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Shinnecock Hills and John Shippen are indelibly linked to the origins of golf in America

Shinnecock Hills, the home course of African American golf pioneer John Shippen is also one of the founding member courses of the USGA.

Shinnecock Hills
Courtesy Shinnecock Hills

Shinnecock Hills has maintained a reputation for being one of the sternest tests in the rota of U.S. Open courses over its 130-year history.

What is less known about the Long Island course that was a founding member of the USGA and home to the first 18-hole facility on the eastern seaboard is its legacy as the home of the first American-born golf professional.

John Matthew Shippen moved to Long Island as a child. One of his first jobs was to help designer Willie Davis erect the course in 1891. Shippen, and others from the Shinnecock reservation manually constructed a course that featured bunkers, ravines, ditches and other obstacles.

Shippen’s familiarity with the course is one of the reasons he and Oscar Bunn integrated the U.S. open in 1896.

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He was only 16 at the time, but more than held his own against grown men, and eventual winner, James Foulis. Shippen was tied for the lead following the first round of play, but was relegated to a fifth-place finish, seven shots behind Foulis.

The final nine holes of the 36-hole tournament doomed Shippen to being a footnote in the record book for decades. Shippen carded an 11 on the par-4 13th hole en route to a cumulative score of 159.

Shinnecock Hills | John Shippen

The USGA awarded the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the Walker Cup to Shinnecock Hills in the years following Shippen’s inspired performance, but it wasn’t until 1986 that it brought its showpiece back to its roots. And that was the time that Shippen’s legacy began to see a resurgence.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a story headlined “Daughter tells tale of 1st black golfer to lead U.S. Open.”

Nine years later after the Pittsburgh paper revived Shippen’s legacy, the U.S. Open was back at Shinnecock Hills. Once again there was buzz around another Black teenager whose prodigious talent was taking golf by storm. Tiger Woods would eventually win the U.S. Open. Shippen’s first, and best, chance to win the tournament came in his history making debut.

When the USGA announced that it would hold the U.S. Open at Shinnecock for the fifth time in 2018, club president Robert A. Murphy Jr. called the course a timeless facility.

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“Shinnecock Hills is very proud of our common heritage with the USGA dating back to the origins of golf in America, and we are equally excited about our strong future together,” Murphy said in a statement. “We believe that our course offers a unique venue for championship golf that stands the test of any era. …”

That was just as true for Woods at the centennial U.S. Open as it was for Shippen at the second.

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