Henry Francis du Pont loved golf so much, he built his own course, and it’s still one of the best.
Famed golf course architect Dick Wilson had barely finished building a new course at Wilmington Country Club in 1964, where the BMW PGA Championship will be played in August, when he got to work on his next project: expansion of the course right next door, at Winterthur. Once called the most exclusive golf course in the country, its lone member for the prior 30-plus years was Henry Francis du Pont.
Though a renowned horticulturist who created a world-class naturalistic garden, as well as the country’s foremost authority on American decorative arts and founder of Winterthur Museum, du Pont also loved a good round of golf as much as the next guy. So in 1928, he asked New York golf architect Devereux Emmet to build him his very own 10-hole, 17-tee course on 160 acres of his vast property.
Completed in February 1929 at a cost of $59,000, the course opened with a family party in June 1929. From then on, du Pont played almost every other day while home at Winterthur. On weekends, he regularly hosted 18 to 20 golfing guests—Vanderbilts, Kelloggs, Auchinschlosses, and others. Estate employees worked as caddies. As he played on Sundays, du Pont often listened to live concerts from the Metropolitan Opera, blasted from a powerful tower in Azalea Woods.
Du Pont also hired his own personal pro, Percy Vickers. In the late 1920s, du Pont had taken lessons from Vickers at an indoor golf school in New York City. When Vickers later signaled that he was looking for a new gig, du Pont hired him right away. He so esteemed Vickers’s service as a coach and greenskeeper that he made him one of the highest-paid of the 250 employees at Winterthur. Their relationship lasted 40 years, until du Pont’s passing in 1969.
In 1964, he told a local sports reporter, “I still like to play. I’m not interested in scoring—I know my limitations. I’m happy to just finish a round and enjoy the exercise.” He even hit an ace once, earning him membership in the PGA Hole-In-One Club in 1941.
Du Pont claimed to have no idea what his best score was, though Vickers placed the 84-year-old at an average in the low 90s. “And he walks all the time,” Vickers told the newspaper. “No carts for him…I just try to keep him swinging right, and he amazes me. I’ll be glad if I’m swinging at all, at his age.”
In light of du Pont’s advancing age, a cousin, convinced there was a need for a private golf-only club, proposed building an 18-hole course that incorporated the Winterthur track. Another cousin provided some of her adjacent property for the project, making the total size 300 acres. Dick Wilson was hired to design the new course.
When completed, Vickers rated it “maybe six strokes harder than the Old Wilmington Country Club course” (now the club’s South Course, where the BMW Championship will be played). A player noted, “You need to hit every club in your bag to play here.”
Du Pont proposed naming the club after Antoine Bidermann, son-in-law of the DuPont Co. founder, a company executive, and the original owner of the Winterthur house and property. A farmhouse and barn on the estate were converted to a clubhouse and shop. Thus, Bidermann Golf Club was born.
Today, with about 200 members, Bidermann is still exclusive. It sees about 8,000 rounds a year on its par-72, 6,421 yards of play, according to top100golfcourses.com, and it is considered a design masterpiece.
“The Bidermann people are getting a lovely, exacting course,” Vickers told the paper in 1964—one that is slightly hillier than the course at Wilmington Country Club, which was once part of the Winterthur estate. A Bidermann club member once wrote, “By listening to the land, Wilson fashioned a design that would challenge, even inspire, the best players, yet one a 12-handicap could, indeed, still be charmed by.”