“PRO” FILES – TOURING PROFESSIONAL JOHN SHIPPEN

The names of Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen are well-known to most golf fans as being among the first American professional golfers.  However, they weren’t the first. That honor belongs to John Matthew Shippen Jr., for whom the championship trophy for the United States Professional Hickory Championship is named.

Shippen was born in 1879 in Washington, DC, and his father moved the family to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation on Long Island, New York, in 1888. Shippen was introduced to the game in 1891 by Willie Dunn, who was in charge of designing and constructing the Shinnecock Hills course. Shippen was put to work clearing heavy brush.  After the course opened, Shippen stayed on as a caddie, developed an acumen for the game, and Dunn soon hired him as the assistant.

In 1896, the US Open came to Shinnecock Hills, and Shippen entered the championship. A number of other competitors had a problem with this, because Shippen was not like them – he was African-American. Theodore Havermeyer, president of the USGA, informed the other competitors that the event would go on, with or without them. They relented, and Shippen’s appearance meant he was the first American-born professional to enter the US Open.

Shippen was tied for first place with a 78 after the first-round of the two-round championship, but an unfortunate 11 on the 13th hole during the final round eliminated him from contention, although he finished fifth. Shippen would go on to play in four more US Opens.

He continued in the golf business with several more jobs, although he found the going tough, especially since the PGA had its infamous “Caucasians-only” clause in effect. He eventually settled in at Shady Rest Golf & Country Club in New Jersey, where he remained until 1960. He died in 1968 at the age of 89, and is buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey.

 

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