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A.W. Tillinghast vs. Donald Ross

Who was the better architect?

By: Geoff Shackelford

Expect a tight match when A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross inevitably reach the final of the Golf Architect Match Play.

Both have courses that have hosted majors. Tillinghast, the Philadelphian inspired by Pine Valley, offers Winged Foot, Bethpage Black and Baltusrol. Ross, who grew up at Royal Dornoch, comes back with Oakland Hills, Pinehurst No. 2 and Oak Hill.

What about fun, cult-classic designs? Ross nominates Essex County Club and Wannamoisett; Tillinghast counters with Somerset Hills and Fenway.

Both categories are too close.

Here’s another: Epic, long, gentle, dogleg-left par-4 5th holes on the East Coast. Ross rolls out the 5th at Pinehurst No. 2. Tillinghast trots out the willowy 5th at Newport.

Both translated the best links-golf ideas to inland designs. Ross was more prolific, designing four times as many courses as Tillinghast.

But Tilly spent some of his final years consulting for the PGA of America, looking at thousands of courses to suggest improvements.

Both had misunderstood designs tinkered with by committees and architects. During his “PGA Tour,” Tilly even found a “sinfully juggled” Ross design.

Ah, an opening: the written word. Tillinghast’s prose in Golf Illustrated and elsewhere had individuality and charisma that jumped off the page. His writing acumen translates to an edge in the field.

While both masters created intricate green complexes that modern architects cannot fathom recreating, Tilly’s creations, like the 1st at Winged Foot West, generally are more distinctive.

Sure, Ross built eccentric, fun greens, but the defining characteristics are hard to recall. “A putting green has features just like a human,” Tilly wrote. “There are some with rugged profiles which loom head and shoulders above the common herd, and the moment we clap eyes on one of these, impulsively we murmur, ‘Ah! There’s a green for you!’”

Ross never designed a green as unforgettable as Winged Foot West’s famous par-3 10th, a hole that looms head and shoulders above the common herd, created by a man who makes you murmur, “There’s an architect for you!”

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