Golf was played in the United States before 1888, but the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), with five charter clubs, was not established until 1894 as the governing body of U.S. play. By 1900 there were more than 1,000 courses in the United States, with Massachusetts and New York each having more than 150. The game spread rapidly from 1900 to 1920. A 25 June 1909 New York Times story reported a boom in golf when President William Howard Taft began playing the game to keep up his health. The number of players at some public links was reported to have doubled following media coverage of Taft’s interest.
The 1910 Open
On 18 June 1910 Alex Smith (one of five brothers, all of whom were professional golfers) won the USGA Open Golf Tournament after an eighteen-hole playoff round against John J. McDermott and Macdonald Smith, the first three-way play-off in the Open’s history. In the same year, he also won the Metropolitan Open. Alex Smith was considered one of the fastest putters in the game. He urged golfers to “go up to the ball and knock it into the hole” and he coined the phrase “miss ’em quick.”
An American-Born Champion
British players seemed to have a lock on the U.S. Open title until June 1911, when McDermott, who learned the game in the caddy ranks, became the first American-born champion by defeating Michael Brady and George Simpson in a play-off round. He repeated his victory in August 1912. McDermott’s legendary iron play was matched by his ego; he believed that he could beat anyone and could generally carry out his boast. His wins ended British supremacy of the game, but he did not fulfill his potential as a golfer as mental illness led to his permanent confinement in an institution.
In the amateur ranks, youth moved forward. Jerome D. Travers, an amateur from Long Island, New York, won his first U.S. Amateur championship in 1907, then captured the U.S. Open in 1915, the second amateur to earn this distinction. He was the game’s most prominent figure from 1906 to 1915. Before Travers ended his career, he won four U.S. Amateur championships, five Metropolitan Amateur championships, and one U.S. Open title.
On 20 September 1913 Francis Ouimet, a twenty-year-old amateur, won the U.S. Open GolfTournament at the Brookline Country Club in Massachusetts. His upset victory after a three-way playoff remains the most significant win in the development of golf in the United States. His opponents were the two leading British professionals, Harry Vardon and Edward “Ted” Ray, the 1912British Open champion. Ouimet played the last six holes two under par to tie Vardon and Ray. In the eighteen-hole play-off round Ouimet bested them by five and six strokes, respectively. It was one of the most dramatic play-offs in the history of the U.S. Open and was considered one of golf’s most thrilling moments. A record number of entrants necessitated the first qualifying round in the history of the event. At least three thousand people witnessed this great upset and victory for native American talent.
Increasing Popularity of Game
The achievements of American golfers led to golf’s increasing popularity. In 1913 there were 350,000 American golfers; in ten years the figure would grow to more than two million. As 1914 ended the Executive Committee of the U.S. Golf Association reported a membership of 88 active member clubs and 303 allied clubs, an increase of 33 over the previous year. After World War I the number of good American professionals grew along with the number of top-flight players capable of winning big tournaments. Unlike the British, the Americans were quick to build up the financial side of tournament play, particularly in the 1920s.
The U.S. Open held at the Midlothian Country Club in suburban Chicago in August 1914 was a watershed event. The last open before World War I took its toll on British golf, the tournament was distinguished as the final stand of the famous British “triumvirate” of Vardon, James Braid, and John H. Taylor. It also marked the first U.S. Open victory of American Walter Hagen, who defeated his fellow American, the amateur Charles “Chick” Evans Jr. Hagen’s contribution to golf at Midlothian, however, surpassed his notable achievements as a player, as his actions helped to make professional golf a respectable occupation.
Considered socially inferior to the club members, the first golf pros were mostly Englishmen and Scots who designed the early courses, kept the grounds, made and repaired the hickory-shafted golf clubs, trained and managed caddies, and instructed novices. Before Hagen pros received little money from tournament earnings, product endorsements, or paid exhibitions. During open tournaments, they were barred from the clubhouses. Hagen, with his pleasing personality, sartorial elegance, and supreme confidence, challenged this social discrimination directly, precipitating the “Midlothian Incident.” Feigning ignorance of rules barring pros, Hagen made himself at home in the clubhouse and in the
Francis Ouimet sprays himself with water as he saves his ball from a hazard. locker room. The country club soon gave up its attempt to enforce its rules, thus quietly acceding to “a social revolution in American golf.”
Throughout his career Hagen broke down social barriers in both the United States and Europe. Rather than rely upon tournament winnings, Hagen made his money on tours and product endorsements, hiring a business manager, Robert “Bob” Harlow, hailed as the “founder of professional golf,” to guide his career. Harlow capitalized on Hagen’s popularity by lining up endorsements for golf equipment and arranging profitable golf tours that netted Hagen between $30,000 to $50,000 annually.
On 18 June 1915 Travers, then America’s leading amateur, became the second amateur to win the U.S. Open and to stand off the pros. Ouimet, Evans, and Travers were often called the great amateur triumvirate of America. In the 1916 U.S. Open Evans established a record low of 286, which was not matched until 1932, when Gene Sarazen tied it. The prize money was increased to $1,200 in 1916, with the winner getting $500 (if professional) and a gold medal. Evans also won the 1916 National Amateur, the first time both events were captured in the same year by one golfer.
Professional Golfers’ Association
On 17 January 1916, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) began at a luncheon in New York City given by Rodman Wanamaker, of the Wanamaker department store family, and attended by many top golfers. The organization developed from a desire of the early professionals to foster interest in the game, to raise the standard of living for the sport’s pros, and to maintain a high standard of professional ethics. On 7 February an organizing committee established the new association, drew up tentative bylaws, and chose a permanent committee.
Its first president was Robert White. Three months later the first national PGA tournament was held at the Siwanoy GolfCourse in Bronxville, New York, on 10 April. It was won by Jim Barnes, of Great Britain, with a one-stroke victory over Jock Hutchison. Wanamaker donated a total prize of $2,580 with $500 going to the winner. World War I stopped play in 1917 and in 1918 but Barnes successfully defended his PGA crown in 1919 by defeating Fred McLeod in the final round.
Women’s interest in golf in the 1910s continued to develop, though the only major championship for women was the U.S. Women’s Amateur, first held in 1895 in Hempstead, New York. Because of discrimination, progress for women in the game was slower than it might have been. On 30 July 1916 The New York Times reported that women golf players had only restricted access to most courses in New York and in New Jersey. The Garden City Golf Club in New York allowed women to play only on Monday and Friday mornings, and they had to tee off by 11 AM. The twenty or so women members of the Upper Montclair Country Club in New Jersey were not allowed to play on holidays; they were restricted to Saturday mornings and to Sundays after 3 PM.
World War I and After
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, all golf tournaments were canceled. However, the PGA sponsored an “open patriotic tournament” in 1917 at the Whitemarsh Country Club in Philadelphia to benefit the American Red Cross and charged admission to spectators, a practice copied by the U.S. Open in 1921. The Whitemarsh tournament was probably the first tournament played as a fund-raiser, but it was not the last as many exhibitions were staged throughout the war. In 1919 all major U.S. tournaments were resumed and on 11 June 1919, Walter Hagen won the first postwar U.S. Open Golf Tournament at Brae Burn Country Club in West Newton, Massachusetts, with a 301 total and a play-off victory over Michael Brady.
The USGA increased the prize money in the U.S. Open to $1,745, which provided purses for the first twelve players though first prize remained $500. By the end of the 1910s, golf was well established in appeal and popularity in a nation that increasingly valued exercise and open air sports. Emphasizing etiquette and polite manners, the game appealed to businessmen and the upper classes who found it challenging and diverting.