Bendelow, the Johnny Appleseed of American golf
A former newspaper linotype operator, Tom Bendelow designed Medinah and hundreds of other courses nationwide with minimal fanfare. Bendelow was the architect of Medinah Country Club's three courses and more than 600 others.
By Scott Kramer, PGA Championship Journal
Chances are pretty good that until this week, you probably never heard of Tom Bendelow. The architect of Medinah Country Club's three courses and more than 600 others, he never received much publicity. To discover why, you need to understand the circumstances. The most tangible knowledge of Bendelow's past has been shared publicly in recent years by his grandson. And so the story goes: Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Sept. 2, 1868, Bendelow was one of nine children.
His parents operated the town's Bendelow Pie Shop. At age 5, he started playing golf with his father on the links that are now known as the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club.
The course was close to the house, and as Bendelow grew older he began playing other courses in Scotland and England.
He played well, too, becoming a competitive golfer in his youth. While competing in various tournaments, he got to know other players, including some who would eventually become missionaries of golf to America.
In the fall of 1892, Bendelow moved to New York to work for the New York Herald as a linotype operator. The 24-year-old had previously worked for the Aberdeen Free Press. Vacationing at the New Jersey shore, he met a businessman who was interested in golf and building a place to play. He asked Bendelow to design a few holes on some local scrub land. His real start in the game began when a Long Island family placed an ad in the Herald for someone to teach them how to play golf. Bendelow intercepted the ad before it made it to print, set it in type, then answered it and was hired. The family was the Pratt family, co-founders with John Rockefeller of Standard Oil of New Jersey.
As he taught the family golf, they asked him to lay out six holes on their estate so they could play. Eventually, those holes became part of the Nassau Country Club.
In late 1894, Bendelow
-- introduced by the Pratts to A.G. Spalding
-- left the Herald to work for Spalding Sporting Goods, moving to Chicago by 1901. In addition to serving as editor of Spalding's Official Golf Guide from 1901?1917 before being succeeded by Grantland Rice, Bendelow sold golf balls and clubs, offered lessons, organized play, and designed courses. His layouts were apparently fairly simple. Bendelow also held America's first golf school in the Berkeley Gymnasium of the Carnegie Building in New York City.
His most notable early layout was at the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, where he redesigned the existing nine, added a second nine, supervised the course construction and maintenance, ran the operations, organized tournaments, formed players' associations, and gave lessons. It was America's first 18-hole municipal course. And A.G. Spalding wanted it replicated across the U.S., to help create a demand for his golf equipment.
Bendelow worked as a designer for Spalding through 1915. He preferred using the land's natural setting to create the best possible holes at the least expense.
This often meant doing without extensive ground movement, water hazards, heavy bunker usage or other features costly to build and maintain. Thus, his courses had small, flat greens and were able to stand up to a lot of play. He reportedly described his courses as "sporty"
-- perhaps suggesting that they were enjoyable challenges for the golfing masses, regardless of their skill level. He also wanted golf to be affordable for everyone.
Larger Design Budgets
After he left Spalding, Bendelow became involved with the American Park Builders, spending more time on designs and having larger budgets. Construction methods and equipment also became more advanced
-- he even employed topographic surveys, and hydrologic and soil studies while designing. As interest in golf
-- and client budgets
-- blossomed, he implemented more sophisticated strategic features into his designs. Courses he designed in the latter part of his life were very different than his early layouts.
In 1932, Bendelow compared golf course design to art.
"The work of merely utilizing the land by driving a stake in for a tee and another for a green, and starting rolling and cutting was a thing of the past," he explained nearly 75 years ago. "What we have now in contrast to what existed in bygone days is similar to the painting of a picture, through the skillful blending of artificial features with the natural landscape; so as to produce a pleasing and satisfying picture to the eye, as well as a fair test of skill."
By then, his name was attached to scores of courses throughout the Midwest, the reason he became known as the "Johnny Appleseed of American Golf." His reputation for quickly dropping off layout designs and then splitting town before course construction was completed would linger for decades.
At Medinah, Bendelow completed Course No. 1 in 1925 and Course No. 2 in 1926. This year's PGA Championship is being played on Course No. 3, which Bendelow completed in 1928 having convinced the membership that the idea of a nine-hole women's course simply would not do. That original layout lasted only three years before undergoing a major redesign. It was worked on in later years, too. In fact, there's not a lot of documentation regarding exactly what that original course was like. Renowned course architect Rees Jones, who gave No. 3 a major restoration in 2002, didn't see copies of Bendelow's first two routings, but built what Bendelow probably would have built today.
"My job was to utilize what was probably Bendelow," recalls Jones. "We took out all of the new stuff at Medinah and restored seven greens to the old style. But I don't really know if that was Bendelow or not. We really re-bunkered the whole course and gave the bunkers a sculptured look that had been lost through the aging process. We took out (300) trees."
Jones also repositioned some of the tees and greens, claiming "we built it for the future." Jones admits he never really learned much about Bendelow's work, but what he does know left kind of a mixed impression.
"Sometimes he was laying stakes on a weekend afternoon, other times it seemed like he was very involved and saw the courses to completion," says Jones.
In fact, when designing Urbana Golf and Country Club in 1922, Bendelow arrived at noon on a Tuesday, began going over the land and outlining plans, and had staked the entire course by noon on Friday.
Many Courses Redesigned
"At Medinah Country Club, he must have had more involvement," says Jones. "A lot of that history was lost. He wasn't someone I looked to as an inspiration, but we're not really sure which courses across the country he saw to completion. He did the original layout plan at Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey, but Donald Ross then rerouted the whole thing."
Actually, several of Bendelow's works
-- including Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Ill.,
-- stood for just a few short years before being redesigned by Ross.
Others, such as Royal Ottawa Golf Club, were amended by Willie Park Jr., winner of the British Open in 1887 and 1889.
"One of my guesses is that since his courses were in or near big cities, Tom getting them started was good enough, until those places were able to get a big name like Donald Ross in there to renovate," says renowned course architect Ron Garl, who says playing Medinah some years ago altered his approach to designing courses. "I actually took a whole different look at how we clear huge trees. Trees are a key feature at Medinah. From then on, we checked some of the things he did, and we built courses where we used trees instead of bunkers, the way Bendelow did. Now I know his work very well."
When Garl first got in the business, it was all about natural golf courses. Then everyone came along later on and wanted courses to be bolder, more dramatic, and to add more bunkers.
"We got away from the naturalness, a la Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus. Now they're going back to natural. Tom Bendelow was a naturalist golf course builder. He used trees extremely well, and he didn't over-bunker. His courses were truly a walk in the park. Now, you find courses with 135 bunkers on them
-- that's not a walk in the park."
Bendelow was said to never have designed a course or played golf on Sunday. Nor did he ever drink alcohol, swear or tell crude stories. A husband and father of three, his lone guilty pleasure was a good cigar. In 1936, he passed away at age 67 in Chicago.
Bendelow was recently inducted into the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame.
Scott Kramer is a free-lance golf writer from Carlsbad, Calif., who contributes monthly to PGA Magazine. The Spirit of Medinah author Tim Cronin also contributed to this story.