AW Tillinghast’s principles helped shape almost 300 courses, among them many of America’s finest – including this year’s PGA Championship host, Bethpage Black. Duncan Lennard looks back on his career and creations.
This year’s US PGA may have an unfamiliar time slot, but its feared and feted battlefield – Bethpage Black – has staged two recent US Opens and will host the Ryder Cup in 2024. Alongside Winged Foot and Baltusrol, Bethpage is considered among the finest work of AW Tillinghast, a designer whose contribution to golf course architecture, if unsung, ranks alongside any in the game.
They called it the Golden Age of American golf course architecture… and not without reason. Almost every US layout you care to mention owes its genesis to an astonishing fury of creativity bookended by two Long Island creations; 1911’s seminal National Golf Links of America and this year’s US PGA venue, 1936’s Bethpage Black. Consider this for a role of honour: Merion (1912), Oakland Hills (1917), Pine Valley (1919), Pebble Beach (1919), Baltusrol (1922), Winged Foot (1923), Oak Hill (1925), Shinnecock Hills (1931), Augusta National (1933).
A century later, this generation is yet to be upstaged. In Golf Digest’s most recent poll, 12 of the country’s top 14 courses were built between these years.
Spurred by the economic expansion of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, this was indeed boom time for American golf. At the end of the 19th century golf was a peculiarity, practised by a handful of kooks in
far-flung corners of the country. By 1930, more than two million Americans played golf. Golf courses, which had climbed from a handful in 1900 to almost a thousand by 1916, leaped to 5,691 by 1930. And delivering them was an all-star cast of architects including British missionaries like Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt, and burgeoning Americans like Charles Blair Macdonald, Hugh Wilson and William Flynn. Very much in this second camp was Albert Warren Tillinghast.
Born in Philadelphia in 1874 into a life of privilege, Tillinghast lived a feckless youth of hard drinking and college dropouts. His life changed, however, in 1896 – just a handful of years after he had taken up golf – when his father took him to St Andrews. His later writings would show how the Auld Grey Toon inspired an almost spiritual awakening in him. “Once in St Andrews one revels in golf,” he wrote. “He is in a new world… a new being. The atmosphere of the old town is redolent with golf. The very tots amuse themselves with miniature golf clubs, which take the place of the usual toys so dear to the ordinary child.”
It was here this brash young American struck up an unlikely alliance with Old Tom Morris, then in his 70s, who perhaps recognised and understood the fire in Tillinghast’s eyes. “I really felt that I was standing in the presence of the high priest in the Holy of Holies,” Tillinghast would later write. “I got to know the old man very well indeed in succeeding years, and I spent many happy hours with him in his little sitting-room over his shop. It was there that I handled the Champion’s Belt won by his son, as Old Tom got it out reverently and his eyes filled with tears as he told me many things about his boy.”
On this and five subsequent trips, Old Tom educated and inspired Tillinghast. He was more than happy to discuss Old Course strategies and the importance of greenkeeping, two lessons Tillinghast took to heart. Such was the fire lit that after a visit in 1898, Tillinghast returned to the States determined to build his first course without so much as a commission. Journeying to Frankford, a golf-free suburb of Philadelphia, he laid out a makeshift nine-holer on unused land, with old pea cans as holes. He now saw his career as a creator of golf courses. Though he had to wait almost 10 years for his next chance, Tillinghast designed or reworked some 275 golf courses across America.
Tillinghast’s entry into the game came when golf architecture was about to come of age. Courses were still largely in the so-called ‘Penal’ era of design, one which punished topped shots through hazards on the playing line. This was deemed necessary by the elite players of the day who mostly designed them, and who didn’t enjoy watching mishits scuttle up on to a distant green beside their own, finely-struck approaches. But as the golf boom took hold and professional, career course architects began to appear, people began to see flaws in that system. It alienated the growing number of ordinary players; online hazards could snare nearly-good shots, while wider ones often escaped. And perhaps most egregious for Tillinghast, a sometime artist with a bucolic eye, they encouraged the bizarre, Capability Brown-esque geometric designs that characterised early US courses.
Tillinghast also noted that the Old Course – which, like Ross and MacKenzie before him, he had fallen in love with – was not penal in nature. Instead, it afforded an almost infinite number of playing routes and strategies, setting a more cerebral and versatile examination that could offer more enjoyment to a wider range of golfers. Accordingly, he spent his time in Scotland sketching his favourite holes – the Road Hole, the Redan hole at North Berwick – for guidance in his future career. “The merit of any hole is not judged by its length but rather by its interest and its variety as elective play is apparent,” he asserted. “It isn’t how far, but how good!”
Despite his perpetual state of unemployment Tillinghast, complete with waxed moustache, was a charismatic fellow not short of colourful views. A confirmed advocate of swearing on the golf course, he once argued: “Should a golfer, as his mutilated ball goes writhing off through the rough like a wounded snake, be expected to confine a bursting vocabulary to a colourless ‘tut, tut?’ Must such a one be deprived of the opportunity of broadcasting to the four winds sweeping over several hundred acres, or shall he bottle it up, take it home, and in the more private circle around the fireside, uncork it for the benefit of his children?” He also insisted he was present when the term ‘Birdie’ was first coined, and that he, not Groucho Marx, was the first to opine that “I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” At any rate we can be sure he talked a good game, because in 1909, with no experience whatsoever, he was commissioned by a friend to build a course in Pennsylvania, on an island created by the Delaware River. With his ideas on golf course construction firmly embedded, Tillinghast hit the ground running. “The course is planned to meet championship requirements, but at the same time the
less proficient player is enabled to make
his round without unnecessary discouragement,” he said of his original 6,011 yard layout. An angled line of mounds on the 2nd showed early intent of his preference for diagonal hazards, that pinched where the better player hit; his creation of pits showed a flair for innovation; his use of the river frontage, including a daring routing of a par 3 right over it, backed up his stated belief that “a golf architect should produce something which will provide a true test of the game and then consider every conceivable way to make the course as beautiful as possible.”
When the course, initially known as Shawnee Country Club, opened in 1911, it received instant rave reviews and Tillinghast found himself in demand. At last, he was able to put his philosophies into the earth. A strategist and an aesthete, he wanted his holes to enthral the golfer as much for their challenge as for their beauty. “A round should present 18 inspirations,” he argued. He was also committed to individuality and not to force hole templates on unsympathetic pieces of land, a trap he felt other designers often fell into.
As he began to build courses, mostly in America’s north east, his reputation grew. At Shackamaxon (1916) his dramatic island-green 18th again displayed his willingness to challenge, innovate and even break his own rules where he felt it worked. At Somerset Hills, New Jersey (1917) – today, one of the most intact Tillinghast courses – his use of dramatic green swales showcased his fancy for the type of characterful putting surfaces he’d observed at St Andrews. “A green has features like a human face,” he said in typically vivid fashion. “Of course many are no more impressive than the vacant, cowlike expression of some people, but then again there are some with rugged profiles which loom head and shoulders above the common herd.”
The Golden Years
Tillinghast’s big break came in 1918. Pitching against the likes of Donald Ross to design a new course at prestigious Baltusrol, New Jersey, he boldly suggested they rip up their popular existing course, barely 20 years old, and start again with a 36-hole dual design of Upper and Lower layouts. His ambition got him the job.
As this event shows, Baltusrol is not shy of making changes. So it is significant that, almost a century later, its rolling fairways remain much as Tillinghast laid out. While the Lower course has been lengthened by Robert Trent Jones, the approach angles created by his beautiful bunkering and angled green complexes are very much intact. Baltusrol remains a sparkling example of Tillinghast’s contribution to strategy, and raising the value of positional play.
More success followed. In 1923 in California, Tillinghast produced what for many rivals his finest work – a lesson in variety of direction, slope and challenge at San Francisco GC. “The golf course is unquestionably in my Top 10 golfing experiences in the world,” said Tom Weiskopf in 1999. “I am still amazed why I cannot come up with anything close in design to what exists aesthetically and strategically on this marvellous piece of property. I still marvel at the brilliance of Tillinghast.”
This course, as much as any, subscribes to Tillinghast’s core belief that “Every hole may be constructed to provide charm without being obtrusive with it.” Yet its wider fairways and less penal bunkers demonstrate just how hard a Tillinghast design was becoming to pin down. The American shunned self-referential design traits, preferring that each course he created paid tribute to its individual setting.
More was to follow. Given a mandate to “Build us a man-sized golf course” by the nascent Winged Foot GC, Tillinghast typically over-delivered by building two. With great length, well-protected fairways, deep traps and muscular, small greens, both the five-time US Open host West and the East are perhaps as far as he got from accommodating the average player. This was, after all, the venue that spawned the Mulligan, Ben Hogan’s description of the West’s par-3 10th as “a 3-iron into some guy’s bedroom” and a book, based on the 1974 US Open, called Massacre at Winged Foot.
But even here, criticisms of Winged Foot have tended to be of course set-up rather than design. Most experts agree both courses deliver a fair, if brutal, test. And perhaps there is no better reflection of Tillinghast’s flamboyance, colour and imagination.
The Great Depression
AW Tillinghast remained active and productive throughout the 1920s, with courses like Baltimore CC and 1935 Ryder Cup venue Ridgewood epitomising the enduring quality of his design. This was lucrative work, but despite making his fortune many times over, Tillinghast was very much of the Scott Fitzgerald/Walter Hagen school of thought that money was there to be spent. He lived a luxurious, Gatsby-like existence in a New Jersey mansion, entertained lavishly, spent at least two of his fortunes on prohibition liquor and developed a bad habit of making random, ill-advised investments.
He was, then, more vulnerable than most to the devastation of the 1929 Wall St Crash and the Great Depression that followed. With country clubs closing and course construction brought to a standstill, Tillinghast’s cash dried up with the American prairies.
In 1933 the massive, four-course ‘People’s Country Club’ job at Bethpage State Park offered some respite. The fearsome Black layout might seem at odds with Tillinghast’s stated ambitions to promote golf for the ordinary man; yet always on the cusp of the game, he had noted a growing desire among the ordinary golfer to pit themselves against ridiculously hard courses. Full of long, tough par 4s and trademark raised,
small, well-protected greens, the Black complemented its softer, sister courses in catering for the masochistic streak that, at some level, exists in all of us.
But publicly funded with New Deal cash and built by Franklin D Roosevelt’s civil works programmes, jobs like Bethpage were few and far between. Tillinghast briefly found work as a consultant helping courses reduce cost, and supervised the removal of almost 8,000 bunkers. But by 1937, aged 63, he moved to Beverly Hills and opened an antiques shop. Three years later, he suffered a heart attack; a second one in 1942 ended his life.
Today, AW Tillinghast is remembered as a worthy contributor to the Golden Age. However, there can be little doubt that, had he been designing in any other era, his reputation and recognition would have been far higher. With classic courses popping up seemingly every year, to this day unsurpassed in their ability to test the best, the quality of his design has been somewhat lost in the crowd. Taken in isolation, however, his work stands up against any architect in terms of quality, quantity, innovation, maintenance and just about any yardstick you want to use.
However, his contribution runs deeper. Like no designer before him, Tillinghast grasped that through thoughtful design, you could build a single golf hole that challenged the elite player while remaining playable for the hacker. While it is true that some of his most famed courses veered towards the former, the innate options and versatility of his approach led to courses that were the direct prototypes for the so-called ‘strategic’ school of golf course design, a philosophy that has pretty much dominated the game ever since. His influence on such significant designers as Robert Trent Jones – whose most famous maxim was that a golf hole should be “a difficult par but an easy bogey” – are clear to see.
It was also a philosophy that afforded longevity. Tillinghast appreciated the changing nature of equipment and the game, and realised golf course design needed to be flexible enough to accommodate it. Perhaps the greatest validation of his craft is that, while many of his courses have been lengthened, his essential designs are still in place a century later… and they still work.
Tillinghast’s ashes were scattered in the Wissahickon Creek, a stream which runs through the 1922 golf course he built for the Philadelphia Cricket Club before becoming a lifelong member.
A plaque at the club reads ‘AW Tillinghast – Builder of golf courses that endure.’ There is no finer epitaph.