Ridgewood Country Club’s gamble on Tillinghast has paid off

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2008 at 11:22 am

When Ridgewood Country Club moved to its current site off of Midland Avenue in Paramus in 1927, it wanted the finest course money could buy. For this task, there was only one man for the job. Albert Warren Tillinghast.

But perfection came at a price. Did the club want to deal with “Tillie the Terrible” — the whiskey-drinking, gun-brandishing, rough-as-sandpaper course designer? All golf clubs had heard the rumors of his tirades and behavior, but they also knew he was masterful at laying out a golf course. With high demands for its 27-hole plan, Ridgewood decided to roll the dice.
The result was a golfing masterpiece.

“He had a huge input, but so did the club,” said the club’s historian, Andrew Mutch, Ph.D. “The club steered him in the development of the course. They both rejected plans from each other and changed the layout quite a bit. But the needs of the club and his creative side were perfect for each other.”

While some of his other courses like Baltusrol, Bethpage Black and Winged Foot have instant name-brand recognition, Ridgewood has flown under the radar. But when the world’s 143 best golfers descend on its fairways this week for The Barclays, the first event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, they’ll find out just how stern a test it is.
Because what makes Ridgewood great is what made all the courses Tillinghast designed great: their variety.

“The land was so ripe for design,” said Bob Trebus, president of the Tillinghast Association. “He used the land so well. He would look at the topography and build a golf hole from it.”
After he was commissioned by Ridgewood to design its new course, he sat under a tree on what is now the eighth hole of the West Course and envisioned the course he would soon create. He knew the area well, living only a few miles away in posh Harrington Park in a spectacular columned mansion.

So just like he did at Somerset Hills, Shackamaxon and Essex County before, he walked and scouted among the trees and the scrub, impeccably dressed, looking like an aristocratic Jungle Jim. Where other architects saw land to be moved, he saw land to be molded.
“Tillinghast was one of the most creative architects in the history of the game,” said Rees Jones who, as a young course architect, was inspired by Tillinghast’s work. “At Ridgewood, he really implemented the shot options, with the way he protected the greens with bunkers.”
After the course’s completion, Tillinghast visited numerous times and considered it one of his best works.

In fact, he used the opportunity to introduce a few personal ideas that he had wanted to try out on a job for some time. In addition to designing courses, Tillinghast also moonlighted as a writer and editor for Golf Illustrated, often floating ideas through the golf community through his columns.

One of these was a true practice area where players could warm up before a round, using all of the shots in their bag. In those days, practice consisted of chipping a few balls around the first tee while you waited to play your round. His plan for Ridgewood included the building of a driving range, which at the time, was a new concept.

“The plan which is illustrated provides for every shot in the bag, explosion and deft pitches from sand pits included,” he wrote in a 1929 issue of Golf Illustrated, “but it is best that the green be used only for approaches from the varying lengths. I am pleased to call this plan The Ridgewood.”

Tillinghast was an enigmatic figure in the history of golf. His genius was often overshadowed by stories from workers and clients about his drinking and carousing. However, those seem to be exaggerated a bit, as that would have made his two-year trek across the country on behalf of the PGA to examine golf courses nearly impossible.

Trebus estimates that Tillinghast independently designed more than 150 courses during his career and had at least a hand in nearly 200 more. He enjoyed tremendous success and wealth, yet near the end of his life he was forced into bankruptcy. And while his courses have hosted countless major championships, his legacy faded from golf’s consciousness for a number of decades.

“He was quite an interesting character,” Mutch said. “He wasn’t without his flaws.”
A little over a year ago, Mutch — the former head of the USGA Museum and now the president and CEO of Golf Curators, which keeps historical records for clubs — had plaques made for Ridgewood’s first tees. On it was Tillinghast’s signature and the 1929 date, when the course was finished.

This week as each player steps up to the first tee, they’ll see that plaque and know what a challenging course awaits them. “He needed a club that would be very patient with him and let him be creative,” Mutch said. “So I think they were a really good team in that respect and they ended up with a great product.”

Brendan Prunty may be reached
at bprunty@starledger.com

  1. Why don’t they call it the paramus Golf Course?

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