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,
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
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
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.
It was there that he designed what present-day course architect
Tom Doak thinks was Tillie's favorite hole, the par-3 7th, or
Duel Hole. Tillie believed that holes should have names as well
as numbers and, if possible, the names should have some historic
import. With this in mind he situated San Francisco's 7th on the
spot where on Sept. 13, 1859, California Supreme Court justice
David S. Terry shot dead U.S. Senator David C. Broderick in what
is believed to have been the country's last formal duel.
Tillie envisioned the scene: "Vine and the hills on either side
as the morning breeze cleared smoke, revealing one man standing
erect looking across the 10 paces to where his fallen
adversary's life was going out in the rising sun over the hills
red with poppies."
As might be surmised from such prose, Tillie considered himself
quite the writer. He contributed regularly to Golf Illustrated
from the magazine's inception in 1914 and was its editor in
1933. He was also the author of two collections of golf fiction,
The Cobble Valley Golf Game (1915) and The Mutt (1925), works
that his daughter Elsie decried as "immense gushing
sentimentalism." That may well be true of his fiction, but
Tillie could be most eloquent in depicting his ideal course
Forests on a golf course, he wrote, "are like communities and
trees are like men. In each there are a lot of common nuisances
and parasites that are best left out of the picture altogether
... but an honest old tree can be very sympathetic and
comforting if the golfer will take the time to look into its
serenely complacent face." To Tillinghast, "a green has features
like a human, or at least it should have to be worthy of the
name. Of course many are no more impressive than the vacant,
cowlike expression of some people, but then again there are some
with rugged profiles which loom head and shoulders above the
He abhorred overly long courses, deploring the emphasis "on
brawn over finesse," favored tightly bunkered small greens and
considered the approach shot the essence of the game. Although
he approved of bunkers as guardians of the green, he denounced
"bunkeritis" as "one of the worst of all ills." Overbunkering,
he wrote, "dampens enthusiasm by making play too irksome....
Golf ceases to be a recreation for many thousands when it makes
a man sweat blood.... Let your golf course make [the player]
think a little, and then [he'll] glory in the knowledge of
having accomplished something."
Tillie is credited with having coined the term birdie, although
he modestly conceded that it grew out of ordinary golf banter in
Philadelphia, a bird in turn-of-the-century vernacular
signifying someone or something exceptional. Golf architect and
historian Geoffrey Cornish insists that it was Tillie, not
Groucho Marx, who first said, "I do not care to belong to a club
that accepts people like me as members."
Tillie became a millionaire several times over in the Roaring
'20s, but he spent at least as much as he earned. He, Lillian
and the girls lived in a colonnaded mansion in Harrington Park,
N.J., that was crammed to the rafters with expensive furniture
and glassware. They entertained fabulously, catering to Broadway
celebrities and czarist nobility (although Trotsky was also a
pal). Tillinghast spent more money on drink than most men
earned, and in his aspirations to be part of the theater world,
he invested foolishly in Broadway musicals.
He was also a troubled man, prone to pistol-waving rages when
drunk and capable of disappearing without explanation for
periods of several weeks. "No one ever knew where he would go,
but we assumed church was not on his itinerary," says his
grandson Dr. Philip Brown Jr., a member of Rochester (Minn.)
Country Club, whose course was designed by Tillinghast. Sober or
in his cups, he frequently displayed an insultingly imperious
manner. When Brown's father asked for Elsie's hand in 1922, the
young medical student foolishly sought to impress her old man
with a recitation of his high examination scores. Tillie
regarded the swain with undisguised contempt, replying, "The
only test I'm interested in, young man, is the results of your
Wassermann test [for syphilis]."
For Tillinghast, the high life would come to an abrupt halt with
the Wall Street crash of 1929. There was no market for
golf-course construction during the Depression--283 country
clubs shut down in 1934 alone. Tillie went broke, but an old
friend, PGA president George Jacobus, temporarily came to his
rescue by hiring him as a consultant to help clubs nationwide
reduce expenses. Tillie, the bunker debunker, supervised the
removal of 7,427 "unnecessary" sand traps on 370 courses, saving
country clubs $320,000.
However, the job lasted only 15 months, and in 1937, believing
Beverly Hills, Calif., to be the last bastion of wealth in the
country, he moved there and opened an antique shop stocked with
his own expensive goods. His partner in this venture was Nedda
Harrington, whose father was the inspiration for George M.
Cohan's popular song Harrington--That's Me. She would later
marry the stage and film director Josh Logan. Tillie also kept
his hand in what little remained of the golf-course business,
forming a partnership with the West Coast designer William P.
(Billy) Bell, but work was exceedingly scarce.
Then, after years of unimaginable abuse, Tillie's health failed.
He learned he had diabetes as early as 1929, but in 1940 he
suffered a heart attack. No longer able to work, he abandoned
the antique business and, with the ever-loyal Lillian, moved in
with older daughter Marian, then Mrs. Harold Worden, in Toledo.
He was, though cold sober at that time, an insufferable
houseguest, bellowing instructions to wife and daughter from his
sanctuary in a bedroom upstairs. Brown remembers him as "gruff,
not the sort of fellow with a great deal of warmth. He'd roar at
my Aunt Marian, who was a real lady, but very much afraid of
him." A second heart attack, on May 19, 1942, ended Tillie's
uproarious life. He was 67.
For all his contributions to the game, he was little remembered
by the golf community after his death. Then, on the eve of the
1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, USGA senior executive director
Frank Hannigan hailed him as "the forgotten genius of American
golf" in an article published in The Golf Journal. Dead for 32
years, Tillie the Terror was once more in the public eye.
That '74 Open was the seventh held on a Tillinghast course, and
there have been three more since. The PGA at Winged Foot was the
sixth on a Tillie layout. The recent Walker Cup at Quaker Ridge
was the third on one of his courses. Tillie courses have also
hosted five U.S. Amateurs, five Women's Opens, two Senior Opens
and one Ryder Cup. Winged Foot alone has been the site of nine
national championships. With renewed interest in the profession
Tillinghast helped create, the golf world is finally giving him
the recognition as an artist that he so richly deserves.
"He was an unusual man, to say the least," recalls former USGA
president Sandy Tatum, "but he was a certifiable genius. You
always know when you're on a Tillinghast course without being
told. You stand on a tee feeling stimulated by what's ahead and
not in the least visited with the sort of hysteria you might
feel on some other unfamiliar course. With Tillinghast you can
only anticipate a pleasurable experience."