History of Golf in America: Westchester, the Birthplace of Golf
Westchester’s claim to being the birthplace of American golf is based on much more than being home to Saint Andrew’s, the oldest golf club in America. It was here that the game’s national organizations, the USGA and the PGA of America, established their roots. It was here that the first national amateur championship was played, not to mention the first national “Open” tournament that included professionals. It was even here where the dubious tactic of hitting a second ball off the first tee if you didn’t like your first one—a Mulligan—got its name.
Westchester is where the greatest golfers of every age, from Harry Vardon and Gene Sarazen to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, teed it up in the most important tournaments of their day. Where the very best golf architects displayed their artistry. Where the Masters was conceived and the US Open broke Phil Mickelson’s heart. If any place can lay claim to the honorific “birthplace of American golf,” it is Westchester.
We Owe It All to Saint Andrew’s
It all began when John Reid, a Scottish-born businessman in Yonkers, gathered some friends at a cow pasture on Lake Avenue on a warm February day. His fellow Scot, Robert Lockhart, had brought some hickory-shafted clubs and gutta-percha balls back from a business trip to their native land. They played an exhibition over three improvised holes with John Upham, and golf in Westchester sprouted from there. A blizzard stopped the fun soon after, but when the ground thawed in April, the men moved to a 30-acre meadow owned by the neighborhood butcher, John Schotts, at North Broadway and Shonnard Place (across the street from St. Michael’s Ukrainian Church today) where they could lay out a six-hole course. On November 14, 1888, following some golf and a jolly dinner, Reid, Upham, and three other friends—Henry Tallmadge, Kingman Putnam, and Harry Holbrook—officially formed St. Andrew’s Golf Club of Yonkers [now The Saint Andrew’s Golf Club]. John Reid was elected the club’s first president.
The minutes of that historic meeting are preserved in the club’s archives, the Peter Landau Library, along with a fabulous collection of books, records, and artifacts including early golf clubs and balls. Also in the archives are the minutes of the third meeting, held on March 30, 1889, which report that Mrs. John Reid and John Upham defeated the twosome of Carrie Law and John Reid in a match earlier that day. Even in its infancy, golf in Westchester was far from a men’s-only pastime.
By 1892, the jolly crew had moved four blocks north on Palisades Avenue to an orchard where they laid out a new course with an apple tree next to the first tee. It was a great place to hang their coats, not to mention a wicker basket with snacks and libations. Amused passersby soon started referring to them as the “apple tree gang.”
Increasing membership and the evolving standards of the game led the club to move to Grey Oaks on the Saw Mill River, a larger property where they could build a nine-hole course. It was there that the first National Amateur Golf Championship was held in October 1894, when L. B. Stoddard of Saint Andrew’s defeated Charles B. Macdonald of Chicago—one of the best golfers of the time and later known as the father of golf-course architecture (he designed Sleepy Hollow Country Club’s courses, among many other great tracks). Macdonald’s loss prompted him to denounce the championship because it wasn’t run by a national organization, so later that year, Saint Andrew’s secretary and founding member Henry Tallmadge invited representatives of four other leading clubs, the Chicago Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Newport (Rhode Island) Golf Club, and the Country Club of Brookline, Massachusetts, to dinner at the Calumet Club in New York City. Together, they formed the United States Golf Association and named Tallmadge its first secretary. Macdonald was elected vice president and walked away happy. The first USGA-sanctioned US Amateur Championship was held the next year at Newport CC, and he won handily.
Saint Andrew’s also hosted the first—though still unofficial—US Open concurrently with the National Amateur Tournament. Four top professional golfers of the day were invited to play a competition of their own on the course, with a first-prize gold medal and $100 going to the champion. That turned out to be Willie Dunn, the pro at Shinnecock Hills, who also designed the original Ardsley Casino course (now Ardsley Country Club) and became its first club pro when it opened in 1896.
Golf and Saint Andrew’s continued to grow. In 1897, the club purchased new property where it could build an 18-hole course at Mt. Hope, where it remains today. Members at the time included steel mogul and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and architect and bon vivant Stanford White. Jack Nicklaus redesigned the course in 1983.
While Saint Andrew’s may have hosted the nation’s first mixed foursome, like most golf clubs of its day it wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for women. In 1895, John Reid’s wife, Elizabeth, and several other Saint Andrew’s women leased land on North Broadway and established Saegkill Country Club. It soon moved to a site overlooking the Hudson River and by 1896 had 100 members—mostly women. The club also earned a distinctive place in Westchester golf history in 1901 when Benjamin Adams was arrested for playing golf on the course on a Sunday. In a raucous trial, the prosecution lost the case on a narrow interpretation of the statute that forbade disturbance of “the peace of the day,” thus establishing every Yonkers golfer’s legal right to pursue par whenever he or she chooses.
Golf Spreads Across Westchester
By the time Saint Andrew’s started hosting tournaments, a handful of other Westchester clubs were in their nascent stages. John Archbold, John D.
Rockefeller’s chief lieutenant at Standard Oil, was the first president of Knollwood Country Club, which organized in 1894 on grounds developed by New York attorney Augustus Gillender in Elmsford. Member Lawrence Van Etten, a prominent civil engineer who designed many residential communities in New Rochelle and later the original course at Wykagyl, laid out the first 18 holes at Knollwood, a par-69 test at 5,305 yards. Seth Raynor designed a longer course that opened in 1926 and features a 19th hole that not only takes players back to the clubhouse at the end of their round, but serves as a perfect way to settle wagers.
Knollwood was a nationally known tournament site in the early days of the game. Arthur Fenn from Aiken, Georgia, who later became the first American-born golf professional, won two invitational tournaments there in 1897. Francis Ouimet, winner of the milestone US Open of 1913, played at Knollwood, as did the legendary Bobby Jones, who at one time held the course record with a round of 68. It was in the Knollwood grill room that, according to local lore, Jones met with club member Clifford Roberts and discussed the creation of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
Willie and Mike Turnesa, two of seven brothers who made an indelible mark on Westchester golf, were affiliated with Knollwood — one as an amateur, the other as a professional. Willie won the US Amateur twice, the British Amateur once, was captain of the US Walker Cup team, and president of the Metropolitan Golf Association. Brother Mike came to Knollwood as head pro in 1943 after playing on tour for 18 years. He played in the inaugural Masters Tournament in 1934 and finished second in the PGA Championship to Ben Hogan in 1948.
The first Westchester club to stage a fully recognized national championship was Ardsley Country Club, which hosted the third US Women’s Amateur in 1898. Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J. Pierpont Morgan, William Rockefeller, and other notables of the Gilded Age established the club in 1895 on the banks of the Hudson River as the Ardsley Casino. They had not only an opulent clubhouse, but also a yacht basin with a private dock and their own railroad depot, not to mention a golf course built by 20 men and 50 teams of horses. The original Casino was razed in 1936. Over the years, the club not only changed its name but moved several times until settling in its present location, the former home of Frank Jay Gould, in 1966. The course also moved inland from the river and was revised by Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, and Robert Trent Jones, Sr.
The Apawamis Club in Rye began as a social club in 1890, but added a rudimentary nine-hole golf course in 1896. Three years later, it moved to its present location and built an 18-hole course that Ben Hogan once called “the toughest short course I have ever played.” The club hosts one of the longest-running golf events in America, the US Senior Golf Association annual championship, which started there in 1905. Apawamis was also the original home of the PGA Tour’s Westchester Classic, which began as a one-day pro-am to benefit United Hospital in Port Chester in 1952. The club’s history includes two notable caddies, Ed Sullivan and Gene Sarazen, who worked there together in the early 1900s.
Professional Golfers Make Their Mark
The PGA of America, with 27,000 members today, has strong ties to several early clubs in Westchester. The organization was founded in 1916—a time when professional golfers lacked the social status of the amateur players of the day. Robert White, a club pro at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, became the PGA’s first president at a meeting of leading pros and amateurs called by Rodman Wanamaker, son of the department store founder, to organize the group.
Wykagyl was founded in 1898 as the Pelham Country Club, but moved to New Rochelle in 1904 and changed its name accordingly the following year. White came there in 1916 and served as head pro from 1922 to 1927. Horace Rawlins, winner of the first official US Open in 1895, preceded him. The club hosted the first Met Open to be held in Westchester in 1909, an event considered a major tournament at the time. It is also considered the home of the Westchester Golf Association, which was founded in 1916, and today provides more than a million dollars in college scholarships on a need basis to caddies every year. Wykagyl was noted nationally as a longtime host of LPGA events, beginning with the 1977 “Talk” Tournament and ending with the HSBC World Match Play Championship in 2007.
The PGA held its first championship at Siwanoy Country Club, which was founded in 1900 by a group of Mount Vernon golfers who played on a nine-hole course in Tuckahoe they reached by trolley. In subsequent years, the club moved closer to home to a different location in Mount Vernon until it settled on the current site in 1913. Donald Ross designed the 18-hole course that saw “Long Jim” Barnes win the first PGA Championship in a final match over Jock Hutchinson in 1916. His prize was $500 and the Wanamaker trophy, which had been donated by Rodman Wanamaker.
The second PGA Championship in Westchester was held at Pelham Country Club in 1923. It was won by Gene Sarazen, a Harrison native and Westchester’s greatest homegrown golfer, who had won both the PGA and the US Open the year before. Sarazen, born Eugenio Saraceni, was a major rival of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, and is one of only five golfers to win all four majors in his lifetime (the others are Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods). He won 39 times on tour. Hall of Fame record aside, golfers around the world owe Gene Sarazen a big debt of gratitude for his invention in 1932 of the modern sand wedge.
Golf 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.
Golf 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.
You could assign Century Country Club in Purchase to the earliest dates of Westchester golf history, since it was originally organized in 1898 in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. It moved to Westchester in 1904 on the site currently occupied by Metropolis, then to Purchase in 1922. Regardless of the decade, the club has been home to several players who made their marks on the game, including one Ben Hogan, who was an assistant pro at Century. Hogan won the Westchester Open in 1940. J. C. Snead, nephew of Sam Snead and eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, was an assistant teaching pro at Century from 1964 to 1967.
Not far from Century in Purchase is Old Oaks Country Club, which began in 1925 as the Progress Country Club and went through several iterations until merging with the Oak Ridge Club in 1936. Willie MacFarlane, winner of the 1925 US Open, was Old Oak’s first head pro. Many of the early members were from the entertainment industry and included Albert Warner of Warner Bros. and Moe Gale, who ran the William Morris talent agency. The original course had 27 holes, but the club lost nine of them when I-684 was built.
Nothing is so permanent as change, as someone once said, and that certainly applies to golf in Westchester. Two clubs, Mount Kisco Country Club and Willow Ridge Country Club, exemplify the way golf clubs have evolved in changing economic and social conditions. The original Mount Kisco Golf Club opened in 1917 on property north of the current course. In 1926, another course was built to serve Lawrence Farms, a residential community. When Mount Kisco Golf Club closed during World War II, many of the members joined Lawrence Farms Country Club, and the club became today’s Mount Kisco Country Club. Willow Ridge underwent even more transformations. It was built in 1917 by disgruntled members of Apawamis, but closed during the Great Depression. A public course and two private ventures followed (and failed) until, in 1965, the current club was founded.
The 1920s is also when most of Westchester County’s public courses were built. The first was Mohansic Golf Course in Yorktown, which opened in 1925 on land deeded to the county by New York State. Maple Moor in White Plains was acquired in 1925. It was a private nine-hole course that the county expanded to 18 holes and opened in 1927. Third came Sprain Lake in Yonkers, which was opened in 1929. Saxon Woods Golf Course in White Plains was added in 1931. Tom Winton, official golf architect for the county Parks Commission, designed the four courses (along with Mount Kisco and several other area courses), although A. W. Tillinghast claimed to have been the original designer for Saxon Woods. The fifth county course, Dunwoodie Golf Course, is actually the oldest, having been established in 1906 as a private club that claimed Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as members. The club stumbled financially, however, and the county bought it in 1955, made substantial improvements, and opened it to the public in 1957.
The county’s sixth owned and operated course, Hudson Hills Golf Course, was built on the site of Sunset Hills, a course opened in New Castle in 1926. The club closed during the Great Depression, but was acquired by a group of African-Americans and reopened as the Rising Sun Golf and Country Club in 1937. It struggled under several different ownership groups until it finally closed in 1982 and the property was sold for development. The county acquired it from IBM and opened the new course in 2004.
The Great Depression and World War II took a toll on the growth of golf everywhere, but the game in Westchester fully recovered. By the 1960s, five new clubs had sprung up (Hampshire, Brynwood, Brae Burn, and Rye) and two more (Somers Pointe and Lake Isle) were added in the 1970s. A number of truly spectacular courses have opened in Westchester in the last two decades. Hudson National, the Golf Club of Purchase, Trump National Golf Club Westchester, and Anglebrook burst on the scene in the 1990s, followed soon after by GlenArbor, Hollow Brook, and, in 2008, the county’s premier daily-fee course, the Pete Dye–designed Pound Ridge Golf Club.
MGA Historian Dr. William Quirin wrote, “Westchester golfers have been blessed by the convergence of hilly, forested terrain and the genius of visionary golf course architects who created a roster of courses unequaled in the United States.” We couldn’t agree more.