a true man of no-title
To my father
who always played it as it lay;
and in so doing revealed
the true nature of the game
Shinnecock Golf Club, the hill between the 13th and 14th holes[i]
Foreword by anonymous
It was early November 1995 and I was sequestered at a cottage that overlooked the fourteenth hole of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in
.“Thom’s Elbow” it was called, formerly the home of Charlie Thom, long-time golf pro at Shinnecock. Old Thom retired in 1961, after serving as the club’s professional for fifty-five years and lived out the remainder of his days overlooking one of Southampton, New York ’s most beautiful and treacherous golf holes. America
After Old Thom’s death, ownership of the Elbow cottage became a matter of dispute between the club and a reclusive Shinnecock elder who by some old writ laid claim to the house, and certain other ‘rites of passage’ granted in perpetuity to his people. Few of the younger members knew anything of the old man’s past or his claim upon the cottage, and the elder members who did wouldn’t speak of it to me. Soon my curiosity and inquiries concerning the old shaman, led to an audience before the club chairman. I was gently reminded that my stay at Shinnecock was arranged by a long-time member who had personally vouched for my character and discretion. “It was the members understanding,” that I had “not come to Shinnecock to write of the club’s history – but rather as a guest of its serene setting.” He intimated that the serenity of Shinnecock was best maintained if I were to let sleeping dogs lie. At that he grew silent and would speak no further, and though perplexed by the explanation, I desisted from further inquiry – for a time.[ii]
Shinnecock Hills holds an honored place in the history of the game. To some it is the cradle of American golf. Shinnecock was the first golf club incorporated in
in 1891 and opened for play in 1894. The first unofficial U.S. Open took place at St. Andrews in America , and it was Willie Dunn, the young Scottish golfing professional and early architect of Shinnecock Hills who won it. Yonkers Newport Beach in holds the distinction of being the site of the first officially sanctioned U.S.G.A. Open while Shinnecock lays claim to the second. During the play of the 1896 Open, Shinnecock produced America’s first home-grown golfing professional—a young, black teenage caddie by the name of John Matthew Shippen Jr. who almost laid claim to the professionals Open Championship on that eighteenth day of July, 1896.[iii] Rhode Island
Shippen Jr., was the eldest son of the Reverend Shippen Sr., a Presbyterian minister who had moved his family from
to the Shinnecock Reservation in 1888. Shortly after the Shippens’ arrival in Southampton, three wealthy New Yorkers, William Vanderbilt, Duncan Cryder and Edward Mead, purchased 80 acres adjacent to the Indian reservation, and began the construction of what would one day become one of Washington D.C. ’s finest golf links, the home of deserving champions, amateur and professional alike. Amateurs like Beatrix Hoyt the first three-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, (1886-1899) and in more recent times Shinnecock has been the site of three more Men’s U.S. Opens within the span of the last 18 years, the first played in 1986 won by Ray Floyd, 1995 by Corey Pavin, an Open well-remembered for his closing 4-wood and most recently in 2004 by Retief Goosen, a quiet South African, but I digress…[iv] America
Golf was the “aha” moment of young Shippen’s life and he was quickly entranced by and lured to the shepherds’ game. After only eighteen months of practice under the watchful eye of Willie Dunn while working as a “first-class” caddie alongside his Indian friend Oscar Bunn, Young Shippen and Young Bunn, on the insistence of the membership, entered the Open Championship to test their home game against the visiting professionals. These two “coloreds,” a black youth and an Indian youth competed despite the protest and threatened boycott by the English and Scottish professionals. The official story has it that the USGA president and tournament director, Theodore Havemayer solemnly vowed and proclaimed that he would “hold the tournament with only the two competitors, if he must” and the threatened boycott never materialized. A defining moment for American golf, or a pyrrhic victory for gauf’s egalitarian roots, and harbinger of future troubles. Depends on your point of view, I guess.
Shippen Jr. acquitted himself well as he finished sixth in that 2nd Open contest. He shot a morning round 78 which was good enough for a four-way tie for second. The young man kept his cool even though he drew an intimidating pairing with the previous year’s amateur champion, Charles Macdonald. But it was Macdonald[v], not Shippen, who succumbed to the pressure. Macdonald withdrew rather than play the afternoon round having already been bested by five shots by the youthful Shippen.
John Jr. teed off in the final round only two shots out of the lead, in the company of a marker only (Charles MacDonald’s caddie with whom he had exchanged words during the play of the first round), he played the outward nine well, but on the inward side the young black man could not find fair-ways and shot himself out of contention when he carded a disastrous 11 on the par four, thirteenth hole. However, his efforts were rewarded that day the then princely sum of ten dollars, the grudging admiration of the Scottish and English professionals, and soon thereafter—and much to the dismay of his parents—gainful employment as the professional at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, New York.
Shippen Jr. defied his parent’s wish that he complete his formal education and chose instead to spend his life in pursuit of a singular passion: golf. John Shippen Jr. settled into a privileged golfing life – a young, black man in the insulated and exclusive world of the white capitalist class. He went on to play in five more
Opens, three times during a four year stint from 1899─1902; 1908 where he missed the cut and the last in 1913, but he never finished higher than fifth. By the time Shippen played the 19th Open at the Country Club in U.S. he was almost a forgotten man. It was eighteen years since he had teed it up in the 2nd Open at Shinnecock and eleven years since he had finished fifth at the 7th Championship. At Brookline, Massachusetts , he played well during qualifying (thirty-six holes), but his game faded with the coming of rain.[vi] Brookline
However, a new American teenage sensation was crowned the following day. Young Francis Ouimet, a callow innocent of twenty who won the tournament in a three-way playoff over the British golfing titans, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. A stunning upset in a championship that was to be a reaffirmation of British hegemony, but instead marked the ascendance of American power and influence on the venerable game. For Shippen, it was time to relinquish youthful dreams of Open glory.
, Shippen’s professional career went into a tailspin. According to documents at his home club, Shippen’s prickly attitude came into increasing conflict with the club’s membership and he was released from his duties at Maidstone with allusions made to his “suffering from the Indian’s besetting weakness” — drink. He spent the next eighteen years, a literal golf wanderer, and there is little or no documentation of this second career, which he once described in the Detroit News during the play of the Western Open as “swing coach, gambler, and mostly ringer” on the burgeoning public links landscape. He finally returned fully to his professional trade in 1931 when he accepted employment as the head professional at the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club, a black-operated club in Brookline There, he lived out the remainder of his years before finally succumbing at the age of 88 in 1968. Scotch Plains, N.J.
Finally, 108 years after the fact, Shippen’s place in American golfing history, as the first American-born professional has been acknowledged. He now joins the following men of colour who have made significant contributions to the game of American golf: including Dr. George F. Grant of Boston, inventor of the wooden tee; John Bartholomew of New Orleans; a builder; and course architect, elder statesmen players like Lee Elder and Charles Sifford, and of course, Eldridge “Tiger” Woods, whose pursuit of legendary greatness has sparked the imagination millions.
So while history is being made, it is also good to remember the not so distant past when the exclusion of non-whites was an accepted norm. In the words of the man whose ‘autobiography of sorts’ you are about to read: “Recognition of the plight of the Oppressed is always slow penetrate the heart, mind, and eye of the Oppressor.”
At the dawn of the 20th century, the American Century, the black man’s lot was uncertain at best. The U.S. federal government had emancipated the black races in principle with the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, but in practice, the black man’s journey to equality in American society was—and to some extent still is—a path strewn with exclusion, oppression, humiliation, and justice denied, a path of peril. Race hatred would completely bar the way of the black man, not to mention the Indian, for much of the century and not just at golf, but sometimes at life itself. In that regard, young Shippen was lucky for many fine black players that followed were denied the opportunity to test their game at its highest level.
And finally I arrive at the point of my telling.
During my stay at Thom’s Elbow, I chanced upon a musty old steamer trunk hidden in the fruit cellar. When I opened it — much to my surprise — I found within an assortment of golf memorablia: an ancient wooden baffer, a cleek circa 1860, and a hickory-shafted cleek-putter circa 1895, a proto-type sand wedge and pair of white golf shoes with an extra spike, and much more. 18 clubs in all, a most intriguing bag of clubs, indeed. I also found a manuscript tightly bound in wax paper. It was a golf story, an ‘autobiography of sorts’ entitled The Legend of “One Shot!”
I read the pages with bemusement at first, then with a growing curiosity that transmuted itself into a fiery obsession. After eighteen years of research, I am loathe to admit that I was unsuccessful in my attempt to verify and document the story herein to the satisfaction of the golfing establishment. Nonetheless, it is time that this chronicle of an extraordinary golfing life, this “tissue of illusions” as the guardians of the game have called it, to be published.
Is this story true, you will ask yourself, the same question that has bedeviled and tormented me since the day I stumbled upon it. From my first, fateful read of it, I have wandered the landscape of American golf interviewing the old masters who have forgotten more of golf’s early history, legends and lore than I shall ever hope to know; and culled the archives of golf’s greatest and most revered collections in a fruitless quest to authenticate this tale. And still the answer to my question plagues me ─ is it true?
True, are many of the players and golfing incidents chronicled in the pages you are about to read. At the same time, you will ask yourself, as I did: Is it credulous to believe that one man could have done all that had been set down within these pages and yet leave no trace of his existence? For try as I might, I could never actually verify that a “half-Scot, black, Shinnecock” clubmaker and caddie master, known as “One Shot” ever actually existed. He seemed to live only in the fading memory of old black caddies and tribal elders – like a collective dream of what might have been, of what should have been.
You, the reader must decide for yourself whether “One Shot” Shipman ever was.
For ye few who know it,
not those who play
at the most serious endeavor
Gauf is a “way” for some
and a torment to the rest.
“The Birth of a Bastard
and American Golf”
A feral orphan child. The construction of Shinnecock golf course and the incident wherein Jobe Shipman, gained the namesake “One Shot.” How he caddied for John Matthew Shippen Jr. during the play of the 2nd U.S. Open at the age of nine, and the truth of how John Jr. carded eleven on the road hole. How this secret was kept between the brothers and how it parted them. Beatrix Hoyt and an accounting of her first three USGA Women’s amateur championships. How Jobe came into possession of the Elbow Cottage, just before sailing east with his teacher. His return from the Orient to carry his “step-bother’s” bag one last time and a brief side note on the disappearance of Vardon’s cleek-putter and Ouimet’s playoff victory over the British golfing titans at Brookline.
In 1894, the Supreme Court ruled that the Indian was not included in the 14thAmendment. It took an act of Congress in 1924 before the Indian was recognized as a citizen.
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely in the case of the tenth.”
Teddy Roosevelt, 1896
An autobiography of sorts…
Those who seek the soul of the game, well, the American game, at least, must come to Shinnecock, and they have been doing so for more than 104 years. The Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was founded in 1891, but the land on which it was built, or some of it, was my maternal family’s ancestral burial ground.
I came to golf at a very early age. When I was three, my grandmother gave me my father’s cleek—it was the only token, memento, remembrance that he had left behind. I waved it around for a few years, mostly scaring gophers, I suppose. Lucky, I never broke it, what with all the abuse I gave that old hickory stick. But then, one day, these surveyors showed up and started measuring the land near my grandmother’s shack. I noticed a man apart from them. One who had a token like my father’s cleek, and I remember watching with awe and wonder—the first flight of a featherie on the grasslands. And then, to behold the cleek being wielded to its purpose. I guess you could say, it was my first transcendent moment, and it happened at a very tender age.
From that day onward, Golf became a powerful force in my life. I was by turns, caddie, apprentice, clubmaker, sometime teacher, but always a student of a game that has no master. Golf has been a life-long pursuit and passion. It is the defining metaphor of my life. It is my path, my meditation.
The men of Shinnecock, and by that, I mean the tribesmen, built the golf course. John, Jr., Oscar Bunn and I, were the club’s first caddies. Being young and unseasoned at the tender age of ‘almost eight’, I was a mere second-class caddie. “Second class conveys too many meanings for me and my ancestors, most unpleasant, but simply meant that, I carried the ladies clubs. A most fortuitous occurrence, considering the lifelong mentorship/friendship engendered between Mrs. Beatrice Hoyt and myself that was established during my tenure as her caddie during her remarkable reign of three straight Women’s Open titles from 1896 to 1899.
But my first experience caddying professionally was when I carried John Jr’s bag in the second U.S. Open, where he finished fifth after carding an eleven on the thirteenth hole that cost him the championship.
I’m not ready to tell that story just yet, that story is for another time.