As Ron Whitten detailed back in 2002, A.W. Tillinghast had a limited role in the design of Bethpage Black. Yet he will be lauded next week during the PGA Championship while the primary designer, Joe Burbeck, only gets a few mentions.
It’s a peculiar bit of irony that guilty of that at Golf Channel too, where we have a feature set to air during Live From on Tillinghast’s later years in obscurity and his incredible cross-country consulting tour for the PGA of America. But there is also a lovely irony in the PGA Championship coming here that allows us to consider his place in the game later in his life.
Since Whitten’s story seventeen years ago was met largely with frustration, maybe even derision, we’ve come to realize a lot more about course design credit. While Tillinghast seems to have only been on site a small amount and appears to have walked away (or was fired) in frustration with the Works Progress Administration’s methodology, there is still something undeniably different about the scale and design of Bethpage Black that speaks to his influence. Which is undoubtedly why Tillinghast still warrants a co-credit in Golf Digest’s listing of top 100 courses.
Sure, the greens have none of the flair you’ll find at other Tillinghast designs in the area and the course is woefully over-bunkered given his views by the Depression years. But as Whitten detailed, he still had a hand in making the design more than just long and hard.
In August 1937, Tillinghast wrote for the first time about Bethpage Black, in PGA Magazine. He credited Joseph Burbeck with the very concept of the Black Course.
"Now it was Burbeck's idea to develop one of these layouts along lines which were to be severe to a marked degree. It was his ambition to have something which might compare with Pine Valley as a great test, and although my continual travels over the country in the PGA work have prevented me from seeing play over Bethpage's Black since its opening, I am rather inclined to believe from reports from some of the best players that it is showing plenty teeth."
The next few lines suggested he made at least one visit to the Black. He described the par-5 fourth in some detail: "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 by a stinging second shot to get into position to attack this green."
While Tillinghast may have walked out of the studio during the sessions, he was there, crafted key notes and lyrics, and is undoubtedly part of why the Black went to a different place architecturally. He might also have made the 18th hole better had he stuck around.
Whitten has narrated a nice drone flyover of the course to get you in the mood for the Black’s return to major championship golf: