- Top 100
- Tom Bendelow
Tom Bendelow was raised in Aberdeen, one of nine children born to John Bendelow and Mary Edwards, and he learned how to play the game with his father on the old Kings Links near the city centre. He trained as a typesetter and worked on the Aberdeen Free Press before marrying the daughter of a local farmer, Mary Ann Nicol, then emigrating to America in 1892, with his wife and daughter following a year later.
He worked at the New York Herald and replied to an advertisement in the newspaper looking for a golf instructor to teach the game to a local family. It turned out the advert had been placed by members of the Pratt family. Charles Pratt had been a pioneer in the petroleum industry and Tom gave lessons on his estate in Glen Cove, Long Island. He eventually set out a short 6-hole practice course on the property around 1894.
This was probably Tom’s first course design, though it’s thought he also laid out a few other courses for wealthy and sports-minded businessmen in the New Jersey area around that time. Stuart Bendlelow, Tom’s grandson, gave an interview to the Michigan Golfer Magazine in 2004, detailing how his grandfather got started on the design front:
“Tom Bendelow’s most notable early efforts, and the ones that really propelled him into national prominence, were at Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. Here he re-designed the existing nine holes, added a second nine, supervised the construction and maintenance of the course, directed play, organized tournaments and offered instruction. This was the country’s first 18-hole municipal golf course and something of a model for what Tom felt should to be replicated across the United States.”
Bendelow then began to work with A.G. Spalding designing golf courses all over the country, co-operating with municipal parks and businessmen to provide basic golf course design for layouts which were inexpensive to build, easy to maintain and which would provide the maximum in playable rounds of golf. Of course, it also helped to have Bendelow expand Spalding’s golf equipment business at the same time.
Bendelow accompanied Harry Vardon on his 1900 American tour and played with him in several exhibition matches. He also caddied for Vardon in the 1900 U.S. Open at Wheaton, Illinois.
By the time Tom moved to Chicago as Director of Golf Course Development with A. G. Spalding in 1901, he had already designed almost a hundred courses, mainly in the states of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Tom opened an indoor golf school in the basement of Spalding’s Chicago offices, offering lessons during the winter months. He was appointed as an official for the golf competition at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri and three years later became Editor of the annual publication called Spalding’s Official Golf Guide .
During his sixteen years with the company, he laid out more than 250 courses across the country, venturing into Canada on several occasions.
Bendelow left to become Manager of the Golf Department for Ashland Sporting Goods in Chicago in 1917. When the firm was then acquired by Thomas Wilson Sporting Goods Company, he was appointed as its first Golf Department Manager.
He didn’t last long with Wilson as he joined the American Park Builders Company in 1920, taking over the position of Chicago-based Chief Golf Course Designer from William Langford, who had left to form his own design partnership with Theodore Moreau.
His new duties saw him focus his efforts on designing city plans, subdivisions, country clubs and golf course communities. He also designed park systems and even cemeteries throughout the United States and Canada. Incredibly, he still managed to lay out an estimated 150 courses in the fifteen years leading up to his death in 1936.
Bendelow is recognized as the most prolific of course designers worldwide and a pioneer in establishing and growing the game in America. Apart from his architectural skills, he also taught golf course design at college level, played with the likes of Harry Vardon, and wrote enthusiastically about the game. He even had his own line of Thos. E. Wilson clubs.
There’s absolutely no doubt that “Johnny Appleseed” Bendelow exerted a profound impact on the introduction and spread of the game of golf across North America. More’s the pity that his contribution is often overlooked or, worse still, played down.
The Architects of Golf by Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten: “Bendelow’s reputation after his death centred on the primitive staking method Bendelow (as well as many of his contemporaries) utilized around the turn of the century. This simple method was labelled pejoratively “eighteen-stakes-on-a-Sunday-afternoon.” Ironically, Bendelow, a deeply religious man, never laid out a course on a Sunday. He refused to even play golf on a Sunday, so strict was his personal doctrine. He never drank alcohol, never swore and never told off-color jokes. His only apparent weakness was for the huge cigars he constantly smoked. None of his relatives could recall if he smoked them on Sundays.”
The Evolution of Golf Course Design by Keith Cutten: “Due to his early design methodologies, Bendelow’s contributions as a golf course designer are often overlooked. However, those early courses were intentionally simple, as they were intended for new golfers, part-time players, and families. As golfing interests and abilities matured, so too did Tom’s course designs. He added more features, recommended bolder shaping of fairways and greens, and gave more thought to the strategic placement of hazards.
Following World War One, opportunities to design and construct golf courses quickly resurfaced. Larger budgets and grandiose visions soon followed in response to increased economic prosperity. It was during this period that Tom Bendelow was able to focus on perfecting his layouts. Where Bendelow had the time and money to perfect a course, as was the case at the three-course facility at Medinah (Illinois), the calibre of his work was outstanding.”
Michigan State University MSU Libraries article: “In the 1890s, when Tom Bendelow got into the golf business, the future of the sport was uncertain. Many considered it a passing fad of the rich. Golf needed a mentor, a champion to set its roots and help it grow. With his relentless drive, positive attitude and powers of persuasion Bendelow drew thousands into the game. No one worked harder or longer, traveled farther or had a greater impact on golf's growth in the USA. While credited with more than 600 courses, half of those being public links, his work made golf accessible to all men and women, young and old, wealthy and working class, offering to them the benefits and rewards of golf for the first time. From these roots, legions of players have evolved. It can truly be said that ‘More people have learned to play golf on a Bendelow designed course than that of any other golf course designer’.
And as vast numbers of players were drawn into the game, there evolved a greater demand for even more courses, clubs, balls, equipment and related business opportunities. The desire for more challenging course layouts also emerged as players acquired greater skills and the permanence of the game and competition grew. With interest in golf growing, greater financial resources became available for bigger, longer, more challenging courses with higher construction costs and bigger architect fees, a trend that Tom had written about in the 1890s. The course architects who made their reputations during the ‘Golden Age of Golf Design’ and thereafter owe much to those who laid the solid foundation for the sport in America.
Over four decades, Bendelow worked as a golf instructor, course designer, club superintendent, tournament organizer, competition official, sporting goods manager, university lecturer, municipal golf promoter, and a mentor to such golf notables as Charles “Chick” Evans, William Langford, Peter Jans and Carl Anderson. He actively used his newspaper background to write about the sport, its benefits, its growth, its management and its future. Tom Bendelow's efforts were preeminent in the founding and growth of golf as a popular sport among the greater population in America. It is puzzling that the modern era scribes of American golf history have chosen to ignore his contributions.”
Thomas “Tom” Bendelow: The Johnny Appleseed of American Golf by Stuart W. Bendelow (2006): “It is worth noting that Tom Bendelow’s first job in golf was that of a teacher or instructor. His interest and enthusiasm were infectious. His eager students soon needed places to play and sought his services again to design a few private holes or a complete course. These early designs were for new golfers – part-time players, women and families – and they were simple designs to promote play and practice, not so difficult as to discourage but challenging enough to reward good play. And they were not so intricately designed to be overly costly for those responsible for maintaining the course.
This was especially true of the courses Bendelow designed prior to 1900. When Bendelow joined A.G. Spalding & Bros. his (and A.G.’s) objective was to promote the game of golf (and equipment sales) by increasing the number of golf courses. 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. Ideally, he felt that municipal or public golf courses should be like public ball fields, open to all players at little or no cost.
The methods of golf course construction changed radically over the course of Bendelow’s career, making it virtually impossible to compare what he did (or could do) in 1895 with what was possible in the 1920s. Nevertheless, he always strove to give his client, public or private, the best facility their resources would permit. There is no record of his ever arguing for more financial support than the client was willing to expend. And in the case of public facility ventures, he was ever-mindful of the continued costs of course maintenance and facility upkeep, factors that would affect the playability of the course and the enjoyment of the players.
It would be fair to call Bendelow’s approach to course design a ‘naturalist’s approach,’ in that he strove to utilize the natural features of the chosen site to maximum advantage. 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.
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 – ‘sporty’ was his favorite term – for use by the vast majority of American golfers.
While Medinah’s No. 3 Course may continue to be listed as Bendelow’s best work, others may argue otherwise. There are dozens of Tom Bendelow-designed golf courses that continue to provide a challenging and pleasurable experience to the present day golfer.”