The Creator of Golf Courses
By Stephen Goodwin & Rick Wolffe
Albert Warren Tillinghast cut
a commanding figure in American golf during the first third of this
century. Born in 1874, he took up the game with a passion early
in life and, to put it simply, became a fixture
on the golf scene. He seemed to be on hand for every major event
and to know everyone who mattered. He was friend to Old Tom Morris
and many of the other old timers of golf such as Andra
Kirkaldy and Old Daw. Remembering Old Tom,Tillinghast wrote:
Playing around the Old Course at St. Andrews with the patriarch
made me feel as though my own game must seem glaringly new, just
like walking up the church isle in new, squeeky boots, but this
feeling soon vanished. The old man and I were just boys together,
for such is golf and such was Old Tom Morris.
Indeed, there was hardly any facet of the game that Tillinghast
did not explore. Any full account of his life would have to include
a multitude of scenes in which Tillie, as he was known in the golf
world, appeared indifferent roles. Tillie the photographer carried
the best camera equipment on his pilgrimages to Scotland, where
he took superb pictures of golf scenes and celebrities. Tillie the
author wrote humorous, fictional pieces about golf which his daughter,
Elsie, would later describe as immense, gushing sentimentalism.
Tillie the advocate was forever promoting the virtues of public
golf, and Tillie the entrepreneur owned a combination miniature
golf course-driving range with lights, covered booths, and long-hitting
contests. Tillie the phrase maker is said to have coined the word
birdie, though by his own account the term came into
more or less spontaneous use among a group of Philadelphia golfers
of which he was a member.
Many of Tillinghasts design principles were shaped in
Scotland in the early 1900s. Here young Tillinghast
prepares to drive on the links at St. Andrews' Old Course
Tillie the tournament organizer ran the Shawnee
Open, and Tillie the statesman was one of the founders of the PGA
of America. Tillie the reporter wrote a syndicated column and published
annual, highly subjective, and eagerly awaited rankings of the top
12 Americans in three categories--professional, amateur, an woman
amateur (in 1916, after his first sight of Bobby Jones, Tillie had
the foresight to name the 14 year old as the No. 12 Amateur).
Tillie the player had enough of a game to make a respectable match
against the top amateurs of the day, though never quite enough to
beat them on the big occasions. Tillie the green keeper was the
champion of the fledgling USGA Green Section and its agronomic research.
The mere listing of his activities suggests, correctly,
a man of enormous energy and gusto. He also had a volatile and flamboyant
personality. The spoiled son of a wealthy Philadelphian, Tillinghast
grew up doing exactly as he pleased and never finished a single
school he attended. Like many other men of his class and time, he
was a prodigiously heavy drinker, and the Tillinghast legend contains
accounts of long binges, epic parties, lavish spending, and pistol-flourishing
rages. He was a spellbinding talker, a flashy dresser, and a good
hand at the piano. His trademark was a magnificent waxed mustache.
With his wife and two daughters he lived in a splendid columned
house in Harrington Park, New Jersey. In a word, Tillinghast was
the embodiment of the sporting gentleman of the Roaring Twenties.
Young Tillinghast at the turn at St. Andrews. Auld
Da dispensed ginger beer, bisquets and golf balls from a perambulator.
Yet Tillinghast would merit nothing more than an honorable
footnote in golf history had he not become a golf course architect.
His first commission came in the form of an invitation from a wealthy
friend to lay out Shawnee-on-the-Delaware in 1909. At the time Tillinghast
was 34 years old, and hardly seemed to have the temperament or discipline
for any sustained enterprise. But he threw himself into the task
and produced a course that was instantly hailed as a success. Tillinghast
was on his way. For the next three decades he lived and breathed
The enduring image of Tillinghast is that of the architect, always
impeccably dressed and groomed, poring over the plans for a golf
course. He was very much a hands-on architect who liked to make
his designs in the dirt. relying on the inspiration
of the moment to fashion the details of each hole as it emerged
from the landscape. In the accounts passed along by old-timers,
Tillinghasts working method was to seat himself in the shade
of a tree, bottle in hand, and call out directions to his workmen
as they shaped the course with their mule pulled scoops. As golf
historian Herb Graffis wrote, The laborer and mule would occasionally
get a sniff of Tillies richly flavored exhaust and knew they
were working for a man of great power and artistry.
In 1918, when Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, NJ hired him to
construct a second course, Tillinghast was just hitting his stride.
His services as an architect had been in demand, but his golf courses
were spread across the continent--Atlantic in Florida, Brackenridge
Texas, and San Francisco in California. In New Jersey,
he had built the Shackamaxon and Somerset Hills courses, but he
had never won a commission of the magnitude and prestige of Baltusrol.
For Baltusrol was already in the vanguard and its old course
had hosted two U.S. Opens, three other USGA national championships,
and several other national tournaments. Strictly speaking, no American
golf architect before or since has ever received such a commission,
and Tillinghast stood to gain more from Baltusrol than Baltusrol
stood to gain from Tillinghast.
Instead of simply building the second course, Tillinghast boldly
recommended that the Old Course be plowed over to make
room for two new courses. As it turned out, both Baltusrol and Tillinghast
were winners. For Tillinghasts work at Baltusrol - The Upper
and Lower courses - placed him securely in the first rank of American
golf architects. Throughout the 1920s he was a whirlwind of
activity, building or remodeling golf courses all over the country.
Some of his more notable courses included Winged Foot, Ridgewood,
Quaker Ridge, Five Farms East, Newport and the Bethpage Black. His
career lasted until the Great Depression brought golf course construction
to a standstill, but Tillinghast managed to stay in the game as
a course inspector for the PGA. When that job ended, he went west
to California. There he went into a golf course architecture partnership
with Billy Bell while his wife opened an antique shop where they
seem to have sold off many of the possessions they had collected
over the years. In 1940, after a heart attack, he went to live in
Toledo, Ohio, with his eldest daughter, Marian. He died there in
For several decades he was forgotten by the golf world, though his
courses continued to give pleasure and to serve as tournament sites.
In recent years the extent of his legacy to American golf has come
to be better understood and appreciated, for it is abundantly clear
that Tillinghast had a genius for building golf courses that endure.
In retrospect it seems that he deserved all along the title he gave
himself- the Creator of Golf Courses.
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Life & Times of A.W. Tillinghast
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