Klein: Tillinghast deserves his spot in Hall of Fame

Klein: Tillinghast deserves his spot in Hall of Fame

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Klein: Tillinghast deserves his spot in Hall of Fame

Somewhere up in that heavenly 19th hole, A.W. Tillinghast is celebrating with a drink. Now he can join the fellow designers from the Golden Age of golf course architecture in the World Golf Hall of Fame: Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross. Together, in the two decades between the world wars, these four (certainly joined by other luminary designers) transformed the American sports landscape with a flair for the outrageous that continues to make the game a joy today.

Albert Warren Tillinghast (1874-1941) embodied the strengths and weaknesses of a textbook Roaring Twenties artist. He was born into a wealthy Philadelphia-area family, untamable as a youth, indulgent in his private life and reckless with money in his business. And more so than any other Golden Age architect, Tillinghast parlayed his excesses into a vision about golf. He was confident to a fault, well lubricated in his intake, boastful to the point of showmanship in his work life and died virtually penniless in pursuit of his love of golf. A fine player, he also was a brilliant writer, editor and satirist.

Three edited collections of his writings – “The Course Beautiful,” “Reminiscences of the Links” and “Gleanings from the Wayside” – reveal the breadth and depth of his commitment to golf, running the gamut from design, history, maintenance, leading pros and amateurs to playing equipment and the economy of the industry.

Beyond his underappreciated literary output, Tilllinghast amassed a vast store of golf courses as his real legacy. He had an unsurpassed ability to take existing landforms and exaggerate their shape and slope, in the process creating an emotional sense of alarm and allure. He was comfortable exposing grassed slopes and keeping his bunkers low-lying, or flashing up the sand and having the surfaces threaten you with their bared faces, such as at San Francisco Golf Club and Winged Foot. And he was respectful enough of everyday golfers and classical shotmakers to make his green entrances accessible via the ground game, all the while creating premier hole locations that could be tucked behind deep bunkers that cut into the flanks of greens.

He never tired of multiplying strategic options, whether on longish par 3s – such as a Redan, with its telltale diagonal front-to-back slope, or the Reef hole – with a front bunker harboring a safe approach landing area into a low-lying green. And his par 5s were legendary for their freeform emulation of a “Hell’s Half-Acre” of sand adapted from his beloved Pine Valley.

In the later stages of his life, during the torpor of the Great Depression, Tillinghast took on the unenviable task of racing around the country on behalf of the PGA of America offering to help clubs economize on their maintenance by removing needless bunkers. The full degree of this desecration of the art form that he had previously championed never has been critically assessed, though it has been documented in Philip Young’s book “A.W. Tillinghast: Creator of Golf Courses.” Such were the combined depths of the 1930s, though Tillinghast’s own embittered personality made the experience of it even worse. But that’s what happens when you are a larger-than-life character.

It’s not uncommon for a real visionary artist to have an arc of creativity that’s unsustainable. All of us in golf are the better for it. Which is why Tillinghast deserves his place on the Mount Rushmore of classical design.

And now with the blessing of the World Golf Hall of Fame, he has it.

• • •

Tillinghast’s best (with Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Classic Course ranking)

  • San Francisco Golf Club, 1915 (No. 15)
  • Winged Foot Golf Club – West Course, Mamaroneck, N.Y., 1923 (No. 17)
  • Bethpage State Park – Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y. , 1935 (No. 20)
  • Somerset Hills Country Club, Bernardsville, N.J., 1918 (No. 28)
  • Winged Foot Golf Club – East Course, Mamaroneck, N.Y., 1923 (No. 33)
  • Quaker Ridge, Scarsdale, N.Y.,1926 (No. 35)
  • Baltimore Country Club – East Course, Timonium, Md. , 1926 (No. 42)
  • Baltusrol Golf Club – Lower Course, Springfield, N.J. ,1922 (No. 46)
  • Baltusrol Golf Club – Upper Course, Springfield, N.J., 1922 (no. 53)
  • Ridgewood Country Club, Paramus, N.J. ,1929 (No. 61)
  • Fenway Golf Club, Scarsdale, N.Y. ,1924 (No. 80)
  • Philadelphia Cricket Club – Wissahickon Course, Flourtown, Pa. 1922

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