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Back in Black: Tillie’s titan awaits PGA

This week’s PGA Championship will be played over the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y.

This week’s PGA Championship will be played over the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y. The course dates to the mid-1930s and was one of four courses at the Long Island park that were designed by A.W. Tillinghast as part of the federal Works Progress Administration. Tillinghast came to course architecture by chance, and he became one of the tops in the profession during the 1920s and ’30s.

Albert Warren Tillinghast was born in 1876 to a Philadelphia family that owned a rubber manufacturing company. He grew up in idyllic surroundings and was spoiled by his parents. He would later note with pride that he’d been kicked out of every school he attended. Though he married Edith Quigley at age 20, and remained married throughout his lifetime, his early career could be described as that of a “sportsman,” a man who excelled at cricket, polo, billiards, golf and bridge, but had no job and lived off family wealth.

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A.W. Tillinghast

In 1896, Tillinghast vacationed in Scotland and began playing golf. He made friends with Old Tom Morris and took lessons from him. He returned to Scotland each summer for golf and played daily with talented players such as Andra Kirkaldy and Ben Sayers. Tillinghast became a fine amateur golfer just as the game was taking hold in America. He played in three U.S. Amateurs. In 1909, he finished 25th in the U.S. Open, which was held at his home course, Philadelphia Cricket Club.

Based on his understanding of golf and his skill, a friend, Charles C. Worthington, who owned a successful pump-manufacturing company, asked Tillinghast to design a golf course for him at Shawnee on Delaware, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains. While he had no experience whatsoever at course design, Tillinghast took the job; Tillinghast’s daughter later said that his colossal ego caused him to accept. At age 32, it was his first job.

Tillinghast met the challenge. The Shawnee on Delaware course was greeted with great acclaim when it opened in 1911 — 27 holes, most of which were on an island in the Delaware River. In 1912 the course hosted the first Shawnee Open, with Tillinghast as tournament director. The tournament was a popular event on the PGA circuit, and is still being played today under the auspices of the Philadelphia Section of the PGA.

“Tillie,” as he became known, was off and running in his new career. Commissions followed quickly, and Tillie established a company, The Tillinghast Golf Construction Co., with offices on 42nd Street in New York. His design contracts included the condition that his company construct the course for an additional fee of 10 percent of the construction cost. This brought him additional money, plus a skilled team that knew how to construct courses.

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Bethpage Black’s warning on the first tee box leaves no doubt about the test from A.W. Tillinghast that awaits.

COURTESY OF PGA OF AMERICA
Bethpage Black’s warning on the first tee box leaves no doubt about the test from A.W. Tillinghast that awaits.

Having regular work didn’t interfere with his lifestyle. If anything, Tillinghast became more extravagant. He lived in a palatial home in Harrington Park, N.J., and commuted to work in his chauffeur-driven limousine, accompanied by a flask of fine liquor during Prohibition. Tillinghast was a prodigious drinker and was known to disappear for weeks at a time on benders, but he never was known to let his drinking interfere with his work.

As his income increased, he began acquiring expensive art and furniture, and backing Broadway musicals. The Tillinghasts entertained frequently. Tillinghast was an accomplished raconteur, played the piano, was a good dancer, and fit in perfectly with the Roaring Twenties.

One thing he didn’t do was continue playing competitive golf. The USGA decided to re-evaluate its position on amateur status and determined that Tillinghast and other course architects would be treated as professionals and lose their amateur status. Tillinghast took umbrage with the decision, which was quickly reversed, but Tillinghast refused to play competitive golf afterwards. The incident rubbed him the wrong way, although he continued to maintain friendships with individuals within the USGA and work closely with USGA agronomists.

While supervising course construction, Tillinghast usually wore a three-piece suit, broad-brimmed hat and boots. He would seat himself on a shooting stick, usually in the shade, shout orders to the work crew and take swigs from his flask. While friends knew him as Tillie, his workers called him “Tillie the Terror.”

All the while, Tillinghast was writing a syndicated newspaper column on golf, and magazine articles for The American Golfer, The Professional Golfers Magazine and Golf Illustrated, for which he would become editor in 1930-33. He frequently wrote under the pen names “Hazard” or “Far and Sure.” His writing covered a variety of golf topics, including his theories of course design. He published an annual list of the top 12 golfers in each of three categories: amateurs, professionals and ladies. He frequently included some of his favorites and omitted those whom he disliked. One of his solid picks was 14-year-old Bobby Jones, who was playing in his first National Amateur Championship.

One would think that because of his regular trips to Scotland to play golf, Tillinghast would have followed links concepts with his courses. There were several features he didn’t like about Scottish courses, including large greens and bunkers that could catch a good shot by chance. Tillinghast never had an opportunity to design a course by the sea on linksland; he designed parkland courses, mostly in the Northeast. It was said that he liked that region because he could get good liquor from Canada during prohibition.

While his courses can be extremely difficult, they reward the thinking golfer who can produce the right shot from the right place. As Tillinghast explained, “The relationship between the properly placed shot to the fairway and the following one to the green is the real standard of measuring the merit of any course. The course stands or falls through the character of its one-shot holes. This is true. But these features alone will not pull through by its boot-straps the course which does not offer, on all other holes, the clean, accurate shot to the pin after thoughtful, skillful placement of the preceding stroke.”

He liked smaller, well-bunkered greens but with a clear opening. Tillinghast abhorred straight fairways, and wanted something to challenge the tee shot – an intruding copse of trees, a bunker or a stream to avoid, although he usually provided generous landing areas. He also experimented with grass bunkers after the invention of the sand wedge, which he thought diminished the value of sand bunkers as hazards.

However, Tillinghast had no special style that identified him as the course architect. He tried to make a testing course that fit the land given him. “If a hole does not possess a striking individuality through some gift of nature,” Tillinghast said, “it must be given as much as possible artificially, and the artifice must be introduced in so subtle a manner as to make it seem natural.”

Tillinghast added: “A round of golf should present 18 inspirations — not necessarily thrills, because spectacular holes may be sadly overdone. Every hole must be constructed to provide charm without being obtrusive with it.” Given human nature, he also recognized that the player having a bad day would not appreciate the beauty of the course, and the player having a great day would think it beautiful, no matter what.

Many architects and club members are upset with a strikingly good score on their course, but not Tillinghast. “Such reaction to sub-par scoring is foolish,” he said. “There is no reason in the world that will prevent the right player from breaking 70 if it is his day to get all the breaks of the game. Any great course will now and then take a good beating from good men, and there is nothing that can be done fairly to stop it, nor any reason why there should.”

Having started playing golf with gutta-percha balls and witnessing the effects of the Haskell, or wound rubber ball, which flew farther, Tillinghast designed his courses with an avenue to add length to meet the next change. He placed tee locations with open yardage behind the tee to add length, if necessary. This, he thought, would maintain the integrity and shot values of the hole without having to move bunkers or other hazards.

After the stock-market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, the course-design business dwindled to almost nothing, even for stars such as Tillinghast. He became editor of Golf Illustrated in 1930, a position that he held until 1933, when the magazine went bankrupt. He was hired by the PGA of America to advise courses and clubs on ways to save money by improving maintenance practices and removing unnecessary bunkers. The service was free to any club or course which employed a PGA professional, with Tillinghast being paid a stipend by the PGA.

The opportunity to design the four courses at Bethpage State Park was a boon to Tillinghast during the Depression. There was a drawback, however. It was a WPA project funded with federal and state money, and Tillinghast could not use his construction company to build it. Most of the supervisory work was done by Joe Burbeck, New York’s state engineer, and Tillinghast gave him great credit. During construction, Tillinghast was performing his advisory services for the PGA.

Nonetheless, the project excited Tillinghast. “The terrain presents infinite variety,” he said. “Never quite flat but gently undulating, it grades to impressive ruggedness, which is never permitted to suggest arduous playing conditions…. The swales and valleys, through which the play passes to the higher ground of the green sites, are naturally quite perfect and of great appeal.”

Tillinghast noted that “[the site] is strongly mindful of the Pine Valley, that strange freak of rolling country in otherwise flat Jersey.” That gave Tillinghast and Burbeck an idea: Bethpage Black would be designed as a truly testing championship course, on a par with Pine Valley. Tillinghast had served in an advisory capacity to George Crump, the designer of Pine Valley, and Tillinghast loved the course.

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The view near the 16th tee shows the beauty of Bethpage Black’s sprawling site in Farmingdale, N.Y.

COURTESY OF PGA OF AMERICA
The view near the 16th tee shows the beauty of Bethpage Black’s sprawling site in Farmingdale, N.Y.

There would be one big difference between Bethpage Black, which opened in 1936, and Pine Valley: Bethpage Black would be open to the public. Despite his patrician background, Tillinghast supported public courses and was an ardent promoter of the game. Tillinghast also was realistic and understood human nature. “[High-handicap golfers] undoubtedly will flock there, insisting on at least one tussle with the Black leopard, just to show they can ‘take it,’ ” he said.

Bethpage Black met expectations and proved to be popular. It was the site of the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens and, in addition to this year’s PGA, is scheduled to host the 2024 Ryder Cup.

Most of Tillinghast’s work after Bethpage consisted of reworking existing courses. He moved to Beverly Hills, Calif., and opened an antique store, with much of the stock derived from his own collection. Tillinghast thought that people in the movie business had money to make expensive purchases, but the shop didn’t succeed. He and William Bell, a noted West Coast course architect, formed a partnership, but little came of it. Times were tough in the golf business.

Tillinghast eventually moved to live with his daughter in Toledo, Ohio, and died there in 1942. The 70-plus courses that Tillinghast designed and the many more that he renovated or redesigned live on as his legacy to the game that he loved. Golf fans will see one of his most revered works this week at Bethpage Black.

John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: jfischeriii@icloud.com