It is ironic, in a sport that prides itself on honesty and integrity, that the origins of championship golf in the United States can be traced to a controversy. Two controversies, actually.
The 312 players gathering for the centennial U.S. Amateur take the game's rules for granted. When play begins Tuesday at Newport and Wanumetonomy Country Clubs, every player will know what conduct is expected.That was not necessarily the case on Oct. 1, 1895, when a new organization called the United States Golf Association held its first championship event of any kind at Newport.
One of the prime reasons 32 players met at Newport was to settle disputes.
Twice the previous year, once at Newport and once at St. Andrew's in Yonkers, N.Y., attempts had been made to determine the best player in the new game in this country. Each time, the event ended in controversy.
In both cases, Charles Blair Macdonald, from the Chicago Golf Club, argued that the results should not be recorded as a national championship.
Macdonald had lost by one stroke, 188-189 over 36 holes, to W.G. Lawrence of Newport in the September 1894 event at Newport. Macdonald had been penalized two strokes in that event when he moved his ball away from a wall that crossed one of the fairways.
No real golf course should have a stone wall crossing a fairway, Macdonald maintained. What's more, he added, the proper way to determine a championship is at match play, not stroke play.
So an event was held at St. Andrew's, N.Y., the next month. It was, as Macdonald wanted, contested at match play. Macdonald reached the final. But he lost the last hole, and the match, 1 up, to L.B. Stoddart of the home course.
Not fair. Not a real national championship, Macdonald insisted when it was over.
It should not count, he said, because the tournament was a St. Andrew's-sponsored and organized event. No attempt had been made to open it to all challengers, as should be the case to determine a national champion.
Macdonald's view carried some weight. It was through his promotion that the Chicago Golf Club had been built in 1893, the first 18-hole course in the U.S. Macdonald had learned to play the game as a student at St. Andrew's University in Scotland from 1872-74.
He was wealthy and outgoing, a physically imposing man with a large mustache. He was considered by some, including himself, as the foremost authority on the sport in the United States.
In part because of his arguments, and also because of the growth of the game, Henry O. Tallmadge, secretary of the St. Andrew's club, called for a meeting in New York City shortly after the disputed tournament at his course. On Dec. 22, 1894, a session was held to discuss forming a national association to oversee the game and hold true national championships.
Tallmadge invited representatives from five clubs, St. Andrew's, Chicago, Newport, The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and Shinnecock Hills in New York to attend. Tallmadge hosted the gathering at the exclusive Calumet Club in New York City, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street.
For one night, the nine men, two from each club except Newport, which was represented only by Theodore Havemeyer, forgot the problems of the day.
Never mind the labor unrest because so many were out of work as the country fought its way out of a depression. Never mind the differences some of the wealthy men had with President Grover Cleveland and his fight to keep the country on the gold standard.
Golf was growing as a sport. It was a pastime as enjoyable as the new music rage, called ragtime. It did not figure to have the impact of electric lighting that was becoming available for many, but the sport did need rules and a governing organization.
So it was that the meeting ended in the formation of the U.S. Golf Association. Havemeyer, the wealthy sugar baron, was elected president.
The first national championships were set up for the following fall at Havemeyer's course along the Atlantic Ocean, the one just up the street from the mansions of the Astors and Vanderbilt and Morgan families, among other Newport socialites.
Two events would be held, it was decided: an Amateur and an Open.
The events originally were scheduled for September, but were moved back a month to avoid competition with the America's Cup yacht races held in Newport.
Havemeyer donated $1,000 for a silver trophy to be awarded to the victor of the Amateur championship. The Amateur was the far more important event.
Thirty-two players took part in the Amateur, which was match play. The event was held over three days, Oct. 1-3. When it was over, the Open was held in one day, over 36 holes. Only 11 players took part in that event, several of whom had acted as caddies for the competitors in the Amateur.
Horace Rawlins, a young assistant professional at Newport, won the Open, thanks to a then-astoundingly low score of 82 in the second round, the low of the tournament by seven strokes. Rawlings won $200. But he never received $50 of the winnings. That went toward the purchase of a medal signifying his victory.
The first Amateur? Well, that did not turn out to be much of a contest. The man who had done all the complaining, C.B. Macdonald, was satisfied everything was done properly this time. He won the championship. One hundred years later, his 12-and-11 victory over Charles Sands of St. Andrew's in the title match remains the largest margin of victory in the Amateur championship.