The Bethpage Mystery
by Geoff Shackleford
Isn’t it a little ironic? The glare of our National Championship has once again provided the opportunity to bring a forgotten genius to light. Twenty-eight years ago the United States Open came to A.W. Tillinghast’s Winged Foot West and it was discovered there were a total of four Tillinghast designs hosting USGA events that year – the Curtis Cup at San Francisco GC, the US Amateur at Ridgewood and the Junior Amateur at Brooklawn in addition to Winged Foot.
This coincidence inspired Frank Hannigan of the USGA to explore the life and works of this unknown golf course designer. The result was a wonderfully researched piece in the May 1974 issue of Golf Journal entitled Golf’s Forgotten Genius which for the first time we were exposed the awesome talent and colorful character of Tillie. Fast forward to 2002 — Tillinghast is now a house hold name among golf architecture aficionados and the US Open is now gracing another of his masterpieces, his last great design, the terrifying Bethpage-Black.
And with the focus of another Open we are now learning of another potential forgotten genius – Joseph Burbeck. In an equally well-researched article The Real Man Behind the Black Ron Whitten of Golf Digest concludes that this obscure park superintendent, and not Tillinghast, is the true designer of the Black course at Bethpage.
Whitten’s argument centers around several interesting discoveries. A history of Bethpage which states that Joe Burbeck oversaw the design and that Tillinghast was merely a consultant. Information gathered from contemporaneous articles that he believes indicate the courses were designed prior to Tillinghast’s hire. A theory that Tillinghast was simply hired to generate news and to give a shaky project legitimacy. And finally that Tillinghast at that time was a mere shell of his former self, the result of hard living, financial disaster and a general disgust with his art.
The irony of the story struck me. We all appreciate the underdog and sympathize with the unappreciated and unrecognized, that was one of the reasons we were initially drawn to Tillinghast. But now the former forgotten genius, now an architectural great, has been upstaged by the most unforgettable of figures. Is it possible that these world class designs are really the work of anonymous park superintendent and if true why did the truth evade us for so many years? I sought to solve the mystery.
I began by looking into Burbeck’s background. According to the Golf Digest article, Burbeck graduated from the Massachusetts Agricultural College (U.of Mass) with a degree in Landscape Architecture and then went on to help build golf courses in the Midwest (for whom and precisely where is not known). I found that sure enough he did graduate from the school (which is in Amherst, Mass and was known for its agricultural engineering curriculum) in 1924 with a degree in Landscape Gardening. Burbeck it turns out hailed from Peabody, Mass and in 1928 he listed his occupation as Landscape Engineer. I was unable to document his golf construction experience, but it is interesting to note that Donald Ross built Salem CC (Peabody, Mass) in 1925 and that Ross had an office in North Amherst manned by one of his top assistants, Walter Hatch. Hatch just so happened to be a fellow graduate of Massachusetts Agricultural and was responsible for the construction of many of Ross’s Midwest designs.
While Burbeck was laboring to construct golf courses in the Midwest, Robert Moses was laying the groundwork on a career that would eventually elevate him into one the most powerful men in New York, if not the country. Working for Governor Al Smith, Moses crafted a Park Plan for the State of New York (and the subsequent legislation) which was hailed by park planners throughout the United States. Its stated goal was ‘to provide for permanent improvements as well as the acquisition of land . . . for large facilities which make a park accessible and attractive for people.’ And ‘permanent improvements’ did not refer only to existing parks, but also to ‘parkways and boulevard connections between state parks and between state parks and neighboring centers of population.’ Each park would no longer be a separate entity, a state park system would be created with the state divided into regions administered by a regional ‘ park commission.’ The presidents of each regional park commission would sit on a State Council of Parks which would control and unify park policy. In 1924 a $15,000,000 bond referendum which was part of the proposal was overwhelmingly approved. That same year the Governor appointed Moses president of the newly formed Long Island State Park Commission. A week later the greater State Council of Parks elected Moses as its chairman.
One million dollars was the amount available to Long Island out of the $15,000,000. Moses had informed the legislature that was all he needed, but he actually had much larger ideas and a million would only pay for a small fraction of those plans. According The Power Broker, written by acclaimed biographer Robert Caro, Moses chose to use his funds for the purchase of land. ‘Instead of spending the million to complete a few parks, he spent it to acquire land for many–for Montauk Point State Park and Hither Hills State Park and Wildwood State Park and Sunken Meadow State Park and Belmont State Park and Hempstead State Park and Valley Stream State Park–and to at least begin development of all of them as well as the Fire Island State Park and Jones Beach State Park he had previously acquired.’ He could drive a lot of stakes for a million and was confident that he could get more money from the legislature down the road — ‘he had learned how to get things done.’
His first great project would come in 1927 at Jones Beach less than twenty-five miles from Time Square. ‘One day he invited to Jones Beach Gilmore Clarke, landscape architect of the Bronx River Parkway, Harvey W. Corbett, the architect responsible for the design of some of the Long Island barons’ most beautiful manor houses, several other famous architects, landscape architects and engineers and handful of young commission staffers with whose work he had been impressed. As the little group of men stood on the vast empty expanse of sand, Moses began pointing.’ He envisioned two enormous bathhouses–with ten thousand lockers each–resturaunts, canopied terraces, a boardwalk, swimming pools, wading pools, diving pools, a boat landing, athletic fields, a yacht basin. He wanted them to be designed ‘with as much care as the finest public building in America.’
One of the famous architects standing around Moses said, ‘Are you crazy?’ They all knew what he meant, as one of the men later said, ‘Here we were on an absolutely deserted sand bar–there was no way to get there but by boat–and here was a guy this guy drawing X’s on the back of an envelope and talking about bathhouses like palaces and a parking lot for ten thousand cars. Why, I don’t think there was a parking lot for ten thousand cars anywhere in America. And landscaping on a sand bar? We weren’t even sure anything would grow on a sand bar. We thought he was nuts.’ Construction began in the Autumn of ’27.
Enter Joe Burbeck. According to the Golf Digest article Burbeck was hired by the park commission on May 23, 1929, ‘to design and build the pitch-and-putt course between the bathhouses.’ Taking the opportunity to work for the LI Park Commission turned out to be a very wise move. Although the stock market crash did not occur until October – Ross’s, and in turn Hatch’s, production began to fall off in 1929. Ross would design very few courses after 1930 and Hatch would retire from golf course work soon after. Jones Beach has no record of who designed the pitch-and-putt course. Burbeck’s golf course construction experience would’ve no doubt proved valuable, his apparent design inexperience would seem to have been of less value. But on the other hand designing a nine hole golf course whose holes averaged less than fifty yards would not seem to be a very complex affair. Jones Beach State Park opened in August of 1929, the Pitch-and-Putt course opened in 1931 according to Whitten.
In addition to the pitch-and-putt course a master plan for Jones Beach, dating from April of 1930, reveals a regulation 18-hole golf course. Could Burbeck have been involved in the planning of this never constructed golf course? The course was to be built on the far eastern portion of the park, bordered by the Bay to the north and a line of dunes to the south. What is odd about the design is the length of the holes – the shortest being approximately 240 yards and the longest about 450 – in essence eighteen par-4’s (all of them straight and not a single bunker). The routing is less than inspiring, featuring numerous parallel holes and little use of a considerable shoreline.
1929 was also the year that Benjamin Yoakum died. Yoakum was a railroad magnate from Texas who owned a massive estate in the center Long Island near Farmingdale. Moses immediately pounced on the opportunity and the Yoakum heirs offered the 1368 acre property to the State for $1,100,000. Unfortunately the Commission had no funds to acquire the estate or even the money to secure an option on the property, but the crafty Moses, after an initial refusal, eventually persuaded the town of Oyster Bay and the County of Suffolk to contribute $20,000 and $10,000 respectfully to secure an option in June of 1931.
Mr.Yoakum had constructed a private golf course on his estate in 1924 (designed by Devereux Emmet) which eventually operated as a private club known as Lenox Hills. Shortly after the option was secured the Club, fearing absorption into a public golf complex, sought an injunction. The Club’s motion for an injunction was denied by the Nassau County Supreme Court on November 6, 1931, allowing the Park Commission to take over the operation of the golf course under a lease from the owners. As Whitten states the course was renamed Bethpage Golf Club and opened for public play in April 1932.
Without the necessary funding the option was renewed for another year in June of 1932. It is at this point the Golf Digest article claims Burbeck moved he and his family into the old Lenox Hills clubhouse in anticipation of Moses grand plan for Bethpage State Park. According to The Story of Bethpage State Park written by Chester Blakelock and published in a 1949 issue of the Long Island Forum (and later revised and republished in 1958). ‘No means were found during the winter and spring of 1933 to purchase the property so for the third time an option was given for an additional year.’ During the summer of 1933 Governor Lehman called for a special session of the legislature to consider adopting legislation for relieving unemployment. Among the measures submitted was a special act initiated by Moses proposing a public benefit corporation — the Bethpage Park Authority — with the power to issue bonds for acquisition, improvement and operation of the Park. The act was passed and subsequently signed by the Governor on August 26, 1933.
With the funding and purchase now assured the work on developing the park could begin. Whitten writes, ‘Moses didn’t worry about legalities. Using 500 day laborers, work began on one of the new courses (Bethpage Blue) in the summer of 1933.’ It is the evidence of this early work that contributes to the theory that the courses were designed prior to Tillinghast’s involvement. However The Story Bethpage State Park reveals an interesting discovery, ‘The Yoakum tract was ideally situated for state park purposes. It was hilly, well wooded, had one complete golf course, another partially completed . . .’ A second partially completed course. Work could easily begin on this single course which was already laid out and partially constructed (although that winter was one of the most severe in NY history, temperatures dropped below zero on five different days – including one day of fourteen below – and succession of storms dropped a total 52 inches on NYC alone). That is why construction did not commence on the all three new courses in 1933 – they hadn’t been designed.
The Farmingdale Post in May of 1932 confirms the existence of the 2nd course. The article claims the course was laid out by architects for the Commission (one of which may have been Burbeck), which seem to conflict slightly with Blakelock’s account. The exact origin of the course remains unclear, but there appears no doubt a second course did exist.
It is at this point that Whitten implies that Moses, the ‘master showman’, retained A.W. Tillinghast as a consultant to generate news. ‘Tillinghast was hired on Dec. 30, 1933, months after the Blue, Red and Black courses had been laid out.’ There is only evidence that the Blue was laid out prior to his involvement. And as far the rational for Tillie’s hire, this seems very unlikely if you analyze Moses’ history. He was bigger than anyone he ever hired, he generated more publicity single-handedly than the all the prominent architects or landscape architects or golf course architects put together. He didn’t appear to be swayed by public reaction or reputation – he simply hired the person whose design excited him. In the case of Jones Beach that was a young unknown (Herbert Magoon) and for the ’39 World’s Fair one of the most respected Landscape Architect in the nation (Gilmore Clarke). Further more Moses was not a golfer and most likely had never heard of Tillinghast.
Also within The Story of Bethpage Park you will find what Whitten says is the most persuasive evidence of Burbeck’s role. ‘The fours golf courses constructed as work-relief projects were designed and constructed under the direction of Joseph H. Burbeck, the Superintendent of the park, with A.W. Tillinghast, internationally known golf architect, as consultant.’ Awkwardly worded but compelling. The entire paragraph reads:
The clubhouse and three of the four 18-hole golf courses were opened to the public on August 10, 1935. The fourth golf course was opened the following spring. This building is an outstanding example of a 100% work relief project, properly planned and supervised. The four golf courses constructed . . . . as consultant. The four courses are designated as the Blue Course, 6,695 yards; the Red Course, 6,468 yards; the Green course, 6,242 yards; and the Black Course, 6,783 yards; a fifth course, making a total of 90 holes, was completed on May 30, 1958. The latest course, known as the yellow course, was designed by Alfred H. Tull and is 6,228 yards in length.
The phrase ‘designed and constructed under the direction’ has always struck me as an odd way of saying ‘designed and constructed by.’ The fact that Blakelock writes the Yellow was ‘designed by‘ Tull may shed some light on the meaning of those words. It appears that Burbeck’s was supervisory role, he didn’t actually dig every bunker, the bunkers were dug under his direction, likewise he didn’t actually design the golf courses, the golf courses were designed under his direction. Does that mean Burbeck didn’t dig a bunker or two or wasn’t involved in some aspects of the design? I don’t think so, just that his prime responsibility was to oversee or supervise both. One must also remember as park superintendent Burbeck was responsible for the construction of the more than just the golf courses. He also oversaw the construction of the clubhouse, the polo fields, the bridle paths, the parking lots, the roads and all the other features of the park.
But then why is Tillinghast relegated to consultant, why doesn’t Blakelock write that the four courses were design by Tillinghast. First of all we know the Green was designed by Devereux Emmet and only required slight modifications and the Blue was apparently laid out prior to the park project. And the use of the term consultant in this context deserves further scrutiny.
In January of 1934 Moses was given the added responsibility of Commissioner of the newly formed New York City Park Department. He was immediately given permission ‘to hire 600 architects and engineers without regard to present job status and to pay them up to eighty dollars a week’ (the total would balloon to 800 by February). According to Caro’s biography no profession has been hit harder by the Depression than architects and engineers. It was estimated by The Nation that half of all engineers were out of work and six out of seven architects. To oversee this army of architects and engineers Moses convinced heavy weight designers like Gilmore Clarke and Aymar Embury II to work on the New York parks. Clarke, who designed the Bronx River Parkway, was the most famous Landscape Architect in America. Embury had designed Princeton’s acclaimed Class of 1915 Dormitory and many of Long Island’s most beautiful estates (as well as the clubhouses at Old Town, Charlotte, Hope Valley & Southern Pines – and hailed from Philadelphia). They had successful private careers prior to working for the parks and they anticipated success in the private sector during and after their stints with the Parks. Moses understood these projects – involving large numbers of architects, engineers, landscape architects and draftsmen – needed experienced and talented men at the helm. It was because of these circumstances that they were often referred to as ‘consulting architect’ or ‘architect of the department.’ Examples are Embury’s Marine Parkway Bridge, Bryant Park or Triborough Bridge. When Lewis Mumford, architectural critic for the New Yorker, was assigning blame or giving credit for a particular design he didn’t differentiate between architectural consultant and architect — it was Embury. And today there is no dispute among architectural historians as to who deserves credit for these projects. Why should a consulting golf architect be looked upon any differently?
There may have also been a financial considerations for this designation. Although Tillinghast apparent arrangement of $50 per day for a maximum of 15 days looks to be a mere pittance in comparison to his glory days, it was a reflection of the times. $750 wouldn’t have been a bad payday, in fact any pay was good at that time — just ask Alister MacKenzie. It is also worth noting that Moses was known to get around the limitations of civil service through gifts and other creative means. As Robert Caro explained ‘In rewarding his men financially. Moses was hampered by civil service limits on pay and promotion schedules, but his ingenuity found hundreds of ways around these strictures.’ In addition it seems clear that Tillinghast was proud of the fact he was Bethpage’s consulting golf architect. There is no evidence to suggest that he looked upon it in a negative way or that he was dissatisfied with the financial arrangements.
In the February issue of Golf Illustrated Tillie describes the scene at Bethpage:
It is a morning early in January, snow covers the ground, sparsely over the open reaches, but deeper in the gullies and swales of the woodlands of thirteen hundred Long Island acres. Six hundred men start work this wintery morning, men who have needed occupation. Now they are stepping into the program of the Long Island State Park Commission, which is to provide employment for men and a the same time mark the establishment and speed the building of 72 holes of golf for the use New York’s golfers who frequent semi-public courses.
The old Lenox Hills course at Bethpage forms the nucleus of this plan, which provides for the construction of three entirely new courses with some additions and eventually improvements to the existing one.’
It is clear there is a plan for a 72 hole complex, but there is no specific mention of any of the courses, with the exception of Lenox Hills, and there is no way to determine at what stage they are in the design process.
Two months later in the April issue of Golf Illustrated there is an article on Bethpage written by Benjamin Van Schaick Executive Secretary of the LI State Park Commission. Van Schaick a long time friend of Robert Moses was one of his first hires in 1924 and was more or less his right hand man. In the article he describes the nature of the project and indicates the courses will be constructed with the help of the Civil Works Administration (CWA). ‘The courses are being laid out and constructed under the direct control of the LI State Park Commission . . . Mr.A.W. Tillinghast has been retained as a consultant in the planning and development of the golf courses. Work on the three new courses is well under way and when completed in twelve months, will provide a total of four of the most up-to-date and well equipped public courses in the country.’ He goes on say ‘During 1933 much of the preliminary work on the second golf course was completed by the use of work relief labor . . . The first of the additional courses will be ready for play this fall.’ Further evidence of the Blue being devised and constructed prior Tillie. Van Schaick also states that Clifford Wendehack was hired to help in the preparation of the plans and for the construction of the clubhouse. Wendehack was the most prominent clubhouse designer of the era — responsible for the design of the clubhouses at Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, Ridgewood, North Hempstead among others.
It appears from the details in the article that unlike his boss Van Schaick was a golfer. Following the article Tillinghast added a few paragraphs of his own observations, explaining that he was honored to be selected by the Commission as the consultant in the planning of these courses. He reiterates that the courses are well under way and describes the wonderful nature of the property — comparing it to Pine Valley. ‘The terrain presents infinite variety. Never quite flat but gently undulating, it grades to impressive ruggedness which is never permitted to suggest arduous playing conditions. It is strongly remindful of the Pine Valley land, that strange freak of rolling country in otherwise flat south Jersey. The fairways, too, is similar to that of the famous Pine Valley in their isolation one from the other.
The swales and valleys, through which the play passes to the higher ground of the green sites, are naturally quite perfect and of great appeal. Particularly on Courses No.3 (Red) and No.4 (Black), where the wooded areas are used to greatest extent, is this feature emphasized.’
The article had to be written prior to March 31 for that is when Congress abruptly disbanded the CWA (half of Moses workers were forced to be released which delayed the project). The article featured a rendering of the clubhouse and four photographs — one from the old Lenox Hills, one of an identified new hole and two from the partially constructed course No.2 (Blue). It is also now clear that the courses are all under construction and obviously the plans for the courses are now complete. There is no mention of Burbeck specifically, however it is acknowledged that the courses are being constructed under the direct control of the Commission. Another note of interest — Van Schaick hailed from the Philadelphia area (born and raised in Germantown) and was three years Tillinghast’s junior.
In the May of 1934 it was announced in the NY Times (May 25th) that the purchase of the property was now officially complete. There was also an update of the construction progress, it claimed the first course was 70% complete, the second course was 60% complete and third course was 30% complete. It seems likely they are referring to the Blue, Red and Black. Based on the accuracy of those percentages there are those who suggest it was an impossible amount of progress in such a short period considering Tillinghast was first engaged in late December, but these were unusual circumstances. The Commission had a large number of architects, landscape architects and engineers at its disposal – not to mention more than 25 draftsmen. Armed with a detailed contour map, it wouldn’t have taken Tillinghast long to get his ideas on paper after walking/studying the site (and remember it only involved the routing of two courses). That same year in NYC under Embury’s direction plans for the entire Central Park Zoo complex were completed in an astounding 16 days. In addition to the design assistance, these projects had a massive work force to carry out their plans. Tillinghast wrote that there were 600 laborers on the job in January of ’34 and according to Blakelock at its peak there was many as 1800 men on site. And we are not talking about an old fashioned horse and scoop job, they had modern earth moving equipment on hand in addition to the tremendous manpower.
Bethpage wasn’t the only golf course project under Moses guidance in 1934. In NYC Moses had undertaken the total modernization of the city’s golf facilities — four new clubhouses, two new 18-hole courses, a new nine added to an existing 18 and completely remodeling, lengthening and renovating its seven remaining courses, all under the direction of golf architect John Van Kleek — and all to be completed by Labor Day (in fact Tillinghast wrote about this in Golf Illustrated , heartily commending Mr.Moses for the project and his shire of Van Kleek). Time was of the essence, they had no idea how long the cheap labor force would be available. As an example there were 1700 renovations of building and parks completed in NYC the first five months after Moses was appointed. Its no wonder why Van Schaick anticipated Bethpage Park would be completed by April of 1935.
The U.S. Open was held at Merion in June of ’34 and according to both Whitten and Hannigan, Robert Trent Jones remembered walking with Tillie during the championship and he told the young Trent Jones he ‘didn’t care if he built another golf course, that he’d had it.’ RTJ actually wrote an article in the July 1934 issue of Golfdom in which he analyzed Merion from an architectural viewpoint. RTJ wrote, ‘Another opinion I was interested in was A.W. Tillinghast, creator of Fresh Meadow and Winged Foot. ‘It’s a great course’, said he, as we scampered after Sarazen with the melee. ‘I would prefer it didn’t have bent greens. This type of trapping is my own belief for good architecture.” It would only be natural for an extremely successful architect like Tillinghast to be frustrated by the economic malaise caused by the Depression, but based on his apparent excitement for the Bethpage project, conveyed in his writing, and based on his subsequent long (and successful) design stint with the PGA any temporary frustration didn’t effect his design activities. And there is no reason to believe it effected his assignment at Bethpage.
Tillinghast wrote a third Bethpage article that appeared in the October issue. In it he praises the caddie corps and commends Burbeck for its establishment. It is at this point the Golf Digest article paints a very gloomy picture of Tillinghast. It states that in February of 1935 the banks foreclosed on his home and soon afterward he would lose his job as editor of Golf Illustrated. To add insult to injury on April 18, 1935 he is ‘laid off’ from Bethpage (sixteen months after agreeing to a 15-day contract). It would appear Tillie was unraveling at the seams — not exactly the image of stability normally associated with a great design like Bethpage. But is that a fair assessment? According to a letter written from Tillinghast to George Jacobus, he wasn’t forced to ‘close’ his home until September of 1936. He did lose his job as editor of Golf Illustrated but through no fault of his own. The magazine had been struggling financially and was forced to merge with its more popular competitor American Golfer — its last issue was July 1935 (unfortunately for American Golfer it would go under the following year). The exact circumstances of Tillie’s parting with Bethpage is not known, but there is no evidence that it was unexpected or involved bad play.
It is interesting to note that in the Van Schaick article from April, 1934 he wrote that the entire project would be completed in 12 months, is it possible that was the duration of Tillinghast’s agreement? Perhaps he was engaged to help in the design of the golf courses and not to oversee the construction. With the massive construction machine assembled by Moses it would seem to be a distinct probability. Tillinghast had left because his work was done.
The same day that Tillinghast was ‘laid off’ Robert Moses led a group of newspaper men and photographers on an inspection of ‘The People’s Country Club.’ According to a NY Times article the Blue course would open a week from Sunday (4/28). Just prior to the opening the Farmingdale Post did a feature on the Blue course in which it described all eighteen holes, including the 5th which was referred to as the Reef. The Reef was a concept conceived by Tillinghast and documented in a Dec.1926 article in American Golfer and also in George Thomas’s Golf Architecture in America (1927). Did Tillinghast design the Blue’s Reef or did he modify a hole designed by Burbeck (or someone else) or did Burbeck borrow Tillie’s concept when he designed the hole — it remains a mystery.
July 1935 marked the final issue of Golf Illustrated and in it Tillinghast describes a promising endeavor started by the PGA which will lend professional architectural expertise and advise to its member clubs free of charge. He fails to mention that he will lead this program and in August he embarks on a PGA tour. The Golf Digest article implies he was given the job out of pity. Herb Graffis wrote in The PGA that Tillinghast was hired for a flat two months but that word of the Tillinghast service got around quickly, and there was such demand for his advice that his time was extended. ‘Then it was determined after having been the best thing the PGA had done to present the professional to his employers as a helpful authority on golf courses. As a matter of fact, this two-year architectural service was so successful it embarrassed Tillinghast.’ Tillinghast was obviously still of sound mind and apparently not burned out.
At about the same time Tillinghast left on his 1935 PGA tour, the Red course was opening for play. The NY Times described the opening of the Red and the new clubhouse in its August 10th addition. The following spring the Black would finally open. Just prior to its opening an article appeared in Golfdom written by Joseph Burbeck. In the cleverly entitled The’Peepul’s’Club he describes, in some detail, the facility which would be welcoming the 1936 Public Links Championship. There was some mention of the golf courses but surprisingly little in comparison to the other facilities – reflecting Burbeck’s pride in all aspects of the park. There was no mention of who designed the golf courses although he does quote Tillinghast in regards to the caddie program — which seems to indicate a good relationship.
The following year (1937) there appeared two more articles dedicated Bethpage. The first of these appeared in the July issue of Golf Review Monthly. A Paradise for Golf’s Forgotten Man by Lester Rice was a fairly long article which prominently features the Black and the man behind the Black — Joe Burbeck. Much of the article involves a running conversation between the author and Burbeck as they play the Black course. ‘Never in all my wanderings over the face of bunkerland have I ever seen the like of traps at Bethpage. ‘Its a terrible place, isn’t it?’ I said to Burbeck . . . He had no solacing words for the hardships I had undergone–only a superior smile. Having fiendishly planned this ‘inferno’, he had carefully avoided its pitfalls like a man stepping from stone to stone.’ He goes on to discuss who was responsible, ‘ ‘All of this was whose idea?’ I asked Burbeck, the architect who had designed and constructed three of the courses and renovated the fourth . . . ‘Robert Moses, head of the Long Island State Park commission, is responsible,’ he answered. ‘In his effort to gratify everybody’s desire for recreational pleasure he had provided beaches, picnicking grounds, bridle paths . . . And he realized there was a tremendous demand for golf. Bethpage is the state’s gift to the golfer without a club to call his own.’ ‘
In regards to the design Burbeck continues ‘No land was spared for two reasons. We wanted to individualize each hole and we wanted plenty of room to guard against accidents. You may have noticed the ample space between adjoining fairways. Flying hooks and slices can scarcely reach players coming up or going down these neighboring holes. We made fairways unusually broad to keep play from lagging on busy days. There is 200 acres to each course.’
A.W.Tillinghast’s Man Killers appeared in the August issue of PGA Magazine. ‘Certainly no course in America has been so much discussed in past years as the Black Course at Bethpage Park, where the Long Island Park Commission accomplished something never before attempted–the planning and building simultaneously over the same tract, no less than four courses. It was my very good fortune to be selected by the Commission as its consultant course architect to aid its engineering force in the development of these courses, and let me say right here that never I received heartier support and cooperation than from Joe Burbeck, the state engineer, who was in daily direction of the entire work from start to finish.’
He goes on to credit Burbeck for the severity of the Black, ‘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 of teeth.’ He then describes the 4th hole and the trepidation he felt in designing this most challenging hole.
Two articles and two distinctly different takes. What is striking in the first article is the total absence of Tillinghast’s name. Burbeck is never directly quoted taking credit for the designs, but certainly the writer makes no bones about who is the creator. It seems unlikely Rice fabricated this on his own. He obviously spent time with Burbeck, he is the only person quoted in the article. Burbeck clearly was the source. It is also interesting to note that when he discusses the design ideas that went into the Black he uses ‘we’ — ‘We wanted to individualize each hole’ and ‘We made fairways unusually broad’.
In contrast Tillinghast is generous in giving Burbeck his due. It is obvious that he had great respect for Burbeck’s abilities and that the two worked well together. This article also supports the idea that there was no bad blood between Tillinghast and Bethpage or Tillinghast and Burbeck. Whatever the circumstances of his departure it doesn’t appear to involve any ill feelings. Tillie also acknowledges he was the project’s ‘consultant course architect to aid its engineering force’ and refers to Joe Burbeck as the ‘state engineer’. There seems to be clear distinction of duties, the architect responsible for the design and the engineer for the construction.
We have gathered a considerable amount of information on the development of Bethpage State Park and its golf courses, but let us start by identifying what we don’t have. We do not have indisputable evidence that either man was responsible. There is a plan for the park, but it was produced by the Commission and bares neither man’s name. There are no notes or sketches or plans in either man’s hand proving the identity of the designer. Neither man specifically claimed he designed the courses. And because of the absence of conclusive evidence we are forced to look at all the clues and information and attempt to piece together a reasonable conclusion.
Ron Whitten writes, ‘The evidence has always been out there, if anyone had bothered to dig for it.’ After digging what do we have? Burbeck does appear to have the background consistent with park development and quite possibly golf course construction. Based on his background it is plausible that Burbeck designed the pitch-and-putt course and quite possibly the proposed crude 18-hole golf course at Jones Beach. That the Green course (Lenox Hills) was designed by Dev Emmet and there was a second course laid out prior to Tillinghast and possibly prior to Burbeck (or maybe by Burbeck). That construction on the Blue (most likely led by Burbeck) began before Tillinghast’s involvement. But the theory that all the courses were routed prior to Tillinghast is unlikely — it appears probable Tillinghast routed/designed both the Red and Black courses. That the Bethpage history that described Burbeck directing the design and construction and Tillinghast as a mere consultant does not appear as clear cut or damaging. That the image of ‘Tillie the Terror’ (with his deserved reputation for heavy drinking and a volatile temper) bankrupt, burned out and unable to hold down a job is not an entirely accurate one. He may have been broke and frustrated, but there is no evidence of it effecting him professionally – in fact just the opposite. That Tillinghast and Burbeck seemed to have had a very good relationship during and after the project. That Tillinghast ended his work at Bethpage in April of 1935 and the Black course was not completed until the following year. That there is no evidence of Tillinghast being hired to generate publicity, in fact that idea is inconsistent with Moses method of operation. And finally that there had to be a good reason for Tillinghast’s hire – he was a brilliant golf architect.
As we reject some of the facts that once pointed to Burbeck, the case for Tillinghast becomes stronger. After all he has been the architect of record for decades and when the facts are less than convincing for Burbeck we must look to Tillinghast. And there is as much if not more evidence to support Tillinghast’s case – the strongest being his brilliant career. The lack of which works against Burbeck in the absence of compelling evidence. Actually the strongest proof of Burbeck’s contribution comes from Tillinghast himself.
It is apparent to me – based on the Lester Rice article and Whitten’s interview with Joseph Burbeck Jr. – that Joe Burbeck believed he was responsible for the designs at Bethpage. After all he was at the site long before Tillinghast was engaged. It is quite possible he laid out the Blue and we do know he began construction on that course prior to Tillinghast’s arrival. He must have tagged along with Tillie as the old man walked and routed the Red and Black courses; he may have believed they did it together. He oversaw the daily construction of the three new courses — Tillinghast very well may have been an infrequent visitor. And when Tillinghast time on the project was over in the spring of ’34, Burbeck had to go it alone. He undoubtedly was quite proud of what was accomplished at Bethpage and rightfully so.
But with all that being said, in my view the Red and Black clearly appear to be the work of A.W. Tillinghast. Ron Whitten wrote that part of Tillinghast’s genius was he had no trademark style, but acknowledges that the Black’s enormous pits were unlike anything he produced before. I disagree that Tillinghast did not have a distinctive style. If you disregard some of his very early designs which were a bit crude/less natural — I believe you will find a very consistent style. If you study the plan’s he drew and old photographs of his courses you will find features that have a very similar look. Winged Foot, Ridgewood, Fenway, Baltimore, Philadelphia Cricket, Baltusrol, Quaker Ridge and many others have common characteristics. Tillinghast’s plans all have an unmistakable look – the way he drew his bunkers, the shapes of those bunkers, their placement within each hole, the shapes of his greens and so on. Tillinghast’s bunkers were irregular in shape but with a soft almost linear quality, often going off in odd little angles, their outlines are flowing with subtle cape and bays. Very few sharp or abrupt angles. They are not clearly flashed, nor are they clearly grass faced — they are a compromise of the two. They are often found on up-slopes or mounds allowing for maximum visibility and effectively increasing their depth. Many times they exhibit a three dimensional quality which is unusual with bunkers of less flamboyant outline. He often placed these bunkers on the edges protruding into play, other times they form diagonal hazards crossing the field of play — in either case the golfer is forced to consider these hazards and choose the best angles of attack. On may of these courses Tillie produced ‘Sahara’ like hazards. A naturalistic waste hazard featuring haphazard growth and utilized as cross-bunkers (perhaps they were a tribute to Pine Valley and his good friend George Crump). And of course his designs featured boldly contoured putting surfaces.
After studying the 1935 Park plan and the 1938 aerial as well as old photos of the individual holes, it is clear to me that Bethpage – in particular the Red and Black – exhibited Tillinghast’s trademark style. Certainly in some cases those features have been taken to an extreme in size or depth or frequency, but that I believe is a reflection of Robert Moses desire to create projects that pushed the envelope of grandness — that is why I believe Pine Valley was chosen as the model. The bunker outlines and shapes are clearly that of Tillinghast. Many are protruding into play or diagonally crossing the fairways. And there are a number of Sahara like hazards – no doubt due to the Pine Valley theme all reflective of Tillinghast (unfortunately the Tillinghast look has been ignored and disfigured in the recent remodeling). All that is missing are his greens.
It is clear to me that Tillinghast deserves the credit – especially for the Red and Black course. Burbeck was no doubt an integral part of the process, but how integral is hard to say. Haven’t there been numerous cases of nameless constructors not getting their due (Walter Hatch for example). Why should Burbeck be any different? Why should he be recognized? I personally believe he should be given credit for two reasons. First because Tillinghast gave him considerable credit. He acknowledged that he was there from start to finish (and Tillinghast like so many in his profession was likely around only sporadically). Tillie also credits Burbeck with idea of making the Black a brute and modeling it after Pine Valley.
The second reason is what has been acknowledged as Bethpage-Black’s weakness — its greens. Burbeck deserves credit for the non-Tillinghast greens. The idea that Tillinghast created subdued greens because of the course’s overall difficulty doesn’t float. I’ve never read any similar thoughts or philosophies coming from Tillie. He was known for the artistry of his boldly undulating greens and designed more than a few difficult tests with such greens — Winged Foot West as an example. He wrote, ‘The character of the putting greens and their approaches mark the quality of a course to far greater extent than anything else. No matter how excellent may be the distances; how cunningly placed the hazards, or how carefully considered has been the distribution of shots,—if the greens themselves do not stand forth impressively the course itself can never be notable.’
And because of his familiarity with Pine Valley (being around for every of step of its development) it seems unlikely he would produce anything other than Pine Valley like greens — greens that are very undulating if not severe. It is reasonable to believe that Burbeck was great admirer of PVGC, it was the most famous course in America and appeared in all the magazines of the day. But it is also seems doubtful he ever walked or played the golf course. It is unfortunate that Tillinghast was not around when the Black was being completed. And for those reasons Burbeck deserves considerable credit for what the greens of Bethpage-Black are not.
Hopefully more information will be uncovered and with it we will once and for all be able to say with absolute certainty who or whom deserves the credit, but for now Tillinghast should be hailed for Bethpage Black and Red. And by the way I think the Putter-Boy and the folks at Pinehurst might dispute Burbeck Jr.’s claim that his old man came up with idea of the Caddie-Boy.