This week, the U.S. Open is being played for the fifth time at Shinnecock Hills. As one of the five original clubs that formed the United States Golf Association in 1894, the Long Island, N.Y. club has a rightful claim as one of golf’s most historic venues. But one piece of its history is often forgotten, and dates back to the first time it hosted the USGA’s most high-profile event, in 1896.
In the field of that championship, just the second U.S. Open ever contested, was a 16-year-old African American golfer. Not only did John Matthew Shippen Jr. compete, but he came within one disastrous hole of having a chance to win.
Shippen’s presence in the field offers a fascinating look at the racial attitudes of the day, including both prejudice that threatened to bar him and enlightenment that allowed him to compete. That his entry took place at Shinnecock was appropriate, as it was the first club in the country to allow full membership to women.
Shippen was one of nine children of John Shippen Sr. and Eliza Spotswood Shippen. The elder Shippen was a Presbyterian minister who served on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, located near the golf club. John Jr. began working as a caddie at the club shortly after it opened. Shinnecock’s head professional, Scotsman Willie Dunn Jr., recognized that Shippen had a knack for the game and began coaching him. Eventually he hired Shippen to be one of his assistants, helping to give lessons to the membership, repair clubs and work on the course. Shippen thus became the first African American golf professional.
It must be remembered that in post-Industrial Revolution America, golf professionals were little more than servants to the wealthy, caretakers to their enjoyment of the game. The job description carried no prestige (and wouldn’t until the time of Walter Hagen).
A day before the championship was scheduled to begin, several of the other professionals in the field approached USGA president Theodore Havemeyer and threatened to withdraw if Shippen and his friend, Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock Native American who had worked on the crew that built the golf course, were allowed to compete. Havemeyer, co-founder of Newport (R.I.) Country Club, told them that even if every other competitor decided to walk away, the U.S. Open would be conducted with only Shippen and Bunn in the field. Havemeyer and other tournament officials spent a nervous night and the following morning waiting to see who – if anyone - would show up for their assigned tee times. To their relief, everyone did.
In the first round, Shippen was paired with Charles Blair Macdonald, one of the greatest characters the game has ever known. In 1894 he had finished second in tournaments at Newport Country Club and St. Andrew’s Golf Club, both claiming to be the “national championship.” Unhappy with the way the tournaments had been conducted, he fumed and complained so severely that both were declared unofficial. That led to a meeting of delegates from the Chicago Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills, St. Andrew’s, The Country Club and Newport Country Club, out of which came the formation of the United States Golf Association. Macdonald was named vice president. When the first U.S. Amateur Championship was held at Newport in 1895, he won.
At Shinnecock, Shippen played a solid first round, posting a score of 78, two strokes off the lead and tied with four others for second place. Macdonald shot an 83 and was so enraged at his performance he refused to play in the second round (the competition was 36 holes in those days). However, he was very impressed with Shippen, and walked the course and kept score for him in the afternoon.
Shippen was cruising along nicely in the final round, making the turn with a legitimate shot at winning, until he reached the the par-4 13th hole. “It was a little, simple hole,” he said in an interview with Tuesday Magazine many years later. Shippen knew that his drive had to be played to the right side of the fairway to give the best angle for the approach shot. However, he overcompensated, and his drive landed on a sandy dirt road that ran adjacent to the hole. In the days before a sand wedge, Shippen could not extract the ball from the sandy trail and after playing shot after shot down the road, he finally posted a devastating score of 11.
Had Shippen merely made par on the hole, he would have tied eventual winner James Foulis, forcing a playoff. “You know, I’ve wished a hundred times I could have played that little par-4 again,” he said in the same interview. “It sure would have been something to win that day.”
Shippen’s final score was 81, good for a fifth-place tie and $25.
Two years later, Shippen’s father completed his tenure as pastor on the Shinnecock reservation and he moved his family back to Washington, D. C. John, now 18, stayed on, however, continuing his career as a golf professional. He wound up working at a number of golf clubs over the years, eventually settling at the Shady Rest Golf Course in New Jersey in 1924, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1960. In the interview with Tuesday Magazine, Shippen wondered aloud if he had made the right decision to forgo a more formal education by going into golf fulltime. “I wonder until I look out the window and see that golf course,” he said. “Then I realize how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the game, and I don’t wonder anymore.”
Shippen would compete in four more U.S. Opens, in 1899, 1900, 1902 and 1913, with his best finish being a fifth place in 1902. His last Open, in 1913 at The Country Club, was distinctive because it was won by Francis Ouimet, a former caddie who had to overcome restrictions of social status to triumph.
After 1913, the next time an African American would play in a U.S. Open would be Ted Rhodes in 1948.
John Shippen died in 1968 at the age of 88.