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The Real Man Behind the Black

Why the celebrated Tillinghast course isn't a Tillie course after all. Allow us to introduce you to Joseph H. Burbeck

Joe Burbeck

An avid golfer, Bethpage State Park superintendent Joseph Burbeck worked at the park for more than 30 years.

June 2002

Joe Burbeck had given up his crusade years ago, but after hearing that Bethpage Black would be the site of the 2002 U.S. Open, he gave it one last shot. He wrote a letter to this magazine, urging us to correct the record. The Black Course, he insisted, was designed in the 1930s by his father, Joseph H. Burbeck, the longtime superintendent of Bethpage State Park, and not by the famous golf architect A.W. Tillinghast.

What proof do you have? he was asked.

"I have no proof," Joe confessed. "I was there but was a very young boy. I have recollections of going into my father's office, seeing rolls of blueprints everywhere, and him at his drafting table. I remember he used to take me in his car, and we'd go visit crews out on the course. We lived on the property. He was out there every day. That was his job.

"The rest is family lore," he added. "Mostly from my mother, Elizabeth, when I was growing up. She was quite bitter that my father never received the recognition, the accolades she felt he was due. The thing I remember most is my mother saying, 'We don't ever mention the name Tillinghast in this house.' I never knew until I got older who Tillinghast even was.

"My father never talked much about it. He was a very strong personality. I never tried to coax it out of him."

Now 71, Joe Burbeck, his face weathered by decades of competitive sailing on Long Island Sound, is retired after a career with a Manhattan advertising agency. At a meeting last fall near his home in Rye, N.Y., he was apologetic. He had none of his father's papers. Maybe they're at Bethpage or at the state park headquarters. Somewhere out there was the proof he needed.

It turns out Joe Burbeck is right. His father did design Bethpage Black. The evidence always has been out there, if anyone had bothered to dig for it. It's in the official history of the Long Island State Parks, published in 1959. "The four golf courses constructed as work-relief projects were designed and constructed under the direction of Joseph H. Burbeck, the Superintendent of the park," the book reads, "with A.W. Tillinghast, internationally known golf architect, as consultant."

Tillinghast reduced to a consultant role? It has been easier to buy into the legend that Tillinghast sweated all the details. We all figured the Black is too good a golf course to have been designed by a nobody.

THE LEGEND
Bethpage really started with Robert Moses, a legend even larger than Tillinghast. Perhaps the most powerful man in American history never to have held elective office, Moses became New York's Master Builder, the man responsible for creating most of the dams and bridges around the state, most of its highways and state parks, two New York City World Fairs and the United Nations building.

Moses first established his power in the 1920s by convincing New York Gov. Al Smith -- a former Tammany Hall opponent -- that highways and parks would be guaranteed vote getters. Moses crafted bills that created state agencies to develop such projects, ramrodded them through the state legislature, got himself appointed to head the agencies and devised creative ways to fund the projects.

In an age before common air conditioning and decent roads, Robert Moses led middle-class taxpayers to the beaches every weekend. No governor or mayor dared oppose him, so popular did he become. Moses had great vision, but little heart. He deliberately plowed through tenement buildings, kept parkway overpasses so low that buses couldn't use them and provided only the most rudimentary of playgrounds in Harlem.

One of Moses' roles was as president of the Long Island State Park Commission, which he ran like a monarchy for 38 years. He surrounded himself with the best and brightest engineers and architects, men willing to work at low pay because they shared his desire to do good for the common taxpayer. Moses worked them hard, conducting meetings in his chauffeured limousine with certain staff members while others trailed in a second car, waiting their turn. One of his employees was Joseph H. Burbeck. Born in 1898, Burbeck had obtained a landscape-architecture degree from Massachusetts Agricultural College, then helped build golf courses in the Midwest. Burbeck was hired by the park commission on May 23, 1929, to design and build a pitch-and-putt course between the bathhouses at Moses' first great state park, Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island. It opened in 1931 and, in keeping with Moses' insistence that everything in the park have a maritime motif, the course had something nautical on every hole -- a rusty anchor, the keel of a boat, old rum kegs pulled from the sea.

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