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Celebrating 120 Years of the USGA (Part 1): 1894-1924

By David Shefter, USGA

| Nov 30, 2014

Margaret Curtis won three U.S. Women's Amateur titles between 1907 and 1912. (USGA Archives)

On Dec. 22, 2014, the USGA will celebrates its 120th anniversary as the national governing body for golf in the United States, its territories and Mexico. A lot of history has been made in the first 120 years and the Association continues to evolve in exciting ways. In that celebratory spirit, we are revisiting USGA milestones in a four-part series divided into 30-year segments. The first part reviews the years from 1894 to 1924.

As the turn of the century dawned, burgeoning American sports began to formally organize. The need for the golfing community to follow suit became apparent in the summer of 1894, when Newport (R.I.) G.C. and St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., hosted amateur competitions. Both labeled theirs as the national championship. Charles Blair Macdonald, a prominent player and course architect, was 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.

Initially named the Amateur Golf Association of the United States before it became the USGA, the Association was officially formed on Dec. 22, 1894, in New York City. The five charter clubs were Newport Golf Club, St. Andrew’s Golf Club, Chicago Golf Club (where Macdonald was a member), Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., and The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Theodore Havemeyer from Newport G. C. was elected as the first president, and he presented the original U.S. Amateur Trophy, which continues to bear his name. 

Nearly 10 months later, the inaugural U.S. Amateur Championship was conducted at Newport Golf Club, where Macdonald defeated Charles E. Sands, 12 and 11, in the championship match.

A day after the U.S. Amateur, the inaugural U.S. Open was conducted at Newport G.C. amid little fanfare. Horace Rawlins emerged victorious from a field of 11 and collected a first-place prize of $150.

A few weeks after the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur took place at the Meadow Brook Club in Hempstead, N.Y. The 18-hole, stroke-play event featured nine holes in the morning, followed by another nine holes after lunch. Lucy Barnes claimed the title with a score of 132. It was the only U.S. Women’s Amateur conducted at stroke play.

Ouimet’s Storybook Performance Breathes Life Into U.S. Open

The 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club serves as a significant landmark in American golf history. Francis Ouimet was an unheralded 20-year-old amateur who had grown up across the street from the club, where he worked as a caddie until he was 16.

Nobody expected Ouimet to compete against the likes of 1900 U.S. Open champion Harry Vardon or his English compatriot Ted Ray, both of whom had come to the U.S. on an exhibition tour as a prelude to the U.S. Open.

But Ouimet, with the support of his pint-sized 10-year-old caddie Eddie Lowery, managed to tie Ray and Vardon after 72 holes, thanks to a birdie on the 71st hole. In the 18-hole playoff, Ouimet birdied the 17th hole again en route to a 72 and a five-stroke win over Vardon. Ray carded a 78.

Ouimet’s shocking victory did much to popularize the game, which had been seen until then as a bastion of the rich. He went on to win a pair of U.S. Amateur titles (1914 and 1931) and became an ambassador for the amateur game.

Handicapping Levels The Playing Field

Another key moment in USGA history occurred off the course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., on Oct. 11, 1911. Leighton Calkins, a member of the USGA Executive Committee and a pioneer of handicapping in the U.S., had first introduced his methodology six years earlier, adopting the British system of averaging the player’s three best scores. Before taking his idea to the USGA Executive Committee, he first tested his plan at Plainfield (N.J.) Country Club, then on wider scales with the Metropolitan Golf Association and New Jersey State Golf Association, as Calkins served as chairman of the handicap committee for both organizations.

With the game growing in popularity and U.S. Amateur entries increasing dramatically, the USGA needed to devise a system that would ensure that the strongest fields would compete for its championships.

Calkins wrote: “The principal feature of this system is that not only is the good player handicapped because he is a good player, but the bad player is also handicapped because he is a bad player.

“The object of handicapping is to put all players on the same level, and if an allowance of a certain number of strokes is to be made to the less skillful player because he cannot play as well, some allowance ought to be made to the more skillful player because he cannot improve as much.”

In the fall of 1911, the USGA adopted Calkins’ handicap system. Calkins was adamant that each club have a handicap committee, and he also introduced the concept of a par rating, which later became known as the USGA Course Rating, the baseline from which all players would receive strokes. When established in 1912, the par rating was based not on a theoretical standard but the ability of Jerome “Jerry” Travers, who had won the U.S. Amateur in 1907 and 1908 and would go on to win two more U.S. Amateurs and the 1915 U.S. Open.

Golf Continues To Evolve As Popularity Spikes

On the championship front, the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills included an African-American professional (John Shippen) and a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation (Oscar Bunn). Despite player protests, Havemeyer, the USGA president, stepped in and said the championship would go on even if Shippen and Bunn were the only two competitors. James Foulis topped the field of 35 competitors, with Shippen finishing tied for fifth, seven strokes back.

Two years later, the USGA expanded the U.S. Open from 36 to 72 holes and for the first time the championship was not held at the same site as the U.S. Amateur.In1903, Travis was truly the “center” of attention when he won the British Amateur at Royal St. George’s using the center-shafted Schenectady Putter, which was banned by The R&A from 1910-52. The USGA never banned the implement, one of many early rifts between the two governing bodies.

In 1905, 25-year-old Willie Anderson completed an unprecedented U.S. Open three-peat. It was his fourth U.S. Open title in five years. Sadly, Anderson’s bright career was cut short, as he died at the age of 31 from epilepsy.

In the 1907 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Midlothian Country Club in Blue Island, Ill., the final was an all-sister affair, with Margaret Curtis beating Harriot Curtis, 7 and 6. It is the only time in USGA history that siblings have played each other in a championship match. Twenty-five years later, the Curtis sisters would be instrumental in creating the Curtis Cup Match, a biennial competition pitting female amateurs from the USA against their counterparts from Great Britain and Ireland.

Speaking of international team competitions, the Walker Cup Match was created in 1922 after an informal match took place a year earlier at Hoylake in England. The competition is named after former USGA president George Herbert Walker, the maternal grandfather of U.S. President George H.W. Bush and the great grandfather to U.S. President George W. Bush. Walker donated the trophy and the first Walker Cup was played at his home club, the National Golf Links of America.

In 1910, Arthur F. Knight obtained a patent for a seamed, tubular, steel golf shaft. While steel shafts were still deemed illegal by the USGA and The R&A, by 1924, steel-shafted clubs had become popular enough that the USGA allowed their usage. The R&A would not permit them for another five years.

In 1911, Englishman Harold Hilton became the first player to win the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur in the same year. That same year at Chicago Golf Club, John McDermott ended the foreign dominance of the U.S. Open by becoming the first American-born champion. At 19 years, 10 months and 14 days, McDermott is the youngest U.S. Open champion. He repeated as champion the following year.

Bob Jones, a golfing prodigy from Atlanta, first entered the national picture in the 1916 U.S. Amateur at Merion Cricket Club in Ardmore, Pa. Then 14 years old, Jones advanced to the quarterfinals. He claimed the first of his nine USGA championships by defeating Bobby Cruickshank in an 18-hole playoff for the 1923 U.S. Open, which was held at Inwood (N.Y.) Country Club. A year later, he won his first U.S. Amateur.

With the United States formally entering World War I in 1917, the USGA suspended its championships for the first time. But Atlanta natives Jones, Perry Adair, Watts Gunn and reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Alexa Stirling raised $150,000 for the Red Cross through various exhibitions.

Green Section Founded as Collaborative Effort

A key component of the USGA was founded in 1920. E.J. Marshall, of Toledo, Ohio, was in charge of preparations for the U.S. Open at Inverness Club, but he couldn’t find any definitive agronomic information. Marshall, an attorney and the green chairman at Inverness, looked to the USGA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for advice. The two organizations agreed to collaborate on the development of scientific information relating to golf course turf.

On Nov. 30, 1920, the USGA Executive Committee formally created the Green Section. The USGA’s Green Section is directly involved in every phase of golf course maintenance and management practices from control of diseases, insects and weeds to the breeding and development of new and improved strains of grasses. Through the Green Section, the USGA has also funded more than $40 million in university research projects.

Also in 1920, the USGA and The R&A agreed to a standardized ball that was 1.62 inches in diameter and weighed 1.62 ounces. Over the years, variances in the size and weight of the ball would change until 1990, when The R&A agreed to the USGA standard golf ball of 1.68 inches.

In 1922, with public golf becoming extremely popular, the USGA created the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Golfers who were not members of USGA Member Clubs were ineligible to compete in the U.S. Amateur, so the newly formed APL gave public-course golfers a national championship to call their own. In 2014, the USGA retired the championship, as well as the Women’s Amateur Public Links, since – starting in 1979 – any golfer was eligible to play in the U.S. Amateur, regardless of club affiliation.

The USGA charged admission to the U.S. Open for the first time in 1922. Spectators paid $1 to see 20-year-old phenom Gene Sarazen – a caddie who had been inspired by Ouimet’s 1913 victory – claim the title at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Ill. That same year, Glenna Collett won the first of her record six U.S. Women’s Amateur titles. The U.S. Girls’ Junior Trophy is named in her honor.

By 1924, the U.S. Open had become so popular that sectional qualifying was introduced to whittle the 319 entrants down to the starting field of 85. Cyril Walker won the 1924 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich., by three strokes over defending champion Bob Jones. Jones, 22, however, claimed the U.S. Amateur that year at Merion Cricket Club. Six years later, he would win the Amateur again at Merion to complete one of the most historic seasons in golf history.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at