Feature Interview with Stuart Bendelow
Stuart Bendelow, Sr. is the grandson of early American golf course designer Tom Bendelow,1868-1936. Stuart was born in Port Huron, Michigan in 1937 but spent much of his early years in Rockford, Illinois and later Chicago. It was on one of his grandfather’s courses, Sinnissippi Golf Club in Rockford, that he learned to golf in the mid 1940s. While Stuart enjoys golf he says he has not developed his skills at the game like his older brother Jack who has been a golf coach, instructor and course professional in Montague, Michigan. But then he hasn’t retired yet either.
After graduating from Sullivan High School in Chicago, Stuart earned his Bachelors Degree in Earth Science and Masters in Geography from Northern Illinois University. Following additional graduate studies at The Pennsylvania State University, he worked for an economic development consulting firm in Washington D.C. He later worked for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments as a regional planner and then for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as a research supervisor. Stuart plans to retire to the Hilton Head, SC area by the end of 2002.
Like many family history efforts, Stuart’s focused interest in documenting his grandfather’s contributions to golf in America emerged somewhat late. He credits the interests of Medinah Country Club, prior to the 1999 PGA Tournament, for providing him with the motivation to begin work on Tom’s biography. He has received numerous contacts from people with information or wanting information on Tom Bendelow. All of these contacts have been helpful in his documentation of Tom’s life, career and achievements.
Where was Tom Bendelow from?
Tom Bendelow was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on September 2, 1868. He was one of nine children of John and Mary Edwards Bendelow, who operated the Bendelow Pie Shop in Aberdeen.
What was his background in golf?
By his own admission, he began playing golf at the age of five with his father on the Balgownie links, now the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, which was a short distance from his home and was very likely the course on which he learned to play. As a young man he traveled to other courses in Scotland and England to play. He became a good golfer, a competitive golfer, as a youth. He competed in various tournaments of the day but never achieved that championship status, I don’t think his heart or mind were focused on golf at the time. It was on these occasions that he became acquainted with other golfers of the period, some of whom, like Willie Dunn Jr., John D. Duncan, Seymour Dunn, and Alexander Findlay, were to become missionaries of golf to America.
When did he come to America?
Tom came to America in September 1892. His first job was with the New York Herald newspaper. Tom had worked for the Aberdeen Free Press, predecessor to the Aberdeen Press and Journal newspaper in Scotland. Incidentally, the Press and Journal’s golf supplement, Northland Golf, ran a series of articles on Tom about the time of the 1999 PGA championship.
How and when did he get started designing golf courses in this country?
There appear to have been multiple elements moving him into golfing. One of the earliest occurred during a vacation at the New Jersey shore where he made the acquaintance of a businessman who was interested in golf and having a place to play. Tom’s Scottish brogue quite likely caught the businessman’s attention and helped direct their conversation to golf. Discovering Tom’s fairly extensive knowledge of the game, precluded a request for him to layout a few holes for play on some scrub land along Barnegat Bay. This philanthropic gesture may have been Tom’s first layout.
A second encounter involves the Pratt family of Long Island who advertised in the New York Herald for someone to teach the family how to play golf. Family lore has it that the ad never made it into print but was answered personally by Tom. After providing some lessons, the Pratts asked him to layout a few holes on their Long Island estate so the family could play. This may have been his first paying design job. It was recently brought to my attention that the six hole layout Tom did for the Pratt’s was eventually to become part of the Nassau Country Club.
A third element relates to Tom’s association with A.G. Spalding and the Spalding Sporting Goods manufacturing company. Sometime during 1894-95 Tom left the New York Herald and went to work for Spalding. Very likely working out of the New York store on Nassau Street, he was involved in selling balls and clubs, offering instruction, organizing play and designing courses. These were fairly rudimentary layouts, primarily in the New York City and New Jersey area. However there is evidence that he also did several midwestern layouts prior to 1900. It was also during this period that Tom conducted the country’s first golf school in the Berkeley Gymnasium of the Carnegie Building in New York City..
His most notable early efforts, and the ones that really propelled him into national prominence were at Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. Here he redesigned the existing nine holes, added a second nine, supervised the construction and maintenance of the course, directed play (including the introduction of reserved play ‘tee’ times), organized tournaments and players associations, and offered instruction. This was the country’s first eighteen hole municipal golf course and something of a model for what Tom, and A.G. Spalding, felt should to be replicated across the United States.
During what years was he actively designing courses?
His period of active designing began about 1894 and continued to 1931, the date of the last course I have been able to identify, all told some thirty-seven years.
Did he have a philosophy about his course designs?
I think he had several, some related to his experience, his clients objectives, the condition of the terrain he was working with and the evolution of the game. I don’t think he was a strong proponent of reshaping the countryside to make a golf course. Using the natural setting made for the best result and the least expense. His goal was to give the client the best possible golf layout he could within the client’s budget. This often meant doing without extensive ground movement, water hazards, heavy trapping or other features costly to build and maintain. Small, flat greens are far cheaper to install and keep up than large undulating ones. As golf interests grew and the budgets of his clients rose so did the features of his designs. The courses he laid out in the 1920s were far different than those he did in the 1900s.
One word frequently used in his writings on golf courses is ‘sporty’. I think he meant by this that it should present a enjoyable play for both beginner and advanced player; not too hard to discourage the new player and not without challenge to the more accomplished golfer.
Remember also that Tom was strongly focused on bringing golf to the majority of the populous. He was designing and helping to encourage the development of municipal golf courses all across the U.S. and Canada. Courses in this venue needed to be relatively inexpensive to build, easy to maintain and provide the maximum in playable rounds of golf. Tom’s first twenty years, the time when he laid out a majority of his courses, were with A.G. Spalding & Bros. and the objective was to get people playing. He was also an advocate for free golf or very inexpensive fee courses operated by municipalities.
After Tom left Spalding and became associated with the American Park Builders he had more time to spend on designs and more of his clients had bigger budgets. Construction methods and equipment also vastly changed after WWI. His courses became more challenging, where desired, and incorporated more strategic features. He employed typographic surveys, hydrologic and soil studies, etc. in his design work. Although this later work was rewarding and very satisfying to him, I don’t think he ever lost the desire to make golf readily accessible to everyone who desired to play, even the ladies.
How do you think he differed from some of the other early designers?
I think it was largely a matter of focus rather than talent or ability. Most of the early course designers, those before 1900, had about the same background, some experience with golf in Scotland or England, some contact with other designers and a desire to perpetuate the game in America. Most of the early designers were also excellent golfers and looking to build courses that were challenges to them and others. Their focus appears to have been more at building courses to test ones golfing skills and provide venues for tournament play. These were also predominately private layouts, country clubs, not open to the public. Tom’s focus was about developing more public courses, available to everyone, similar to that present in Scotland. I think he found a champion in A. G. Spalding, albeit for slightly different reasons. It would be interesting to learn if these early designers had any contact with each other, shared any ideas or worked jointly.
Did his work evolve over time?
After a few hundred layouts I can only surmise that his techniques and ability to fashion a course out of the selected terrain changed. Certainly, his early courses were very simple, both in design and in construction. His time at these courses was relatively short. Following the staking of the course and instructions to whoever was going to be responsible for construction, he moved on to the next job. I think this was probably typical of his initial approach during the early years spent with Spalding & Bros. when literally hundreds of courses were designed. This is what made him the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of American golf.
As golfing interests and player’s abilities grew so did Tom’s course designs. He added more features, recommended more shaping of fairways and greens and gave more thought to strategic placement of bunkers and traps. These modifications show up more in the private courses he designed than in the municipal layouts. Municipal layouts incorporated a design strategy all of their own which embodied maximizing play, minimizing costs and sustaining public interest. I believe he lead all efforts in municipal golf course development. At the same time I feel that a number of his later course designs were as challenging as any other done during that period.
During the robust years, after WWI, more interest and dollars were available for golf course construction. It was during this period that Tom was able to direct more time to refining his layouts. He instituted the use of plaster-of-paris models of greens to aid contractors in final construction. Topographic mapping of hole routings, bunkers, traps and irrigation system plans became part of the overall course design, especially during the American Park Builders period. Where he had the time to spend on the design and construction of a course, such as Medinah, I think he definitely demonstrated the caliber of the work he could do.
Have you been able to identify any defining features of his layouts?
I can’t say that I have, although I would hope to by the time I have completed my research. Not being a student of golf course architecture I not sure I know what to look for. Maybe some of your readers can offer so insights to me?
What are some of his better known courses?
From my research so far I would say Tom is most closely identified with courses such as:
Van Cortlandt Park (NYC), Dyker Beach GC (NY), Olympia Fields CC (IL), Medinah CC (IL), Alleghany CC (PA), East Lake GC (GA), Jefferson Park GC (WA), Dubsdread GC (FL), Lake Shore CC (IL), Big Foot CC (WI), Tripoli CC (WI), Dallas CC (TX), South Shore CC (IL), Rosedale GC (Canada), Royal Ottawa GC (Canada).
In the course of my research I have found a significant variation between the listing of courses for which Tom Bendelow is ‘known’ to have designed and those he is’ recognized’ as the designer. Many of Tom’s original layouts have had redesigns, modifications or reviews done by other golf course architects who are now identified by the course as the architect. It has been especially gratifying to me to hear from people who love their TB designed course, wish to preserve it and are interesting in historical information about its development and its architect. I would like to identify those courses that remain unchanged.
How many layouts did he do?
That has been an interesting topic of discussion. As early as 1908 he was credited with 500 layouts. The 1916 Spalding’s Official Golf Guide indicates 600 courses designed. In the American Park Builders booklet of Golf Courses, it indicates he has laid out over 800 courses. And the Chicago Tribune, in Tom’s obituary, suggested that he might have been responsible for one thousand courses in his lifetime. So far, I have been able to identify over 480 courses that have been or still are attributed to him. Regardless of what the exact number is, he was by far the most prolific designer and promoter of golf in this country. More people have learned to play golf on a Tom Bendelow designed course than that of any other golf course architect.
How would you like your grandfather to be remembered?
First of all I would just like him to be remembered or acknowledged for the work he did.
Almost every golf history book I have seen printed since WWII contains no mention of Tom Bendelow at all. Many that do do so in rather disparaging tones. It is hard to reconcile the very positive comments recorded about Tom’s work in the golfing publications of the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s with the absence of any acknowledgment today.
Where do you expect your research to take you?
Well, I have been told that if I want to ‘set the record straight’ about Tom Bendelow, I should get his story into print. My intentions are to gather as much factual evidence as I can to document his life, ideas, work and general contributions to the game of golf in America and then write his biography. I have gotten a lot of encouragement from other writers and members of the Golf Collectors Society. The content of the interviews and discussions on golf architecture posted on GOLFCLUBATLAS.com have also been helpful in directing my information gathering and advancing my knowledge. I would certainly be appreciative of any information or insights your readers might wish to share. My contact detailsincludehome telephone # 301-805-1613, work #301.952.3627 and my email is[email protected].