Golfing Milestones and Chicago Golf Club - America’s First 18 Hole Course

By Ryan Watson

Golf in the US dates back to at least the colonial era, where records of golf balls and clubs arriving from England and Scotland have been discovered. However, the earliest periods of golf in America were categorized by the lack of standardization, with many early American golfers making their own rudimentary courses through private pasture lands. At the time that British golf was organized and excelling in the mid to late 19th century, most golf courses remained in a narrow band of New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions of the US. It took until the 1890s for golf to venture West. And it's a good thing it did as the Midwest’s own Chicago Golf Club that holds the record for America’s first 18 hole course and was integral to the standardization of the game in America.

Early History

The history of the golf club is intimately tied to Charles B. Macdonald, a pioneer of early American golf. Born the son of a Scottish immigrant father and Canadian-American mother, Macdonald grew up in Chicago. When he was 16, Macdonald was sent to St Andrews University in Scotland where he soon began playing the famous Old Course at St Andrews. While in Scotland, Macdonald took lessons from legendary golfer, course designer and Open Championship winner “Old” Tom Morris, and was known to play against his son and also Open Championship winner “Young” Tom Morris. Macdonald would return to Chicago in 1874 to enter business but remained in love with the sport of golf.

Macdonald became a successful stockbroker and by the early 1890s had convinced his friends to try their hand at golf. He began by building 9 holes in nearby Downers Grove and ordering sets of golf clubs for his associates. This soon led to the founding of the Chicago Golf Club in 1892.

First 18 Holes in America

Macdonald’s course was taking off and he decided that it needed expansion. At the time, there was no universal standard number of holes, with the course at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club having 12 holes and other courses having between 6 and 14 holes. Macdonald took his cues from the historic Old Course at St Andrews and settled on an expansion to 18 holes, a number that would become standard in the early 1900s. By 1895 the club wanted still more room to keep up with its growing membership and the decision to build another 18 hole course in Wheaton, IL was made. This ne course was also designed by Macdonald and is the current home of the Chicago Golf Club. The course is a Scottish-style links course that supposedly was laid out to favor golfers with a slice, which Macdonald was known to have. Macdonald would go on to design or co-design further famous American courses such as the Old White Course at The Greenbrier, the National Golf Links of America, and the re-designed Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

Chicago Golf Club and the USGA

Macdonald and the Chicago Golf Club also helped found the United States Golf Association in 1894. The issue at hand was competing national amateur championships (professional tournaments were still rare in America). Representatives from Chicago Golf Club along with Newport Country Club, New York’s Saint Andrews Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Boston’s The Country Club met to discuss a unified national governing body for the sport, committed to standardizing rules and setting up a recognized national championship on both the amateur and professional levels. The first USGA sponsored championship was the U.S. Amateur, held in 1895 at the Newport Country Club. The first tournament was won by none other than Charles B. Macdonald. The Chicago Golf Club would go on to host the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in 1897 and has gone on to host 2 further U.S Amateurs and Opens, the 1928 and 2005 Walker Cups and the 2018 U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

Other Chicago Golf Club Firsts

The Chicago Golf Club was also the first course to develop the out of bounds rule. Previously, golf courses were in wide open areas where all balls remained in play. However, as land surrounding the Chicago Golf Club was bought and developed to the edge of the course. This forced the club to create the out of bounds rule, later adopted as USGA Rule of Golf 27-1. The Chicago Golf Club is also credited as the first American course to build a “caddy shack” for caddies to stay when not on the course.

About the Author

Ryan Watson is a freelance sportswriter and history professor. He has been an avid fan of golf since his father signed him up for golf camp as a young child. Ryan enjoys following the professional game and learning about new equipment and gadgets.