner, companion, mentor and ambassador for golf. A prolific architect of more than 250 golf courses, mostly outside of the UK, he was always personable, with an eye for discovering new horizons. He loved his times in South East Asia: “What I like about this part of the world is that there are no grandfathers, Mike… we’re starting afresh and they are as keen as mustard.” At which he would inevitably get onto his hobby horse, “stifling red tape and regulation in the UK where it takes six months to drain a bunker into a local watercourse”… and so on!
His last years in 1975 and ’76 seemed to find him disillusioned and unhappy; he was fed up with Harold Wilson and his socialist government and though he appeared as busy as ever, we gently grew apart. He became distinctly uncomfortable with life under the many and various planning restrictions in UK which was starting to infect Europe and seemed to have lost his splendid zest for life. After a short illness toward the end of 1976, he passed away in February 1977 at home, his brilliant career a matter of notable record and lasting memory.