When I landed in the Berkshires four years ago and started to familiarize myself with the golfing landscape, I thought I had a grasp on the great names from the so-called Golden Era of golf course architecture.
I was familiar with Donald Ross, Charles Blair McDonald, A.W. Tillinghast, Seth Raynor and Dr. Alistair McKenzie, to name a few from those years before the Great Depression. But Wayne Stiles?
To be honest, I had never heard of him, but as I put together the Eagle’s annual golf guide his name kept popping up -- he’s credited as the designer of Taconic Golf Club, Wahconah Country Club, the Country Club of Pittsfield and Pontoosuc Lake Country Club. That’s an impressive list.
I’ve slowly brought myself up to speed on Stiles, but over the phone Friday night, with the help of an expert, that education took a giant step forward.
Kevin Mendik, who will visit the Berkshires next weekend to take part in the first-time "What’s Out There Weekend," co-authored a book on Stiles and has become quite an expert on golf course architecture. Mendik’s love of golf and his job as an environmental protection specialist for the National Parks Service combined to get him hooked.
"There are several courses on the National Register, so my work blended into an interest in golf course architecture," Mendik said. "I’ve been around golf for 40 years but only got interested in the architecture about 15 years ago. Now it’s an out-of-control hobby."
He even plays using the hickory-shafted clubs of the era, "so I get a truer sense of what they were building for. They weren’t planning for 350-yard drives."
When Mendik joined Stiles-designed Pine Brook Country Club in Weston, "nobody knew who he was or was even interested." That also happened during an upsurge in interest in the Golden Era designers.
"I joined, and then I got involved with Bob Labbance, and we decided to write a book on Stiles," Mendik said. Labbance was a noted golf writer and historian who passed away in 2006.
It turns out Stiles has probably had as much of an impact on Massachusetts golf as the revered Ross.
"He actually has more courses in the state than Donald Ross," Medik said. "Between the two of them they have about 85."
It’s widely known that Ross was so busy that he didn’t visit the site of every course he is credited with. That wasn’t the case with Stiles.
"Any course Stiles takes credit for, he was there," Mendik said. "He was a landscape artist before getting into golf and was very detail-oriented. He was all over the place, especially when you consider the modes of travel in those days."
Getting an exact course count for any of the era’s architects is difficult.
"Ross, Stiles, Tillinghast and others redid each other’s work on many occasions," Mendik explained. "It was common. Nobody had a copyright."
Adding to the difficulty of coming up with numbers is the reality that many courses wanted to retain a big name and the biggest of all is Ross.
"Wellesley Country Club is still listed as a Ross course, but it is more of a Stiles course," Medik said. "Ross built it in the teens, then Stiles worked on it in the 20s and Geoff Cornish also did some work later. It’s understandable clubs want to keep the Ross name. It’s part of marketing."
The Country Club of Pittsfield correctly lists Stiles as the architect after he made major changes to the original Ross design. One of the state’s most respected courses, Oak Hill Country Club in Fitchburg, credits both Stiles (front nine) and Ross (back).
While CC of Pittsfield and Wahconah are highly regarded, most would consider Taconic to be Stiles’ Berkshires masterpiece. Helped by the original blueprints, renovation work by Gil Hanse in 2008 was true to the original design, though some tees were moved back to accommodate today’s distance realities. The work included the restoration of bunkers and the removal of trees.
"Taconic is a great course," said Mendik, though he has chosen to play nine-hole Greenock Country Club and Tillinghast’s Berkshire Hills Country Club on his visit next weekend. He has a good reason -- he hasn’t played either one previously.
"Berkshire Hills is Tillinghast’s only course in the state, and that is very significant," Mendik said.
If you see someone on either course with hickory-shafted clubs next weekend and need a quick tutorial on its history, you’ve found the right man.
To contact Richard Lord:
or (413) 496-6236.