On Dec. 22, 2014, the USGA celebrates its 120th anniversary as the national governing body for golf in the United States, its territories and Mexico. A lot of history has been made in the first 120 years and the Association continues to evolve in exciting ways. In that celebratory spirit, we are revisiting USGA milestones in a four-part series divided into 30-year increments. The second part reviews the years from 1925 to 1954.
The second 30 years of the USGA’s existence were highlighted on the course by two of the game’s icons: Bob Jones and Ben Hogan. Each dominated their era and punctuated their remarkable careers with historic seasons – Jones in 1930 and Hogan in 1953.
But as significant as those achievements are in the annals of championship golf, another major milestone took place off the course that would shape the USGA’s governance and stature as a ruling body. Since its inception in 1894, the USGA had a written set of the Rules of Golf that didn’t always correlate with the interpretation of The R&A in St. Andrews, Scotland, which governed the game everywhere except the United States and Mexico.
For instance, in 1947 the USGA revised and simplified the Rules of Golf, trimming the number of Rules from 61 to 21. The R&A did not follow suit.
A conference in 1951 between the USGA and The R&A at St. Andrews finally brought uniformity. The governing bodies agreed on a joint set of Rules worldwide that became effective on Jan. 1, 1952. The only remaining difference would be the size of the ball. The R&A maintained the use of the 1.62-inch-diameter ball, while the USGA stuck to the 1.68-inch-diameter ball. The R&A abandoned the “small ball” in 1990.
Other key changes to the Rules included the abolishment of the stymie and the legalization of the center-shafted putter, which The R&A had banned since 1909. The ruling for out of bounds also was changed to a consistent stroke-and-distance penalty.
Long before that gathering in Scotland, an amateur from Atlanta was producing a historic run of championship golf. From 1923-30, Bob Jones claimed nine USGA championships – five U.S. Amateurs and four U.S. Opens. In 1926, he became the first golfer to win the U.S. Open and British Open titles in the same year.
Four years later, Jones eyed what a sportswriter of the time had called “The Impregnable Quadrilateral,” a sweep of golf’s four major titles (U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open, British Amateur and British Open) in the same year. With the Walker Cup Match being conducted at Royal St. George’s in England, Jones sailed across the Atlantic in late spring for the biennial team competition prior to the British Amateur at St. Andrews, the one major title that had eluded Jones to that point.
Jones won the British Amateur and the British Open at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), setting the stage for his summer run at the final two majors. He won the U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club in Minneapolis to make it three for three heading into the U.S. Amateur, which he had already won three times. Jones defeated Eugene Homans, 8 and 7, in the 36-hole final match at Merion Cricket Club in Ardmore, Pa., to complete the Grand Slam. He then announced his retirement from competitive golf at age 28 to focus on his family and his law practice.
No golfer since has managed to win four major titles in the same year, although Hogan won all three he entered in 1953. Hogan, who had won the U.S. Open on three previous occasions, was seeking to join Jones as a four-time champion when he arrived at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. Hogan had already won the Masters in April, and his six-stroke win over Sam Snead cemented his place in Open lore. Hogan then went to Carnoustie to play the British Open for the first time. After he prevailed by four strokes, Hogan returned to a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He didn’t play in the PGA Championship (July 1-7) because it overlapped with the British Open (July 6-10), denying Hogan the chance to win all four professional major championships in a single season.
That Hogan was competing at all was remarkable. In February 1949, he and his wife, Valerie, were driving through West Texas when their vehicle was struck by a Greyhound bus. Hogan dove to protect his wife and that split-second decision probably saved his life. The 36-year-old suffered multiple fractures and his golf career was in jeopardy.
Remarkably, Hogan returned to the PGA Tour in 1950 and won his second U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in a playoff. His 1-iron approach shot to the 72nd hole was captured by photographer Hy Peskin, and it became one of the iconic photographs ever taken. The 1-iron was stolen prior to the 18-hole playoff, but the club was later recovered and is now on display at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J., one of the prized artifacts in the Ben Hogan Room.
While Jones and Hogan headlined this period in USGA history, they certainly weren’t the only ones making news.
USGA Continues To Adapt As Game Grows More Popular
In 1932, the inaugural Curtis Cup Match was contested between two teams of female amateurs, one from the USA and one from Great Britain and Ireland. Sisters Margaret Curtis and Harriot Curtis, both of whom had won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, sought to, as the cup is inscribed, “stimulate friendly rivalry among the women golfers of many lands.” The cup was presented in 1927, but because of the Great Depression, no match was held until 1932. Although there was hope that other nations would join the competition at some point, it has remained a two-team affair between the USA and Great Britain and Ireland. The USA prevailed in the inaugural Match at Wentworth Golf Club in England, 5½-3½.
To this day, the competition has helped launch the careers of some of the game’s greatest players on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1933, amateur John Goodman won the U.S. Open by one stroke over Ralph Guldahl at North Shore Golf Club in Glenview, Ill. No amateur has won the U.S. Open since, though Jack Nicklaus came close in 1960.
In 1934, Joseph C. Dey Jr. was appointed executive secretary of the USGA, which evolved into the title of executive director. Dey would hold that position for 34 years, and since 1996, the USGA has annually honored an individual for their meritorious service to the game with the Joe Dey Award.
In 1938, the USGA established a Rule limiting the number of clubs a player could carry in their bag to 14. Some players, including two-time U.S. Amateur champion Lawson Little, were carrying as many as 25 clubs. The Rule was designed to restore shotmaking to the game.
With World War II having begun in Europe in 1939, the 1940 Walker Cup Match was canceled. All USGA championships were canceled from 1942-1945.
Golf Landscape Begins To Change, Literally
When the war ended, America was ready for another golf growth spurt. The beginning of the Baby Boomer generation created the need for more golf courses. Many of the game’s classic designers – Alister Mackenzie, Donald Ross, Seth Raynor and A.W. Tillinghast among them – were either deceased or no longer designing courses.
A new breed of golf course architect was taking the stage, led by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Jones had mentored under Canadian designer Stanley Thompson, and by the 1950s, Jones had become the game’s preeminent architect. Not only was he designing original courses, he was also tasked by the USGA to strengthen existing layouts for championship play. He renovated the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit for the 1951 U.S. Open, and the layout was dubbed “The Monster” because of its length and difficulty. Jones also reworked the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., in preparation for the 1954 U.S. Open.
Jones saw that the game was evolving and courses needed to be strengthened to test the new breed of golfer. His son, Rees, would play a major role in restoring U.S. Open courses in the 1980s and 1990s. His other son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., designed Chambers Bay, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open.
Although it had been established in 1920, the USGA Green Section created the Turf Advisory Service in 1953 to provide consultation visits to golf courses. Its purpose was to inform course superintendents of the latest developments in turfgrass management. This remains a vital service for both public and private facilities today, although it is now called the Course Consulting Service. Green Section agronomists make more than 1,300 course visits each year, throughout the U.S.
USGA Expands Its Scope
The USGA introduced a pair of new championships after World War II and inherited another, the first new championships since the U.S. Amateur Public Links was established in 1922. With more young golfers playing the game, the USGA created junior championships for golfers 17 and under. The inaugural U.S. Junior Amateur was held in 1948 at the University of Michigan Golf Course in Ann Arbor with Dean Lind defeating future U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi, 4 and 2, in the championship match.
A year later, Marlene Bauer won the inaugural U.S. Girls’ Junior at Philadelphia (Pa.) Country Club, defeating Barbara Bruning, 2 up, in the final.
In 1946, the first U.S. Women’s Open was contested at Spokane (Wash.) Country Club as Patty Berg defeated Betty Jameson in the championship match, 5 and 4. It marked the only time the championship was contested at match play. The championship was conducted by the Women’s Professional Golfers Association from 1946-1948 and by the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) until 1953, when the USGA was asked to take over the championship, which it has done ever since.
Women’s professional golf was in its infancy after World War II, but Olympic track and field gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias gave the game a boost by winning the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur, and then three U.S. Women’s Open titles, the last in 1954, a year after she had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Television established its presence at the U.S. Open in 1947 at St. Louis Country Club. The final hole was broadcast by local station KSD-TV.
That same year, the USGA altered its formula for determining handicaps from the three lowest scores to the player’s 10 best rounds ever – with a minimum of 50 scores required to obtain a handicap. The change was welcomed by average players, who now had a better chance of playing to their handicaps.
Regional golf associations, however, could not agree on the number of rounds from which to take the 10 best scores for handicap purposes. In 1958, it was resolved to compute the best 10 of the 25 most recent scores. By 1967, the standard was changed to 10 of the last 20 scores, a formula that remains in use today.
U.S. presidents had enjoyed playing golf since the early part of the 20th century, but Dwight D. Eisenhower took it to another level during his two terms (1952-1960). He even had the USGA Green Section install a putting green on the White House lawn in 1954.
Eisenhower also developed a great friendship with Arnold Palmer, who won the U.S. Amateur in 1954 and would go on to have a profound effect on the game and the USGA. The charismatic Palmer ushered in the age of televised golf, setting the stage for the next 30 years in the Association’s history.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.