Albert Warren Tillinghast cut a commanding figure in American golf during the first third of the last century. Born in 1874, he took up the game with a passion early in life and, to put it simply, became a fixture on the golf scene. He seemed to be on hand for every major event and to know everyone who mattered. Indeed, there was hardly any facet of the game that Tillinghast did not explore. Any full account of his life would have to include a multitude of scenes in which Tillie, as he was known in the golf world, appeared in different roles.
Tillie the photographer carried the best camera equipment on his pilgrimages to Scotland, where he took superb pictures of golf scenes and celebrities.
Tillie the author wrote humorous, fictional pieces about golf, which his daughter would later describe as "immense, gushing sentimentalism."
Tillie the advocate was forever promoting the virtues of public golf, and Tillie the entrepreneur owned a combination miniature golf course/driving range with lights, covered booths, and long-hitting contests.
Tillie the phrase maker is said to have coined the word "birdie," though by his own account the term came into more or less spontaneous use among a group of Philadelphia golfers of which he was a member.
Tillie the tournament organizer ran the Shawnee Open, and Tillie the statesman was one of the founders of the PGA of America. Tillie the reporter wrote a syndicated column and published annual, highly subjective and eagerly awaited rankings of the top 12 American players in three categories: professional, amateur, and woman amateur (in 1916, after his first sight of Bobby Jones, Tillie had the foresight to name the 14-year-old the No. 12 amateur).
Tillie the player had enough of a game to make a respectable match against the top amateurs of the day, though never quite enough to beat them on the big occasions.
Tillie the green keeper was the champion of the fledgling USGA Green Section and its agronomic turf research.
The mere listing of his activities suggests, correctly, a man of enormous energy and gusto. He also had a volatile and flamboyant personality. The spoiled son of a wealthy Philadelphian, Tillinghast grew up doing exactly as he pleased and never finished a single school he attended. Like many other men of his class and time, he was a prodigiously heavy drinker, and the Tillinghast legend contains accounts of long binges, epic parties, lavish spending, and pistol-flourishing rages. He was a spellbinding talker, a flashy dresser, and a good hand at the piano. His trademark was a magnificent waxed mustache. With his wife and two daughters, he lived in a splendid columned house in Harrington Park, New Jersey. In a word, Tillinghast was the embodiment of the sporting gentleman of the Roaring Twenties.
Yet Tillinghast would merit nothing more than an honorable footnote in golf history had he not become a golf course architect. His first commission came in the form of an invitation from a wealthy friend to layout Shawnee-on-the Delaware in 1907. At the time, Tillinghast was 33 years old and hardly seemed to have the temperament or discipline for any sustained enterprise. But he threw himself into the task and produced a course that was instantly hailed a success. Tillinghast was on his way. For the next three decades, he lived and breathed golf architecture.
The enduring image of Tillinghast is that of the architect, always impeccably dressed and groomed, poring over the plans for a golf course. He was very much a hands-on architect who liked to make his designs "in the dirt," relying on the inspiration of the moment to fashion the details of each hole as it emerged from the landscape. In the accounts passed along by old timers, Tillinghast's working method was to seat himself in the shade of a tree, bottle in hand, and call out directions to his workmen as they shaped the course with their mule-pulled scoops.
As golf historian Herb Graffis wrote, "The laborer and mule would occasionally get a sniff of Tillie's richly-flavored exhaust and knew they were working for a man of great power and artistry." In 1918, when Baltusrol hired him to construct two new courses, Tillinghast was just hitting his stride. His services as an architect had been in demand, but his golf courses were spread across the country in Florida, Texas, and California. In New Jersey, he had built courses at Shackamaxon and Somerset Hills, but he had never won a commission of the magnitude and prestige of Baltusrol. Strictly speaking, no American golf architect before or since has ever received such a commission, and Tillinghast stood to gain more from Baltusrol than Baltusrol stood to gain from Tillinghast.
As it turned out, both Baltusrol and Tillinghast were winners, and Tillinghast's work at Baltusrol placed him securely in the first rank of American golf architects. Throughout the 1920s, he was a whirlwind of activity, building or remodeling golf courses all over the country. Some of his more notable courses included Winged Foot, Ridgewood, Quaker Ridge, and Bethpage Black. His career lasted until the Great Depression brought golf course construction to a standstill, but Tillinghast managed to stay in the game as a course inspector for the PGA. When that job ended, Tillinghast had a fling as an antique dealer in Beverly Hills, where he seems to have sold off many of the possessions he and his wife had collected over the years. In 1940, after a heart attack, he went to live in Toledo, Ohio with his eldest daughter. He died there in1942.
For several decades he was forgotten by the golf world, though his courses continued to give pleasure and serve as tournament sites. In recent years, the extent of his legacy to American golf has come to be better understood and appreciated, for it is abundantly clear that Tillie had a genius for building golf courses that endure. In retrospect, it seems fitting that he deserved all along the title he gave himself: the “Creator of Baltusrol.”