The U. S. Open: America’s National Golf Championship

Dustin Johnson Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison

Theodore Havemeyer returned to his summer home in Newport, Rhode Island in 1889, after playing golf in southern France, determined to play the game again somewhere closer to home.  Havemeyer, and others like him, had a limited number of options for a round of golf in the Newport area or in the United States at that time.  While the game of golf had sprung deep roots in Scotland and England, it had inspired limited interest in the United States.  Those who played generally came from wealthy backgrounds and belonged to the smattering of private golf clubs around the country.  The undeterred Havemeyer persuaded some of the area’s upper crust–John Jacob Astor IV, Perry Belmont, and Cornelius Vanderbilt II–to buy a 140-acre farm property in 1893 with the intent to establish a golf club.  That club would become the Newport Country Club.  Not satisfied with a venue for his golfing buddies, Havemeyer wanted to host national championships at his new course.  In 1894, he held a tournament for some of the best amateurs in the United States at the new club.  That tournament would be one of two National Amateur Championships that year, the other held at the Chicago Golf Club.

Hoping for a single amateur championship every year, Havemeyer prompted a meeting in December at New York City’s Calumet Club with representatives of four other golf clubs:  St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, New York; Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island; The Country Club of Brookline, Massachusetts; and the Chicago Golf Club.  The representatives agreed that the Newport Country Club would host the first U. S. Amateur Championship, confined strictly to amateurs, and the first U. S. Open Championship, for professionals and amateurs, in 1895.  In addition, the representatives formed the Amateur Golf Association to administer the national amateur championship and the Rules of Golf for the United States.   Soon afterwards the name changed to the United States Golf Association (USGA) to order to include both amateurs and professionals, and Havemeyer became the USGA’s first president.  The U. S. Amateur trophy is named in his honor.

The U. S. Open started as almost an afterthought.  It took place the day after the U. S. Amateur at the Newport Golf Club in 1895.  Both tournaments were originally scheduled for September but were pushed back to October so as not to interfere with the America’s Cup yacht races, a more established Newport competition.  The first U. S. Open unfolded over a nine-hole course at the Club in a single day. Ten professionals and one amateur competed in the 36-hole competition for an overall purse of $335 and a $50 gold medal.  Englishman Horace Rawlins won the first tournament and the grand sum of $150, plus the gold medal.  By contrast, 2016 winner Dustin Johnson took home $1.8 million.

Because Rawlins was an assistant golf pro at the Newport Golf Club, the Club received the USGA-sponsored Open Championship Cup trophy.   Winners of the U. S. Open today take possession of the trophy until the next Open when it must be returned to USGA officials.

For a decade and a half British professionals won the U. S. Open Championship, but in 1911 John J. McDermott became the first American winner.  McDermott accomplished the feat again the next year before American amateur Francis Ouimet pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports history.  At the Country Club of Brookline in 1913, Ouimet defeated in a playoff arguably the world’s best professional golfers of the day–Britain’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.  Considered one of the great upsets in sports history, Ouimet’s victory spurred an interest in golf in the United States that eventually would lead to the obsession that it is today.  After Ouimet’s triumph, the sport moved from that of the ultra-rich to a game shared by people from many different socio-economic levels.  According to USGA historian Michael Trostel, Ouimet’s conquest prompted the addition of about two million Americans to the list of golf participants over the next decade.  Also, more golf courses, both public and private, emerged in the United States to meet the demand.

The prestige of the U. S. Open grew rapidly and players from around the world competed for one of its coveted spots.   The USGA began sectional qualifying in 1924 to meet the demand.    The tournament ‘s and the sport’s popularity skyrocketed again in the 1920s as amateur Bobby Jones won three U. S. Open titles and then a fourth in 1930 on his way to winning the Grand Slam–U. S. Open, British Open, U. S. Amateur and British Amateur.  Only five amateurs have ever won the U. S. Open:  Jones, Ouimet, Jerome D. Travers (1915), Charles Evans, Jr. ( 1916), and John Goodman (1933).

The design of the U. S. Open courses over time has allowed only the best to win the tournament, and amateurs now have very little chance.  The courses today generally are very long with  narrow fairways and high primary rough around those fairways.  They also generally include undulating greens.  An example of such greens can be found at Pinehurst No. 2, of which NBC analyst Johnny Miller compares trying to land a shot on the greens to “trying to hit a ball on top of a VW Beetle.”  The vast majority of U. S. Open courses play at par 70.  All of these elements normally lead to a winning score somewhere close to par.  Because of this the U. S. Open has the reputation as the most difficult of the four majors–U. S. Open, British Open, the Masters, and PGA Championship–to play.

The U. S. Open format has changed several times since the inaugural tournament in 1895.  In 1896, the championship became a 72-hole contest with 36 holes played each day for two successive days.  The format changed again in 1926 with participants playing 18 holes for two successive days, then 36 holes the next day.  The current format took hold in 1965 as the contestants began to play 18 holes over four successive days.

Ties after 72 holes are decided by the players involved playing an additional 18 holes the next day.  If after 18 holes a champion has not been crowned then sudden death ensues. The first player to win a hole outright is declared the winner.  The U. S. Open is the only major that uses this playoff format.

While the U. S. Open’s four-day format provided more exposure for the tournament, television helped launch it to new levels of popularity beginning with ABC’s live coverage of the final two rounds in 1977, then ESPN’s live coverage of the first two rounds in 1982.  NBC became the first network to provide live television coverage of all four rounds.  Currently, Fox Sports televises the four-day spectacle.

Four men who have won the U. S. Open four times:  Willie Anderson (1901, 1903, 1904, and 1905), Bobby Jones (1923, 1926, 1929, and 1930), Ben Hogan (1948, 1950, 1951, and 1953), and Jack Nicklaus (1962, 1967, 1972, and 1980).  The United States has produced 82 U. S. Open champions with the rest of the 34 winners divided among England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Argentina.

Fifty-one private and public courses have hosted the 116 U. S. Opens—Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania has hosted 9; Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey boasts 7; Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan can claim 6; while Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York; Merion Golf Club in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania; The Olympic Club in San Francisco, California; and Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California have all hosted 5 U. S. Opens.  The 117th edition will be played at Erin Hills, in Erin, Wisconsin, a public course.

Today, more than 9,000 golfers participate in sectional qualifiers across the world hoping to claim one of the available spots in the 156 player field.  Qualifiers are open to men and women, both professional and amateurs.  However, an amateur must have a USGA Handicap Index no higher than 1.4 to participate in one of the sectionals.

After its meager beginnings in Newport in 1895 as a secondary sporting event, the U. S. Open now plays on some of the most majestic courses in America and holds the attention of the sporting world for four days in June every year.  Theodore Havemeyer would certainly be amazed at how the acorn he planted over 100 years ago has grown into the mighty oak that it is today.

 

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