More than a hundred years ago, John Shippen became the first African-American professional to play in a U.S. Open, held in 1896 at Southampton's Shinnecock Hills Country Club. Today, a remembrance of Shippen's pioneering role in the history of the game is on display at the U.S. Golf Association's Museum in Far Hills, N.J.
"Shippen stood out as an icon for the black community at a time when there were few who were able to do so,'' said David Normoyle, the museum's assistant director. Though several black players later formed their own golf organization, another African-American did not compete in the USGA major tournament until the late 1940s.
Born in 1879, Shippen was a young caddie who learned the game from a Scottish player, Willie Dunn. who was involved in the development of the Shinnecock course. Dunn taught some of the local boys how to play and Shippen quickly became one of the best players around and a fine teacher of the game.
When the USGA, then a brand-new organization, ran its second U.S. Open tournament at Shinnecock, course members who knew Shippen signed him up to compete. Some of the English and Scottish players in the tournament objected, but USGA president Theodore Havemeyer ruled that Shippen, then 16, should be allowed to play. Shippen tied for fifth place and won 10 dollars.
Shippen later played and became the resident pro and teacher at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton and went on to compete in U.S. Open tournaments in 1899, 1900, 1902 and 1913.
Shippen and his family later moved to Washington, D.C., and New Jersey in the 1920s and '30s. During those years, Shippen also competed in the United Golfers Association, a professional association for African-American players, similar to the Negro Leagues in baseball, Normoyle said. He eventually settled in as the pro at the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club, a black-operated club in Scotch Plains, N.J., and died at age 88 in 1968.