The Real Man Behind Bethpage Black
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the June 2002 issue of Golf Digest. Since then, Golf Digest has listed Joseph H. Burbeck as the architect of Bethpage Black and A.W. Tillinghast as a consultant. The course was ranked 37th on Golf Digest's most recent ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses., and eighth on our ranking of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses.
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.
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.
That same year, Moses finagled an option to purchase the 1,368-acre estate of the late railroad tycoon Benjamin Yoakum. It included a private course, Lenox Hills Country Club, a 1924 design of golf architect Devereux Emmet. The course was renamed Bethpage Golf Club, and in April 1932 it opened to public play at $2 a day. Burbeck moved his wife and son into its clubhouse, where he would manage the course and prepare for the next grand Moses project: conversion of the property into an enormous golf complex, Bethpage State Park. It would contain three more golf courses and an expansive new clubhouse, all open to the public. Moses proclaimed it would be "the people's country club."
This was three years after the stock-market crash. The Depression had gripped the country. Bethpage was viewed as a pipe dream -- there were no tax dollars to support it. But Moses issued revenue bonds to purchase the land and proposed that the courses and clubhouse be built entirely by work-relief labor. Moses didn't worry about legalities. Using more than 500 day laborers, work began on one of the new courses (Bethpage Blue) in the summer of 1933, even though title to the land did not change hands until May 1934.
HARD TIMES FOR TILLIE
As a master showman, Moses knew how to generate news. So he retained A.W. Tillinghast as a consultant to the project. Tillinghast was hired on Dec. 30, 1933, months after the Blue, Red and Black courses had been laid out. His contract paid him $50 a day for a maximum of 15 days.
This was hardly the sort of fee Tillinghast normally would have accepted. But the genius who created Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge in New York, Baltusrol and Ridgewood in New Jersey and San Francisco Golf Club in California had fallen victim to bad investments and heavy drinking. Struggling to keep his home in Harrington Park, N.J., unable to find work designing new courses, Tillinghast had taken the job as editor of Golf Illustrated in early 1933.
He visited the Bethpage State Park site in January 1934 and described the scene of 600 workers in his February issue. He wrote about the park again in April, saying that he was "honored by being selected as the consultant in the planning of these courses" and that the land reminded him of Pine Valley. He described the terrain of the fourth and fifth holes of what would become the Red Course. He made no mention of the Black Course.
He talked about Bethpage again in the October issue of Golf Illustrated, this time describing only the caddie corps that Burbeck had established for the existing course.
Work proceeded at Bethpage throughout 1934. Two holes were added to the old Lenox Hills course, now renamed the Green Course, so that all four courses would commence and finish at the new clubhouse. The Blue and Red courses were grassed that fall, but construction on the Black was delayed until the next spring. A new house for the park superintendent was constructed near what is now the 14th green of the Black Course. It's the house Joe Burbeck grew up in.
In June 1934, Tillinghast turned up at the U.S. Open at Merion near Philadelphia. Eager young golf architect Robert Trent Jones spoke with him. Tillinghast said he was so disgusted with the business that he didn't care if he ever built another golf course.
In November, Tillinghast and his wife headed to California to stay with friends. When they returned in February 1935, they found tax assessors had foreclosed on their home, and Tillinghast soon lost his job as magazine editor. He was also "laid off" from the Bethpage project on April 18, 1935. The very next day, Robert Moses and an entourage that included Burbeck led reporters on a grand tour of Bethpage, and a week later the Blue Course was thrown open for play.
To help his destitute friend, George Jacobus, president of the PGA of America, hired Tillinghast to consult with PGA members on how best to improve their courses. On Aug. 10, the clubhouse and Bethpage Red officially opened, with 4-year-old Joe Burbeck unlocking a giant padlock to the clubhouse as Robert Moses looked on. Tillinghast wasn't present. He and his wife were already on the road, the first of two sweeping automobile tours of the country during the next two years while Tillie served as a consultant to PGA of America member courses. He returned periodically to the New York area, but never stopped by Bethpage, not even for the Black Course grand opening on July 2, 1936. Newspaper coverage of that date lauded Robert Moses and the importance of the work-relief nature of the project but made no mention of who designed the course.
To say the Black hardly resembled any other Tillinghast design seems trite, because part of his genius was that he had no trademark style. Still, its bunkers were enormous pits, a total departure from the bunkers on any of his courses. The flat, oval greens looked nothing like any Tillinghast putting surface either. They looked more like the greens of the Jones Beach pitch-and-putt.
THE SMOKING GUNS
In August 1937, Tillinghast wrote for the first time about Bethpage Black, in PGA Magazine. He credited Joseph Burbeck with the very concept of the Black Course.
"Now it was Burbeck's idea to develop one of these layouts along lines which were to be severe to a marked degree. It was his ambition to have something which might compare with Pine Valley as a great test, and although my continual travels over the country in the PGA work have prevented me from seeing play over Bethpage's Black since its opening, I am rather inclined to believe from reports from some of the best players that it is showing plenty teeth."
The next few lines suggested he made at least one visit to the Black. He described the par-5 fourth in some detail: "In locating and designing the green, which can only be gained by a most precise approach from the right, I must confess that I was a trifle scared myself, when I looked back and regarded the hazardous route that must be taken by a stinging second shot to get into position to attack this green."
Was he physically looking back down the fairway, or was he merely looking back in time, to the day when he'd reviewed the original blueprints? If we give Tillinghast the benefit of the doubt, conclude he actually walked the land on which the Black Course was built, and even located and designed the fourth green, the fact remains that the four Bethpage course routings were made before he came on board, and for most of the time when relief workers were hand-building the Black Course, Tillinghast was out touring America.
Why did he have so little interest in Bethpage? The answer may lie in a letter he wrote to his old rival, golf architect Donald Ross, in early 1942. Just a few months before his death, Tillinghast, a staunch Republican, condemned work-relief projects, describing " ... the widespread, devastating and generally ridiculous efforts of the W.P.A. [Works Progress Administration] and the P.W.A. [Public Works Administration] in mass production. Doubtless the idea had some merit but much real harm was the result. For, Good Lord, when I review it all I can only regret the waste of so much good money and the resultant amateur accomplishments. Thank God, I had sense enough to refuse to have anything to do with it all. It was really criminal."
A SON'S RETURN HOME
Joseph H. Burbeck remained as Bethpage park superintendent until 1964. He died in a Connecticut retirement home in January 1987. In the mid-1950s, Burbeck had established a fifth 18 at Bethpage by dividing one course and adding new holes to create the present Blue and Yellow courses. For that job, Robert Moses had retained golf architect Alfred Tull as a consultant.
"By that time, I was old enough to know what was going on," Joe Burbeck said. "I saw my father drawing the plans. Tull merely reviewed them and suggested one change to the 18th. He said it wasn't much of a golf hole, whatever that meant."
Last winter, Joe Burbeck visited Bethpage for the first time in more than a decade. He was introduced to Dave Catalano, the park's director.
"I guess I'm living in your house now," Catalano said. "It needs paint," Joe responded.
Catalano was polite but skeptical of Joe's contention. "I'm sure Joseph Burbeck was a very nice man, but if he really designed the Black Course, his name would be on the plan," Catalano said. "The fact is, his name isn't on the plan."
That's true. But neither is the name of A.W. Tillinghast. The plan Catalano referred to is a Bethpage "development plan," prepared by landscape architect Clarence Combs in 1934, after two of the courses were well under construction. It shows various aspects of the entire state park, roads, shelter houses, picnic areas as well as the golf holes. It's the only Bethpage plan of that era still in existence. Actual blueprints of the golf courses apparently were thrown out decades ago.
During their talk, Joe Burbeck showed Catalano a hand-painted wooden cutout of the Caddie Boy, the symbol of Bethpage State Park. Such cutouts used to adorn every tee sign on all the courses, Joe said. They've since been replaced by a wrought-iron version.
"We have no idea who came up with that little figure," Catalano said. "All I know is that it's been the club logo from the very beginning."
Joe Burbeck smiled. "My father designed that, too."