The Treasure and the Whiffensnoozer
The life and achievements of Albert Warren Tillinghast
by Philip Young

Albert Warren Tillinghast, or Tilly, the sobriquet he gave himself in his youth more than a century ago and what he preferred to be called throughout his life, was a giant within his chosen profession. Today, more than 60 years since his death and almost 70 years after he designed his last golf course, his reputation is greater than ever—even the average player can appreciate the grandeur and wonder of a round on one of his courses.

In art, the figures of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and others stand out to the entire world as illuminators of the beauty that human genius can call forth when colors are put to canvas. Yet it is only when the works of Leonardo Da Vinci are seen that man’s passionate need for artistic expression is able to be explained and most fully understood. Tilly is the Da Vinci of golf course architects.

Golf has seen a number of truly great architects over the years. Ross, Mackenzie, Flynn, Raynor and other contemporaries of Tilly designed courses that he admired and envied. Today designers such as the Jones brothers, Rees and Robert Jr., Jack Nicklaus, the wunderkind Tom Doak, the team of Coore and Crenshaw, and others are creating masterpieces that will not only stand the test of time but will help define that test from times to come. Yet just as Leonardo was far more than a great painter, Tilly was more than a great architect. It is his impact on so many areas in and out of golf that warrants the comparison to Da Vinci.

His designs are still recognized as providing the ultimate challenge for the greatest players in the world. In this first decade of the 21st century, his designs at Baltusrol’s Upper and Lower, Winged Foot’s East and West, and Bethpage Black will play host to three U.S. Opens, two U.S. Amateurs and a PGA Championship.

Look at any rankings of America’s golf courses and you will find Tilly’s name dominating in the number of those judged as great. In addition to those already listed, Fenway, Kansas City CC, Newport CC, Quaker Ridge, Ridgewood, San Francisco GC, Somerset Hills and many others of his 88 original designs are continuously sought out by those who want a true test of their game.

A prolific and talented writer, he wrote hundreds of magazine articles, poems and short stories about golf, as well as two books about the game. He was also editor of Golf Illustrated for many years and wrote for all the leading golf journals of his day. Tilly’s writings are essential to our understanding of the game of golf as it evolved in North America, and the principles he espoused are the foundations of contemporary golf course design.  For many, these would be a lifetime’s achievement, yet for Tilly they were but a few of his accomplishments in the game.

An outstanding player, he finished as the second low amateur in the 1912 U.S. Open. He was the Captain of the first team of American golfers to play an international match in another country. It was Tilly who coined the term that all players strive to score on every hole played—“birdie”. He was present at the luncheon where the PGA of America came into existence and also toured the country at the height of the Great Depression, performing a free course consultation service for those courses that employed PGA professionals, thereby possibly saving the organization.

And still his remarkable tale goes on in areas apart from the game he loved. Tilly was a recognized expert who owned several antique stores, an award winning photographer, a self taught piano player who regularly entertained the great and powerful in industry, as well as the stars of Hollywood and Broadway, while still making time to spread the gospel of the game he loved to the common man.

He was a consummate self-promoter. He gave himself the title of “The Dean of American Born Architects” and though many came to agree with him throughout his life, and even down to this present day, to make and use that proclamation in writings and advertisements was more than controversial—it betrayed the almost regal beliefs he maintained about himself.

Tilly’s life was filled with these and more deeds of golfing greatness that deserve to be recorded for posterity—and yet it his darker side, for so long misunderstood and grossly misrepresented, that causes one to truly stand in awe of his accomplishments.

It is too simple a thing to just say that Tillinghast was a genius. That he was able to bring about lasting and memorable accomplishments is a tribute as much to his tenacity as it is to his talents.

From his early youth, Tilly was rebellious, constantly going in his own directions and insisting that his was more than the right way—it was the only way. His belief in his own abilities went beyond the usual teenage righteousness. It was carried through his life as a motivating force behind his decision-making processes and in the way he treated people, including and especially those he loved and cared for.

Yet despite this extreme confidence, Tilly’s youth was a time of major failures among minor triumphs. It is not known how many schools he was sent to, only that he flunked out of all of them. Despite his numerous talents, his strong and likeable personality—or maybe because of them all—he lacked focus and was unable to concentrate on the parts of his life that were considered most important for him by his parents.

In addition to the failures in school was the recklessness he displayed by running with the “Kelly Street” youth gang, thereby damaging the good name of his family and giving hints that a life of ill repute might lay ahead. Fortunately for Tilly, several things intervened to save him from following this path. First, his father was able to provide him with more than a job—he gave him a career with the promise of a successful business to be turned over to him one day despite his poor work habits. Still, without a doubt the single most important gift that his father gave to him was the introduction to, and ability to play, the game of golf. Despite his innate talent—he had failed in everything from school to business—he latched onto golf and succeeded well beyond anyone’s imaginings.

It was his father, B.C. Tillinghast, his closest friend in life, who enabled his son to continue the pursuit of golf and then course design by supplying him with a stipend that would not only provide a living wage but also be enough to maintain a high standard of living for himself and his family. In this way, B.C. helped to free the inner genius of his son to walk openly among the mere mortals of the game and create his masterpieces. What it also did was to set free the inner demons that lurked within Tilly, those that he would battle with constantly. These demons would haunt his personal relationships for his entire life, causing great hurt and anguish to the ones he cared about most.

Among the greatest of these demons was his taste for alcohol. Saying that Tilly had an alcohol problem is nothing new, but explaining the causes of it in his case are extremely complex. Today, we can appreciate that alcoholism is a disease, but in Victorian America it was viewed as a weakness, a moral failing.

Tillinghast was not the “friendly drunk” so frequently portrayed in movies and dramas, nor was he the “stumbling bum” who sleeps his drink off in alleys or gutters. No, his alcohol problems were more insidious and came at times when they would do the most harm.

According to those who knew him when he was alive, Tilly was a classic binge drinker. While he was able to control his alcoholic intake and keep it to workable minimums during his periods of intense concentration and work, he spent years where his regular weekend routines included parties at the Tillinghasts where alcohol flowed freely as both he and his wife entertained. It was even a regular part of his love affair with competitive golf, as he would write about drinking matches held between his team and those they were competing against, and portraying it as normal, healthy fun among good men.

Then there were the dark times when he would disappear from his family. On these occasions— which seemed to coincide with his numerous bouts of depression and would last for as little as a day to as long as a week—he would return home contrite and bearing gifts that he hoped would appease his wife.

Mixed in were days of good family times when his grandchildren would visit. To this day they can recall everything from being afraid of his large handlebar moustache to day trips into the theatres of Manhattan to watch Frank Buck movies. Other fond memories include the times he would share delightful stories with them while gathered around his chair about a make believe character he called the “Whiffensnoozer.”

There are other things that must be remembered about Tilly as we look back on his life. He was a man with tremendous foresight, ahead of his time in many ways. He was the first person to rank the best players of his day, both men and women, and the first person to make mention of a player that all should expect great things from in the future—a young man named Bobby Jones.

Tillinghast was a good man trapped within the prison of his own inner terrors and fears, yet was able to escape long enough to accomplish great deeds. Called “Tilly the Terror” because of his  challenging golf course designs, he was also an ordinary, every day sort of guy, quick with a compliment and smile, loyal to his friends and loving to his family, if oftentimes misunderstood.

One can write a great many things about Albert Warren Tillinghast. For me though, I know that I would love to sit with him on a late autumn day, the sun filtering through the richly colored leaves, out in a field recently cleared, a golf hole formed in the rough. To sit at his feet and listen to his vision of what it would some day be like to play. To be able to glimpse into the mind of Da Vinci and realize that it is really just the Whiffensnoozer hiding behind the greatness. •