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Early History of Golf in the United States

by
author image M.L. Rose
M.L. Rose has worked as a print and online journalist for more than 20 years. He has contributed to a variety of national and local publications, specializing in sports writing. Rose holds a B.A. in communications.
Early History of Golf in the United States
Golf is an old sport that began in Europe and migrated to the United States where it grew in popularity. Photo Credit Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Getty Images

Golf began many centuries before Europeans migrated to America and, presumably, brought the game with them from across the Atlantic ocean. It took a while for the game to become popular in the United States, but the sport has thrived and grown since the late 19th century.

Golf Comes to America

Golf's history in the U.S. dates to at least 1657, when a pair of apparently drunk men were arrested for breaking windows by hitting balls with their clubs in Albany, New York. Savannah, Georgia shipping records from 1744 document the arrival of golf equipment sent from Scotland. Records from the Savannah Golf Club -- which claims to be the oldest American golf club -- say it was established in 1794 or 1795. According to the USGA, a club in Charleston, South Carolina was founded in 1786.

Courses Spread Across the U.S.

Most early American golf courses were crude constructions. The famed St. Andrew's course in New York, for example, began its life as three holes laid out in the middle of a cow pasture. That started to change as well-manicured, 9-hole courses with intelligent layouts began replacing the rougher venues in the late 19th century. Most of the famous American courses of the era were in the East, including Shinnecock Hills in New York, the Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island and, by the mid-1890s, a more polished St. Andrew's layout. But golf had already spread across the continent, including a course in Tacoma, Washington that was active by 1884.

USGA Unifies American Golf

The United States Golf Association, or USGA, was formed on Dec. 22, 1894. Originally called the Amateur Golf Association of the United States, the organization was formed after golfer Charles Macdonald finished second in two tournaments, both of which claimed to be the country's national amateur championship event. Fittingly, in 1895 Macdonald won the USGA's first official U.S. Amateur Championship. One day later, Horace Rawlins won the first U.S. Open for pros. He beat out 10 other competitors for the $150 first prize. Lucy Barnes won the first U.S. Women's Amateur Championship, also in 1895.

The Ouimet Impact

In 1913, the U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts was supposed to be a showcase for the top pros of the time. The winner turned out to be Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old hometown amateur backed by a 10-year-old caddie. It was "the most significant championship in American golf history" according to Michael Trostel, curator and historian for the USGA.

“Ouimet’s humility and his working-class roots were something you didn’t see a lot at that time in the game," Trostel said in a 2013 interview with "The Boston Globe." "Golf was perceived as a game exclusively for the wealthy and the elite, and Ouimet helped break that perception."

Trostel added that 2 million Americans took up golf in the decade after Ouimet posted "The Greatest Game Ever Played" -- which happens to be the title of a 2005 movie about the surprise victory.

Birth of the American PGA

The American Professional Golfers Association, or PGA, was formed in 1916 with department store owner Rodman Wanamaker as the catalyst. The association held the first PGA Championship tournament in October of that year, with Wanamaker putting up the entire prize of $2,580. He also donated a trophy for the PGA Tournament champion that was eventually named the Wanamaker Trophy.

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