Tom Bendelow (1868–1936), nicknamed "The Johnny Appleseed of American Golf", was a prolific Scottish American golf course architect during the first half of the twentieth century. He is credited with having designed some 600 courses in a 35-year span.
Born September 2, 1868, in Aberdeen, Scotland, Bendelow was one of nine children. His parents owned a popular pie shop in the city, and were known for their religious piety. His father taught him the game of golf; however he was trained as a typesetter. There were no careers in golf course design in that era. He courted Mary Ann Nicol, daughter of a prominent farmer. They were married in 1892 at Belhelvie. Bendelow immigrated to the United States in 1892. His family followed in 1893; the couple had a daughter, born in December 1892. His first job was at the New York Herald.
American golf promoter, architect
Once introduced to A.G. Spalding, the sporting goods manufacturer, Bendelow's career began to take off in earnest. Prior to this, he had been teaching golf in his spare time—most notably to the Pratt family of Standard Oil fame, who also commissioned him to build them a private six-hole course at their Long Island estate, but Spalding hired him to exclusively promote the game in the New York and New Jersey areas. "They were not seeking to design and build championship courses or courses to test the honed skills of the best players, but rather courses that new players could enjoy, courses that would improve player proficiency, courses that would promote participation, and courses that could be maintained at a reasonable expense," according to the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
In 1898, the New York City Park District hired him to redesign and manage the Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course, the country's first 18-hole municipal golf course. Bendelow introduced various innovations to American golfers. These included the use of reserve play (tee) times, course marshals, public player associations, public golf instruction, and training for caddies. He also believed golf should be a sport that the public could play at little to no cost.
Enhances golf boom
In 1901, Bendelow moved to Chicago to be Spalding's Director of Golf Course Development. This era was notable for the extraordinary expansion of golf facilities in North America, with millions of new players, and Bendelow was well placed to encourage and assist this. For the next 16 years, he criss-crossed the U.S. and Canada, laying out courses, providing construction advice, encouraging players' associations, and promoting the growth of the game. In 1917, Bendelow accepted the position of Golf Department Manager with the Thos. E. Wilson sporting goods company. In 1920, Bendelow joined Myron West's "American Park Builders Company" in Chicago, as Chief Golf Course Designer, and focused on designing comprehensive city plans, subdivisions, country clubs, golf courses, and golf course communities. These included Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, Florida (1921), River Crest Country Club, Fort Worth Texas (1911), Dallas Country Club (1908), and Mission Hills Country Club (Kansas) (1915). Bendelow also designed park systems—and even cemeteries—throughout the United States and Canada.
Bendelow is recognized as the most prolific of course designers worldwide, a pioneer in the establishment and growth of the game in America. Bendelow personally designed some 700 courses, taught course design at the college level, played the game with luminaries such as Harry Vardon, and wrote abundantly and beautifully. He even had his own line of Thos. E. Wilson golf clubs. He exerted a profound impact on the introduction and spread of the game of golf in North America.
Bendelow's approach to course design is a "naturalist's approach," in that he strove to utilize the natural features of the chosen site to maximum advantage. His courses have often been called "Olmstedian", in that his method of naturalist design was greatly influenced by the work of prominent landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Jr. "If a site had an especially unique feature –- rock outcrop, stream, grove of trees, scenic view -– he would work his hole placements in such a way as to take full advantage of the features even if that meant working his layout from the middle out," according to the American Society of Golf Course Architects. "Bendelow’s designs changed as the game of golf changed. When given good sites and adequate resources with which to work, he could produce a very challenging lay out, equal to the best work of the day. His personal goal however, was to build good, solid, enjoyable golf courses." Bendelow would often describe his courses as "sporty", meaning that his courses "should present enjoyable play for both beginner and advanced players; not too hard to discourage the new player and not without challenge to the more accomplished golfer."
Most of Bendelow's early work was focused on spreading the game and "bringing golf to the majority of the populous." As a result, most of his designs prior to World War I were fairly basic, focusing more on playability and ease of construction and maintenance. After World War I, Bendelow's designs started to become more strategically intricate, particularly in his work for private clubs. Bendelow left A.G. Spalding and joined American Park Builders during this time. In addition, construction technology and client budgets greatly advanced after World War I. These factors would give him the time required to focus on developing more challenging layouts. The added resources also allowed Bendelow to use more refined techniques in design and construction, including the use of topographic maps, soil surveys, irrigation plans, and plaster of paris green models.
"One of Tom Bendelow’s early designs was the Atlanta Athletic Club’s 18-hole course at East Lake Golf Club, the place where the great Bobby Jones learned the game," wrote Colin Farquharson in a 2006 profile of Bendelow. “'It was extraordinary in that it gave a golfer the opportunity to use every wood and iron in his bag, 'said Jones.'" Bendelow also designed Algonquin Golf Club in 1904, one of the St. Louis, Missouri area’s oldest private country clubs. In 1916, Bendelow designed Birmingham Country Club in Birmingham, Michigan, site of the 1953 PGA Championship.
Bendelow is perhaps best known for his three layouts at the Medinah Country Club, with his work on Medinah Country Club's Course #3 being famous world-wide. Medinah #3 has served as the host site to several major championships, including the U.S. Open in 1949, 1975, and 1990, as well as the PGA Championship in 1999 and 2006. The 2012 Ryder Cup was played on the course, which is widely considered not merely one of the best courses in Illinois, but one of the finest golf courses in the United States. However, the #3 course has been very extensively redesigned since Bendelow's time, a common occurrence for courses from that era which are still used for modern championship play.
He died at his home in River Forest, Illinois, on March 24, 1936 at the age of 67.
The groundbreaking 1981 book The Golf Course, by Geoffrey Cornish and Ronald Whitten, was the first to systematically examine the role of golf course architects in the sport's development. The book included a biographical section on prominent golf course architects, and lists of courses which they had designed. Bendelow's work was researched quite thoroughly by Cornish and Whitten, and the book has since been updated with further editions.
Prior to 1981, Bendelow's contribution had been all but forgotten by the golfing community. Much of his work was sarcastically described as "18 Stakes on a Sunday Afternoon". While this was not an uncommon design approach in Bendelow's day (essentially, the architect would simply drive stakes into the ground to designate tee, fairway, and green locations, usually completing the work in a single day), the term would end up attached to Bendelow as a snide reference. This began to change when Bendelow was inducted into the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame in 2005, reportedly the result of years of efforts by his grandson to restore Bendelow's name to the annals of American golfing history. Today, Bendelow is recognized as one of the most prolific golf course designers and promoters of the game in the U.S. Because of his work in bringing the game of golf to the general public, it is believed that "more people have learned to play golf on a Tom Bendelow designed course than that of any other golf course architect."
- Stuart W. Bendelow. "Tom Bendelow". Cultural Landscape Foundation. Retrieved 2008-04-25.[dead link]
- Colin Farquharson (March 2006). "Home-grown genius who designed America’s golf courses". Retrieved 2008-04-25.
- "Thomas Bendelow's Golfing Philosophy". Turfgrass Information Center. Retrieved 2008-04-25.
- "Course Designs by Location". Turfgrass Information Center. Retrieved 2008-04-25.
- "Feature Interview with Stuart Bendelow". Golf Club Atlas. Retrieved 2011-04-29.
- Architects of Distinction Prior to ASGCA - Thomas Bendelow entry
- Bibilographic resources in the Turfgrass Information Center, Michigan State University Library.
- Interview with Stuart W. Bendelow
- Wilson Golf Clubs
Thomas “Tom” Bendelow, The Johnny Appleseed of American Golf, by Stuart W. Bendelow, Williams & Company: Savannah, Georgia, 2006. ISBN 1-878853-80-5