GLEN COVE, N.Y. – The term has become as much a part of the golf vernacular as par, birdie and mulligan.
How many times on the first tee have you heard someone ask, Are we playing a $5 Nassau? Of all the various betting options, the Nassau is arguably the most popular. It’s simply a wager for the outward nine, inward nine and overall 18.
But how did the term Nassau become a part of the game’s fabric? Did some golfer have a pleasant trip to the Bahamas and come up with the name?
In 1900, J.B. Coles Tappan, a legislator and lawyer who happened to be a member at Nassau Country Club in Long Island, the site of this year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, wanted to devise a system that saved golfers some embarrassment. In the 1890s, many clubs in the New York metropolitan area conducted matches and those results were published in local newspapers. Some of those results were quite lopsided.
You would look in the paper and see that you lost by 17 strokes or by 7 and 6, said Nassau club historian Doug Fletcher, who also is the co-general chairman with Peter Quick for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur. In those days, the handicap system wasn’t yet in existence. Each club would divide their players into classes, thus the term a ‘first-class golfer.’
But placing players into flights did not prevent lopsided outcomes.
So Tappan, who played a political role in forming Nassau County in 1898 – the club changed its name that year from Queens County Club to Nassau Country Club – came up with the idea of dividing a match into three parts. That way, the worst a player could lose was 3-0, and when the scores were reported to local papers, a player’s pride could remain intact.
Fletcher said all the area clubs adopted the Nassau System as it was called then. Early clippings from the Brooklyn Eagle stated that the Nassau System would be used in all matches except in intercollegiate competition.
It wasn’t just players here [at Nassau Country Club] who were being embarrassed, it was players at other clubs, too, said Fletcher.
Eventually, the Nassau bet became as universal as the mulligan, which credits its newsContents to another well-known New York metropolitan-area club: Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck. Tappan probably didn’t realize at the time just how accepted his scoring system would become.
It is played throughout the world, said Fletcher. [But] I’m sure in the Bahamas, they think it was invented there.
Don’t Be the Goat
The Nassau System wasn’t the only thing started at the club. In 1908, publishing magnate Franklin Doubleday came up with the idea for a fun competition that would involve every member called the Goat Tournament. Each participating member would receive a sterling silver coin with his name on it. That member would challenge another member to a match, with the loser giving up his coin.
At the end of the season, they had a party on St. Gothard’s Day to celebrate the player with the most coins, said Fletcher. That tournament became very popular and it carried to other golf clubs in the U.S.
Inside Nassau’s clubhouse is a tribute to the Goat as Fletcher calls it. Coins are displayed from different clubs which conducted the event.
For reasons Fletcher is unaware of, the Goat Tournament died out in the late 1950s, but Nassau is planning to bring back the competition this year.
Odds and Ends
Charles Tiffany, one of the 19th century’s leading jewelry tycoons, was a member at Nassau and donated a grandfather clock that still resides in the clubhouse … Another member of Nassau – Findlay Douglas – not only won the 1898 U.S. Amateur Championship and was the runner-up in 1899, but he later became president of the USGA in 1929-30. Douglas presented the Havemayer Trophy to Bob Jones at Merion Golf Club when he completed his Grand Slam in 1930 by winning the U.S. Amateur.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.