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Ron Fimrite
August 25, 1997
A.W. Tillinghast, the architect of Winged Foot, was known for his outstanding courses and outlandish lifestyle
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August 25, 1997

A Mad Master

A.W. Tillinghast, the architect of Winged Foot, was known for his outstanding courses and outlandish lifestyle

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In the long history of golf, which might well predate the birth of Columbus, there has in all probability never been a character the equal of course architect Albert Warren Tillinghast, known, sometimes affectionately, as Tillie the Terror. There he is, circa 1920, supervising the tilling of soil for a new course: a regal figure in three-piece tweed suit and hunting boots, perched atop a shooting stick with a flask of bootleg gin at the ready, barking commands to, as a contemporary writer put it, "an affable elderly laborer and a morose mule tugging a Fresno scoop." Gesturing theatrically, he bellows, "Green here! Bunker there!" From time to time, it was written, "the laborer and the mule would get a sniff of his richly flavored 100-proof exhaust and know they were working for a man of great power and artistry."

True enough, for in his day Tillie the Terror was indeed a man of great power and artistry, as well as the possessor in abundance of what the Roman philosopher Seneca proclaimed the essential ingredient of genius—"a touch of madness." Tillinghast, the artful designer of the site of last week's PGA, Winged Foot, and more than 60 other tournament-quality courses still in use, was among the first and certainly the most celebrated of American-born golf architects in the formative years of that esoteric craft. Golf architecture wasn't recognized as a useful occupation in this country until the last decade of the 19th century, and such Tillinghast contemporaries as Alister Mackenzie and Donald Ross were natives of the British Isles who honed their skills in golf's presumed birthplace, Scotland.

Tillie learned the game at the feet of Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews, and though he affected a noble bearing and sported a very British mustache with tips waxed so fine they could "spike incoming mail," he was very much an American. Born in North Philadelphia on May 7, 1875, he was the spoiled-rotten only child of rubber baron Benjamin Collins Tillinghast, whose company manufactured, among other rubber products, baptismal suits for Baptist ministers. Young Tillie's every whim was satisfied by his doting Pappy and his equally attentive mother, LeVinia. When, for example, the boy expressed a desire to ride an elephant, B.C. provided him with the biggest in captivity, the London Zoo's—and eventually P.T. Barnum's—fabled Jumbo.

Tillie, or Bertie, as B.C. called him, responded to this parental indulgence by first becoming a raffish juvenile delinquent as a member of Philadelphia's infamous Kelly Street Gang (immortalized by novelist Christopher Morley in his 1939 best-seller, Kitty Foyle) and then the city's foremost boozing playboy. "I never finished a school I started," Tillie boasted. Instead, he became an expert at cricket (at the exclusive Philadelphia Cricket Club), polo, billiards and bridge. He could play a mean piano and performed a passable soft-shoe routine. He was a gifted illustrator and photographer.

At 20, to the astonishment of the Kelly Street alumni, he married the beautiful Lillian Heath Quigley. Though he was hardly a model of marital fidelity, he remained more or less with her until death did him part. He fathered two daughters, Marian and Elsie, although parenting was definitely not his strong suit.

Golf did not become a part of his increasingly aristocratic existence—the Tillinghasts were formidable collectors of objets d'art—until 1896, when he made his maiden pilgrimage to the game's shrine at St. Andrews. There he fell under the spell of the 75-year-old Old Tom, winner of four British Opens in the 1860s and father of the ill-fated Young Tom, who won four more before he died, at 24, of a broken heart over the death of his wife. Under the old man's expert tutelage, the Philadelphia playboy developed not only an abiding affection for the game but also, more important, a profound appreciation of course aesthetics and a feel for golf's rich history.

"Playing around the Old Course at St. Andrews with the patriarch," Tillinghast wrote years later, "made me feel as though my own game must seem glaringly new, just like walking up the church aisle in new, squeaky boots." He would return to St. Andrews and his mentor for annual refresher courses over the next five years. By the turn of the century he had become an excellent golfer, and he was a regular competitor in the U.S. Amateur from 1905 to 1915, losing close matches to such top players as Walter Travis, H. Chandler Egan and Chick Evans. Tillinghast was good enough to finish 25th in the 1910 U.S. Open at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, his old stomping ground.

In 1907 a family friend, the wealthy pump manufacturer Charles Worthington, asked him to help build a golf course at Shawnee-on-Delaware in eastern Pennsylvania. Tillie had no experience in course construction—or for that matter in any endeavor beyond amusing himself—but drawing on the counsel of Old Tom ("sand, laddie, sand") he soon took control of the project. In this first effort he held to a theory he had pretty much arrived at on his own: A golf architect, he concluded, should "produce something which will provide a true test of the game and then consider every conceivable way to make the course as beautiful as possible." He was more artist than technician, and the fairway would become his canvas.

Tillie had in his 30s finally found a calling. Shawnee was such an immediate success when it opened in 1908 that his services were suddenly much in demand. He established an office at 33 West 42nd Street in New York City—the A.W. Tillinghast Golf Construction Company—and with typical flair commuted there from his elegant home in New Jersey in a limousine liberally stocked with his favorite potation, the dry martini. He not only insisted that he be the sole designer of courses he contracted to build, but also that his construction company do the work so that every course had the distinctive Tillie look. Yet each, wrote Tillie anthologists Richard Wolffe and Robert Trobus, "is as distinct from the other as the Mona Lisa is from the Last Supper."

What a splendid array of courses he produced—Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J.; Bethpage in Farmingdale, N.Y.; Fenway in White Plains, N.Y.; Newport (R.I.); Quaker Ridge and Sunningdale in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Ridgewood in Paramus, N.J.; Somerset Hills in Bernardsville, N.J.; and the magnificent Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He preferred to work on the East Coast and, after the onset of Prohibition, as near Canada as possible because of the ready availability in that country of quality hooch. At the behest of his good friend, the shipping magnate Roger Lapham, however, he agreed in 1920 to redesign in toto the San Francisco Golf Club. It was to become one of the most strikingly beautiful of his courses.

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