Journalist, architect, pioneer – the story of Ohio-born Albert Warren Tillinghast is a fascinating one. John Yerger of The Tillinghast Association gives Golf Travel Solutions an insight into a true legend of the game.
How did the son of a rubber goods company end up as a golf architect? Luck. He had shown little interest in the family business and was better known for spending time carousing at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. But he became interested in the game, like many other Americans, after multiple trips to St Andrews. His first design at Shawnee was a result of a relationship with C.C Worthington.
Was his background typical for golf designers of the time? There was a profound change in golf course design that was taking place in the mid-1910s. You could say that he did come from a background similar to Max Behr, C.B MacDonald, Walter Travis, William Langford and Devereux Emmett in that he was a fine amateur golfer who became interested in the nuances of golf course architecture. Several other architects at that time were professional golfers such as Willie Park, Robert White and of course Donald Ross.
What was the state of the golf course design world when he began? Primitive and very geometric, it would have been less than pleasing to the eye and very artificial.
What were the tools of the golf architect trade back then? Initially it was hand labor and horse drawn equipment. Some of the photos in Piper and Oakley’s book Turf for Golf Courses are particularly jarring. Tillinghast wrote about using prison labour in San Antonio to build courses, they hired gypsies to build St Albans and, because of labour shortages during World War I, they hired women to finish Essex County Country Club. That would quickly change with the advent of motorized equipment and steam shovels. He wrote of these people and his admiration for how hard they worked under terrible conditions.
How did his thoughts on golf courses change over time? Tillinghast, like Max Behr, was particularly insistent upon designing courses that worked with nature and he lamented the lack of effort and the artificial nature of early courses in America. He didn’t care for templates or forced construction and wrote specifically about that very subject. One could say his philosophy may have changed when he inspected courses during his PGA tour from mid-1935 until mid-1937 where he removed bunkers at many courses he visited. The question is were those recommendations made out of financial necessity for the clubs or a true belief in making the game easier? Possibly both? That is an open question.
What would you say was his greatest achievement? While it is easy to say his courses, his writings are very important to the history of American golf. In some capacity, he is known to have written from 1903-1938. He wrote under his own name as well as the well-known pen name Hazard for The American Golfer. There are some questions as to whether he also wrote under another name Far and Sure. The similarities in writings and the times he was known to be at certain events makes it seem very possible but it cannot be confirmed and remains a mystery.
Bear in mind, at the time, he was covering golf’s massive growth during what is considered its Golden Age. His columns and articles appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. They were expansive and provide remarkable insights into many aspects of the game from its personalities, tournaments, golf course design and instruction. That period gave us the modern game in America and many of the finest courses we play today. The list of periodicals he wrote columns for is impressive: American Cricketer, Country Club Life, The American Golfer, Golf Illustrated, which he was later editor, The Golf Course, Golfers Magazine and The Pacific Coast Golfer and finally The Professional Golfer of America. He also contributed to Canadian Golfer and The Architectural Forum.
Possibly his most important writings were his bi-monthly column for the Philadelphia Record from 1914-1918.
How was he viewed by his peers? By all appearances he had a very collegial relationship with other architects. It’s very apparent he had a very high regard for Donald Ross who he visited in Pinehurst during his PGA Tour. In fact, a sad letter he wrote to Ross some years later pointed with pride to the profession they had started. During his PGA Tour, he wrote in great superlatives about Pinehurst and especially Oakland Hills. Certainly there was a professional and personal respect that existed among the two. He also referred to conversations he had with MacDonald in his writings and wrote for Walter Travis when Travis was the editor of American Golfer. By all appearances, he had a good relationship with his contemporaries. This was largely a group of passionate golfers who helped grow the game and seemingly had fun as well.
What are the fundamentals of his design? Certainly he believed that courses should be natural and work with the land. This applied to his greens as well. He abhorred templates and forced construction. The way his greens subtly work with the surrounding terrain adds to their character and provides additional challenges to the players approach shots as well.
Elasticity in design is an expression that is often used with his courses but interpreted in different ways. When you read what he or Ross wrote, they both understood how difficult the game was and they didn’t want to discourage the beginner or average player. They also wanted their courses to be challenges for the best players. Tillinghast made sure the average player had multiple ways to play a hole but placed fairway bunkers in strategic places that would have a greater impact on their games.
He also didn’t believe in forced carries. The one place he changed his philosophy with regards to frontal hazards were on short par-threes which he called “Tiny Tims”. He believed that “even the most humble, should be able to carry trouble immediately in front of a 125 yard green.” Par-threes are a consistent standout feature on almost every one of his courses. He simply said, “Remember no course is any better than its one-shotters. “ During the recently played PGA at Baltusrol the announcers commented how the members must enjoy playing the course with its open fronts.
Like any great architect probably the most critical aspect of a design are the greens. He wrote, “The character of the putting greens and their approaches mark the quality of the course to a far greater extent than anything else”. He had a keen awareness of the length and character of the required approach shot and with that determined the shapes and tilt of the green itself
Why have his courses stood the test of time? His courses are eminently playable for players of all levels and are fun as well. They are natural, pleasing to the eye and work with nature. He designed great greens and dynamic par-three.
What was it about his design that made it suitable for tournament play? It always gets back to the greens, they are where a course always starts. If your greens are dynamic and have a reasonable amount of tilt they can still challenge the best players. If you get soft conditions its eliminates many of the protections and challenges the greens can provide.
Tillinghast had a viewpoint that is worth considering in light of the set ups we see for the United States Open. He said, “Any great course will now and then take a good beating from good men, and there is nothing that can be done to fairly stop it, nor any reason why there should.”
What are the criticisms of his design? In Frank Hannigan seminal article “Golf’s Forgotten Genius” , he commented on what he perceived to be a lack of great par-fives but I’m not sure that is accurate. I would encourage all readers to read Mr Hannigans article. It was the first major effort to research and write about a golf course architect and it started the movement to delve into the ideas of people who still impact the game today. Certainly there are criticisms of Tillinghasts PGA Tour where he removed countless bunkers but that had no impact on most of his own personal designs.
Which five courses would you say he would be most proud of today? In no specific order, Baltusrol, Newport Country Club, Winged Foot, San Francisco Golf Club and Somerset Hills. It’s tough to leave off Quaker Ridge and Fenway.
Is there one stand out course? Winged Foot certainly is his best. He was asked to build two man-sized courses and he did just that. It is just an endless array of dynamic greens that demand every shot imaginable. It is simply outstanding on every level. The imagination used to devise both courses are of a man at his professional prime.
How much of his style can we see at Pine Valley? He wrote about Hells Half Acre, possibly the most visually memorable hazard on a course with a lot of memorable hazards, and the Redan approach to the 13th green as being his personal contributions. I was told by someone I consider very reliable that the 7th hole was supposed to be a double-dogleg. If that is in fact true, and I have every reason to believe it is, then that is quintessential Tillinghast. The use of a “Hells half Acre” or cross bunker and the concept of a double dog-leg par five was an idea he used, in some form, on most of his designs. He also wrote about that concept Tillinghast was in the first foursome to play Pine Valley and wrote in pretty fair detail of its development for the Philadelphia Record as well as American Golfer.
What would he make of contemporary course design trends? He and Ross both understood and wrote about how difficult the game was. They didn’t want to discourage beginners but they also wanted their courses to challenge the best players. The idea of making courses harder and forgetting about the beginner would probably be a complaint if he saw some of the courses built in the 1990s in particular.
How much has Bethpage Black changed from its origins so far, and how much more might it to accommodate the Ryder Cup? One thing that has definitely changed is the widths of fairways. Some holes there simply are no angles to get at pins. Certainly the course has been lengthened and the shape of some bunkers were changed by Rees Jones. They are working on expanding some greens as well. Other than that the course remains true to when it was originally built.
What would you describe as his golfing legacy? He was a true renaissance man of golf. He was a fine player, a historian, a writer, a photographer and an architect and he did them all very well. He had a passion for all aspects of the game.
Finally, can you tell us the four facts people don't know about AWT?
Planning a Golf Course, which came out in 1917, was the first promotional brochure produced by any golf architect. While not as detailed as MacKenzie’s Golf Architecture: Economy in Course Construction and Green-Keeping(1920) or Colt and Allisons Some Essays on Golf Course Construction(1920) it was the first time an architect provided a singular source for their ideas on golf course architecture.
In 1916, Tillinghast and Peter Lees, who came from England to build the legendary LIDO course and was considered an expert as a builder and greenskeeper, became the principle contributors to The Golf Course. Published with the support of Peterson, Sinclaire and Miller, which was predominately involved in selling seed but also involved in other areas of course, it was intended to educate greenskeepers and greens committees. It preceded the USGA’s Green Section Bulletin which began in 1921. Tillinghast and Lees not only had significant personal reputations they had a professional relationship. With regards to Lees, Tillinghast wrote, “he has constructed 7 (courses) for me” in 1918. The known courses he built for Tillinghast are Somerset Hills, St Albans, Essex Country Country Club, Norwood, Hermitage and Quaker Ridge. Tillinghast’s writings for The Golf Course were the foundation for much of what he published in Planning a Golf Course.
Tillinghast was a prolific photographer and appeared in many of the photos he took. This may speak to his sense of humor, his desire to self-promote or his ego, possibly all three, but his photos were often used in many of his stories. The loss of his negatives and photos in a fire is immeasurable.
Tillinghast was among a select group of amateurs that were at the meeting that helped form the PGA of America in 1916. The speakers included Tillinghast, Francis Ouimet’, John Anderson, and professionals James Hepburn, Robert White, Walter Hagan and Tom McNamara. Rodman Wanamaker offered to provide the trophy for the annual championship.