Feature Interview with Phil Young
October, 2004

Phil Young is 51, about to celebrate 30 years of marriage and hastwo ‘very interesting’ sons. He began writing full-time after his first book on Bethpage, Golf For the People: Bethpage and the Black, was published in May 2002. His chronicle of the 2002 Open at Bethpage, Golf’s Finest Hour: The Open at Bethpage Black, was released in Feb. 2004. His biography of Tillinghast, Tillinghast: Creator of Golf Courses, will be released in March 2005 (Classics of Golf publishing) followed May by his history of the Kingsbarns Golf Clubs, both old & new. This is titled, Kingsbarns: Where the Past Meets the Future. In addition to these he is now beginning a history of the East Lake Golf Club & surrounding community, as well as a long-term project that will chronicle the history of Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, Japan, site of the WWII war crimes trials.

1. With everything that is known about A.W. Tillinghast, why did you decide to write a biography of him?

Tillinghast fascinates me. I learned to play golf at Bethpage and have a natural passion for the Black Course. I’ve heard his name since I was young and yet it was only when I researched the history of Bethpage that I came to understand that as well-known in the golfing community as he appears to be, there was actually a great deal of misinformation about him as a person. I wanted to find out why and see if I could get to the true man.

2. Can you give some specific examples?

There are a lot of things. For example, he was a much better husband than he is given credit for. He actually enjoyed a pretty good relationship with his wife Lillian throughout most of their marriage. Another thing that will surprise many is that even though he had an alcohol problem, he was not a card-carrying lush. He was a binge drinker whose bouts were intense but not as often as has been portrayed. In fact he stopped drinking completely in the late 1920s when the heart problems that he would eventually die from were first diagnosed. I was able to procure some of his personal medical information from some of his doctor examinations. One of them in particular referred to his having stopped drinking and that he had not touched a drink in over seven years (up to that point).

Another, and the first source of the exaggerated legend of his drinking excesses, finds its source in George Low, Jr., known by many as ‘America’s Guest.’ According to Red Hoffman, the great golf journalist Herb Graffis penned the lines that Tilly designed with a flask and pointing stick in hand and occasionally his work men would catch a waft of his brew. Evidently, this image of Tilly was provided to him by George Low, Jr., who supposedly witnessed this when he met Tilly while he was designing Baltusrol. At the time, (1918-1922)George Low Sr. was head pro at Baltusroland ‘Georgie’ Jr. was an eight-year old spoiled brat who hung around the Club and was a constant source ofmischief. Much later in his life, and only after Tilly died, George Low Jr.told Graffis thatTilly was a designing drunk. So the legend finds its source at the word of an eight-year old.

3. If these and other unflattering personal things that have been reported about him are not true, how did they come to be believed?

For some reason, it is the nature of our print and news media toaccentuate the negative. Especially when things reported are uncomplimentary, things repeated will eventually get into print and be considered as true history, that is one of the problems with many things written based upon internet research. Besides what has been repeated person-to-person in the years after he died, one of the primary sources for these is the series of articles written by Frank Hannigan about Tilly in the early 70s. In it he related a number of anecdotes about him that were based upon information given to him by Dr. Philip Brown, Tillinghast’s grandson. He, in turn, had asked for anecdotes for the articles from his mother, Tillinghast’s daughter, who had specificdisparaging memories of her father, which became the focus of the article and subsequent media coverage.Some of Dr. Brown’s recollections and child fears of his grandfather’s gruffness also were highlighted. Over the years these anecdotes arerepeated,preservedand misinterpreted by the media.

4. Why should we question the veracity of these two people, especially his own daughter? Having lived with him, wouldn’t she know?

At first glance, that would be a reasonable assumption. The problem is that there were, and still are, others still living, who were even closer to Tilly than these two. These would be Dr. Brown’s own sisters and cousins. No one spoke to them at that time or since about what they know, until I interviewed the three of them, four if you include Dr. Brown. A much different portrait of the man emerged, so much so that even Dr. Brown now questions some of what he & his mother had said.

5. What was said that would cause him to change?

Often when interviews are conducted, questions are asked and when interesting answers are given proper follow-up questions don’t necessarily follow. For example, if you ask Dr. Brown if he can remember ever seeing his grandfather alive, he will tell you yes and then cite a number of occasions and things that he did in his presence. His story of Tilly’s ability to roll a lit cigarette in his mouth is a good one. It deeply impressed him and you can tell that this is a vivid and accurate memory. The problem becomes that no one ever asked him HOW MUCH time he actually spent with him. Dr. Brown and his family were living in Rochester, Minnesota. Although Tilly and Lillian visited, it was only on rare occasions. A day trip from New Jersey by car is something that is impossible today, back then trips like that would have been long ones involving a great deal of time and money. He is only aware of a few visits by his grandparents. Most of his memories actually revolve around the Brown family’s visit to New Jersey in the early 30s. Actually the two most vivid memories that have colored his view of his grandparents involve fear. Lillian was always exceedingly strict and he describes her as fear-inspiring, while he has been terrified of Tilly’s moustache his entire life.

When I spoke to his sisters and his cousin, their portrait of the both of them was of warm, loving, elegant and charming people. Their memories are vivid, clear and very fond.

Based upon what they shared with me, and the bio is filled with their memories, along with Dr. Brown’s, he has begun to believe that his memories were affected by his fears.

6. What about his drinking? Why do you believe that it is different than has been reported?

Part of that reputation also goes back to things said by Dr. Brown. Since discovering the medical records and the date that he stopped drinking altogether (they claim that he had not had ONE DROP of alcohol in over 7 years at that time), some of what he had assumed to be true could not have been, and he realizes it now.

For example, he shared an anecdote in his forward to the book of his grandfather’s writings titled, The Course Beautiful. He states how his mother had told him of an occasion where she was awakened late at night by noise of a scuffle. Looking down from the top of the stairs, she saw, ‘Dadgan, apparently drunk [italics and bold mine] was shouting and waving a pistol while dame held his wrist and shouted back.’

Now the anecdote that his mother relates is of a drunken man threatening to kill his wife, yet this can’t be true. It supposedly happened several years AFTER Tilly had stopped drinking. His mother had made an assumption and had NEVER spoken to either of her parents about what had happened, and Dr. Brown states this saying, ‘The what’s and why’s of this my mother would never know, for apparently she never spoke to either Dadgan or Damee about it.’

If he had not been drinking, what could she have possibly seen? From our vantage today, we now conclude that she may have witnessed her father in an extremely depressed state, possibly threatening to kill himself. This is admittedly conjecture, but we now believe, and this includes all 4 of the living grandchildren who have given me permission to write about it, that he probably suffered from Bipolar Disorder, or what has been commonly referred to as Manic Depression.

7. This is certainly a very different view of Tillinghast and I would suspect will be greeted with some skepticism and viewed as a little controversial.

I recognize that, but I’m also not making the claim lightly or for the simple reason to sell books through controversy.

My oldest son suffers with this same illness and has been hospitalized for it on a number of occasions. My wife and I have learned that unless you have a family member who suffers from a mental illness, you just can’t understand and appreciate what a family will be put through.

As I researched Tilly the man, it became more and more apparent to me that his life displayed many of the classic symptoms of Bipolar. When I first broached the subject with Dr. Brown, a logical first step, he said that he, ‘Found it interesting that I would ask, as he had long thought that he might have been.’

8. What are these ‘symptoms’ that you believed he clearly showed?

First, he was a binge drinker. This is very common as many with BP will use alcohol and drugs to cover over the physical pain of depression that they feel. Secondly, his youth was filled with a series of failures, not because he could not succeed at them, but actually in spite of them. He flunked out of every school he attended as well as being a very poor businessman, constantly ignoring details and doing what he was in the mood to do, rather than what must be done.

Then, his love of golf was way beyond any norm. He manically attacked it, playing every chance he could and enmeshing himself into everything to do with it. This led to his design work. Many BP sufferers suffer from ‘Delusions of Grandeur.’ Though none of us were there, when asked by Worthington if he could design a golf course for his resort at Shawnee, Tilly jumped right in and both designed and oversaw the building of it, despite having had NO formal training or apprenticeships that a normal man would have pointed to as proof of their ability to do so.

The fact that he was able to and that he excelled at it, is also similar to the experiences of many who are BP. Typically they are very talented in a number of areas. His grandiose views of himself are also typical. Take a careful look at his advertising and marketing of his services. ‘Creator of Baltusrol’ and ‘Dean of American-born Architects’ are both self-appointments.

His occasional disappearances also fit in. His family believes that these were occasions of lost drunkenly depressed days. Not one of them believes that these were occasions for lover’s trysts. There are no ‘Missing Tillinghast’s’ out there making claim to the family.

There are a good number of other symptoms that I also cite, and after getting permission from the family, as well as getting separate opinions from a couple of psychiatrist friends, I go into this theory (it isn’t a diagnosis as it is impossible to test for that these many years later) in a chapter titled, A Look Back at a Life.

9. It has been reported for many years that Tillinghast died a pauper and penniless; any thoughts on that?

This also appears to not be true. He had a series of financial difficultiesthroughout his life. He would borrow money from his children and their spouses, but these were always paid back. A careful look at his financial situation during what most would agree had to be the toughest of times to be a golf course architect, the crash of the stock exchange and depression years, paints a muchdifferent picture.

Tilly made a good living designing courses, but not the millions as beenspeculated. The occasions when he borrowed money were due to cash flow problems (even today healthy businesses suffer awaiting collections of money owed) and poor money management (another typical problem suffered by those with BP). Yet he did have a constant stream of carefully controlled revenue that aided him until he died and Lillian for several years after. The Tillinghast Rubber Goods Company.

His father’s company remained a viable entity and was run, after his father died, by his mother first, and then by his wife, Lillian. She finally closed it in 1947, some 5 years after his death. This revenue source has been ignored by those who have made claims of Tilly’s financial failures. Another area that has been overlooked is the date that Tillinghast bought his large house in Harrington Park.

The year was 1930, during the heart of the Depression. If he was nearly destitute, how did he manage to pull that off, and then build a second house in the property? And give it to his daughter and her husband as a gift?

10. But didn’t he lose the house as a result of bankruptcy and failure to pay taxes?

The answer to this is both yes and no. The Tillinghast’s had lived in this house that they loved, since 1925 when they moved from Menlo Park. It was there that his friendship with Thomas Edison was especially cultivated. Apparently they bought the house in 1930 from the family they were renting from and who were themselves experiencing financial difficulties. The loan was made directly with the landlords and not a bank. It was this that caused them to come back in the middle of a tax sale in 1936.

It appears that the family who had title and deed to the property had stopped paying the property taxes, unknown to the Tillinghast’s. They were the ones who forfeited the house and contents. Tilly and Lillian were able to stop the sale, but a number of their precious antiques had been sold and were gone. Still, they were able to save many of them. That they were not destitute is born out by their ability to move the contents of the house into storage, and later out to California. But the house they both dearly loved was gone for good.

11. How good a golfer was his father?

His father, Benjamin Collins Tillinghast, known to all as ‘B.C.,’ was a very good player in his own right. In 1912, just four years before he died, he played well enough to win the Absecum Cup.

What is also forgotten is that Tilly didn’t take up golf. He was taught the game by his father who took him and Lillian to Scotland for the first time in 1896.

12. Speaking of Scotland and St. Andrews, how close was Tillinghast to Old Tom Morris?

Tilly loved the old man dearly. He recounts a number of stories about their encounters, yet they barely convey the depths of his feelings for him. We have come to know that he credits Old Tom with setting him on his path in golf. He came to appreciate by him that a real man was serious and worked hard at his game and his craft. He also credited Tom with inspiring his love of course design.

13. What were the principal influences on Tillinghast’s design beliefs?

Unlike most architects of today, Tilly didn’t have a mentor. He also didn’t adhere to a strict design philosophy, in effect trying to mold and shape a site to fit his pre-conceived notions; rather he applied his beliefs to what he considered best for the location. The one consistent aspect of his designs is that they lack consistency. Four par threes of varying length played in 4 different directions might be preferred, but if a hole was better by being similar to others on-site, then that’s what was done.

There were two ideas that Tilly brought to every design. First, that the course be a challenge and especially not be boring for the accomplished player. The second and equally important was that the course should also be enjoyable for the poor or average player.

In addition to these, he made sincere efforts to design courses that were elastic and expandable, able to be adjusted for the increasing distances that technology would demand. He wrote of the importance of doing this, speaking of 440-450 yard par-fours in the teens & twenties. That his courses have measured up to this and stood the test of time can be seen in the number of his courses that are being used for major championships in this first decade of the 21st Century; Bethpage Black hosting 2 U.S. Opens, Baltusrol a PGA and Winged Foot West and East the U.S. Amateur.

Although I’ve already touched on them, there are two persons who touched his life and helped define him as a person despite his afflictions of Depression and Bipolar Disorder. Old Tom Morris taught him the value of appreciating those who came before and the history of the game. His father gave him the opportunity to grow in it as a player and architect.

14. Tillinghast stated that a ‘controlled shot to a closely guarded green is the surest test of any man’s golf.’ What is a favorite example of a Tillinghast one shot, two shot and three shot hole that exemplifies this design belief?

Let me answer that quote with two of my favorites of his that highlight what was most important to him in the design process:

‘The building of a golf course is costly, and it should not be attempted without serious thought.’

‘That which concerns me most is where the ball lands and exactly what it does after. In most instances the golf holes I plan are conceived in looking backward from a green’s site or from a favorable contour to locate properly the teeing ground.’

I find Tilly’s idea that his designs begin from a green site looking backward as remarkably advanced even when compared to many modern day architects. How many designers have you ever heard plan a course in this fashion? Yet it makes sense. A well-defended green is defined that way by the hazards placed around them. For example, if a green is 200 feet long and 100 feet wide and has a 20 foot deep bunker behind it And a water hazard after that, the hole is not difficult despite the hazards. By proper placement that defines a ‘preferred angle of play’ that will both reward a well-played and punish the shot made poorly, the challenge and fun of the game is greatly enhanced.

It is very hard to find a better example of a one-shotter that exemplifies this philosophy than #10 on Winged Foot West. Unless the pin is in the center of the green and your shot ends up there as well, your putt is a choice of adventures depending where the pin is. Left and long, right and low, any other location and the putt will break in ways that will have your head shaking. The reason for this is the bunkering as much as contours of the green. Look at the three in the picture above. With pins either left or right the bunkers force you to play far away from it. A 20-30 foot putt on this hole might break that much, and forget if you are a little long. Coming downhill, especially out of the back rough is best accomplished by picking the ball up with your hand and placing it anywhere on the green. Even the front bunker takes away the possibility of playing short of the green and rolling it up.

The original ‘Moat Hole’ #15 at Galen Hall is another example of the use of water & rough at a green without any sand. An extreme challenge that is well-rewarded.

The par 5 10th hole at Wyoming Valley with Basset’s Creek a constant threat the entire length of the hole. One can see in the distance how an approach from the right side will open up every pin location on the green, even the ones back left in the smaller area. In order to be right one has to contend with rough and a hillside. An example of a very well-thought out hole from tee-to-green

The 8th hole at North Hempstead is another example of how Tilly would locate greens off the center line of the approaching fairway. Doing this allows the player to play from a number of different angles, each one having its own hazard(s) to consider. This also allows a greater number of challenging pin placements to be used.

With the exception of #10 WFW, I chose there examples because most have never seen them and yet they so typify the design philosophy of Tilly.

15. With regard to designing, how did he convince Worthington to let him design his first course at Shawnee?

That’s easy; Shawnee wasn’t his first course, just his first ‘official’ course.

16. What do you mean by that?

After Tilly returned from his second trip to Scotland in 1898, he was inspired to teach golf and spread it to the masses. In an article, he once wrote how he built a rudimentary golf course in a public park in Philadelphia, using used tin cans that had contained peas for the cups. He then proceeded to instruct those there on how to play the game. So, in a sense, Shawnee was his second course.

17. The Black Course understandably soaks up a lot of the attention at Bethpage State Park; tell us about the Red Course.

The Red Course suffers from being the Black’s little brother; probably in much the same way as some of the other courses at Pinehurst don’t get the respect that they deserve because of #2. The first hole is the best of all 5 courses, including the Black. A long, 450-plus yards, with the last 100 up a quickly rising hill. It takes two terrific shots to get there and is probably an almost medium-length par-5 for most players instead of the 4 it reads on the card.

The 2nd & 3rd holes show where the course lacks as they are 2 of 7 or so holes that are good but average. But the great holes are truly magnificent and would be for any course. The 9th coming back to the half-way house, 12 is a wonderfully awkward par-3, 13 has been changed from Tilly’s original design with an island of waste in the center and fairways around it. They are in the process of restoring it to its original shape. 14 is wonderful & 15 is magnificent; as back-to-back 4s they have few rivals. 16 is a great example of a risk/reward par-5 before 2 finishing holes that are serviceable and good.

This course is the home course of the Long Island Open. When front pin positions are used par is a great score. Craig Currier has also turned around the maintenance of this course to equal what they do for the Black. The management has even asked me to try and encourage as many raters as possible to come & play the Red because they feel strongly, as do I, that it should definitely be given strong consideration as one of the top public courses in the country.

18. Is it true that Tilly gave swing lessons?

Yes. After the nonsense that occurred over his amateur status with the USGA in 1916, he gave numerous lessons, and some to a few very well-known and interesting players.

His granddaughter vividly remembers how one young man visited him and as she sat there watching them on the front lawn; he would not only practice swings, Tilly made movies of them and they would then get them developed and examine them in his basement office frame-by-frame. His name was Ben Hogan.

Also, although she doesn’t remember seeing him instructing him, Bobby Jones visited his home a number of times. They would walk outdoors in the fields behind the house and she went with them. This happened on enough occasions that she actually felt comfortable enough to imitate Jones’ walk, slightly hunched over, hands held behind his back, listening intently to every word that Tilly spoke.

She copied this so well, doing it as she trailed them, that she was given a nickname that she answers to down to this day, Bobby Jo!

19. When is your Tillinghast biography scheduled to be released?

My publisher, Classics of Golf, is known to many on the site. We are tentatively looking at a March release of the Limited Edition, with a trade edition coming out in the summer to coincide with the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. News about it and the ability to pre-order copies and its actual release can be found through the web-site, www.classicsofgolf.com.

The End