Golf has roots dating at least to the Middle Ages in Scotland, with major developments in the 18th and 19th centuries leading to the first expansion of golf throughout the world, notably in America. The earliest known reference to golf in America is far from the genteel surroundings of a country club and instead featured a misdemeanor. Court records in 1657 show that 2 drunk men were arrested in Albany, New York for breaking windows while playing golf. The next documentation of golf in America wouldn’t occur until the 1740s when it was recorded that over 400 balls and nearly 100 golf clubs were ordered by a man in Charleston, South Carolina. It is during this period that we see the first mentions of informal golf courses and gentlemanly associations beginning. However, the game slowly picked up steam in America and it would not be until 1882 that the nation would see its first country club established.
The Country Club
While country clubs are now seen as central to the golfing experience, they did not become integral to the game until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As with golf itself, country clubs were first seen in Scotland as a way for generally upper class members to enjoy golf and other forms of recreation. The first American country club, still known simply as The Country Club, was founded outside Boston in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1882. The club was a private, members-only organization founded by wealthy patrons that provided recreation and dining facilities to its members. Initially, the club focused on horse racing, polo and other equine events, as well as outdoor leisure activities such as lawn bowling and tennis. However, a 6-hole golf course was built in 1893, though it shared land with some of the areas designated for horses leading to inevitable conflict. In 1894, The Country Club hired famed Scottish prodigy Willie Campbell as club professional, and Campbel would expand the course to 9 holes. Eventually, golf would dwarf the other activities as the course would expand to the now-standard 18 holes in 1899.
The Country Club would prove integral to golf’s history in America, not only in helping to establish the country club tradition but as a founder of the United States Golf Association. The USGA was founded in 1894 by 5 of America’s earliest golf clubs ostensibly to regulate golf in America. The initial focus was on organizing the U.S. Amateur, as amateur golf was then the most common game in America (at the time most professionals were, like Willie Campbell, British golfers lured to America). In addition to the U.S. Amateur, first contested in 1895, the USGA also founded the U.S. Open in 1895, considered one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments and 1 of only 4 major championships. The Country Club would host its first U.S. Open in 1913 where American amateur and former Brookline caddy Fancis Ouimet would famously best British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. In all, the Country Club has hosted 3 U.S. Opens (and is slated to host the 2022 edition), in addition to 6 U.S. Amateurs, 3 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 1 Ryder Cup.
Francis Ouimet at the 1913 Open.