History of Golf in America: Westchester, the Birthplace of Golf

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The first photograph of golf in America. Harry Holbrook, A.P.W. Kinnan, J.B. Upham, and John Reid with caddies Warren and Frederic Holbrook at St. Andrew’s circa 1888  //  Photograph courtesy of St. Andrew’sGolf Gleams in Westchester’s Gilded Age

Sleepy Hollow Country Club was founded in 1911 by some of the nation’s most prominent business leaders at the pinnacle of America’s Gilded Age. The founding members included John Jacob Astor (who died a year later on the Titanic), William Rockefeller (brother of John D. Rockefeller), and Frank Vanderlip (president of the City Bank of New York, the forerunner of today’s Citigroup). Vanderlip was the creator of the club, which he founded on property he and Rockefeller had purchased from Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard, a granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Charles B. Macdonald, assisted by Seth Raynor, designed the golf course, which was later tweaked by A. W. Tillinghast. The Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) made Sleepy Hollow a regular stop from 1986 to 1993. The Sleepy Hollow clubhouse is as magnificent as the golf course. It was completed in 1893 at a cost of $850,000—a huge sum for the time—and retains today the original character and features of the design by architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White. The 75-room mansion includes a ballroom, library, formal dining room, and 18 guest rooms, as well as the golf pro shop and locker rooms. An original Tiffany window lights its grand staircase, and the view of the Hudson River may well be the finest in the county.

Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale is perhaps the best golf course in Westchester to never host a modern major tournament, although it did stage the 1997 Walker Cup. A. W. Tillinghast was commissioned in 1916 to create the course on property where the British army camped in 1776 before defeating George Washington in the Battle of White Plains. The club opened in 1918 and soon became the home of numerous luminaries of the time, including Louis Gimbel and Samuel Bloomingdale of department store fame, along with composer George Gershwin, who sported a 10 handicap. The club has hosted three Met Opens, including the 1936 edition when a young assistant club pro from Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey named Byron Nelson beat the game’s top players to begin his legendary professional career. Quaker Ridge is the home of the Hochster Memorial Tournament, one of the most prestigious amateur invitational tournaments in the metropolitan area, held to honor William Rice Hochster, the club’s first president who lived near the first hole and was known to offer corrective lessons in golf etiquette when he observed infractions.

There were pioneering clubs throughout Westchester. The Bedford Tennis Club added golf in 1896; Scarsdale Golf Club opened in 1898; Waccabuc Country Club in 1912; and Blind Brook, where President Dwight Eisenhower was a member, was built in 1915.

Ben Hogan was all smiles after winning the Goodall Round Robin at Winged Foot in 1946. Wykagyl hosted the event from 1948-52 and 1956-57. Winners included Gene Littler, Bobby Locke, and Sam Snead—who won twice in New Rochelle  //  Photograph courtesy of Winged FootGolf Roars in the Twenties

The Roaring Twenties saw a burst of golf-course creation in Westchester that further cemented the county’s place in the annals of the game. Westchester Country Club and Winged Foot Golf Club opened in 1922 and 1923, respectively, preceded in 1921 by Bonnie Briar Country Club in Larchmont, where artist Norman Rockwell was a charter member and Delmonico’s managed the kitchen. Leewood Golf Club opened in 1922 in Eastchester. Filmmaker D. W. Griffith was a founding member, and Babe Ruth joined soon after. A persistent legend has it that the tunnel under the Metro-North tracks near the club entrance was built to accommodate the Babe’s dash to Yankee Stadium on game days.

Metropolis Country Club in White Plains was established in 1922 and became the home of head pros with admirable records as playing professionals. Paul Runyon, aka “Little Poison,” won two PGA Championships while serving as head pro from 1931 to 1943. Jack Burke Jr. was head pro for two years before he left to play on tour full-time where he won both the Masters and the PGA Championship. “Lighthorse Harry” Cooper won 31 times on tour before joining Metropolis as head pro from 1953 to 1978. Gene Borek, a Yonkers native who served as Metropolis head pro for 25 years before retiring in 2005, played in 11 PGA Championships and 10 US Opens, and was one of the most respected professionals in the game. The current head pro at Metropolis, Craig Thomas, broke the competitive course record at Bethpage Black during the 2007 New York State Open.

Fenway Golf Club opened in 1922 in Scarsdale with 27 holes designed by Devereux Emmet, who also laid out Bonnie Briar, Rye Golf Club, Hampshire Country Club, and Lake Isle Country Club. The members weren’t happy with the way their course compared to nearby Winged Foot, however, so they retained A. W. Tillinghast to create a new layout. The course has seen numerous important competitions, but none bigger than the Westchester 108, a six-round event with the richest purse on tour in 1938 — a magnificent $13,500. Sam Snead took the $5,000 first prize, beating out soon-to-be greats Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, among others.


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