The USGA Museum's Shippen Golf Club

February 4, 2009

By Rosemary Maravetz

John Shippen worked as the head professional at Shady Rest Golf & Country Club until retiring in 1960. (USGA Museum)
In more than 70 years of collecting golf's history, the USGA Museum has been privileged to obtain invaluable treasures that are essential to the game's legacy. There are also artifacts in the collection that command an importance not just in the history of golf, but in American history. Such is the case with a club made and used by John Shippen Jr. (1879 - 1968), an African-American golfer who was a rarity in his time.

Originally from Washington, D.C., John Shippen was one of nine children born to a minister and his wife. Shippen's father moved the family to Southampton, N.Y., in 1889, where he was sent to serve as a preacher on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. Shippen was 10 years old at the time and befriended a young member of the Shinnecock tribe named Oscar Bunn. When Shinnecock Hills Golf Club opened in 1891, the two boys became caddies. Showing natural talent for the game, Shippen was taken under the wing of Shinnecock's golf professional, Willie Dunn. He benefited from Dunn's instruction, becoming an excellent golfer who was better than most members at this pioneering American golf club. Dunn rewarded Shippen with the assistant professional position, which allowed him the opportunity to give lessons, repair clubs and play the course regularly.

When the second U.S. Open was played at Shinnecock Hills in 1896, the club's members paid entrance fees for both Shippen and Bunn, believing strongly in their talents for the game. It has been said that the day before the championship was to begin, various English and Scottish players threatened USGA President Theodore F. Havemeyer with their withdrawals if Bunn and Shippen were allowed to play, citing their races as objectionable. Havemeyer explained to the players that the championship would proceed as planned, even if Bunn and Shippen were the only two competitors. The next morning, on July 18, 1896, the second U.S. Open Championship was under way, with all 32 players reporting for their tee times. Shippen finished the championship in fifth place, but the next day the Chicago Tribune observed that "anyone who plays Shippen has got to forget his boyishness, and pay careful attention to his golf, for Shippen is, in view of the circumstances, the most remarkable player in the United States." John Shippen had become the first African-American to compete in the U.S. Open.

Shippen decided to forego any further education and pursue a career in golf. He went on to compete in the U.S. Open in 1899, 1900, 1902 and 1913, but his race was a continuous obstacle as he was frequently denied the chance to play when he attempted to enter other tournaments. Nonetheless, Shippen never abandoned his passion for the game and was appointed as the golf professional at various golf clubs throughout his career.

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    But with "J.M. Shippen" stamped prominently on top of the wooden club in the USGA Museum collection it is hard to resist asking the question: could Shippen have used this club in his appearance at the 1896 U.S. Open? As tempting as it might be to think this club was used at that historic occasion, Shippen's position as a golf professional provided him opportunity to make and sell his own clubs over a number of years and he could well have made the club for individual use or for sale in his shop. But when did he do so?

    Crucial to the question is whether the club in the USGA Museum's collection pre-dates or post-dates Shippen's participation in the 1896 U.S. Open. According to Pete Georgiady, author of several books and an expert on early clubs and clubmakers, the stamp on the club that reads "J.M. Shippen" was created by a die-cut stamp. This is evident in the uniformity of the letters. Earlier clubs created or owned by Shippen have been found to have a more irregular stamp, a sign that the letters were imprinted individually. A die-cut stamp, which cost about $10, a tidy sum at the turn of the century, would have only been purchased by Shippen if he were creating and selling his own clubs on a regular basis, according to Georgiady. As he was not in a position to do that as a teenager at the 1896 U.S. Open it is unlikely he could have used this club.

    By the late 1920s, Shippen was head professional at a club owned and operated by African-Americans in Scotch Plains, N.J., the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club (now known as the Scotch Hills Country Club), where he would remain until his retirement in 1960. In an interview with Tuesday Magazine , Shippen once said, "I wonder if I did the right thing when I quit school and went into golf. Maybe I should have kept going and went to Yale like my brother, who'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."

    Rosemary Maravetz is the former collections manager of the USGA Museum. Please e-mail with any questions or comments.


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