NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT | Founded in the fall of 1701, Yale University is best known for its strong academics. But the Ivy League school has also been a sports powerhouse at times, with golf being among its most successful programs in its long and rich history.
It was 125 years ago, for example, that Yale golfers won the first ever national team golf championship, in a competition at the Ardsley Casino in Dobbs Ferry, New York, that also featured Columbia, Harvard and Princeton – and saw the Elis traveling to the tournament by stagecoach and train.
And with that triumph, the Elis began a run that saw them take that title, which was then overseen by National Interscholastic Golf Association (NIGA), an additional 19 times, from 1897 to 1936. Yale also captured one national championship, in 1943, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had started sponsoring the competition.
This year also marks the centennial anniversary of the last Eli to win the U.S. Amateur. He was Jess Sweetser, class of ’23, and by doing so, the St. Louis native became the fourth Eli ever to take that tournament. He thumped Bobby Jones, 8 and 7, in the semifinals at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, before besting Chick Evans in the final, 3 and 2.
Commemorating that milestone also serves as a reminder of how well Yale golfers once fared in the U.S. Amateur. In addition to having an Eli win that competition four times from 1897 through 1923, the school had a player make it to the finals on nine occasions during that stretch (including Sweetser, who lost to Max Marston in the last match in 1923 while trying to defend his title from the year before).
Remarkably, not one of those matches pitted golfers from Yale against each other, meaning that someone from the university lasted to the finals for 13 of those 25 years (with the championship not being played in 1917 and 1918 because of World War I).
In many ways, Yale’s early dominance in golf was not surprising, for New Haven was one of the first places in America where the royal and ancient game took hold. And students from that school were among the most ardent adopters of that sport.
“A Yale professor named Theodore Woolsey and local businessman, Justus Hotchkiss, were tasked by New Haven Lawn Club in the mid-1890s to bring what then was a very new game for Americans to the community,” said Colin Sheehan, a 1997 Yale graduate and the current coach of the men’s golf team. “As they began looking at how to manage that, Hotchkiss discovered that a young cabinet maker working in his home also happened to be a Scottish immigrant and knew golf quite well. Eventually, Hotchkiss and Woolsey asked the lad, whose name was Robert Pryde, to help locate land in the city for a course and then build nine holes. Construction started in the spring of 1895, and the track was finished by the start of classes in the fall.
“In addition to staying on as the greenskeeper after the course opened, Pryde gave lessons and built and repaired clubs,” added Sheehan, who has led his squad since 2008 and been named the Division 1 Northeast Coach of the Year on four occasions. “As for membership of what was called the New Haven Golf Club, it was made up mostly of Yale professors and undergraduates, with some local residents joining as well.”
“It was supposed to include teams from Harvard and Princeton as well. But the date for the tournament happened to fall on the day of the Harvard-Princeton football game, so only players from Yale and Columbia showed up.” – Colin Sheehan
With a student body that was very keen on sports and the competitions that could be staged around them, it didn’t take long for club members to begin arranging matches. Among the very first was an inter-club against the Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. Then in the fall of 1896, Yale staged its first intercollegiate competition, against Columbia University.
“It was supposed to include teams from Harvard and Princeton as well,” said Sheehan. “But the date for the tournament happened to fall on the day of the Harvard-Princeton football game, so only players from Yale and Columbia showed up.”
Sheehan chuckles when he thinks of who played for Yale that day. “One was John Reid Jr., the son of the founder of the St. Andrews Golf Club in Westchester County, New York, and one of the real pioneers of golf in America,” he said. “There were also two sons of Theodore Havemeyer, the first president of the USGA, co-founder of the Newport Country Club, where the first U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur Championships were played, and the person after whom the U.S. Amateur trophy was named.”
The original Havemeyer trophy (left), The New York Times on Oct. 24, 1896 and the crest of New Haven Golf Club. Photos: Courtesy Yale Athletics
The following year, in 1897, Yale won the first official intercollegiate championship at Ardsley, with Harvard and Princeton joining Yale and Columbia this time around.
Golf proved to be very popular among Yale students. They seemed to play as often in winters as they did in the warmer months, and that eventually compelled the club to add another nine holes. Soon after that expansion, university professors and New Haven businessmen pushed to create another golf club at a different location in town, largely because they felt they were being “crowded out” by the students.
Thus was born the New Haven Country Club, and the original golf club continued to operate until it relocated when lots on the land it had long rented for its course started to be sold for housing. This time, the club bought property for its layout, which was once again designed by Pryde and located in the neighboring town of Orange. Called Race Brook Country Club, it opened in 1913. And it was where Yale students played until the highly acclaimed Yale Golf Course that Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor designed and constructed officially came on line in the spring of 1926.
Somewhat fittingly, Yale won its 17th NIGA national championship that year. And the university took four more of those the following decade.
Wherever it played back in the day, the Yale golf team more often than not found a way to win.
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