125 Years of Golf in America: Rhode Island October 2, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

Next Week: Michigan  125 Years of American Golf Home

Watch: Fox Sports golf analysts Brad Faxon and Brett Quigley on what makes the Ocean State special

U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open Were Born in Newport

By Rand Jerris, USGA

Historic Newport Country Club was the site of the inaugural U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in 1895. (USGA Archives)

The following is excerpted from “Great Moments of the U.S. Open,” a 2012 book published by the USGA and Firefly Press.

The inaugural U.S. Open Championship was a simple affair, a far cry from the grand pageant that has come to mark one of the game’s premier championships. The gallery was sparse. Media interest was minimal. The nine-hole course in Rhode Island was measured in feet, rather than in yards. The field would make four trips around the rocky and swampy layout in just one day, Oct. 4, 1895.

Whereas today more than 9,000 hopefuls apply to test their skills against the world’s best in golf ’s toughest test, just 11 men gathered on the first tee of the Newport Golf Club on a blus­tery fall day for the chance to take home the newly minted ster­ling trophy and a handsome gold medal. The winner was, in all respects, unremarkable: a 21-year-old assistant professional named Horace Rawlins, play­ing in just the third competition of his career, who only found himself in the field because he was employed by the host club and three of the leading amateurs scheduled to play had with­drawn.

How did the inaugural championships arrive in Newport? In an effort to bring unity to the fledg­ling game in the U.S., Henry Tallmadge of the St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., invited representatives from the clubs at Brookline, Mass.; Newport, Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.; and Chicago to join him for dinner at the Calumet Club in New York City on Dec. 22, 1894.

Their singular purpose was to establish a national governing body that would be charged with conducting a proper national championship, played under proper rules. And so was born the Amateur Golf Association of the United States. The officers of the new Association determined that very evening that the first true Amateur Championship of the would be held in in the late summer of 1895. While they were at it, they added a U.S. Open Championship to the agenda as well.

In the months that followed, the mission of the newborn association expanded to include not only championships for men but an amateur championship for women as well. Now call­ing itself the United States Golf Association, the organization originally scheduled its men’s championships for September, but it delayed the festivities for one month due to a scheduling conflict with the ’s Cup yacht races, which were also planned for .

The Amateur Championship was up first, scheduled to begin on the morning of Oct. 1. Theodore Havemeyer, who had been selected as the USGA’s first president during that first din­ner at the Calumet Club, had donated a spectacular silver trophy, adorned with griffins, laurel wreaths and floral swags. In unsea­sonably warm conditions, a field of 32 played Newport’s nine-hole Rocky Farm course at match play.

Doctors, lawyers, clergy and businessmen were in the championship draw. Charles Blair Macdonald, the second vice president of the USGA, defeated Charles Sands, 12 and the 36-hole final two days later to become both the first U.S. Amateur champion and first USGA champion. Considered the premier amateur in the country, Macdonald was never seriously challenged in any of his matches.

As play was underway among the amateurs, the strongest professional field assembled to date in the United States also gathered at Newport. On Oct. 2, the local newspaper, the Newport News, reported the entrants for the inau­gural U.S. Open competition – Willie Campbell, James Foulis, John Reid, Macdonald, L.B. Stoddart, John Patrick, A.W. Smith, Samuel Tucker, Willie Norton, Winthrop Rutherford, Willie Dunn and Willie Davis – in total, eight professionals and four amateurs, the latter being Macdonald, Rutherford, Smith and Stoddart.

By the time play commenced on the morning of Oct. 4, the seasonal weather that had blessed the previous days had taken quite a turn. A cold front had blown in overnight, and with it came fierce winds from the northeast that raked the sea­side course. Their enthusiasm sapped by the winds, and presum­ably the tense competition of the previous days, Macdonald, Rutherford and Stoddart withdrew before the opening round, leaving Smith, the reigning Canadian champion, as the only amateur in the field. Two additional professionals, John Harland of the Weston Golf Club in Massachusetts and Horace Rawlins, the young assistant pro at Newport, were persuaded to round out the field.

Willie Dunn, the head professional at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, and Willie Davis, the host professional from Newport, were considered by many the pre-championship favorites, and thus they were the first off the tee in the morning to start the first round’s play. Playing in the group behind was Willie Campbell, the head professional at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

Of all the players in the field, Campbell had the most distinguished résumé, having placed second, third, fourth twice, fifth, seventh and ninth in his seven appearances in the British Open Championship between 1883 and 1889. Campbell would go on to shoot 41, taking the lead at the end of the first round by two strokes over Dunn.

As the players moved on to the second nine, the winds con­tinued to stiffen. “Fine play,” wrote the New York Times, “was quite impossible.” One after another, the favorites succumbed to both wind and pressure. Dunn fell off form, losing strokes here and there to post a second-round 46. For Campbell, the winds of the second round brought on inconsistency, for it was reported that his play was simultane­ously “the most brilliant of the day as well as the most careless.” 

Artifacts, including the U.S. Open Trophy, from the inaugural USGA championships held at Newport C.C. in 1895. (USGA Archives)

Rawlins opened his second nine with a 6 and posted a 7 at the sixth, but he still managed to shoot a 46. His 45-46 for 91 left him two strokes behind Dunn, Campbell and James Foulis, the pro­fessional at Macdonald’s Chicago Golf Club, who all shared the three-way lead after 18 holes. The field broke for lunch, then headed out for the afternoon to deter­mine a champion.

For the top six players in the field, each of whom would post scores under 180, the afternoon was a dogfight. Davis and Campbell finally found their form and completed their third trip around the nine-hole track in 42 stokes. Dunn, Foulis and the amateur Smith took 44, but it was Rawlins who seemed to ben­efit most from the lunchtime break. His 41 matched the low nine of the championship that Campbell had recorded in the first round.

With the final round now underway, the majority of the spectators followed Dunn, Davis and Campbell, for it was widely believed that the champion would emerge from among these three. Dunn’s play in the final round was steady, but his driving was not up to form. After a final-round 42, he retired to the club­house with a score of 175 that in the end was good enough for a second-place finish.

Foulis, the Chicago professional, awed the afternoon galleries with his power off the tee, giving what one reporter called “the finest exhibition of driving ever seen in this country.” Despite holing the longest putt of the championship, his putting was otherwise substandard, and he posted a 43 in the final round to finish at 176.

Smith finally showed the form that had made him a cham­pion north of the border, shooting a final-round 42 that also left him at 176, tied for third. Davis could do no better than 178 for the championship. Meanwhile, Campbell was undone by the shortest hole on the course, the 172-yard third. He posted a humili­ating 9 that left both him and his gallery defeated. With a final-round 48, he finished at 179, alone in sixth place.

The afternoon, instead, belonged to young Rawlins. He had started slowly in the morning, as if intimidated by the quality of the field and the significance of the moment. But once his nerves had settled, he found a competitive form previously unknown. His putting was stronger than his driving, but it was his calm demeanor throughout the afternoon that seemed his greatest asset. “He is a good heady player,” noted the reporter from the New York Times, “with a happy faculty of not getting discouraged when in difficulties.”

As news of Rawlins’ steady play spread across the course, the galleries aban­doned Dunn, Davis and Campbell and turned their attentions to the home club’s assistant professional. What they witnessed was, in the words of Laurence Curtis, the USGA’s first vice president, the “best [golf] he had ever seen.” Rawlins turned in a final-round 41, matching his third-round tally, and finished at 173.

And so it came to pass that Rawlins won the inaugural U.S. Open in conditions that the New York Times later described as “half a gale.” For the victory, his first ever as a professional, Rawlins received $150, a gold medal valued at $50 and custody for one year of the U.S. Open Trophy.

Rawlins, who learned the game as a caddie on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England, came to America in January 1895 to serve as an assistant to Willie Davis at Newport. For many years, it was believed that he was, at age 19, the youngest U.S. Open cham­pion in history, until a search of birth records in the late 1960s revealed his true age to be 21. To this day, he remains the only U.S. Open champion to win on a course where he was employed as a professional.

From humble beginnings in Newport came greatness – for a newly crowned champion and for a newly minted championship.

Rand Jerris is the senior managing director of Public Services for the USGA.