George Low and the Tillinghast Years

The BN continues its series of excerpts from the Dick Brown article on George Low. This section addresses Low during the years that A.W. Tillinghast was at Baltusrol developing the “Dual Courses,” today’s Lower and Upper, and the relationship between the head pro/club maker and the designer. 

By Dick Brown

Low and the Dual Courses

image

By 1916, Baltusrol’s Board of Governors had concluded that the golf course was so crowded the Club would need to build an additional course or seriously reduce its membership. It decided that a new course should be built and founder Louis Keller began to accumulate land surrounding the Club’s property. In 1918, architect Donald Ross and others were brought in for advice. A. W. Tillinghast, while having already produced the then famous layout at Shawnee on the Delaware River in the Poconos and the absolute gem at Somerset Hills, but still a young and relatively inexperienced architect, was invited to make a proposal for a new design. It was fairly assumed that Baltusrol’s Old Course would remain, and a new one built, possibly on the other side of Baltusrol Mountain near the present quarry. However, Tillinghast proposed to build two completely new courses, both beginning and ending at the Clubhouse, and to abandon the Old Course, which at the time was highly regarded. Perhaps surprisingly, given the importance of the subject, Tillinghast’s proposal was accepted quickly and with little discussion in January 1919. The new project was called the Dual Courses, the proposed new courses were named the Lower and Upper, and construction began at once.


 Only four holes of the Old Course were incorporated into the Dual Courses, all of which were completely re-built. The end result was that the Old Course, which had received so much acclaim and had hosted no fewer than five USGA national championships as well as many other high profile tournaments and historic exhibition matches, was plowed under, less than thirty years after its first holes were built. The records do not tell us what Low’s private reactions were to the destruction of his best work ever.

Construction of the Dual Courses started in January 1919, with the goal to have them open for play in the fall of 1920. One of the constraints placed on Tillinghast by the Board was to ensure that eighteen contiguous holes would be available for play throughout the construction period. Financing was easy: it was simply announced that each member would be required to buy a bond (the bonds were the forefathers of the bonds we now hold) that would grant a proprietary membership. The bonds were priced at $100 and dues would be doubled (from $100 to $200 per year) for the duration of the construction period. The Board and the membership approved the construction of the new courses at a special meeting, and approval was gained with little member comment possibly due to the proviso that there always would be eighteen holes available for play and the assumption that the new courses would be ready in under two years.

Low Takes a Break

Low was absent from Baltusrol during the fall of 1919 and early winter of 1920 in California, where he took a job sodding the sand greens at Midwick Country Club and other courses in the Los Angeles area. He was absent again during the spring and summer of 1920 when he negotiated a leave of absence to serve as professional at a course in upstate New York. When he returned, he probably had day-to-day management of the construction of the new courses that consumed much of the next three years, although fairly obviously under the direction of Tillinghast. It was a very trying time in the spring and summer of 1920 due to consistently rainy weather, when most of the seeding was to have been performed. This wet weather probably caused the plague of white grub infestation that persisted into the summer of 1921. The crows and ravens dug up the grubs and ruined whatever turf had been grown, and prevented reseeding. The entire course was a sea of mud throughout the summer of 1920, and the new fairways were finally seeded only in the fall of 1921.

Baltusrol was not an entirely happy place during the construction years. The Admissions chairman was concerned because he feared that applications would drop off—prospective members were said to be postponing their applications until the new courses were completed—and others feared that the courses would be too difficult. He probably was overstating his case as the membership situation actually improved during 1920 and 1921.

The Admissions chairman continued to plead for shorter tees but the Green Committee carried on with Tillinghast’s plan, saying that it had a mandate from the Board and the membership to do so. When the courses were finally opened for play in June of 1922, they were far from satisfactory. The fairways were thinly grassed and stony. Piles of rock that had been raked out of fairway soil lay everywhere in the roughs, along with brush and stumps. And Tillinghast continued to roam the premises laying out and constructing new bunkers! In that connection, the Green chairman recorded his frustration at a Board meeting in the summer of 1921, stating that he had to purchase two more tons of sand to fill even more new bunkers, and that the cost of the new bunkers had now exceeded the cost of the greens. One wonders if the calm, genial and talented Low was the glue that held a difficult situation together during two demanding years.

During the run-up to the 1993 U.S. Open, an article in Golf Digest magazine suggested that while Tillinghast had laid out the routing of the Dual Courses, Low and Tillinghast were collaborators in the building and fine tuning. The article maintained that Low supervised construction and in doing so introduced a certain amount of his own design to the courses. That assertion does not survive careful scrutiny. Low’s contract with Baltusrol required him to be on the property from March 1st to October 30th, although he usually stayed on later into the fall. Typically, Low wintered in Florida or Scotland, and almost always was engaged with golf clubs during the winter months. We learn from the January 1919 issue of The American Golfer that Low was the professional at St. Augustine Golf Links in the winter of 1919, and that he was in California during the fall of 1919 and winter of 1920. As explained above, Low took his highly publicized leave of absence from Baltusrol in the summer of 1920 and worked instead at the Bluff Point course near Plattsburg, New York. We know from reports of the Green Committee that much of the clearing, earth moving and green building were done in the winter of 1919, and that final shaping and initial seeding were done in the winter and spring of 1920, all of which are times when Low was absent.  

We have written earlier about Emil Bontempo, Low’s caddy, whom we accompanied one day prior to the 1993 Open on a golf cart ride around Baltusrol, hoping that he would recall something specific about the construction work. We put our clubs on the cart hoping that Emil would take a swing or two on ground that he had trudged over, and indeed played, more than seventy years earlier. Emil was able to explain the building of the current third Upper hole, which is a rebuild of the Old Course’s ninth hole. Emil particularly remembered the 10th on the Upper, which was one of the first holes to be built in 1919.

image

He remembered that many members had predicted it was going to be a wonderful hole. Emil also remembered Tillinghast’s work on the final contouring of the greens. The initial shaping was done with a small horse-drawn drag that was specially designed for the purpose. This work was mostly done under Tillinghast’s watchful eye, then he would take a rake and spend countless hours creating little humps and valleys and runs, all the time resplendent in his tweeds. Following the hand work, the top dressing and seed were applied.

Emil told us about the many, nearly daily occasions during the summer when Tillinghast would come in from the job, change from his work clothes that consisted of coat and tie and knee-high, leather-laced boots into his golf clothes that also featured coat and tie. Then he and Low would go out and play a few holes. Often they would play holes on the Old Course that were still in play, and sometimes they would play new holes that were under construction. Tillinghast would carry on an almost continuous stream of discussion about the work in progress. Emil recalled no arguments or counter-proposals from Low. The Green chairman and the members were constantly roaming the job, but Low was presumably the official contact between Tillinghast and the Green chairman. Other than laments from the Admissions chairman, who thought the courses were going to play too hard, there was no mention of deviations from Tillinghast’s design suggested by Low or the Green Committee.

Baltusrol rewarded Low mostly for his nearly twenty years of distinguished service to the Club but also for his work on the Dual Courses project by conferring honorary life membership on him in June 1922, when the new courses opened with substantial pomp and ceremony. This award was made in an era when golf professionals were, as a general rule, not even allowed in the clubhouse. The American Golfer reported on the award in its July 1922 issue: “George Low, professional at the Baltusrol Golf Club of Short Hills, New Jersey, was recently accorded a signal honor by that club. In recognition of nineteen years of service with the club, he was made an honorary member … That the veteran Scot richly deserves this high distinction all who know him will agree. He is easily one of the most popular of all the professionals in the country, and is a real credit to that profession.”

The new courses were completed on or slightly below budget of $103,000 and were opened for play in June 1922. However, the Board was asked to approve $50,000 in additional funding to man the Green Department at elevated levels so course conditioning could be raised to superior levels. It had been decided that only constant reseeding and fertilization of weak spots would be required to achieve this level of conditioning. Finally, in the fall of 1923, the Board felt the job was done, and feelers were put out to the USGA for a major championship.