On Dec. 22, 1894, the USGA was born. The story of that night has been told so many times in USGA circles that it feels like a well-worn sweater. But even the most avid armchair golf historian will be intrigued by new details that cast the Association’s origins in a new light.
It is a fact that renowned golf architect – and infamous curmudgeon – C.B. Macdonald suffered dispiriting losses in the finals of two “national” amateur championships. In early September of 1894, William G. Lawrence beat Macdonald by one shot in the stroke-play Amateur Championship of America at Newport Golf Club in Newport, R.I. A month later, Laurence G. Stoddard beat Macdonald on the 19th hole of the match-play final of the Amateur Golf Championship of the United States at Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y.
Macdonald loudly protested both defeats. He objected to the presence of an improper hazard (a stone wall) on the course at Newport, while also questioning the validity of a national championship conducted at stroke play. One month later, he asserted that no single club (Saint Andrew’s or Newport) had the right to host a national championship.
For one week shy of 121 years, it had been gospel that Macdonald’s complaints spurred the December meeting of leaders from five influential clubs – Newport, Saint Andrew’s, Chicago Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and The Country Club – to create what first became the Amateur Golf Association of the United States.
Now, parallel investigations by David Moriarty, a researcher from California, and the USGA’s resident historians, suggest that leaders from America’s top clubs, rather than Macdonald’s sour grapes, prompted the meeting that changed the face of the fledgling sport in the United States.
“The primary source of the story of the founding of the USGA has long been Macdonald’s autobiography, Scotland’s Gift – Golf, published in 1928,” said Rand Jerris, a senior managing director at the USGA. “Whether Macdonald intentionally overstated his role in the founding narrative, or whether the intervening 34 years simply convoluted his memory of key events, this new research suggests that we must reconsider the true forces behind the establishment of a national governing body for golf.”
A revised chronology of the key events leading to the establishment of the USGA is based on contemporary newspaper accounts. On June 10, 1894, the Chicago Daily Tribune, where Macdonald had already designed the first nine holes of Chicago Golf Club, let readers know that “the golf craze is spreading into every suburban hamlet…” Reports of impending championships soon followed:
- On July 27, 1894, a story in The New York Tribune announced the Saint Andrew’s championship in early October.
- On Aug. 5, 1894, a story in the New York Sun announced the playing of the Amateur Championship of America in early September.
This simple chronology dispels one important piece of the myth – that the Saint Andrew’s competition was conceived and staged as a direct response to Macdonald’s protest of the Newport results.
Further, a review of The New York Sun from Oct. 13, 1894, published the morning of the final match of the Saint Andrew’s event and thus before the outcome of the championship was decided, is the smoking gun to dispel any notion that the Dec. 22 meeting was called to appease Macdonald’s grievances:
“It was announced at the links yesterday that a golfing association composed of all the clubs in the United States would be formed this fall, with Theodore Havemeyer as President. Formal notices of the first meeting of the new association will soon be send out, and as soon as it is organized a committee will be appointed to draft rules for the playing of the next American championship and the naming of four championships links, of which St. Andrew’s will be one.”
In fact, a story in The New York Sun, with a Newport dateline, suggests that the meeting was going to happen that week.
“An accurate understanding of history requires that we check and recheck the accepted facts as new information becomes available,” said Moriarty. “Fortunately, the digital age in which we live makes it easier than ever to access original source materials.”
Rather than view the founding of the USGA as a response to the protests of any single individual, we are better to position the establishment of a national governing body for golf against the backdrop of what was happening across all sports. The 1880s and 1890s were significant decades for the advancement of organized sports in the United States. The United States Tennis Association, for example, was established in 1881; the Amateur Athletic Union was founded in 1888. The leaders of the burgeoning golf community likely witnessed and understood the benefits that were associated with the formal organization of a sporting community. It is these same forces that we should credit as the inspiration for the creation of the USGA.
Like finding out something new about family lore, a plot twist or two only enhances our existence and doesn’t change the guiding principle. A governing body was created to oversee a universally recognized amateur championship. Havemeyer, from Newport Golf Club, did become the first president. A set of rules was created for all to follow. Macdonald became the first U.S. Amateur champion in 1895, avenging (theoretically, anyway) his 1894 disappointments. After 121 years, the 2016 U.S. Amateur champion will still hoist the Havemeyer Trophy in jubilation, and historians will continue looking for new wrinkles in the study of golf’s history.
David Chmiel is manager of Members content for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.