PGA Course Service

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In the summer of 1935, A.W. Tillinghast commenced a tour of the country’s golf courses as a consulting golf course architect for the PGA of America.  Hired by his good friend George Jacobus who was then President of the PGA, this service was provided only to golf courses where PGA members were retained and was service was free of charge. Thinking that it would last just a few months, Tilly would consult to over 500 golf courses over a more than two-year time span.  While on the tour, Tillinghast was credited in the news media with the elimination of thousands of sand traps, which he called “Duffer Headaches,” or DHs for short.  DHs included obsolete bunkers, unnatural mounds (sometimes called chocolate drops) or other antiquated course features that hinder the higher handicap player, and are costly to maintain.  In fact, in the middle of his tour Tillie wrote, “…it is a matter of record that I have condemned nearly eight thousand sand traps.”  However, Tillinghast did much more on his tour than pointing out obsolete sand traps.  Rather, he provided significant architecture design recommendations and specific plans for improvements to hundreds of the golf courses. 

Tillinghast made two complete loops of the United States, with some doubling back in a few spots.  His mode of operation was to take temporary residence in a hotel in a major city and make daily visits to courses from there. He coordinated his trips in advance through the local section of the PGA, generally with the local PGA section president.   His visits were by invitation only, from the host PGA professional, and only authorized if that professional's dues to the Association were paid up in full.  If a non-PGA member pro requested his services, he respectfully declined, in each case.  He would also let Jacobus know, as he did in Rochester, NY when he wrote Jacobus of two clubs which he had declined and told him that “I am going nowhere unless at the request of your members.”

In some cities he was greeted with great fanfare and the local newspapers would write a lead story on his visit.  But not every one was glad to see him coming.  In Massachusetts he was greeted with resentment by the New England Green Keeper’s association.   In a subsequent meeting with three of the leaders of this association, he convinced them that his motives were pure and each expressed the desire for Tilly to visit their respective clubs.

Tillinghast reported back to George Jacobus on a daily basis by mail.  His reports would often describe in detail his recommended design changes to the courses he visited.  In the case of new design recommendations and design changes, he would provide each club a written plan and sketches from which to work by.  When construction work was involved, which was often the case, he provided detailed design sketches for the constructors to follow, and often recommend a local architect and construction firm to perform the work.  For example, on examining the new course of the Philadelphia CC at Spring Mill, he designed a new 1st hole and reviewed several problems involving major construction.  His solution was to recommend the work to William Flynn, “a local architect and construction man.”  Tillie reported back, “being as helpful as possible as is consistent with the aims and operation of our P.G.A. service.”  Other architects benefiting from such referrals included Billy Bell in California and Perry Maxwell in Oklahoma.  In fact, Bell would later assert that Tilly’s visit “had stimulated his work to a very marked degree.”

At the time of his tour, the talented touring professionals were affiliated with a club and many were presidents of their local section.  Many of these pros were instrumental in coordinating Tillinghast’s examinations.  In Chicago, for example, it was Horton Smith, and Tillinghast did a complete examination of Horton’s home club, Oak Park CC.  In Mobile, Alabama, he examined Tony Penna’s winter home – the Osceola public golf course.  And in Los Angeles, Olin Dutra’s home club, Wilshire CC, received the same complete treatment.

At the Austin Country Club, he advised Harvey Penick on the location and building of a new green for the eleventh hole, one of 112 yards.  Tillinghast reported that, “I gave him all the information he desired and the new green will be built about twenty yards back of the present.”  Later that day, he advised Harvey’s brother Tom Penick on several additions to the Austin Municipal course. 

Tillinghast’s travels were not always easy.  Weather was the biggest stumbling block and the roads were not always good.  On his way to Houston from New Orleans, flooding from heavy storms made the roads barely passable.   He wrote, “the water was over the running-boards. Nothing to do for it but to keep the wheels moving ahead.  There was no turning back.”  In California, on a return trip to check progress he had outlined the year before on the Stockdale course in Bakersfield, he was turned back on treacherous roads in mountain country by heavy rains and mudslides.  Many of his visits, primarily in California, were totally rained out. 

In his early sixties at the time of his tour, Tillinghast became quite sick on several occasions.  On his way through Rochester, Minnesota he checked into the Mayo clinic for some care by a Dr. Horton, whom perhaps was recommended by his son in law, who was a practicing physician at the clinic.

Most golf pros and club officials eagerly awaited Tillinghast; however, at the Top O’ World Golf Club in Bloomer, Wisconsin he was stood up.  On arriving at the course, he reported “I found absolutely no one on the place.  There was no clubhouse, but only a stand at the first Teeing ground, where signs announced that sandwiches were sold.  That, too, was empty and locked tight.”  Despite this, he walked the course noting the general characteristics and deficiencies.

Design Recommendations

So what did the typical Tillinghast exam recommend?  Although a good number of clubs that he was invited to had specific questions and problems that they wanted his advice on, most of the ones he visited wanted him to examine everything and advise accordingly. These visits generally entailed every hole on the course and would often result in the redesign and remodeling of tees, fairways and greens.  In many cases complete new holes were designed.  His recommendations were true to his defined principals of modern golf architecture.  The principals are common to all Tillinghast courses, and were clearly spelled out in his reports to Jacobus.  Some of Tillinghast’s principals that stand out in his letter reports follow:

Natural Slopes – “I emphasized the necessity of pulling out the slopes to the ratio of six feet to every foot of elevation (my invariable rule) and of BLENDING all.  This word “Blending” I use a great deal in my explanations and it proves to be a good one for my purposes.”

Teeing grounds – should be graded and blended naturally to meet their surroundings.  “I still observe the tendency to preserve pulpit-like, raised teeing grounds.”  “…the larger, natural looking teeing areas are to be found on most of our first class courses today, but I still observe the “relics of the dark ages” on too many links.”

Greenside Guarding Pits – “sand pits should nestle close-up, with the sand showing up into the slopes…”

Green Size – “Let me state here that when I encounter those who are used to extremely large greens I do not try to tear them away from their predilections, except where the great areas rob greens, reached by short shots, of any virtues.  It is well known that I always have favored the comparatively smaller and closely guarded green but I certainly refrained from injecting my personal feelings into the picture where I sense that the contrary method has been favored.  I find the courses, where the large greens have been fancied, are cutting them down in size gradually as their futility is recognized.”

Duffer’s Headaches – “I have contended that these have been maintained at considerable cost to nearly 400 clubs, that they unnecessarily harass the great majority of those who take to the game for pleasure without in the least causing that comparatively small number of par shooters to give them a thought, and usually injecting a thoroughly discordant note and smudging an otherwise beautiful picture of rural landscape.”  The DH’s “…catch the poor shots of poor players.  These add aggravation and are of no value…”

In regard to trees, Tilly incorporated trees to a great extent in his designs.  On some of his course examinations, he recommended the planting of trees.  At the Z. Boaz municipal course in Fort Worth he “recommended the gradual planting of trees in clumps to relieve the monotonous flatness of the course.”  However, he would also quickly condemn trees that were out of place and interfered with play,  “…I sometimes take my very life in my hands when I suggest that a certain tree happens to be spoiling a pretty good hole.  The green committee chairman is like as not to glare at me as though I had recommended that he go home and murder his wife.”

Tillinghast returned to many of the courses the following season to check on the progress of his plans.  As an example, on his return to San Jose CC, Tilly reported that his recommendations for a new 7th green and other construction work “had been faithfully followed by Greenkeeper George Satana.”

Reflections on his Peers

In reference to other architects of the time, Tillinghast generally praised the work and capabilities of several of his peers -- Donald Ross, George Thomas, Max Behr, Perry Maxwell, Chandler Egan, and Billy Bell.  However, on the occasion of his examination of The Valley Club in Santa Barbara, Tilly did slightly knock the bunkering on this Alistair McKenzie and Robert Hunter collaboration – “I complimented Hunter particularly on the masterly manner in which the approaches to the greens were contoured.  This is a most noticeable feature of this notably fine collection of holes.  However there were some useless pits, often in the back-flares of greens, and frequently the arrangement of turf and sand in the hazards was trivial and not worthy of the greater part of the work.”

As far as DH removal, Tillinghast most impacted the early American golf courses, designed by the likes of Tom Bendelow, Devereux Emmet, Donald Ross and Walter Travis.  At the Beresford Country Club (which is now called Peninsula), a Donald Ross design, he noted that the course builder had poorly constructed several of the holes, which did not resemble the original Ross conceptions.   Consequently, he advised on the construction of new sites for the 10th, 12th, and 13th greens.  His plans were in no sense a reflection of the original Ross plans, but were “made necessary because those original plans had been sinfully juggled.”

Tillinghast examined many other Donald Ross courses, and from his reports a great respect for his fellow architect can be gleaned.  In fact, during his tour in early December of 1935, he turned a bit aside from his scheduled route to drop in on his old friend in Pinehurst N.C.  When he knocked at the door of Donald Ross’s charming home, Donald greeted him warmly, and after a bit of a chat about this and that, the two old golf architects were out the back door and playing the #2 course, where the PGA championship had been scheduled for the upcoming summer.  As they stood on every hole the great architect proudly called to Tilly’s attention each subtle feature, certain that his appreciation of Donald’s artistry must be greater than the less practiced eye.  Tillinghast was greatly impressed and would later write: “Without any doubt Ross regards this as his greatest achievement, which is saying a great deal.  Every touch is Donald’s own and I doubt if a single contour was fashioned unless he stood hard by with critical eye. A great event (the 1936 PGA) is to have a great setting.  Donald Ross at his best was never greater.” 

Tillinghast examined many of America’s greatest courses on his tour -- the likes of Bel Air, Canterbury, Colonial, Country Club, Firestone, Inverness, Interlocken, Lake Merced, Medinah, Miami Biltmore, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh Field Club, River Oaks, Round Hill, Shoreacres, Stanford, Waverly, Worcester and many more.  At the request of PGA sectional president Willie Hunter, he went over the entire Riviera CC course and prepared a critical report for future reference.  Overall Tilly was quite impressed with the George Thomas designed Riviera and stated in the emphatic “Certainly Riviera is a great course.”

Tillinghast can probably lay claim to the mantle of the first “Open Doctor,” to be followed by Robert Trent Jones and his son Rees Jones.  In the fall of 1936, at the request of Al Watrous, the PGA professional at Oakland Hills CC in Birmingham, Michigan, he examined this great course in preparation for the USGA Men’s Open Championship of 1937.  Tilly performed a complete examination of the course, recommended the elimination of several DHs, and approved the shifting of five teeing grounds which extended the course’s entire length to a trifle over seven thousand yards.  Naturally he thought highly of Oakland Hills, and would later write “make no mistake, here is truly a great course.”  Tilly also examined the Memphis CC in preparation for the Women’s National Amateur Championship of 1937.

As may be expected, not all of Tillinghast’s recommendations were implemented.  On returning to Bel Air in February of 1937, he expressed some disappointment that what he had recommended were totally ignored.  He reported, “It has been said that 'You may lead a horse to water but you may not make him drink.'  I can only make recommendations but certainly I show no irritation if they are passed over, as in this case.”  His solace on the matter, was a strong sentiment among players favoring the recommendations and the hope that eventually they will materialize.

Although Green Committee members would typically accompany Tillinghast on his examinations, he acknowledged the difficulty of gaining consensus and approval for much needed course improvements.  He would report, “The cry of -- 'It just can’t be done here!' has hindered the proper development of courses to a lamentable extent in many sections.”

Not every course required improvements or change.  Tillinghast described Lakeside, a Max Behr design in California, as “one of the best courses examined.”  No changes of any note were recommended.  After visiting The Country Club in Pepper Pike Ohio, a William Flynn design, he declared, “Here is a fine course, exceptionally conditioned, with good greens of Washington strain bent.”

Self Examination

Tillinghast visited several courses of his own design on his tour – Baltusrol, Brakenridge, Brook Hollow, Cedar Crest, Indian Hills, Niagara Falls, Ridgewood, San Francisco, Shawnee, Swope Park, Winged Foot, and several others.

On his visit to the Hermitage Country Club (now known as Belmont), a design built by Tillinghast twenty years before, he admitted that he had to take his own medicine and recommended removal of several of his own DH’s.  He wrote that day, “I candidly criticized a number of hazards, which I had placed myself, just as I have done at many other courses.  But it must be remembered that general play has lengthened out considerably in twenty years and that long ago we were much closer to another period of course conception.  The pits which I condemned today come under my classification of ‘Duffers’ Headaches’ and without hesitation I took my own medicine which I have been prescribing.  I will say however that the pits which I closed today were comparatively few in number and in no instance did they represent carries but rather side pits, closer in than we place them now.”

In Tulsa, he recommended the fix of some faulty construction to the Tulsa CC and Oaks CC, courses of his own design.  He reported “I made a number of suggestions concerning the rectification of faulty green contours, the result of bad construction work when the course was built by the constructor engaged by the club to interpret my plans.  These may be accomplished at little expense.”

Tillinghast was fairly modest in reporting on his own designs.  Only once did he express a little designers pride in describing San Francisco, “…in as much as I planned this lay-out it may not seem entirely proper for me to praise it too much.  But it is regarded out here as truly great course…”

Tilly's Personality

Much has already been written about the personality traits or flaws of A.W. Tillinghast – his fits of rage, flamboyant lifestyle, lavish spending and drinking binges.  From his letters other more noble personality traits of this genius can be gleaned:

Tireless work ethic – he reported to George Jacobus almost every day on his two-year tour and rarely took a day off, with the exception of Christmas, New Years and visits to his daughters, Marion in Toledo, Ohio and Elsie in Rochester, Minnesota.

Faithful Husband -- his wife, Lillian, accompanied him on his cross-country travels, as she often did during his designing career in the 1920's with their two daughters grown and married. She would remain faithfully by Tilly’s side until his death in 1942.

Protector of the Game – he had strong beliefs on what was right for the game.  On an earlier swing of the West Coast in the winter of 1935, he expressed strong disapproval of a plan to introduce pari-mutuel betting at the Agua Caliente tournament in Mexico.  He would later write, “Out here the level heads of golf express regret that the idea has received any encouragement for certainly it is not in keeping with the traditions of the game and should be regarded as a menace.”

Modesty – which is still considered a virtue, can also be seen throughout his writings.  When asked to rank the best golf courses in California, he replied “With thanks I must regretfully decline this opportunity to lead with my chin.  Although I have formed conclusions I would consider it extremely bad taste for one, so long associated with course designing and construction in the East, to make any comparisons.  As I grow older I appreciate the fact that for general publication there are some questions that need a whole lot of letting alone.”

Accepting Fate – he would lose most of his fortune to the depression and eventually was forced into personal bankruptcy.  In fact, it was during the summer of 1936 that he would deviate from the tour to "close his old home" in Harrington Park that he would lose to foreclosure. Despite this, Tilly never railed his fate in life and always looked forward. 

Letters of Thanks

The gratitude for Tilly’s work was expressed in numerous letters to George Jacobus.  Typical of the thank you letters was Jack Forrester’s, the pro at Hackensack, who closed his letter of thanks  with, “Congratulations to you and the P.G.A. of America for this fine service.”  Dixwell Davenport made another wonderful compliment, the Green Chairman at San Francisco GC, who was also a member of the USGA’s Green Section.  Davenport told him that, in his opinion, “the PGA had ‘put one over’ the USGA in sponsoring the course service.”