Vision for the Dual Courses

Keller's Legacy & Tillinghast's Design

By Rick Wolffe

Shortly after the 1915 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, there was much discussion about acquiring or building a second golf course to meet the demands of the growing membership. Newspaper stories reported that Baltusrol was considering a second 18-hole course which would complement its highly rated and famous existing 18-hole course, which we now know as the Old Course. Baltusrol’s Head Golf Professional and Green Keeper, George Low, had been responsible for keeping and improving the Old Course over the past twelve years since his hiring in 1903. The Old Course had become one of the most famous in the country, having hosted five USGA National Championships and many regional tournaments and exhibitions as well. Still, in 1915 there were compelling criticisms of many of the holes on the Old Course.

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Discussions and planning would go on for three years around various options for building a new golf course and retaining the Old Course. Eventually, however, the Board decided to plow up the Old Course and replace it with new “Dual Courses”—the ­Upper and Lower, which were designed by A.W. Tillinghast. For Tillinghast, Baltusrol may have been his most important design. And for Club founder Louis Keller, it would become his lasting legacy.

This was a dynamic time in the Club’s history. In April 1917, the U.S. entered the Great War in Europe, and over fifty Baltusrol members would serve in the armed forces during WWI. Graciously, the Board waived the dues for members serving in the military. War times were tough, and due to coal shortages the Clubhouse was closed for the winter months. The influenza epidemic of 1918 would also take its toll. But Baltusrol continued on, and its Board pressed forward planning for a second golf course. At this time, the President of Baltusrol was Louis P. Bayard, who served in this role from 1898 through 1919. The Green Committee would lead the charge in planning and construction: its members were Charles F. Watson, who served as chairman; Louis Keller; Louis P. Bayard Jr., the President’s son; and Samuel Davidge. The Board met regularly in New York City at the offices of the Club’s founder and Secretary, Louis Keller, which were located at 29 Broadway. Keller, who had founded Baltusrol in 1895 and served as the Club’s Secretary since that time, owned the land on which the Clubhouse and Old Course stood. He leased this land to the Club on a 25-year term, of which 17 years were still remaining.

Keller had the vision to realize that to keep the Club in the mainstream of American golf he would need to make a land deal to benefit Baltusrol in perpetuity, and address the need for a second golf course. So in October of 1916, Keller allowed Baltusrol to pick a site for a new course from various parcels of land he had assembled. In a letter of proposal to the Board, Keller wrote,

“I have some 500 additional acres back of the present course from which you are at liberty to pick out whatever portion you need for the additional 18 holes. Such a course, in my opinion, would be superior to the present one and so far different in character that many of your members would want to cover both courses during the day.”

A special Board committee consisting of Mr. Watson and Mr. Page Hardin was established to negotiate with Keller and report back to the Board on its progress. In April 1917, the Committee on a New Golf Course reported that they had evaluated the land behind the Clubhouse, where the current quarry is located, “with the aid of a plan prepared by Mr. Keller on which were located eighteen holes.” The Committee had doubts about the quarry site and asked for authorization to “engage Mr. Donald Ross to inspect the property.”

The Board authorized the Committee to hire an expert for no more than $100. For reasons now unknown, rather than hiring Donald Ross the Committee decided to hire another golf architect named Seth Raynor, who was a protégé of Charles Blair Macdonald. On the advice of Raynor, the Committee determined that some 140 acres adjacent to the Old Course would be better suited for the new golf course. At a special meeting of the membership in November of 1917, Baltusrol accepted Louis Keller’s offer to sell the Old Course and his rights and options for the land to accommodate a new course.

The New York Times reported on Baltusrol’s progress on November 26, 1917. According to the Times, two new nine-hole courses were planned on the adjacent land, and each of the new nines would be linked to nine holes from the Old Course, thus forming an East Course and a South Course. The article went on to say that the membership was “jubilant over the project,” but due to a large sum already spent “some members deem it unwise to make any changes until after the war.”

As the Great War raged in Europe, Baltusrol began a lengthy process that consumed most of 1918—assembling and taking title to the various parcels of land adjacent to the Old Course. Baltusrol also would retain A.W. Tillinghast to design the new courses. For reasons unknown, Raynor was now out and Tillinghast was in at Baltusrol. At the time, Tillinghast was an up-and-coming golf architect, but he did not have yet the prominence of Donald Ross or Raynor with his Mac­donald connection. Tillinghast was in the early stages of his career with just a few designs under his belt, and these were scattered across the country. With Tillinghast in at Baltusrol, the Old Course would now be thrown out! Rather than designing and connecting two nine-hole courses to the Old Course, Tillinghast recommended the Old Course be plowed up and two new “Dual Courses” constructed.

At the Annual Meeting of the membership in November of 1918, Louis Keller, reporting for the Green Committee, stated,

“Your committee have entered into an arrangement with golf architect A.W. Tillinghast for the tentative laying out of two golf courses. Preliminary stakes have been set, showing an upper and lower course both beginning and ending at the clubhouse with maximum lengths between 6,400 and 6,500 yards and well-balanced features, so that there will be practically no choice between the two courses.”

At the next Board meeting in December, Tillinghast’s plans were reviewed and discussed at length. We can only speculate on the debate that ensued around his design, for no club before had embarked on such a bold plan. The Old Course was one of the most famous golf courses in the land, and Tillinghast and Louis Keller were proposing that Baltusrol start over—by destroying the Old Course to make room for two completely new golf courses. However heated the discussion may have been behind closed doors, a month later in January of 1919 the Board approved Tillinghast’s plans and construction of the Dual Courses commenced. In February, the Board approved “a budget of two thousand dollars a month from April 1st next until November 1st for the work on the new courses and the Finance Committee was charged with coming up with a permanent financial plan.”

The word on Baltusrol’s plans spread throughout the golf world. In August 1919, Golf Illustrated wrote that “they are planning at Baltusrol on a vaster scale than has ever been attempted in American golf for the opening of the Dual Courses.” The Baltusrol project was considered vast in scale, as this was to become the first 36-hole design built in America. At the time there were just a few other clubs with more than one 18-hole course, but these courses were built at different times and were not contiguous layouts.

[Ed. Note: At the time, Merion and Essex County had two separate and distinct 18-hole courses built at different times and separated by several miles. Incidentally, Tillinghast designed the second Essex County course which opened in 1918.]

The Finance Committee came up with a plan to fund the new courses by changing the Club By-Laws and creating two classes of membership—Golf and Associate (House & Non-Resident). The funding capital would be raised by issuing certificates to each new class of member. In November of 1919, this plan was approved at a special meeting of the membership.

In the following year, George Low took a leave of absence during which he assisted Tillinghast with the grow-in of greens on a golf course in California, called Midwick. Later that summer, Low served as Golf Professional and Green Keeper at Bluff Point, near Lake Champlain. This was not the first time Tillinghast had worked with George Low. He had previously partnered with Low and Peter Lees, a noted course constructor, in the redesign of Quaker Ridge in Westchester County, NY. In addition to being one of the country’s top golf professionals and club makers, George Low was one of the best green keepers in the land. On his return from leave, Low would supervise the grow-in of the Dual Courses.

Originally, it was anticipated that the courses would open in 1921, but the work was plagued by 14 months of wet weather and labor shortages due to the war. In addition, the Green Committee needed to keep 18 holes open for play throughout the project. During the construction period, the members played various composite 18-hole courses as new holes of the Upper and Lower were completed and various Old Course holes were taken out of play. By October of 1921, some $108,000 had been expended on the project, and Green Chairman Watson reported to the Board that an additional $6,000 would complete the Dual Courses while “the elaborate bunkers, as laid out by Mr. Tillinghast, had cost the Club more than the cost of building the greens.”

On Saturday, June 17, 1922, the Upper and Lower were opened officially. In appreciation of George Low’s work to get the courses ready for play, the Board bestowed on him a lifetime honorary membership. Sadly, however, Louis Keller would not make the opening, as he died from an intestinal illness on February 16, 1922, just four months before the opening and a week before his 65th birthday. In either a sad twist of fate, or perhaps the curse of the Old Course, several other Board members who were behind the plan to plow up the Old Course sadly did not live to enjoy the opening. Louis Bayard, who had served Baltusrol for 21 years as Club President, passed away on August 18, 1920. Two other Green Committee members would follow: Samuel Davidge died a year before the opening, in 1921; and only a month after the official opening, Louis Bayard’s son, Louis Jr., died at the young age of 46.

Louis Bayard was succeeded as President by long-time Board member Robert Sinclair. With the opening of the Lower and Upper, and with Keller and Bayard gone, a changing of the guard was underway. Fortunately, Sinclair was one of Keller’s own, a tenured Governor perhaps groomed by Keller over the years. He would “stay the course” with Tillinghast and allow the Dual Courses to be tweaked over the next ten plus years.

In October of 1922, Green Chairman Watson stepped down from the Board and was succeeded by another long-time Board member, William McNight, who would also succeed Sinclair as Club President in 1926. In October of 1923, Major Avery Jones was hired from the Wilmington Country Club to assume the duties of Green Keeper from George Low, who would remain the Golf Professional until 1925.

Although the total cost of the courses had gone well over the original budget, and was reported to be around $128,000 as of May 31, 1922, not including $73,000 for land acquisition, much work still remained on both courses. In October, the Board appropriated another $50,000 to complete the courses.

Tillinghast remained involved in all refinements to the Upper and Lower, working directly with the Green Committee. Given that he lived in nearby Harrington Park, which made it relatively convenient for travel to and from Baltusrol, and the long duration of the construction work, Tillinghast may have spent more time working on Baltusrol than any of his other designs. There are numerous reports of his personal involvement in every aspect of course construction, and he was known to furrow a completed bunker himself and hand rake the contours of a green.

As the costs of both courses mounted, the Green Committee reported continued progress. At the Annual Meeting in November of 1924, when a member expressed his opinion that the courses had increased in difficulty and that he would prefer no more bunkers, Green Chairman McNight “answered at considerable length, saying among other things, that the green committee was simply following out the plans laid down by Mr. Tillinghast, Course Architect, which had been approved months ago by the Board.”

Through September of 1924, the total cost of the Upper and Lower had come to $169,842, excluding the cost of land. Today, restoring several bunkers would cost that sum. At some point in the mid 1920s, the Board stopped reporting the costs, but the expenditures continued to climb. The last phase marking the final completion of the courses was the installation of a fairway irrigation system in the late 1920s, which cost $30,000 and kept the courses alive in the drought of 1932.

The importance of Baltusrol to Tillinghast’s career was immense. The Dual Courses at Baltusrol are considered by experts to be his most important designs. The Lower would be his first design to host a National Championship—the 1926 U.S. Amateur. Baltusrol also elevated Tillinghast’s stature as a golf architect to the top. Shortly after the Dual Courses opened, Golf Illustrated declared Tillinghast to be a “Creator of Golf Courses” and the “Dean of American Born Architects.” In subsequent advertisements which Tillinghast ran in various golf publications, Baltusrol was mentioned more than any of his other designs. In fact, in many advertisements Tillinghast billed himself as the “Creator of Baltusrol.”

After Baltusrol, Tillinghast would go on to design several other very notable courses including Winged Foot’s East and West courses, the Five Farms course at Baltimore Country Club, 27 holes at Ridgewood Country Club, and 54 holes at Bethpage State Park. Many of the design features he debuted at Baltusrol would appear again and again in his other designs. Other practicing golf architects of his generation, and generations to follow, would emulate his principles of golf course architecture. Baltusrol remains one of the best preserved examples of the genius of Tillinghast.

In our Dual Courses, we have a lasting legacy from two men with a vision, Louis Keller and A.W. Tillinghast, and the supporting cast of members and club employees who made it all happen.