John Shippen, America's First Professional Golfer - MASSGOLF

John Shippen Was a Trailblazer During the Earliest Stages of American Golf

John Shippen competed in his final U.S. Open in 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, the same year that a young caddie named Francis Ouimet shocked the world at his home club. Well, perhaps it didn’t shock Shippen, for he had nearly pulled off a similar feat as a teenager 17 years earlier at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the course where he grew up caddying. 

Though he didn’t win, the story of Shippen’s 1896 U.S. Open appearance is rather remarkable. Shippen lived a few miles away from Shinnecock Hills GC. His father, who was formerly enslaved, earned a degree at Howard University, then became a Presbyterian minister. When Shippen was young, his father received a mission assignment on eastern Long Island, at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. 

Shippen began caddying at Shinnecock Hills around the age of 12 and quickly developed enough game to be considered one of the best players at the club. When the USGA announced Shinnecock as the second-ever host site for its National Championship, the membership at the club encouraged Shippen and Oscar Bunn (a Native American caddy) to enter. 

Their participation in the event was not without controversy. Many players in the field threatened to boycott, but USGA President Theodore Havemeyer would have none of it. He stated that if every player in the field withdrew besides Shippen and Bunn, then the tournament would go on with a two-man field. 

In the first round, Shippen was paired with the winner of the 1895 U.S. Amateur, famed architect C.B. Macdonald. Though Macdonald would one day complete a masterpiece, the National Golf Links of America, just a few miles down the road, he failed to complete the 36-hole tournament. Macdonald withdrew after a lackluster 83, five strokes worse than Shippen’s 78, which put him in a tie for first. 

Shippen was very much in contention down the stretch in round two, but a wayward drive that settled on a sandy road on the 13th hole doomed him. Unable to get his ball back in play, he carded an 11 on the hole. Had he made par, he would have found himself in a playoff with eventual winner James Foulis. 

Of course, playing the “what if” game is a fool’s errand, particularly in golf, but it’s tantalizing to imagine young John Shippen, the unheralded caddy, hoisting the trophy 17 years before Francis Ouimet did the unthinkable at Brookline.  

Instead, he finished in a tie for fifth. In doing so, Shippen became the first African American to compete in the U.S. Open and the $25 winnings made him the first American born professional golfer. 

In a way, Shippen’s legacy is bittersweet. That the son of a formerly enslaved father became the first American born professional golfer is astonishing and runs counter to every expectation you might have of a game with a troubled history of exclusion in a country that was only 33 years clear of the Emancipation Proclamation and still 59 years away from Brown v. Board of Education. 

That Shippen’s name isn’t more widely recognized is difficult to square. Though he broke down the door when he teed it up at Shinnecock Hills, and at five more U.S. Opens after that, his example didn’t immediately lead to diverse representation in the professional game. Even today, 111 years later, there remains plenty of work to be done. 

After Shippen’s final U.S. Open appearance at The Country Club in 1913, it would be 35 years before another African American competed, when Ted Rhodes played at Riviera in 1948. And while some black players have risen to prominence over the years, including perhaps the best player of all-time in Tiger Woods, there were fewer black players in the field at the 2023 U.S. Open (0) than there were in that second U.S. Open in 1896 (1). 

Tiger Woods is rightfully celebrated for changing the game of golf, but it’s tough to compute how that hasn’t led to more diverse tournament fields. Woods’ supremely athletic swing, artistic touch, and tenacious competitive spirit tipped the scales away from “game” and towards “sport.” The driving range at any given PGA Tour event is now a firing line of moisture wicking, muscle hugging athleisure—that 10% spandex figure has risen alongside ball speed and carry distance. Purses have risen too. But African American representation has not. 

This suggests that the existence of a generational talent is not enough. It wasn’t when John Shippen nearly won the U.S. Open as a teenager, and it wasn’t when Tiger Woods reshaped the sport. Their respective legacies are supremely important to the history of the game, and their stories should be told over and over again. But to truly change the equation, to establish a world ranking that looks more like, well, the world, efforts need to be made locally, on a grassroots level, which is why programs like The First Tee and Youth On Course are so essential. 

While watching transcendent talent can inspire, nothing endears a person to the game quite like the sensation of swinging a club and squaring one up for the first time. Hearing a satisfying click and watching the ball soar out over the green grass, for newcomers, is perhaps more alluring than the specter of greatness. Offering access to equipment and facilities in a welcoming environment sounds simple, but it can go quite a long way.  

Shippen found access and opportunity early on, quickly made history, and spent his entire life dedicated to the game. Later, when looking back on his career, Shippen said:

“Sometimes 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. He’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.” 

About Mass Golf

Mass Golf is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is dedicated to advancing golf in Massachusetts by building an engaged community around the sport.

With a community made up of over 120,000 golf enthusiasts and over 360 member clubs, Mass Golf is one of the largest state golf associations in the country. Members enjoy the benefits of handicapping, engaging golf content, course rating and scoring services along with the opportunity to compete in an array of events for golfers of all ages and abilities.

At the forefront of junior development, Mass Golf is proud to offer programming to youth in the state through First Tee Massachusetts and subsidized rounds of golf by way of Youth on Course.

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