The inaugural U.S. Open Championship was a simple affair, a far cry from the grand pageant that has come to mark one of the game’s premier championships. The gallery was sparse. Media interest was minimal. The nine-hole course in Rhode Island was measured in feet, rather than in yards. The field would make four trips around the rocky and swampy layout in just one day, Oct. 4, 1895.
Whereas today more than 9,000 hopefuls apply to test their skills against the world’s best in golf ’s toughest test, just 11 men gathered on the first tee of the Newport Golf Club on a blustery fall day for the chance to take home the newly minted sterling trophy and a handsome gold medal. The winner was, in all respects, unremarkable: a 21-year-old assistant professional named Horace Rawlins, playing in just the third competition of his career, who only found himself in the field because he was employed by the host club and three of the leading amateurs scheduled to play had withdrawn.
How did the inaugural championships arrive in Newport? In an effort to bring unity to the fledgling game in the U.S., Henry Tallmadge of the St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., invited representatives from the clubs at Brookline, Mass.; Newport, Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.; and Chicago to join him for dinner at the Calumet Club in New York City on Dec. 22, 1894.
Their singular purpose was to establish a national governing body that would be charged with conducting a proper national championship, played under proper rules. And so was born the Amateur Golf Association of the United States. The officers of the new Association determined that very evening that the first true Amateur Championship of the would be held in in the late summer of 1895. While they were at it, they added a U.S. Open Championship to the agenda as well.
In the months that followed, the mission of the newborn association expanded to include not only championships for men but an amateur championship for women as well. Now calling itself the United States Golf Association, the organization originally scheduled its men’s championships for September, but it delayed the festivities for one month due to a scheduling conflict with the ’s Cup yacht races, which were also planned for .
The Amateur Championship was up first, scheduled to begin on the morning of Oct. 1. Theodore Havemeyer, who had been selected as the USGA’s first president during that first dinner at the Calumet Club, had donated a spectacular silver trophy, adorned with griffins, laurel wreaths and floral swags. In unseasonably warm conditions, a field of 32 played Newport’s nine-hole Rocky Farm course at match play.
Doctors, lawyers, clergy and businessmen were in the championship draw. Charles Blair Macdonald, the second vice president of the USGA, defeated Charles Sands, 12 and the 36-hole final two days later to become both the first U.S. Amateur champion and first USGA champion. Considered the premier amateur in the country, Macdonald was never seriously challenged in any of his matches.
As play was underway among the amateurs, the strongest professional field assembled to date in the United States also gathered at Newport. On Oct. 2, the local newspaper, the Newport News, reported the entrants for the inaugural U.S. Open competition – Willie Campbell, James Foulis, John Reid, Macdonald, L.B. Stoddart, John Patrick, A.W. Smith, Samuel Tucker, Willie Norton, Winthrop Rutherford, Willie Dunn and Willie Davis – in total, eight professionals and four amateurs, the latter being Macdonald, Rutherford, Smith and Stoddart.
By the time play commenced on the morning of Oct. 4, the seasonal weather that had blessed the previous days had taken quite a turn. A cold front had blown in overnight, and with it came fierce winds from the northeast that raked the seaside course. Their enthusiasm sapped by the winds, and presumably the tense competition of the previous days, Macdonald, Rutherford and Stoddart withdrew before the opening round, leaving Smith, the reigning Canadian champion, as the only amateur in the field. Two additional professionals, John Harland of the Weston Golf Club in Massachusetts and Horace Rawlins, the young assistant pro at Newport, were persuaded to round out the field.
Willie Dunn, the head professional at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, and Willie Davis, the host professional from Newport, were considered by many the pre-championship favorites, and thus they were the first off the tee in the morning to start the first round’s play. Playing in the group behind was Willie Campbell, the head professional at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Of all the players in the field, Campbell had the most distinguished résumé, having placed second, third, fourth twice, fifth, seventh and ninth in his seven appearances in the British Open Championship between 1883 and 1889. Campbell would go on to shoot 41, taking the lead at the end of the first round by two strokes over Dunn.
As the players moved on to the second nine, the winds continued to stiffen. “Fine play,” wrote the New York Times, “was quite impossible.” One after another, the favorites succumbed to both wind and pressure. Dunn fell off form, losing strokes here and there to post a second-round 46. For Campbell, the winds of the second round brought on inconsistency, for it was reported that his play was simultaneously “the most brilliant of the day as well as the most careless.”