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Course Credit Not a Black or White Matter

Controversy: Golf Digest Now Says Burbeck, Not Tillinghast, Designed Open Site

June 12, 2002|MARYANN HUDSON HARVEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The golf purists of America, not an official organization but nonetheless a serious group of hackers in their own right, were set on edge recently when a popular golf magazine declared that one of the finest courses in the country was designed by an ordinary guy named Joe.

The Black Course at Bethpage in Farmingdale, N.Y., site of this week's U.S. Open, has always been credited to Albert Warren "A.W." Tillinghast, a pre-World War II visionary whose masterpieces include Winged Foot in New York, Baltusrol in New Jersey and the San Francisco Golf Club. No one is disputing that Tillinghast designed those, or any of the other 70-plus courses for which he is credited.

The evolvement of the Black Course, though, was a bit more complicated. The Black is one of four courses at Bethpage State Park on Long Island that were built by hundreds of workers during the Depression as a Works Relief project. A fifth course was built later. You would think there would be an abundance of bureaucratic paperwork somewhere, but apparently, there isn't. What we do know is that Joseph H. Burbeck, longtime superintendent of Bethpage State Park, oversaw this massive project under Robert Moses, who, as New York State Parks commissioner, built many of the highways, dams and parks in the state.

It is Burbeck's son, Joe Burbeck, who brought forth the claim that his father designed all four Depression-era courses at Bethpage--the Black, Blue, Red and Green courses. "You did not mention the name of A.W. Tillinghast in our house," Joe Burbeck, now 71, said last week from his home near Rye, N.Y.

"They said Tillinghast designed all four courses, but my family knew that was not the case. My mother [Elizabeth] would not have lied to her only son about this."

Joe Burbeck Sr. never claimed credit for the courses, nor did he ever tell his son that he designed them, his son says. Mindful of his parent's memory, though, son Joe wrote to Golf Digest with the claim. After researching the matter, Golf Digest agreed.

"We always deal with who was the architect of record, and, in the official 'The History of the Long Island State Parks' it states that the courses were designed and constructed by Joseph H. Burbeck with A.W. Tillinghast as consultant," said Ron Whitten, who wrote the May article for Golf Digest. "I'm surprised at the turmoil this has caused. I've been taken to task through e-mails and calls. The implication to some is that I'm diminishing the course or Tillinghast, but I'm not. It doesn't change the quality of the course."

The news stunned Philip Young, who recently published, "Golf for the People, Bethpage and the Black."

"My whole life is the Tillinghast course and, in my research, I came across the name Burbeck only three times," Young said.

According to Young, the 1959 history of Long Island state parks that Whitten cited was a reprint from an article originally published in the Long Island Forum magazine in June 1942, written by Chester Blakelock, then executive secretary of the Long Island State Park Commission. "Whitten bases his conclusion on one very tenuous mention in an article written in 1942," Young said. "I don't see how they can say that, from now on, Golf Digest will give credit to Burbeck."

Few were more surprised at Whitten's conclusion than golf architect Rees Jones, who prepared the Black for this week's championship.

"Every golf course has a combination of people, and I'm sure that some of Burbeck's ideas are in there too," Jones said by telephone last week. "But Tillinghast was the architect. The layout is so spectacular, and so natural and so well done, I can't believe an amateur could do it."

Joe Burbeck wrote to Jones before writing to Golf Digest, asking him to check the Black Course blueprints for his father's name. But there are no blueprints, no sketchbook, no record of the design, Jones says. There's no one to ask. Joe Burbeck Sr. died in 1987. Tillinghast died in 1942.

"Golf course architecture is a craft, and you need someone with experience to tell you what to do and how to do it," Jones said. "Plus there are so many Tillinghast characteristics, some very much like Pine Valley, which Tillinghast worked on," he added, referring to the great course in New Jersey.

Whitten produced other circumstantial evidence showing Burbeck as the designer, but nearly all of it is open to interpretation. He found that Tillinghast's contract to design the courses was for a period of 15 days at $50 a day, which, Whitten concluded, was not enough time to design four golf courses.

Jones disagrees. "There were a lot of courses Donald Ross never saw, but he sent his people," Jones said of one of the nation's premier course architects and a contemporary of Tillinghast.

Young, and other researchers of all-things-Tillinghast have their own circumstantial evidence--again subject to interpretation.

The Tillinghast Assn. offers writings about Bethpage by Tillinghast that appeared in Golf Illustrated, for which Tillinghast was editor for one year.

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