As U.S. Open controversies go, this one had the potential to trump all those we have come to know. It would have been much worse than the scorched earth episode at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and the Dustin Johnson penalty snafu in 2016. What happened at Shinnecock in 1896 could have derailed the whole championship just as it was getting started.
The way it turned out, it set up the Open to be truly open.
Scottish and English professional golfers, who were then the most powerful bloc in the sport, said they would refuse to participate if John Shippen Jr., the first African American pro and the first American-born pro registered for a U.S. Open, and his friend Oscar Bunn, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, were allowed to play.
It did not matter to those visiting celebrities that Shippen and Bunn were fully endored representatives of the host club. But it mattered to Theodore Havemeyer, president of the fledgling USGA, which was holding its national championship for only the second time. According to an account that Shippen gave years later (not in newspaper stories of the day), Havemeyer ruled that the Open would go on even if it meant that Shippen and Bunn were the only two golfers on the course.
Whether it made a difference that Havemeyer fibbed in saying Shippen was half-black and half-Shinnecock, who knows? Fact is, the would-be boycotters relented, the one-day 36-hole event went on with 28 competitors and Shippen actually was in contention before he made an 11 on the 13th hole of his second round. He finished sixth, seven shots behind champion James Foulis, and won $10.
“I think that this goes down as one of the seminal moments of the history of the USGA and the history of the U.S. Open championship. This was a watershed moment,” said Victoria Student, the senior historian at the USGA Golf Museum. “It said that nothing is going to get in the way of the U.S. Open. The participants will be the best in the world, no matter who they are, where they come from or what their stature is.”
She said that despite the fact Shippen was only 16 in 1896, he had developed a following in the sport that was mostly an import. His father was the son of slaves and became a Presbyterian minister, accepting the assignment to preach at the Shinnecock reservation. So, the elder Shippen, his wife and their nine children moved from Washington D.C. to Southampton.
John Jr. gravitated to the course, where he caddied and took up the game under pro Willie Dunn. Before long, he was fixing clubs, giving lessons and turning pro. “There were already newspaper articles being written about John Shippen being an extremely talented young American professional. That was something at the time people had been waiting for,” Student said. “Golf was dominated at the time by immigrants. America was waiting for the great American golf professional.”
He played in four more U.S. Opens, including the famous one in 1913, won by precocious American Francis Ouimet. His life in golf was spent mainly as a club professional, briefly at Maidstone in East Hampton and years later at the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club, a black-owned course in Scotch Plains, N.J.
The PGA had a whites-only policy during his lifetime, so his official recognition as a member of the professional organization did not arrive until 2009, 41 years after his death.
In an interview with Tuesday Magazine late in his life, he said, “I wonder if I did the right thing when I quit school and went into golf. Maybe I should have kept going and gone to Yale like my brother, who’s a teacher. I wonder until I look out the window and see that golf course. Then I realize how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the game. And I don’t wonder anymore.”
Bunn finished 21st in the 1896 Open. He, too, remained in the overwhelmingly white golf business, working as a teaching pro in Lake Placid, N.Y., New Britain, Connecticut and Jacksonville, Florida. His passport in 1917 listed his occupation as “golf instruction” and had entries for a three-month jaunt in South America. He caught pneumonia on his return from Buenos Aires and died at 42 in 1918, his obituary in The Southampton Press said. He was named to the Caddie Hall of Fame in 2009.
Havemeyer was an executive at the vastly successful family-owned American Sugar Refining company. His stand for Shippen and Bunn was consistent with other public statements, Student said, adding, “He had a grasp of the times and an understanding of what the USGA’s role would be in the history of golf. He thought that for his championship to continue, he needed to quash this.”
The USGA president died of typhoid fever a year later, but his fame continued to grow. The U.S. Amateur trophy is named for him. The family name has a prominent place in Long Island golf, too, because his brother’s grandson, Horace, also the head of the same sugar company, kept Southward Ho Country Club in Bay Shore afloat during the 1940s. The Havemeyer Invitational has been held in his honor for the past 68 years.
The legacy of the 1896 U.S. Open remains wide and deep. The tournament still is open for business as it heads for a return to Shippen’s and Bunn’s home turf next month.
“Perhaps the easier thing would have been to give in to the majority of players and say, ‘Sure, we can do whatever you want,’ ” the USGA historian said. “But no, it was, ‘These two players are representing Shinnecock Hills. They’ve been supported by their membership. They’ve been supported by their club. They’re going to go out and play.’ ”