What is it that causes men to disagree, to whip each other mercilessly with words? It’s as if life’s primary qualification is the ability to talk. Or squawk.
“I’ve had my share of golf course arguments,” said golf historian Phil Young, “and I don’t mind at all. It goes with the territory.”
Ron Whitten undoubtedly could say the same thing. He, like Young, has devoted the bulk of his professional life to gathering and interpreting the history of golf architecture. They are prolific golf writers, with expertise in golf course designer A.W. Tillinghast and the storied Long Island, N.Y., course known as Bethpage Black.
Along the way, Young and Whitten spent many years as intense, spit-in-your-eye adversaries. They tried to outwrite and outresearch each other. They certainly weren’t reluctant to engage in a little one-upmanship.
Whitten has emerged as the champion of Joseph H. Burbeck, the long-ago superintendent of five Bethpage golf courses. Whitten credits Burbeck as the designer of Bethpage Black and relegates Tillinghast to the role of consultant. “The Real Man Behind Bethpage Black,” screams the headline on a Whitten story, as if several unreal men had auditioned for the role and failed to get it.
Meanwhile, Young has dismissed any claim that Burbeck is responsible for Bethpage Black. He remains a devout Tillinghast advocate.
Bethpage Black has hosted two U.S. Opens. Not so coincidentally, the 2019 PGA Championship is following in major championship footsteps. For two years in the 1930s, Tillinghast was paid by the PGA of America to visit PGA members and offer suggestions for improving their golf courses.
At the 2009 U.S. Open – a championship besieged by inclement weather – Young was an instrumental figure who focused his attention on the golf course rather than the pros who played it. The course, of course, was Bethpage Black, the crown jewel of the five municipal courses located within Bethpage State Park.
Young is a longtime Tillinghast scholar. Whitten fancies himself more of a design sleuth who sticks by his theory that Tillinghast was not the primary architect of Bethpage Black.
Young is not a Burbeck hater. In fact, Young is quick to point out that the entire Bethpage golf concept with its five courses probably never would have been completed without Joseph Burbeck, who was acknowledged as a first-rate engineer.
Whitten has written in great detail about Burbeck’s quiet but nonstop devotion to Bethpage Black. A former attorney, Whitten has extensively interviewed Burbeck’s relatives, including his son, Joe, who grew up on the Bethpage facility. They all tend to remember Burbeck designing golf holes at his drafting table.
Tillinghast’s contract paid him $50 a day for a maximum of 15 days. That was 15 days on site, meaning Tillinghast could have devoted more time off course or in his office.
News flash (OK, we already knew this): Both Whitten and Young are in the business of uncovering new theories and new perspectives. Before producing a Tillinghast biography, Young was an electrician and owner of a fire alarm company. He is composing what is intended to be a definitive book on the five Bethpage courses.
The winner of the 2009 U.S. Open, long forgotten by many, was Lucas Glover. He overcame opponents named rain, mud and slosh. For the record, Phil Mickelson and David Duval were among those tying for second, two strokes back. It was the fifth of Mickelson’s six U.S. Open runner-up finishes.
Golf can be a fickle-minded game. In case anybody forgot this fact, the reminder sign at Bethpage Black is still there: “WARNING … The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”
Glover was fortunate and found himself on the favorable side of the draw in 2009. Tiger Woods, meanwhile, was caught on the wrong side of the draw. Glover’s 69 in the first round was five shots better than Woods. When the competition finally ended one day late on Monday, Woods lost by four to Glover. Blame it on the rain-soaked opening round.
The melodrama, though, wasn’t reserved only for golfers. Historians and golf aficionados jabbered and speculated endlessly about “the Black,” as it’s known colloquially.
Tillinghast or Burbeck? Following architectural precedent, it makes sense that one should be the architect of record while the other should be listed as a consultant.
“It was Joe’s idea to make Bethpage Black look like Pine Valley (Golf Club),” Whitten recounted. “If you are a Tilly fan, you can’t stand somebody else getting credit, but I believe that Tillinghast was the consultant and Burbeck was the architect.”
Sounds plausible, although noted designer Gil Hanse has another belief: “How about giving credit to the person who got the job? Some people say that perhaps this wouldn’t be fair to (architectural) associates, but there wouldn’t be any associates if somebody else didn’t get hired. Tillinghast is the guy who signed on to design the Black. It was his reputation and experience that landed the job. Whenever there is a discussion about getting credit for a course, I look at who got the job.”
Tillinghast signed a contract that paid him $50 a day for a maximum of 15 days. That was 15 days on site, meaning that Tillinghast could have devoted more time off the course or in his office. The agreement was signed with A.W. Tillinghast Inc. and not with Tilly as an individual.
For Bethpage Black, the labor was supplied largely by Works Progress Administration crews filled with relief workers. There is no record of Tillinghast signing off on the final design of the greens or even attending the grand opening in 1936. Keep in mind, however, that Tilly was often busy with the design or renovation of dozens of courses. In the process, he moved his residence from New Jersey to California.
In a letter to fellow architect Donald Ross, Tillinghast expressed his general dismay at the relatively flat Bethpage Black greens. Golf historian Geoff Shackelford believes Tilly “may have had very little to do with the design, but clearly there was somebody there with a grand vision. I feel it had to be Tilly.”
Young remains convinced that Tillinghast’s fingerprints and design preferences are all over the Bethpage Black concept. “It is silly to this day that some people want to believe that a park superintendent could design a course of this magnitude,” Young said.
Bethpage Black features enormous greenside bunkers that flash right up to the edge of the putting surfaces. The design strategy dictates that many holes are more easily approached from one side of the fairway or the other, which is pure Tilly.
Sometimes lost in the squabble is the story of how the course ended up hosting its first U.S. Open in 2002. It was one man’s obsession: USGA executive director David Fay, who retired at the end of 2010. Not only was Fay an admirer of the Bethpage Black layout, but he also was a firm believer that the U.S. Open should be played, whenever possible, on a public course.
And so it became, in a manner of speaking, the David B. Fay U.S. Open. Woods won the 2002 Open – a championship remembered most for the abuse Sergio Garcia received from New York fans who heckled Garcia’s regripping tick, which he overcame the following year.
Tillinghast was also responsible for designing Winged Foot and Baltusrol, private facilities that are part of the U.S. Open rotation.
If Whitten and Young want to stage a duel, they could do so on one of Tillinghast’s memorable 18th holes. Such a showdown would make their disagreements really memorable.
“Look, I did sufficient research to satisfy myself that Burbeck was the architect,” Whitten said. “It’s true – he was the architect of Bethpage Black. The facts are not going to get in the way of a good story here. The facts speak for themselves.
“And don’t forget (architect) Rees Jones (who cleaned up Bethpage Black before its first U.S. Open in 2002). There’s probably more Rees Jones in the course than Tillinghast.”
Ugh, talk about muddying the water. At the time the Black layout opened in 1936, Tillinghast was arguably America’s busiest and best-known golf course architect. He died in 1942.
Meanwhile, Burbeck remained at Bethpage for the completion of the fifth and final course, the Yellow, in 1958. He retired in 1964 and died in 1987.
Do we know for sure who designed Bethpage Black? No, we don’t and we won’t. Sitting in judgment, the court of public opinion seems to favor Tillinghast.
Although in sport, as in life, some questions go unanswered. This is one of them.
The argument goes on as to whether A.W. Tillinghast or Joseph Burbeck should get the larger share of credit for Bethpage Black. Alexander Björk of Sweden only knows he should have found the 18th fairway. Photo: Patrick Smith, Getty Images
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