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Tom Bendelow - Legacy Golf Course Designer

The tearing down of the clubhouse revealed a pleasant surprise: old minutes, confirmed by research and a nine-hole blueprint, reveal at least the front nine of the Mason City Country Club was designed by Tom Bendelow, likely the most prolific golf course architect in America and often called "the Johnny Appleseed of American golf course architecture."

The exact date of construction is unclear, but 1915 fits closely. The Bendelow blueprint is undated. The Turfgrass Information Center at Michigan State says Mason City Country Club was constructed in 1914; the American Association of Golf Architects says 1918. The club has a silver winner's trophy from the inaugural George Hormel Open contested in 1918. Robin Anderson has a picture of the original clubhouse, which indicates it was constructed in 1915; mown grass appears in the background.

Tom Bendelow was born in 1868 in Aberdeen, Scotland. His father introduced him to the game of golf on Royal Aberdeen, which is still one of the finest links courses in Scotland, the home of golf. While young Bendelow was an accomplished amateur, golf was not a viable profession in the late 1800s, and he was trained as a typesetter and eventually became a journalist.


At age 24, he emigrated to New York City to work at the New York Herald. The New York Herald job would eventually return him to golf as his profession.


In the '890s, the United States was experiencing a great expansion in golf, soon to be called the "Golden Age" of golf in America. Some immigrants from Scotland, like Bendelow, secured part-time employment teaching the game of golf to Americans.


In 1894, Bendelow answered an ad in the New York Herald posted by the Pratt family to teach golf to the Pratt family. Mr. Pratt owned Standard Oil of New Jersey and had a large estate on Long Island. This would prove to be a watershed job for Bendelow; he was ultimately hired full-time to construct a six-hole golf course on the Pratt Estate for Pratt, his friends and family.


Bendelow's golf course construction business expanded in the East on the recommendation of Pratt. Bendelow designed several courses in the New York City metro and designed and operated the first municipal golf course in the United States 'Van Cortlandt Park' in New York City.


Bendelow's new golf course designs got the attention of his fellow countryman Harry Vardon, the then reigning British Open champion. In the late 1890s, Bendelow played an exhibition with Vardon in the United States. Bendelow caddied for Vardon in the 1900 U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club, which was the only U.S. Open Championship the seven-time major champion Vardon would win.


By 1901, Bendelow had a national name and was hired by E.G. Spaulding Company as director of Golf Course Development. E.G. Spaulding himself was coming off a Hall of Fame career as a major league pitcher with a 252-65 win-loss record and a 2.14 ERA for the Boston Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings. While playing baseball, Spaulding had invented the baseball glove and had become an avid golfer. Spaulding and his company thought that golf, in order expand and his company to sell more golf equipment, needed more golf courses.

Spaulding's vision to expand golf fit Bendelow like a glove. Bendelow became involved in site selection, construction and maintenance of both private and public golf courses all over the United States and even in Canada and Mexico. Bendelow also set up player associations, gave lessons, and continued to do barnstorming exhibitions with and without Vardon to promote the game of golf.


Bendelow's and Spaulding's goal was to build solid but enjoyable golf courses that promoted participation by beginning players but challenged more proficient players from the back tees to use "every club in the bag," according to the American Society of Golf Architects.


Bendelow's golf course design philosophy was called naturalist, in that it used the natural features of the land to define holes. Naturalist golf courses were designed from the inside out, meaning the architect first designed holes that fit the terrain and then found a way to connect the remaining holes.


The naturalist philosophy was borne of the lack of earth moving equipment and GPS in the early l 900's. The philosophy was designed to construct and maintain golf courses at reasonable expenses for both public and widespread private use.


Characteristics of Bendelow-designed golf courses are smaller greens without fronting hazards and with undulation or spines to demark different putting areas. Bendelow also favored short walks from greens to tees to minimize excess space and expense.


During the 20 years of his Spaulding employment, Bendelow designed over 300 golf courses, including Mason City Country Club. Other notable Bendelow-designed golf courses (or at least nine holes of them) in Iowa, all of which have hosted major Iowa championships, include Sioux City Country Club, Fort Dodge Country Club, Hyperion Field Club (D.M.), Des Moines Country Club (old), Waveland Golf Course, Dubuque Country Club, Elmwood Country Club (Marshalltown), Cedar Rapids Country Club (old), Waterloo Country Club, (now Porky's), and Sunnyside Country Club (Waterloo).

Bendelow continued to design golf courses after leaving Spaulding in 1920 to start his own design company. By the end of  his career, his work included over 700 courses, likely making him the most prolific golf course designer ever in America. Bendelow's golf courses include three in America's Top 100: East Lake in Atlanta, Medina in Chicago, and Olympic Fields in Chicago. His work also includes many more golf courses used as venues by the USGA and PGA competitions. Bendelow's designs also include many, like Mason City Country Club, which have served as venues for statewide championships.


- Joel Yunek and Kirby Schmidt


Golf Course History: Storied Past, Bright Future
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