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MISSION HILLS, KANSAS | As another major championship plays out this week at Winged Foot’s vaunted West course, we will be reminded once again of the enduring architectural genius of A.W. Tillinghast. Along with Baltusrol and Bethpage Black, Tillinghast courses are generally go-to venues when a major championship is looking to tap the New York regional market. The northeastern United States is sprinkled with Tillinghast original gems from the first third of the 20th century – Aronimink, Ridgewood, Newport, Sunnehanna, Philadelphia Cricket Club (Wissahickon), Somerset Hills, Quaker Ridge and Shawnee. If Tilly simply offered a little advice to a colleague, you could end up with Hell’s Half Acre on the seventh hole at Pine Valley. When he traveled to the left coast for his only California original design, he left behind the venerated San Francisco Golf Club.
As one of only six golf course architects inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Tilly’s prolific work is pretty well known and the vast majority of it is in the northeast where he was born and raised in Philadelphia. In Westchester County, New York, where Winged Foot resides, you can barely turn a corner without running into one of the 10 courses he had a hand in designing there.
That’s why it comes as a bit of a surprise when you drop dead into the heart of the continental United States and find three A.W. Tillinghast courses in the area around Kansas City, Missouri. Two of them – Kansas City Country Club and Indian Hills Country Club – sit side by side in the plush Country Club District on the Kansas side of State Line Road in toney Mission Hills. The third is Swope Memorial Golf Club, a municipal course adjacent to the zoo with views of Kansas City’s downtown skyline. Each of the courses is beautiful in its own way, and each with unmistakable Tillinghast features in its green complexes and natural sweep across rolling terrain.
“I love history and I’m fully aware of what we have here,” said Mike Ricket, the head professional at Indian Hills since 1982. “When I bring it up with buddies at PGA shows, they say ‘Oh my goodness, you have Tillinghast course?’ I think people appreciate the significance of it.”
The natural question is, how exactly did Kansas City find itself blessed with a Tilly trilogy?
“The first thing to figure out how Tilly got somewhere is to look for connections,” said Phil Young, the former historian for the Tillinghast Association and arguably the world’s foremost authority on everything Tilly. “From a personal standpoint, there isn’t any connection to Kansas City. But from a golf playing perspective there is.”
Kansas City Country Club originally was formed in 1896, the third oldest country club west of the Mississippi River. Its first course, on what is now Loose Park in Kansas City, played host to the inaugural Trans-Mississippi Amateur in 1901. The Trans-Miss annually brought together top golfers from member clubs all up and down the Midwest, and as the years progressed Tillinghast’s reputation for designing quality courses spread by word of mouth from players. In 1916 when the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, wanted someone to build a municipal course at Brackenridge Park, he called Tillinghast based on a recommendation of a golfer who was impressed by Shawnee in Pennsylvania. So when Tilly showed up in San Antonio for that job, a week later Fort Sam Houston hired him to design 27 holes for them. Two weeks later, Country Club of San Antonio commissioned him to redesign its 18-hole course.
“In a five-week period he designed those 63 holes, staked them all out, did all the drawings, made plasticine models for each green site and later came back and followed through on how they were doing,” Young said. “Now he’s known in the region.”
That’s how Tilly returned to Texas in the early 1920s and designed Brook Hollow and Cedar Crest in Dallas, went back to San Antonio to design Alamo (now Oak Hills) and passed through Tulsa, Oklahoma, to design Tulsa Country Club and Oakhurst (now Oaks).
“Everyone spoke of his work as terrific so he was the guy you want,” said Young of Tilly’s expansion into the southwestern and midwestern U.S. “That’s what got him to Kansas City Country Club.”
When the $1-a-year lease for KCCC ran out on its original course, it moved to its current location in Mission Hills. That forced six-year tenant Community Golf Club – which had been using a course mapped out by Tom Bendelow on the KCCC site next to Mission Hills Country Club – to relocate a half-mile up the road where it was building its own course called Indian Hills. Local developer J.C. Nichols brokered all the Country Club District acquisitions and originally intended to have Bendelow build Indian Hills. But with Tillinghast set to create a new course for KCCC in 1925, he double-booked him to design Indian Hills at the same time.
“Tillinghast made a visit out here in late ’24 and sealed the deal as to him being designer because he was already the designer of KCCC,” said Brian Whitaker, the unofficial historian at IHCC.
KCCC is most famously the course where Tom Watson grew up and learned the game that made him an eight-time major champion before resigning from the club in 1990 due to its previously exclusionary membership rules. The only lingering evidence of Tillinghast’s work is a $2,500 receipt for his services.
“There’s little evidence he spent a ton of time here other than laying it out,” said Allan Stark, a KCCC member and historian.
Indian Hills has a story from The Kansas City Star (dated Feb. 14, 1926) hanging in its Tilly’s 19 bar detailing Tillinghast’s new course plans, including his names for all the holes including Rabbit, Jane, Venice, Jonah, Topsy and The Reef. “Problems Aplenty, as Well as Scenic Beauty, Is Planned by A.W. Tillinghast, Widely Known Architect” the headline states.
When Tillinghast returned to Kansas City a decade later for Swope, it was well-documented every step of the way. He was first contracted to design three new courses and rework another at Bethpage State Park in New York as the first project approved to use Works Project Administration money. Envious of the Bethpage project, Kansas City made its own pitch a week later to do something similar at Swope Park’s No. 1 course (now Swope Memorial). It was the only other municipal golf project approved by the WPA, for the sum of $18,000.
“That’s how they got Tilly, because he was part of the WPA package at Bethpage,” Young said.
What was projected to be a lengthening (from 5,700 yards to approximately 6,400) and redesign to potentially attract championships turned into a completely original course plan after Tillinghast associate T.H. Riggs-Miller inspected the site. Tillinghast wrote a story entitled, “Golf Doing Its Part” in a January 1934 edition of Golf Illustrated: “The fall months witnessed an encouraging resumption of course construction, and in nearly every instance the subscriptions were obtained without difficulty when it was announced that hundreds of men who needed work were to be engaged. This good work carries on throughout the winter with the much-needed reconstruction of the Kansas City, Missouri, municipal course at Swope Park, inspired not so much by the obvious desirability of improvements as by the opportunity of giving relief to the many unemployed in that city.
“Mr. Riggs-Miller, at a preliminary survey a few weeks ago, believed it might be possible to revamp the course to include several of the present holes, but a more thorough survey later prompted him to advise city officials that a complete new course would prove more satisfactory. He said it would be impossible to alter the present one and obtain the best results from the layout he regards as most beautiful and ideal for a golf course.”
Tillinghast drew up the plans in New York and spent a week in Kansas City overseeing the start of construction. He gave a detailed interview to The Kansas City Times.
“Most people have the idea that a golf architect’s main idea is to make a golf course so difficult that only persons with considerable skill can play on it,” said Mr. Tillinghast. “That is wrong. We endeavor to build courses, especially municipal courses, that will be enjoyed by the average player as well as the good player. Kansas City’s municipal course is going to be pleasing to the eye. It’s not going to have too many sand pits, nor be too tough for the man who plays once a week. It’s a municipal course and we do not intend to make it so tough that average players will be discouraged with their game.”
Swope played host to the first Kansas City Open in 1949, a tour event won by Jim Ferrier, and played host to luminaries such as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Charlie Sifford won a United Golf Association national championship there in 1953, and in 2005 it hosted the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links.
Swope Memorial offers views of the Kansas City skyline. Photo: Courtesy of Swope Memorial Golf Club
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