COURSES
Beyond Links: Golf’s Rise from Good to Great July 19, 2017 By Michael Trostel, USGA

Shinnecock Hills, an iconic venue laid out over some of the finest land for golf in the world, will host the 2018 and 2026 U.S. Opens. (USGA/John Mummert)

The origins of the game in the United States date to 1729, with the recording of golf clubs in the estate of William Burnet, an early governor of Massachusetts. Ship manifests also document the exportation of hundreds of golf clubs and more than a thousand golf balls from Scotland to the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland beginning in 1743.

Early documents and newspapers affirm that golf was established in New York City in the 1770s, Charleston, S.C., in the 1780s, and Savannah, Ga., in the 1790s. After the War of 1812, the game’s popularity in America declined for several decades, but resurfaced in such diverse places as Estes Park, Colo., in 1875, Burlington, Iowa, in 1883, Oakhurst, W.Va., in 1884, and Foxburg, Pa., in 1885.

By 1894, more than 50 golf clubs existed throughout the United States. That winter, representatives from five clubs – Saint Andrew’s Golf Club of Yonkers, N.Y., Newport (R.I.) Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill. – gathered at the Calumet Club in New York City to form the United States Golf Association.

Drawing their inspiration from the natural forms of the Scottish links as well as the American landscape, the architects of the Golden Age such as Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, C.B. Macdonald and Alister MacKenzie created bunkers with stunning, irregular contours and greens with dramatically undulating surfaces. Moreover, their deep interest in strategy helped produce courses that tested both mental and physical abilities.

Many of the seminal moments in golf history took place on these grand stages of the game. The first three U.S. Opens were held at Newport in 1895, Shinnecock in 1896 and Chicago Golf Club in 1897. But the burgeoning game really took hold in the United States after an unheralded 20-year-old amateur, Francis Ouimet, captured the imagination of a nation by defeating legendary British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a thrilling playoff at The Country Club in 1913.

Propelled by Ouimet’s victory and America’s rapid economic expansion, the number of golf courses in the country would increase from 700 to more than 6,000 over the next 25 years. Architects, many of whom were either from Great Britain or had traveled there to study its most respected courses, adopted the principles, forms, and even the best holes that defined these classic links.

Ouimet may have been America’s first golf hero, but these architects shaped the grounds on which champions like Ouimet played. From the windswept seaside beauty of Newport and Shinnecock, to the rugged timelessness of The Country Club and Chicago Golf Club, golf in America began to form its own identity in the early 20th century – inspired by, but distinct from, the great courses of the British Isles.

Francis Ouimet's (center) watershed victory in the 1913 U.S. Open in a playoff over Harry Vardon (left) and Ted Ray (right) changed golf in America forever.

But make no mistake – while these clubs all have rich histories, they are still vital to the game today. The architects’ vision and creativity in adapting their design philosophies to America’s varied terrain resulted in some of the best courses in the world, which were built to stand the test of time. They demand every type of shot, require thoughtful course management and inspire the player in ways large and small.

Over the next decade, five USGA Open Championships will return to these founding clubs: the 2018 and 2026 U.S. Opens at Shinnecock; next year’s inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago; the 2020 U.S. Senior Open at Newport; and the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club.

Despite dramatic advances in equipment and technology since the time they were built, these cathedrals of the game remain as relevant as ever. They provide the ultimate test for the best players in the world, and are iconic symbols of America’s significant contributions to the game.

Michael Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.