While Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross are recognized designers in the world of golf, you may not have heard of a certain Scottish golfer and designer named Tom Bendelow. While you may not have heard of him, you’re likely watching the PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club, one of Bendelow’s designs.
The most prolific designer in North America, having designed over 800 courses, Bendelow’s contribution to American golf have been largely unappreciated. Designing in a time when earth moving was largely impossible Bendelow’s designs incorporated what the land gave him.
Born September 2, 1868 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Tom Bendelow picked up golf at age nine. He began playing with his father at Balgownie Links, now called the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. Founded in 1780, Royal Aberdeen Golf Club is the sixth oldest golf club in the world. (Incidentally, the keepers of Balgowie Links developed the idea of a five-minute time limit for searching for a ball.) Bendelow was raised in the very heart of golf and his arrival in America coincided with great interest in the game in the States.
With Balgownie Links not far from his home, Bendelow developed his game and competed throughout his younger years. As a testement to his skill he played with Harry Vardon on a tour of the United States and was Vardon’s caddie when he won the U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Illinois in 1900.
Arriving in America in September, 1892, Bendelow first worked for the New York Herald having written for the Aberdeen Press and Journal newspaper in Scotland. It wasn’t long before his Scottish heritage and knowledge of golf were noticed. Certainly his friendship with well-known Scottish golfers of his day contributed to his influence in the States. He designed several holes on Barnegat Bay and later answered an ad from the Pratt family that likely never made it to print. The Pratts, owners of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, were looking for someone to teach them the game and they became Bendelow’s students. He designed six holes at their large estate in Glen Cove, NY, a plot of land that would eventually become the Nassau Country Club.
Some thought Bendelow was ill-qualified to design golf courses. Regardless, he produced an incredible body of work, designing over 800 courses in the United States and Canada. He came to be called “The Johnny Appleseed of Golf,” a title which wasn’t necessarily a complement, particularly following his death. I believe he was seen as something of a working man. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, he had littered the northern hemisphere with golf courses by the time of his death in 1936. Among his designs are Olympia Fields Country Club and Medinah Country Club, site of this year’s PGA Championship.
As a testament to Bendelow’s true skill, he designed the East Lake course at the Atlanta Athletic Club – the place where Bobby Jones learned to play. Jones said “It was extraordinary in that it gave a golfer the opportunity to use every wood and iron in his bag.” American golf owes Bendelow a debt of gratitude for having a hand in developing such a legend.
Bendelow was a devout Christian whose only vice was smoking huge cigars. He refused to design courses on Sundays and discouraged others from playing on Sunday. Perhaps such zeal contributed to the sour opinion some developed of him.
While not as widely known as some of his design contemporaries, Tom Bendelow’s work is still enjoyed by North American golfers. Who knows, maybe when you set foot on a golf course this weekend you’ll be playing one of Bendelow’s many designs.
Photo Credit: © Leopard Magazine.