Albert Warren Tillinghast fancied himself a writer. He published two works of fiction, which are best left forgotten, but his words on golf are essential to our understanding of the game of golf as it evolved in North America.

Most of the 45 pieces in this collection appeared originally in the magazine Golf Illustrated, for which he was both a contributor and, for a time in the bleak 1930s, editor. He also contributed essays and columns on golf over thirty-five years to several other publications—Golf, The American Golfer, Country Club Life, Golfer’s Magazine, The PGA Magazine and The Pacific Coast Golfer.

The pieces that attract me most are his reminiscences of pre World War I championships, of which we have precious few firsthand accounts. What kind of people were Willie Anderson, the obscure four-time Open champion, and Johnny McDermott, the native prodigy who captured back-to-back Opens in 1911 and 1912? You'll find out in his columns recalling the triumphs and sad endings of both.

For those of you unfamiliar with the life of the singular A.W. Tillinghast here’s a capsule review of his variegated life:

  1. Born in Philadelphia in 1874, the only and spoiled child of a prosperous, but not quite wealthy family.

  2. Enjoyed a dissolute youth marked by school expulsions, athletics and drinking to excess.

  3. Got totally hooked on golf in the 1890s, when the game was but a seedling in this country. Made annual pilgrimages to the holy land in Scotland where he took lessons, both mechanical and spiritual, from Old Tom Morris—one of the game’s icons.

  4. Played a lot of golf, both socially and competitively, including decent showings in early US Amateurs and Opens.

  5. Staved off gainful employment until age 32 when he laid out a course for rich fiends on their farm at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware. It was an instant success. He went full bore into the design business.

  6. For a period of 20 years, until the bottom fell out of the golf trade in 1930, he designed from scratch about 60 courses and remodeled or expanded an equal number. Because of his skills and social connections, he grabbed more than his share of plush jobs and left behind a dozen or so master works. These include 36 holes at Winged Foot, both Baltusrol layouts, the San Francisco Golf Club, the exquisite East Course of the Baltimore Country Club, the cult favorite Somerset Hills in New Jersey, the equally splendid 27 holes of Ridgewood also in New Jersey, and the Black Course of the New York State-owned Bethpage complex on Long Island, which is now being spruced up to entertain the 2002 U.S. Open Championship.

  7. He made a lot of money designing and building golf courses until the great depression killed his business. He continued to drink heavily, did stringer work for the PGA of America to keep his head above water, and became totally disenchanted with golf. After losing his home in personal bankruptcy, a beautifully decorated mansion in Harrington Park, New Jersey, he and his wife moved to California to set up an antiques shop (using for opening stock the contents of his former mansion).

  8. With limited success he tried to make a go of it again in golf architecture in California with Billy Bell.

  9. He survived a heart attack in California, then moved to Toledo as the guest of one of his two daughters. He failed to survive a second heart attack in 1942.

In Tillinghast, we have a link between the first national championships of the mid 1890s right on up to the era of Nelson, Hogan and Snead. He both saw and played with almost all the greats. So it’s fascinating that, when asked to pick his own all-time Top 10, the name at the top is Harry Vardon, not Bobby Jones—his number 2 pick. Vardon, in the 1990s, seems to us a relic, someone whose primary contribution was to bring “rhythm” (the observation of British Ryder Cupper Percy Alliss) to the swing. But we somehow don't imagine Vardon being in the same league as a player with those whose moving images are preserved on film, beginning with Jones.

But Tillie says this, “Without hesitation, I name the great Harry Vardon as the peer of all golfers who ever lived. He was so close to absolute perfection, save for the occasional stabbing of his putts, that his monotonously immaculate stroking made the game seem absurdly simple.”

Tillinghast had a roaring temper. In his writings he kept it under wraps, but there is a glimpse of his wrath when he waxes sardonic and sarcastic over a USGA amateur status ruling, whereby architects who presumably soiled themselves by accepting fees were cast into outer darkness—stripped of their amateurism. Tillinghast’s grandson, Dr. Philip Brown, informed me that, as a consequence of that silly ruling, the architect avenged himself by refusing to ever play competitive golf again. How and why this bothered anyone save himself is beyond me, but that’s how he was.

As an architect, he was more than inspired. In these columns we can trace the evolution of golf course architecture—from “sporty” courses of old to the classic courses that survive time. I have no patience with those who insist on ascribing ratings, or rankings, to architects. Trying to figure out if Tillinghast was “better” than Donald Ross, Alister Mckenzie, Seth Raynor or Harry Colt is a mindless exercise. They were all terrific. But Tillinghast was, I think, the first designer who consciously set out to create golf holes that were visually attractive—thereby transforming golf course architecture into a bastard art form requiring engineering expertise mixed with 19th century principles of landscape design.

He refused to get in a rut. Thus, the complexes at Winged Foot and Baltusrol, both in the New York metropolitan zone, are not at all alike—except that they are a joy to play and to observe. Variety was the name of his game. He seldom presented the same look into a green on the same course twice. What a contrast to the egocentric trademark hooks of so much of contemporary architecture—where the design message seems to be, “Hey, this is about ME.” In fact, the Tillinghast courses not only survive—they look better all the time. The playing of the 1997 PGA Championship on the West Course of Winged Foot enhanced the stature of the competition considerably.

His words survive too. So sit back and relish of the times when poor Johnny McDermott’s spirit was broken, when Old Tom Morris saw a rubber-wound ball for the first time, and when Willie Smith, originally of Carnoustie, engaged in a fire fight with Mexican rebels assaulting his pro shop.

Foreword To Tillinghast’s  Reminiscences Of The Links 

By Frank Hannigan