In a twist of fate, the year 1896 held ironic significance for two legendary figures in golf history. Old Tom Morris, affectionately known as the “Grand Old Man of Golf,” made his final appearance in the 36th British Open Championship at Muirfield, Scotland, marking the end of a remarkable career that spanned four victories in the prestigious tournament, leaving an enduring legacy as one of golf’s pioneers. Meanwhile, in 1896 across the Atlantic, a young African American golfer named John Matthew Shippen, Jr. was poised to make his mark in the burgeoning world of American golf at the emerging U.S. Open Championships.
Forging a New Path
In 1896, the fledgling USGA organized the 2nd U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills in N.Y., and 17-year-old Shippen became the face of this historic event. Despite the racial discrimination he faced, Shippen’s talent and determination propelled him to compete in the tournament, making him the youngest participant in the U.S. Open Championship, the first American-born golf professional, and the first known Black golfer.
A Remarkable Finish
Against all odds, Shippen’s skills shone brightly as he secured a remarkable 5th place finish in the 2nd U.S. Open Championship, claiming a $10 prize. His success continued as he went on to participate in five more U.S. Opens from 1896 to 1913.
Sadly, due to prevailing racial prejudices, John Shippen’s pioneering contribution to the growth of golf in America went largely unrecognized for nearly a century. Meanwhile, the legacy of Tom Morris became deeply etched in the annals of golf history.
In the rich tapestry of golf history, Old Tom Morris’s pivotal role in the birth and early triumphs of The British Open, also known as the Open Championship, remains widely recognized. As we anticipate the 151st edition of this storied tournament in July 2023, it serves as a reminder of the legacy he helped shape.
Similarly, just a month prior, in June 2023, the U.S. Open, America’s oldest and most prestigious golf championship, concluded its 123rd event, marking another milestone in the sport’s history. However, amidst the excitement and recognition, it is disheartening to consider that the current champion, who claimed a remarkable $3.6 million prize, is likely unaware of the contributions of his pioneering predecessor, John Shippen. Over a century earlier, Shippen became the first American-born golfer to compete in the U.S. Open, claiming a modest $10 prize.
Regrettably, John Shippen’s groundbreaking contributions to the growth of golf in America remained largely unrecognized for over a century, overshadowed by prevailing racial prejudices, in stark contrast to the legacy of Tom Morris.
As the golfing world eagerly awaits the crowning of the 151st British Open Champion, marking the culmination of golf’s final Major, and as we reflect on the conclusion of the recent 123rd U.S. Open Championship, the glaring disparity in recognition between Tom Morris and John Shippen becomes unmistakable. Their journeys serve as a poignant reminder of the untold stories and remarkable contributions made by athletes like Shippen. Born in 1879, as the son of a formerly enslaved father, Shippen’s unwavering determination and exceptional talent in the sport of golf paved the way for the champions we admire today.