By Kevin Casey
The 1896 U.S. Open was held at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York. The event was still in its infancy, just like the club, just like golf in America. At the time, conducting an amateur national championship was the primary reason for the existence of the USGA. Incongruously to those of us who follow golf today, the U.S. Open played second fiddle to the U.S. Amateur, just an add-on competition following the amateur “main event,” played the next day at the same course.
Nonetheless, the earliest U.S. Opens were important, for they brought together annually the people who made their living playing the game and set the stage for not just future U.S. Opens, but also the Professional Golfers’ Association of America.
A sixteen-year-old Black golfer, John M. Shippen, finished tied for sixth in that 1896 U.S. Open, coming within just seven shots of being the first American-born U.S. Open champion and possibly changing the course of American golf.
Shippen, who spent half his life in New Jersey, was born on December 2, 1879, in Washington, D.C., the fourth of nine children by John and Eliza Shippen. In 1888, the boy’s father, a Presbyterian minister, was assigned to serve the Shinnecock Indian Reservation on Long Island.
Expected to contribute to his family at an early age, young John began working as a caddie at nearby Shinnecock Hills shortly after it opened in 1891. Its head professional, well-known Scotsman Willie Dunn Jr., saw Shippen working hard, and in short time, hired the youngster to be one of his assistants. Shippen learned quickly and soon was giving lessons to the members, building and repairing clubs, and improving the course. In accepting this role, Shippen became not only the first Black golf professional, but the first American-born golf professional.
Not Your Garden Variety U.S. Open
The USGA, as a courtesy to the host club, invited Shinnecock Hills to enter its best player in the upcoming 1896 U.S. Open. Shinnecock Hills members were so impressed with Shippen’s talent that they decided to pay his entry fee for the championship. The members gave Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock American Indian who worked on the club’s grounds crew, the same honor.
This gracious act had an important, unintended effect on the other contestants—all British-born—in the field. A day before the championship, several players signed a petition and approached the USGA president, Theodore Havemeyer, threatening to withdraw en masse from the tournament if non-Caucasians (that is, Shippen and Bunn) were allowed to compete.
Havemeyer, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country at that time, had a swift, unequivocal response to this demand. As told by Shippen to New Jersey golf writer Red Hoffman, Havemeyer informed the rebellious players that the USGA bylaws had no racial bars for entrants, and that if the petitioners did not play, the Open would proceed leaving Shippen and Bunn the only players on the course. In other words, play or be damned.
The next day, all entrants teed off.
The 1896 U.S. Open was a 36-hole event played over the course of a single day. In surely one of the USGA’s most unusual pairings ever, sixteen-year-old Shippen was paired with amateur Charles B. Macdonald, USGA vice president, winner of the first (1895) U.S. Amateur and—besides Havemeyer—the most important person in the American game. Shippen played well that morning, finishing 3-3-3 and shooting a 78, two shots off the lead set by Englishman Joe Lloyd and tied for second place with four others.
The mercurial Macdonald had a bad morning round, shot 90, and was so displeased he refused to play in the second round. However, he was impressed with what he saw from his morning playing partner and walked the course in the afternoon to keep Shippen’s score.
Shippen’s 39 on the first nine of the afternoon round would have placed him right near the top of the leaderboard (had they been invented!). Lloyd slipped to a first-nine 41, tying him with Shippen while James Foulis, a professional playing out of Chicago who had tied with Shippen after the first day, took the lead with a splendid 36.
Reports of what happened on the back nine with Shippen have been fueled for years by hearsay, but recent extensive research by historian Lyle Slovick has uncovered the facts. Slovick, using original reports of the day, including those from the New York Sun, determined that Shinnecock’s 15th (then a 333-yard par 4) proved to be Shippen’s undoing. He took a triple-bogey 7 there, then finished 4-4-5, a total of six shots above his morning round scores on the same four holes to finish with an 81, and a total of 159, tied for 6th).
Foulis closed with a 74 and a 152 total. Shippen’s high finish was good enough to win $10, a bittersweet but no doubt appreciated reward for a day’s play on Shinnecock Hills.
After the 1896 U.S. Open
Not long after the U.S. Open, Shippen’s father completed his assignment as pastor to the Shinnecock reservation and moved his family back to Washington. John, now eighteen, stayed in Long Island, continuing a career as a golf professional.
Like almost all professionals in those days, Shippen remained affiliated with a club for the remainder of his career. Today we would recognize these clubs as among America’s finest, including Shinnecock Hills’s neighbors, the National Golf Links of America and the Maidstone Club, as well as Aronimink Golf Club, near Philadelphia and Spring Lake Golf Club in New Jersey. As an instructor, Shippen developed an impressive list of clients, including New Jersey Senator J. S. Frelinghuysen.
He would compete in five more U.S. Opens, in 1899, 1900, ’02, ’08, and ’13, with a fifth place in 1902 standing as his best Open finish. His last U.S. Open, in 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, was distinctive because Francis Ouimet, another former caddie who overcame restrictions of social status to triumph, won.
By 1924, Shippen had generally retired from competition, and in 1931 he became the head professional and groundskeeper at Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains. Shady Rest was the first exclusively Black golf club in the United States, and Shippen lived in the attic of the clubhouse, remaining on staff there for more than thirty years.
The Birth of the United Golf Association
By the time Shippen became the professional at Shady Rest, he had become a leader of a group of Black professional golfers who would meet in various towns on the East Coast, pool their money, sometimes find a sponsor, and then play for the purse. These were the years of Jim Crow segregation, when it was legal to deny golfers the opportunity to play simply because they were Black.
In New Jersey, Blacks had access to public golf, but in great swaths of the country that was not the case. Oddly enough, private club courses were often more accessible – many of these accomplished players were also caddies, and most private clubs would let their caddies play on Mondays when clubs were usually closed.
In keeping with some unfortunate patterns of the day, the PGA of America in 1934 inserted an article in its bylaws stating that the organization was “for members of the Caucasian race,” preventing non-whites from membership. If you were a Black golf professional, this was a trying time to ply your trade.
With so few options for Black professionals, Shady Rest became an oasis. In 1925, several of these players pulled together an inaugural “International Golf Championship Tournament,” held at Shady Rest. The success of this event contributed to the idea of staging an annual national tournament beginning in 1926 under the auspices of the “Colored Golfers Association of America.” This organization was renamed the United Golf Association (UGA) within a year.
The UGA became the forum that fostered the careers of Black players for years. With six U.S. Open appearances behind him, Shady Rest’s Shippen was probably the UGA’s biggest early draw, but the association eventually nurtured the games of well-known golfers such as Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, who together brought suit against the PGA to end its exclusionary clause; eventual PGA tour winner and World Golf Hall of Fame member Charlie Sifford, who won the UGA’s National Negro Open six times in the 1950s; and Lee Elder, who, in 1974, became the first Black to play in the Masters.
The UGA remained viable until the PGA of America removed its “Caucasian-only clause” at its 1961 annual meeting and as civil rights and desegregation measures opened public golf courses to all golfers. As barriers to advancement were lowered, the original drivers for the UGA waned and the association ultimately ceased to exist.
For many of the same reasons Shady Rest became less relevant and fell upon rough times. The city of Scotch Plains took over the facility in 1964. Known today as Scotch Hills Golf Club, this municipal course hosts thousands of rounds of golf annually.
John Shippen died in Newark in 1968 at the age of eighty-eight and is buried in Linden. In 2018, Shippen was an inaugural inductee into the New Jersey State Golf Hall of Fame.
After Shippen’s 1913 finish, no Black man played in the U.S. Open until Ted Rhodes competed in 1948. Although he was a professional golfer his whole life, the PGA of America’s “Caucasian-only” membership clause barred Shippen from participating in PGA tour events and as a PGA member. The clause was removed in 1961 and, in 2009, the PGA of America bestowed a posthumous membership upon Shippen.
His story makes one wonder … What if Shippen had won that U.S. Open? Would it have given him the confidence in his play to win yet again? Would his victory have changed the stigma borne by Black professionals in the conservative world of golf? The American game was still young. Would Shippen have become the first pied piper—the Francis Ouimet or Arnold Palmer—of American golf? What effect would that have had on today’s game?
This story has been adapted from Remarkable Stories of New Jersey Golf, Kevin Casey’s collection of anecdotes, facts, figures and photos that reveals the Garden State’s rich influence on American golf history. For more about the book, visit njgolfstories.com.