Kansas City Country Club has always been reasonably confident of its golf course’s A.W. Tillinghast roots.
KCCC knew Tillinghast was hired by the club on Dec. 10, 1925, based on minutes from a board meeting. They also had a receipt for $2,500 for Tillinghast’s services. There are detailed newspaper accounts on the original design work Tillinghast’s company did at neighboring Indian Hills Country Club, which always mentioned that he was hired for that job because he was conveniently already in town working at KCCC. Tillinghast’s own sales brochures claimed KCCC as one of his original designs.
Beyond those facts, however, there was scant physical evidence of the work Tillinghast did at KCCC. There were no known notes or interviews or drawings or anything that illustrated whatever he did that differentiated the property from the previous Tom Bendelow layout that Community Golf Club was using on the leased land until KCCC exercised its ownership in 1925 and began the move from Loose Park to their permanent Mission Hills, Kansas, location.
When famous club member Tom Watson was doing renovation work to the course years ago, he asked if there was any design paperwork that might assist in his plans and was told that nothing original existed.
Then noted Tillinghast expert Phil Young visited Kansas City Country Club a couple months ago to do more research for the historical profile he’s writing for the club’s 125th anniversary in 2021 and walked into the course superintendent’s office. The super showed him everything he had collecting dust in the corner but assured him there was nothing going back to the origin.
“This is the oldest thing we have, but it only goes back to 1927,” the superintendent said.
“Without even opening it, I said ‘That’s exactly what I’m looking for. That’s when Tilly designed the course – 1925-28,’ ” Young said. “No one knows what they have, ever. It really was just sitting in his office the whole time.”
What they had was a duplicate of Tillinghast’s design, dated February 1927, copied from the original drawings to be used by a local engineering company to construct the sprinkler system. The scrolled copy was dog-eared at the creases and smudged in places having actually been used by workers in the field installing the sprinklers.
But to a trained expert such as Young, the classic design style and features are unmistakably Tilly even without his imprint on the duplicate drawings.
“These types of drawings are common and can only be done by using that actual course design drawing as the base from which to create the sprinkler design,” Young said. “Hence, there can be no question that it is the original Tilly drawing shown on this drawing. It’s total, complete detail – tees, bunkers, fairways, greens, everything.”
“Now that we’re much more confident we have a Tillinghast course we want to take advantage of that. We are much more committed to finding an architect who can capture the spirit of Tillinghast on the course.” – Allan Stark
The reaction of KCCC membership to the discovery? “Two words describe it – joy and relief,” said Allan Stark, who heads the club’s historical committee. “Relief it wasn’t just fiction that this was a Tillinghast course, but we had real proof. It wasn’t a Frankenstein design between Bendelow and Tillinghast, that it really was Tillinghast.”
The discovery may be enough to change everything. As the club was approaching its 125th anniversary – it was originally founded in 1896 with a course in Hyde Park – it has been mulling ideas to renovate the course. The scope of the discussion grew from upgrading all of the bunkers to rebuilding the greens to modern specs to potentially bringing in an architect to conceptualize what a Tillinghast “reimagination” might look like.
Suddenly the opportunity to potentially make a more significant and faithful restoration has fallen out of the superintendent’s closet and into their laps.
“It changed how we perceived the project,” Stark said. “Now that we’re much more confident we have a Tillinghast course we want to take advantage of that. We are much more committed to finding an architect who can capture the spirit of Tillinghast on the course.”
As anyone involved with a country club knows, committing to restoration is a very big step to take and a difficult sell. But the drawings potentially kick-start a conversation by having something concrete to show the membership regarding the restoration process. Instead of some architect’s artistic vision of what Tillinghast might have designed, the original plans allow for the chance to frame a convincing argument to members: “Look, this is exactly what Tillinghast had created for this golf course and this property.”
Before he located the drawings in the superintendent’s office, Young already could see the Tillinghast DNA touring the course. As he pulled up to the short 125-yard second hole, Young immediately recognized a “little Tilly” that had been altered.
“He said the two-tiered second green looked and felt like a Tillinghast hole,” Stark recalled, “but Tillinghast on a short hole like that would never have a big open space in the front – either a foot path or a bunker. Then we found the plans and saw it was one continuous bunker there.”
While the drawing shows an array of grass hollows, mounds, bunkers and green shapes that could be restored, some elements of the original design can’t be recovered. The fourth and fifth holes were long ago shifted to the perimeter of the property that used to be the club’s polo field, which the city was trying to annex. There would be no way to return the fifth hole through what is now the practice range and move the range near the homes adjacent to the current fifth hole.
Another significant alteration from Tillinghast’s original design are the locations of the 10th and 18th holes, which basically swapped adjacent positions to move the 18th green closer to the clubhouse where the 10th tee was originally (and vice versa) while the 18th tee is where the 10th green used to be. The current alignment creates an awkward flow with abnormally long transitions between holes.
Stark emphasized nothing definitive has been decided about any course project. Young added several names to the club’s list of architects suited to both course restoration and the Midwest environment from which to solicit proposals, and they will visit other clubs that have undergone similar projects. Ultimately, they’ll have to convince the membership of the value of a faithful restoration.
Young strongly recommends going all in. “Most of the holes can be restored if they want, and those that aren’t original, you can make to fit in with the Tillinghast design philosophy if you redesign them from the green back,” he said.
“They could make an extreme difference and would be stunned. … It makes the course and club more valuable financially, more valuable historically. If they want to be thought of as a ‘top-whatever course,’ and this is the only way it will happen.”
The Tillinghast design drawings offer the opportunity to capitalize on the excitement of their discovery in conjunction with celebrating the approaching centennial of the KCCC course. After a century of tweaks by various architects, restoring the course to the original features of a prominent architect from the “Mount Rushmore” of classic designers would be a huge story and a real feather in the club’s cap if it were to come to fruition.
Stark cites a comment from club member Matt Gogel, a former PGA Tour pro who is part of the planning committee. “Let’s just try to be the best we can be,” Gogel said.
With Tilly himself now on board, that best could be even better than they originally imagined.
Photos: Adam P. Sachs
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