The Architect of Bethpage Black:
Joseph H. Burbeck or A.W. Tillinghast?

A position paper by Philip Young, author of "Golf for the People: Bethpage and the Black"
(May of 2002, 1st Books Library)

Many in the golf world were stunned when, at the beginning of May 2002, Mr. Ron Whitten of Golf Digest wrote the following, "It turns out Joe Burbeck is right. His father did design Bethpage Black." No sooner did this appear on the Golf Digest web-site, and later on in the June issue of Golf Digest magazine, than the debate, which has grown rather heated in some quarters, began in earnest.

Before I go any further and attempt to share my findings on this subject, it is most important that I state for the record several things that I believe impact how one will receive my conclusions. I am the author of a just released book titled "Golf for the People: Bethpage and the Black". Throughout my book I have referred to A.W. Tillinghast as the true designing architect behind the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. I did this because this is what I was taught from my youth, have always heard stated by any and everyone affiliated with the park and the only thing that I have ever seen in writing. Until I read Mr. Whitten's article I had only known of Joseph Burbeck (father and son) in several mentions in newspaper articles dating back to the 1930's that I came across in my research. I actually mention young Mr. Burbeck unlocking the giant padlock at the opening of the Bethpage clubhouse and how he was given the lock by Mr. Moses in my book. That Mr. Burbeck was the actual designer of the Black had never been suggested to me by anyone.

That having been said, in my book I carefully endeavored to find the truth about a number of items of Bethpage lore. An example of this is the myth of Sam Snead walking off the course during his exhibition match with Byron Nelson in 1940. Although this has been sworn to and passed down as truth to all who play the course and even been cited as so in print, my research turned up a newspaper account of the match in which Mr. Snead shot a 70 to Mr. Nelson's 69. As much as I would love to have said that Sam Snead walked off a course that I never would, I can't and won't since the game of golf demands honor and truth as a central part of its core being.

One of the first things that I did when I was made aware of the coming article from Mr. Whitten was to call him directly. He very graciously spoke with me by phone from his home and I became immediately impressed by his candor and belief that he had come across something that demanded a search for the truth.

I want to state for the record that I firmly believe that he has been motivated in this issue because he became convinced of the truth of it and felt that he had an obligation to right an old wrong. Since beginning my search I have read a number of comments by people who claim to love the game and the course who have spoken less than charitably about Mr. Whitten. Everything from his having an axe-to-grind as a Tillinghast hater to having written the article as a vehicle for increasing the sales of his (Golf Digest) magazine.

For anyone to maintain these assertions is, I believe, undignified and far from the truth. I again want to say that I believed Mr. Whitten when he told me that he felt strongly that it was time to set the record straight and give the long overdue credit to Mr. Burbeck that has been missing for all these years.

As I explained to Mr. Whitten during our conversation, I intended to perform my own research on the subject and see if I might be able to independently corroborate his findings. What follows is my own opinion. It is a not a critique or criticism of Mr. Whitten's article, although I will discuss a number of points that he raises, rather it is a search for the truth wherever it may lead. Give it whatever amount of credence you, the reader, feel that it deserves.

In approaching the question as to who is the actual designer of the Bethpage Black golf course we need to go back to the beginning.

In the Farmingdale Post of May 6, 1932, the front page of the newspaper contains an article titled "Bethpage Park Attracts Many For "Pay As You Play" Golf". This article talks about the opening of "Bethpage Park, formerly the Lenox Hills Golf Club, now operated by the State Park Commission" (this was prior to the founding of the Long Island Parks Commission). In the next to last paragraph we read "Nearby, the Commission's architects have laid out another 18-hole course, and it is not improbable that still more complete courses will be added to the proposed series on the commission's program."

Note several things of interest here. First it makes reference to "Commission's architects" (italics mine). This is plural and obviously denotes more than one person at work on the future project. Secondly it cites "more complete courses will be added" and so it is obvious that it is only the one course that has been planned for. Which course this is or was we can not say, but it is clear that the immediate success of the park allowed for an immediate building program that may have been on a larger scale that was first contemplated and therefor of a different type than planned. Based on this information we must ask the question of exactly when and for what was A. W. Tillinghast contracted for in this project.

In his April 1934 article "The Courses At Bethpage" Mr. Benjamin L. Van Schaick, Secretary of the Long Island State Park Commission, a man most certainly in a position of authority at the time that the park came into existence and was there for the planning and construction of the golf courses wrote this, "The courses are being laid out and constructed under the direct control of the Long Island State Park Commission." Was he here stating or even implying that the members of the commission were responsible for the actual routing and design of the course? No one would even begin to believe that. This shows us that we need to be very careful in how we interpret what has been written in these matters.

Just four sentences later in the following paragraph he states this, "Mr. A.W. Tillinghast has been retained as a consultant in the planning and development of the golf courses." There are very few ways that this statement can be interpreted to mean anything other than Mr. Tillinghast was clearly hired to design the courses. There is no mention of anyone else besides Mr. Tillinghast as either having that responsibility or performing that service in this article, and of paramount importance to the question at hand, there is no mention of Superintendent Burbeck anywhere within this article. It would be the most egregious of wrongs for Mr. Van Schaick to not give proper credit to Mr. Burbeck if he was the actual designer of the courses.

In the eighth paragraph of this same article Van Schaick writes this, "During 1933 much of the preliminary work on the second golf course was completed by the use of work relief labor…" This is an important point. It appears that course number two (the Blue course) was well under way when Mr. Tillinghast arrived on the scene. Does this provide the missing proof that he was actually only a "name" used by Robert Moses to satisfy critics, as some have maintained, while the real designer was Mr. Burbeck? No, not at all. While we are not done considering the Van Schaick article we must examine this point further.

Even though, as Mr. Van Schaick stated "much of the preliminary work… was completed" for the Blue course there evidently were major changes to it when Mr. Tillinghast first examined the site. The proof of this is found in the Farmingdale Post the week BEFORE the Blue course opened in April 1934. In the article titled "Bethpage Park Golf Courses Ready May 30" a hole-by-hole description of the Blue Course was given. Each hole was described. When the article got to "Hole 5 - 300 yards - This is the famous "REEF" hole." (Capitals and bold in the article and not mine). What a peculiar designation. Peculiar that is until one learns of the history of "REEF holes.

In December 1926 in The American Golfer, Mr. Tillinghast authored an article about a type of hole construction that he was laying claim to inventing and naming. It was called the "REEF" hole. He explained how he built the original at Newport and went on to describe its outstanding distinctive characteristics which allow for a possibility of driving the green on this typically long par three (or short par four) if one had the courage to play left over a diagonal hazard that spans the fairway. There was also a safe lay-up area on the right side of the fairway and short of the hazard. He concludes this article by writing, "I named the type The Reef" because of the diagonal spine which suggested treacherous water outside the harbor."

It is abundantly clear that only Tillinghast would name this as "REEF hole". It was one of his signature hole designs. If Mr. Burbeck had designed this hole it would not have been referred to as "the famous REEF hole". This shows clearly that Tillinghast was involved in the design of the first of three courses and therefor it does not require a giant leap of faith to accept that he was involved with the Red, and most importantly, the Black course.

Returning to Mr. Van Schaick's article we note that there is an "Editorial Note" attached. This was written by Tillinghast. He writes, "Since the editor of this magazine was honored by being selected as the consultant in the planning of these courses by the Long Island Park Commission…" While not yet touching on this word "consultant" that appears to be at the crux of the debate, one must note that Tillinghast is clearly acknowledging his responsibility in "planning of these courses…" He even finishes the last paragraph of the article by stating "When the entire plan of these four courses is completed…" This statement clearly shows that as of the writing of this article the courses, and in particular we must assume the Black since it was the last course completed, were unfinished and not entirely laid out.

That this is true we need only remember that the Black course was not finished in time to seed it in the fall of 1934 for it to be open for play in 1935. The opening of the Black was delayed an entire year and was opened for play in the spring of 1936, therefor costing it the opportunity of hosting the U.S. Public Links championship which was played on the Blue Course since the Black was not yet ready for play. This also explains why Tillinghast wrote in his article "Man Killers" that, "my continual travels over the country… have prevented me from seeing play over Bethpage's Black since its opening." If it had been opened in the spring of 1935 as originally planned for he would have seen play on it as he didn't start his traveling work for the P.G.A. until the summer of 1935. That he did this work should not serve as any indication then that he did design the Black. To the contrary, the design was there when he was.

In particular, this article of Tillinghast's again shows proof of his having designed the Black. He writes, "In contemplating the difficulties of Black, I have in mind particularly the long 4th, a par 5 of course. When this is played from the full length of the teeing-ground it should prove one of the most exacting three-shotters I know of anywhere. In locating and designing the green, which can only be gained by a most precise approach from the right, I must confess that I was a trifle scared myself, when I looked back and regarded the hazardous route that must be taken…"

It has been suggested by Mr. Whitten in his article "The Real Man Behind the Black" (June 2002 issue of Golf Digest), that when Tillinghast wrote this he might have been "merely looking back in time, to the day when he'd reviewed the original blueprints?" Unfortunately there is no apparent reason to accept this interpretation of Tillinghast's own writings on this matter. It appears to be specious reasoning at best, with no foundation whatsoever for coming to this conclusion.

Mr. Whitten continues (and we will be examining some of what Mr. Whitten wrote and concluded in light of the historical documents found so far) "If we give Tillinghast the benefit of the doubt, conclude he actually walked the land on which the Black Course was built, and even located and designed the fourth green, the fact remains that the four Bethpage course routings were made before he came on board…" Actually, the facts speak otherwise.

Let us examine the fourth hole in detail since this provides us with some telling insights as to course designer. First of all Tillinghast referred to it as a "Three-shotter". Tillinghast felt that this type of hole, a "The Three Shotter" was a unique hole design and should be approached as such with the hole location dictating the design of the entire hole. In his October 1918 Golf Illustrated article "The Three Shotter", he goes into great detail discussing the design characteristics this distinctive hole must have. Among them he writes, " But the most effectual method, and I believe the only satisfactory one, is the location of a truly formidable hazard across the fairway. This must be carried with the second shot if the green is to be gained with the third."

Take a look at the entire fourth hole and it is as if he had this hole in mind when he wrote this article almost twenty years prior to the Black Course being designed. He continues, " Refer to the rough sketch, and in it there will be found the idea of the three-shot hole in which the great hazard area is a prime factor. Let us assume that this rough area be of sand, if the locality makes it possible, or of any sort of rough which the region affords. It measures about 100 yards across and the far brink is 400 yards from the teeing ground. A hole such as this should be provided with at least three teeing grounds…"

Look at the hole. The tee box (original lower one) is one of the longest on the course providing numerous locations for play into or with the aid of the wind as he suggested. The hazard waste bunker that runs across the entire fairway and at an angle to the fairway is tremendously long, being approximately 350 yards from the tee on the left hand side and stretching to well over four hundred yards away on the extreme right. As he called for in his design concept for this type of hole it requires three well placed and played shots and to come in from the right side.

In April 1916 he wrote for Golf Illustrated the article titled "The Double Dog-leg" (a novel type of three shot hole). Here he states "I have modeled a three-shot hole of an entirely new type…" and again "Obviously it is necessary to construct the hole in a fashion… an effective way of accomplishing this is by breaking the fairway by an immense area of hazard or rough, which must be carried by the second before the green is in range and of sufficient width to prevent the player getting home if his ball is short of it." This again so obviously describes the fourth hole of the Black though written twenty years prior to its construction.

Why are these older articles important and what do they prove? When one takes a careful look at the routing of this hole it becomes obvious that only someone who was familiar with these design concepts would have routed the fourth and therefor fifth holes as he did! Consider the choices facing the original architect as he decides how to run the next hole after his par three third. There is a long and natural valley that rolls gently along the valley floor left that could serve as the site for a long par four or even a long par five. To route the hole this way would have taken less work and cost less money than any other and would have been the natural way to go based on those two items alone. Taking the hole from the low teeing area up onto a plateau and then on top of a second plateau with all of the penal design features included in doing such required vision and genius; vision and genius of the type that Tillinghast was known for.

If the hole was located down the valley and left as would seem to be indicated by the terrain and cost then the tee for the fifth hole might have been located further left and on the valley floor as well! This hole (the fifth) has been referred to by some as among the great par fours in the world, and well it should. The tee box is only natural to it and provides the drama that it does because of where the fourth green is situated. This allowed the fifth tee to be perched at the edge of the hilltop and allow for the location of the green to be tucked away up on the hill left of the fairway. This shows that one hole design led to the next hole design and we find examples of this throughout the course. This would indicate that whoever deigned and routed one portion of the course must have done the rest and that it would have had to have been Tillinghast.

What though about that "official history of the Long Island State Parks, published in 1959" that Mr. Whitten quotes as being definitive proof that Mr. Burbeck was the designer of Bethpage and all four courses? First of all what Mr. Whitten cites is actually a reprint of an earlier article published in the Long Island Forum magazine in June 1942. It was written by Chester R. Blakelock, the then Executive Secretary of the Long Island State Park Commission. In this article he writes, and Mr. Whitten quotes, "The golf courses were designed and constructed under the direction of Joseph H. Burbeck, The Superintendent of the park, with A.W. Tillinghast internationally known golf architect, as consultant."

Is this a "smoking gun" as has been suggested? Actually, not at all. Mr. Blakelock wrote a very ambiguous sentence (at best) and all he stated was that Mr. Burbeck had oversight of the project as representative of the park. If he was saying that Mr. Burbeck did the actual design of the courses then why not do so in more plain language? Why even bother mentioning Tillinghast as the "consultant"? Much has been made of that word and it needs some commenting on.

By referring to Tillinghast as a "consultant" was this an implication that all he did was give a little advice and be on his way? One should not conclude such. We must remember that these courses were being built as part of a WPA project. In order for the project to be funded by Works Relief Project Act money there were legalities that had to be achieved. No funding would be provided for the project until the land was owned by the State of New York or one of its operating entities. That is why I write in my book "Golf for the People: Bethpage and the Black" the following:

"Before it was able to officially start its work, the Long Island State Park Commission acting as the Bethpage Park Authority issued $1,000,000 of purchase money bonds. This action approved by the state legislature and signed on August 26, 1933, by then Governor Herbert Lehman, paid the Yoakum estate $900,000 for the property and the remaining $100,000 went to the state comptrollers office so that the newly formed Bethpage Park Authority could be funded and start its work in 1934."

Note that it would not have been until October of 1933 at the earliest that the ownership of the property would have been transferred into the hands of the Bethpage Park Authority. Even accounting for the rushing of pre-approved paperwork, the Work Relief Projects administration would only begin money transfers and oversight of the project after 1934 began. Yes there was work going on at the park in 1933 in anticipation of this, but not as much as has been alluded to because of the legalities involved and the still tentative nature of the approval process. It was not until 1934 arrived that the great majority of the work began, including routing and land clearing. Because of these details we should not be surprised that Tillinghast was hired with the title "Consultant" as he most likely could not have been hired as "Architect" at the time he was brought in since the Work Relief Projects approvals were still possibly pending.

When looked upon in this more natural light we can see that Mr. Blakelock (who unfortunately is no longer available to ask) was referring to project responsibilities that each man shared; Tillinghast design and routing, Burbeck construction and day-to-day oversight. That this be the proper interpretation of his writings seems correct especially in light of what his predecessor Mr. Van Schaick wrote in 1934 when he also referred to Tillinghast as "Consultant" and did not even mention Mr. Burbeck.

In addition to the facts presented so far there are other means of reasoning this problem out. I would ask this question. How could any man plan the construction of the largest public golf facility in the world, hire up to 1,800 workers and oversee their day-to-day work, order and approve materials for purchase and arrange for storage, operate an existing golf course, create a caddy program, oversee the construction of the largest public course clubhouse known at the time, and still find the time to sit at a table and put pen to paper and design three world class golf courses and re-design the existing fourth, all WITHOUT the aid of modern communication devices and computers, and do this all in just three years? The answer seems so obvious that the question should not have even been asked; Mr. Burbeck could not and did not, and that is the biggest of shames, for in debating this issue we lessen the reputation done by this obviously immensely talented and gifted man. This is a disservice to him, his memory and his family, and I apologize for contributing to this. Unfortunately just as Mr. Whitten felt honor-bound to "right a wrong" I do as well. In our conversation I told him that I was interested in the truth and the truth is that A. W. Tillinghast was the true designer of Bethpage Black.

Finally, and most telling of all, is the fact that Mr. Burbeck himself NEVER claimed to have designed the course. As his son is quoted in Mr. Whitten's article "My father never talked much about it. He was a very strong personality. I never tried to coax it out of him." And "I have no proof." If Mr. Burbeck felt that he should make no claim while Tillinghast was alive then he had forty-two years in which to do it from 1942 when Tillinghast died until his own death in 1984. If he was not wanting to bring up an issue that could conceivably threaten his job with the park, he still had nearly twenty years in which to stake his claim from when he retired in the 1960's up until his death. No, the fact is that He never made claim to having designed the Black and we have no reason to second guess his own lack of words.

There are a few other matters that are connected to this question that have been raised and should be dealt with in this paper. There has been a continuous stream of criticism leveled at the greens of the Black, some saying that whereas Tillinghast may have designed the course and done the routing that Mr. Burbeck must have done these greens "that are clearly not up to Tillinghast's design standards". I must disagree with this. The problem with these views of the greens are because they are being seen through the eyes of today's course critic. Take a look at them through the eyes of the designer in 1934 and your view may change. The Black course was one of the longest courses to be found when played from the tips. As a result this meant that many of the par fours in particular would have second shots played into them with either a long iron or a fairway wood. This meant that, in order to be fair (and Tillie believed in fair even while being penal), the greens needed to be built in such a fashion that they could provide a putting challenge while still accepting a well-struck shot. Examine the greens and you will se that the landing areas for a properly played shot that has little backspin (common in that day) was very small and difficult to hit. This meant that one would find themselves in either the great bunkers or (worse) the heavy rough. Par therefor was a very good score. For the player who reached the putting surface in regulation, though there were not the great undulations of other courses, there were many subtleties of break and gentle changes in elevation that would provide severe tests to the best of putters, especially when one considers the mowers used to cut the greens and the thickness of the grass. No, these greens were a great challenge back then and remain so to this day. This subtlety in green design actually cries out Tillinghast when considered in this light.

When one considers all of the above evidence, and in light of Mr. A. W. Tillinghast having been referred to as the course architect by one and all since the day the Black Course was opened, we can come to no other conclusion that at the very least there is not enough reason to challenge him as architect of record. For me, I am firmly convinced, more so than ever, that A.W. Tillinghast is the designer and router of the Black Course at Bethpage State Park.

One final and most important thought. I want to thank Mr. Whitten for this, bringing to light the memory again of Mr. Joseph Burbeck. This was an incredibly talented man who is as responsible for the greatness of Bethpage State Park and its success as a world-class golf destination and as the center of social commerce for many years during the most trying days of the twentieth century, when we needed it the most. It is time he was remembered for what he did and it is my most sincere desire that this discussion will not sully his record and achievements.

There is still much work to do on this subject; not of Tillinghast's design credit, but of Mr. Burbeck's own accomplishments in this great work. I am making request for the records of the WPA that may still be in existence through the Freedom of Information act and will be attempting to find any pertinent documents in the Robert Moses Archives. These two sources would seem to hold hope of finding documentation for this most wonderful of public works projects done at time of greatness within our country by men and women who needed to demonstrate it the most in their day-to-day lives.

I owe a great deal of credit for help in the research of this paper to the wonderful group of dedicated historians found at Hofstra University in their Long Island Studies Institute. Without their aid, tireless help and copies of newspapers and journals of the day, this research would not have been possible. Philip Young (May 28, 2002)

Philip Young (May 28, 2002)