The history of golf in the United States

What is the history of golf in the United States?

The history of golf in the United States is not simple.

It is a man called John Reid who is credited with importing the game to the United States in 1888

But there is strong evidence that golf was played in the United States long before this date. 

For a start there is reference to the Dutch game of colf in the court records of 1650 at Fort Orange in New York State. The reference is with regards to a brawl that took place over who was to pay for the round of drinks after the round.

Secondly, there is reference to a consignment of 96 clubs and 432 balls being shipped from the Scottish port of Leith to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1743. Documentation shows that a club was formed there in 1786 and it is recorded that there was also a club in Savannah, which was also in South Carolina. 

It is likely that these clubs perished during the Civil War.

John Reid, considered by many to be the “Father” of Golf in the United States.

Courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “John Reid.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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The History of Golf in the United States

The history of golf in the United States also includes some other clubs that have claims to have been established prior to 1888, including Douglas Field, Chicago, (1875), Oakhurst Golf Links, West Virginia (1882), Dorset Field Golf Club, Vermont (1886) and Foxburg Country Club, Pennsylvania (1887). 

So wherever Scots emigrated to in the US, in the years from when the first Pilgrims landed on The Mayflower in 1620 and onwards, there is a likelihood of golf being played in some form or another. So the history of golf in the United States is, just like in Scotland, shrouded in the mists of time. We will probably never know where golf was first played on American shores.

It was the British who first spread golf to Canada in 1873 when a club was established at Montreal, Canada, now Royal Montreal

Royal Montreal is therefore recognised as the oldest golf club in North America.

The original Royal Montreal Clubhouse at Fletcher’s Field

Courtesy The Royal Montreal Golf Club

It was a Scottish emigrant called Alexander Dennestoun who is credited with this and, within a further ten years, there were courses at Quebec, Toronto, Ottawa and Niagara

However it is with John Reid that the distinction of founding US golf seems to lay in the official annals of the history of golf in the United States.

John Reid

John Reid was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1840 and learned the game at Musselburgh. Whilst living in Yonkers, New York, he asked a friend of his, Robert Lockhart, to bring him back some clubs and balls from Scotland.

Robert duly bought some clubs and balls from Old Tom Morris in St Andrews who shipped then across the Atlantic. Once John Reid had received the delivery, on 22nd February 1888 he and some of his friends used the clubs and balls to play three rudimentary holes that he had cut in a field close to his home. It just so happened that this was also on the anniversary of Washington’s birth

Charles Price, in his book, The World of Golf, stated “Thus, on the birthday of a man who is never alleged to have told a lie in his life, was played a round which presaged a pastime that has since created more lying Americans than any other save fishing.” 

John Reid and his friends formally drew up a constitution for their golf club and called it St Andrew’s Golf Club. Note that it is distinguished from the original St Andrews by the use of apostrophe.

They were called the “Apple Tree Gang” because of the high numbers of apple trees on the Yonkers course.

John Reid and the “Apple Tree Gang” at Yonkers in the early days.

Eventually the club moved to a new site which had 18 holes in 1897. 

By this time golf had already spread rapidly, but the history of golf in the United States will be forever entwined with John Reid and St Andrew’s at Yonkers. 

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The explosion of golf in the United States

“Young Willie” Dunn

In 1894, “Young Willie” Dunn from Musselburgh had laid out 12 holes at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island. This was built on genuinely links like turf. 

Dunn’s arrival in the US to build Shinnecock Hills was based on an accidental meeting between him and three US citizens who were on holiday in Biarritz, in France. Dunn had laid out a new course there in 1890. They were enchanted by the game and convinced Dunn to follow them to New York. He did and what ensued is the explosion of the game in the United States. Dunn can thereby be considered the first official golf course architect in the history of US golf.

Willie Dunn, photographed around 1989

Willie Dunn’s New York advertisement from 1897

The Scottish Invasion

Hundreds of Scots followed Dunn to work as teaching professionals, course architects, green-keepers, and equipment makers. 

Consequently, Scots were enormously and intrinsically involved in the history of golf in the United States.

This is well illustrated by the following list results from the first United States Open Championship in 1895. .

Place Player Country   Score Money ($)
1 Horace Rawlins England flag England 91-82=173 150
2 Willie Dunn Scotland flag Scotland 89-86=175  100
T3 James Foulis Scotland flag Scotland 89-87=176  50
  Andrew Smith (a) Canada flag Canada 90-86=176   
5 William Davis Scotland flag Scotland 94-84=178  25
6 Willie Campbell Scotland flag Scotland 89-90=179  10
T7 John Harland England flag England 93-90=183  10
  John Patrick Scotland flag Scotland 94-89=183  10
9 Samuel Tucker England flag England 97-88=185  0
10 John Reid Scotland flag Scotland 100-106=206  0

 

By 1896, six years after John Reid had laid out his first three hole course, there were over 80 golf courses in the United States. Four years later there were 892. This was a huge step forward in the history of golf in the United States.

By 1900, therefore, there were more American courses than British courses.

The first US Amateur Championship was held in 1895 under the auspices of the newly formed United States Golf Association (USGA) at Newport and on the following day, on the same course the first US Open was played and won by Horace Rawlins, an Englishman, with Willie Dunn in second place.

Horace Rawlins, winner of the first ever US Open Championship, at Newport, in 1895

Charles Blair MacDonald

The first US Amateur Championship was won my Charles Blair MacDonald, a very interesting character, who was a major influence on the early history of golf in the United States

He built the first 18-hole course in the United States, was a driving force in the founding of the United States Golf Association, and later built some of the most prestigious golf courses in the United States, to the extent that he is considered to be the Father of American golf course architecture. 

Macdonald was born in Niagara Falls, Canada, to naturalized American parents — a Scottish father and Canadian, part Mohawk, mother. He grew up in Chicago and in 1872 at age 16, was sent to St Andrews University, Scotland.

It was there that he took up the game of golf. He was coached by Old Tom Morris, and soon became proficient enough that he played matches on the Old Course at St Andrews against several of the leading golfers of the day, including Young Tom Morris.

Charles Blair MacDonald, the “Father” of golf course architecture in the United States.

Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Charles Blair Macdonald” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920

He returned to Chicago in 1874 and became a successful stockbroker, but rarely played golf for the best part of the next 17 years.

Noticing that golf had become popular in New York, with the founding of the St Andrew’s club, in 1892 he convinced several associates to begin playing, and founded the Chicago Golf Club.

In 1901 he redesigned Shinnecock Hills, which lays claim to be the oldest formally organized golf club in the United States, founded in 1891, and to have the oldest golf clubhouse in the United States, built in 1892.

Shinnecock Hills was first designed by Willie Davis, in 1891, augmented by Willie Dunn, in 1894, and redesigned to, more or less, its current layout by William Flynn in, 1937,

SHinnecock Hills, showing a glimpse of its links-style characteristics

The Birth of the United States Golf Association (USGA)

MacDonald was instrumental in bringing together the St Andrew’s club, Shinnecock Hills, Newport Country Club, The Country Club (Brookline), and The Chicago Golf Club to form the USGA. He became Vice-President, with Theodore Havemeyer from Newport G.C. being elected the first President.

This was a key moment in the history of golf in the United States.

The USGA was thus founded in on December 22nd 1894, with the inaugural U.S. Amateur Championship taking place the following year, along with the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship..

The U.S. Amateur Championship is the thereby the oldest USGA championship and it was created in 1895 because of a controversy. In 1894, two clubs — Newport (R.I.) Golf Club and New York’s St. Andrew’s Golf Club — had conducted invitational tournaments to attract the nation’s top amateur players.

Both clubs proclaimed their winners as the national champion, while Charles Blair Macdonald was the runner-up in both. 

Before the final day of the St. Andrew’s tournament, it was announced that an association composed of all the clubs in the United States would be formed in the ensuing months. This new national governing body would oversee a universally recognized championship and create a written set of rules.

The Amateur and Open Championships were conducted at Newport Golf Club during the same week of October, 1895, and Macdonald became the first U.S. Amateur champion.

Since then, the U.S. Amateur Championship has seen some great champions, including Bobby Jones, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.

Continued golf expansion

Golf continued to expand rapidly in the United States.

Walter Travis was the first American based player to win the British Amateur in 1904.

Johnny McDermott was the first native-born American to win the US Open in 1911

Walter Travis

Reproduced from Horace Hutchinson’s book “Fity Years of Golf”

 John J. McDermott, the 1911 and 1912 U.S. Open champion, pictured with the U.S. Open trophy in 1913

Published in The American Golfer, Volume X, No. 2, June 1913

Francis Ouimet – setting America alight

But it was the famous victory of Francis Ouimet, in winning the U.S. Open in 1913, that really ignited and popularised golf in the United States.

Ouimet is therefore another key figure in the histroy of golf in the United States.

Here was a young unknown amateur golfer beating the famous English champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a play-off, having tied with them after 72 holes.

The newspapers of the United States went wild with delight in relating his progress to their eager readers.

Ouimet and his ten year old caddy, Eddie Lowery, who was no bigger than the bag of clubs that he carried, were never non-famous again. In fact Ouimet was honoured by becoming the first non-Briton to be elected as Captain of the R&A. 

In addition to his US Open win, Ouimet also won two US Amateur Championships and played in the first eight Walker Cup teams.

Fancis Ouimet winning the Open Championship at Brookline, 1913

Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Francis Ouimet being carried by spectators following his famous 1913 U.S. Open victory at Brookline and holding his lucky horseshoe. Eddie Lowery, the 10-year-old boy who was his caddie for the match, is in the foreground with a towel around his neck.

Published in Golf Illustrated & Outdoor America, Volume I, No. 1, April 1914

There have been some great champions throughout the history of golf in the United States during the twentieth century with Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen, the “Big Three” of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player (of South Africa), Tom Watson and, of course, Tiger Woods.

Where are we now? 

There are now around 18,000 golf courses in the U.S. As many as the rest of the world put together. The history of golf in the United States has come a long way.

The Worldwide Explosion of Golf!

In 2012 there were 56 million people playing golf worldwide, with 26.7 million in the United States, 5 million in Canada, 5.5 million in Continental Europe, 14 million in Japan and 3.8 million in the United Kingdom.

The global golf tourism market is valued ay $17 billion with global golf equipment sales valued at $15 billion. 

The company TaylorMade-Adidas Golf are alone expected to post sales of over $2 billion during 2013.

There are now over 35,000 golf courses worldwide. 

The British Isles has over 2,500 golf courses, with around 600 new courses opened since 1990

There are around 2,500 in Japan, 2,300 in Canada, 1,500 in Australia, 2,000 in Europe, 600 in China and growing strongly.

There are therefore now more golf courses in China than in Scotland, the home of golf.

Despite a dip during the recent recession, golf is again on the up and is played by millions of people around the world.

Next – find out about the origins of the caddy

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