|The Genius of A. W. Tillinghast
by Philip Young
A. W. Tillinghast, or Tilly - the sobriquet he gave himself in his youth more than a century ago and what he preferred to be called throughout his life - was a giant within his chosen profession. Today, more than 60 years since his death and almost 70 years after he designed his last golf course, his reputation is greater than ever - even the average player can appreciate the grandeur and wonder of a round on one of his courses. Tilly is the Da Vinci of golf course architects.
Golf has seen a number of truly great architects over the years. Ross, Mackenzie, Flynn, Raynor and other contemporaries of Tilly designed courses that he admired and envied. Today, designers such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, the wunderkind Tom Doak, the team of Coore and Crenshaw, and others are creating masterpieces that will not only stand the test of time but will help define that test from times to come. Yet just as Leonardo was far more than a great painter, Tilly was more than a great architect. It is his impact on so many areas in and out of golf that warrants the comparison to Da Vinci.
His designs are still recognized as providing the ultimate challenge for the greatest players in the world. In this first decade of the 21st century, his designs at Baltusrol's Upper and Lower, Winged Foot's East and West, and Bethpage Black played host to three U.S. Opens, two U.S. Amateurs and a PGA Championship.
Look at any rankings of America's golf courses and you will find Tilly's name dominating in the number of those judged as great. In addition to those already listed: Fenway, Kansas City CC, Newport CC, Quaker Ridge, Ridgewood, San Francisco GC, Somerset Hills and many others of his 88 original designs are continuously sought out by those who want a true test of their game.
Tillinghast was a man with tremendous foresight, ahead of his time in many ways. A prolific and talented writer, he wrote hundreds of articles, poems and short stories about golf, as well as two books about the game. His writings are essential to our understanding of the game of golf as it evolved in North America, and the principles he espoused are the foundations of contemporary golf course design.
He was the first person to rank the best players of his day, both men and women. He was also an outstanding player himself, the captain of the first team of American golfers to play an international match in another country. It was Tilly who coined the term that all players strive to score on every hole played - "birdie". He was also present when the PGA of America came into existence, and toured the country at the height of the Great Depression, performing a free course consultation service for those courses that employed PGA professionals, thereby possibly saving the organization.
One can write a great many things about A. W. Tillinghast, the consummate self-promoter, who gave himself the title of "The Dean of American Born Architects." For me though, I know that I would love to be with him on a late autumn day, the sun filtering through the richly colored leaves, out in a field recently cleared, a golf hole formed in the rough. To sit and listen to his vision of what it would some day be like to play. To be able to glimpse into the greatness of this Da Vinci.