On Nov. 6, 1896, the Bulldogs of Yale University defeated the Lions of Columbia University, 35 holes won to zero, at what is now known as Ardsley Country Club in Irvington, New York.
It’s the origin point of college golf, the first event in what would become thousands.
To the modern-day Yale and Columbia programs, being a part of history is such a big deal that they are going to recreate it. On Friday, Oct. 22, the two schools will travel to the oldest private golf club in the country, Columbia’s home course Saint Andrews Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., for a seven-on-seven match using the same “holes-won” format that has become nearly extinct in the college game.
This event is largely thanks to Yale coach Colin Sheehan, who was a player on the Bulldog team when the 100th anniversary came and went without fanfare in 1996. Sheehan was a history major at Yale and spends ample time each winter digging through the archives of Yale golf lore, which includes 21 national championships from the late 19th century through 1943.
When Sheehan recognized that the inaugural match would be 125 years ago this fall, he reached out to Columbia coach Rich Mueller in hopes of creating an event. Ardsley Country Club was not available due to a scheduling conflict, but having the two teams come together was far more important than the location.
“Let’s celebrate the occasion, we own it,” Sheehan said. “We were the first two teams that showed up … it’s a celebration of Ivy League golf, which is amateur golf at its finest.”
In 2021, college golf is televised multiple times per year – the NCAA Championships, next week’s East Lake Cup in Atlanta and the Western Intercollegiate as Pasatiempo are shown off to a national audience – and it is the clear home of elite amateur players before they turn pro. Some teams fly around in private jets with their school’s logo adorned on the plane’s empennage, and more power to those that can do it. Program facilities are so universally respected that kids from all over the world are convinced to play in the U.S., sometimes for powerhouse schools but sometimes for little-known Division III schools, too.
That is now. But it all had to start somewhere.
Back in 1896, Harvard and Penn were invited to the inaugural match but found it too difficult to field a team. Princeton did have a team, and old articles suggest the squad could really play. Unfortunately, the Tigers wanted to attend their school’s football game against Harvard rather than compete in the event.
That left Yale and Columbia to each put their best six players against each other. A New York Times recap of the event was published two days after the match and painted a picture of a well-attended event with emotionally invested spectators. A subsequent Times article says, “In a wonderfully short span of time, this ancient Scottish game has leaped into the front rank of America’s outdoor amusements, and if any sport-loving individual still entertains doubts as to the solid hold already acquired by golf, let him visit some of the clubs within the vicinity of New York on any legal holiday or Saturday afternoon and he will find the club courses teeming with players, ladies enjoying the invigorating exercise as well as men.”
The game was taking off, and Yale was at the center of it. Curiously, it all came to a head because of a chance meeting between a Scottish immigrant who was an apprentice to a cabinetmaker and a man charged with starting golf in New Haven, Connecticut, where Yale resides.
“They were playing matches in the winter on a golf course that was brand new, and they were playing guttas. They weren’t even playing the wound ball yet. But there they are. Think about how much you have to love golf to do that.” – Colin Sheehan
Robert Pryde immigrated to America at the age of 22 and by 1895, he was earning a living building cabinets. Pryde had made and repaired golf clubs since his teenage days back in Scotland, but he wasn’t using that expertise in America — until he went to build a cherry wardrobe for a retired New Haven businessman named Justus Hotchkiss.
Hotchkiss and Yale professor Theodore Woolsey had been assigned the task of starting golf in New Haven, but they didn’t know where to start. When Pryde walked into Hotchkiss’ home, his accent gave away his Scottish heritage and Hotchkiss had to ask whether Pryde knew anything about golf.
Less than a day later, Pryde had directed Hotchkiss and Woolsey to “suitable ground for a nine-hole course.” When the cherry cabinet was finished, Pryde laid out and built New Haven Golf Club. It was ready for play in the fall of 1895.
Pryde wrote that Yale undergraduates “took to golf as easily as a duck to water,” thus setting the stage for college golf to come into existence.
“It just began a streak of enthusiasm for the game,” Sheehan said. “Hundreds of kids were lining up to play. They were playing matches in the winter on a golf course that was brand new, and they were playing guttas. They weren’t even playing the wound ball yet. But there they are. Think about how much you have to love golf to do that.”
Pryde would go on to be an unofficial coach for the team while also being the greenskeeper, club repair man and instructor at the course. He also constructed other layouts in the area, such as New Haven Country Club and Racebrook Country Club, and he drummed up support for the venerable Yale Golf Club designed in the mid-1920’s by C.B. MacDonald and Seth Raynor.
Nobody had more of an influence on Yale golf’s dominance than Pryde, who is unofficially credited with 15 of their 21 national championships. From 1896 to 1923, a Yale student or graduate was in the final match of the U.S. Amateur 12 times.
Yale formed the backbone of college golf in the early days, but now college golf represents something entirely different and the Ivy League represents something much different, too. And that’s why this match that honors yesteryear is worth recognizing.
These players saw their 2020-21 season wiped out as Ivy League athletics were called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown University cut both their men’s and women’s teams in May 2020. Dartmouth did the same in July of 2020 before reinstating the programs earlier this year.
That stings because Ivy League golf is real amateur golf. Not that all college golf is a breeding ground for turning pro, or that there is anything wrong with that, but it takes a special student-athlete to play golf at one of these institutions.
“I don’t think the Ivy League ever gets the respect it deserves for how competitive our teams are. And our kids truly love the game … they are dedicated to the amateur ideal, and that is something that really differentiates us with many other Division I schools.” – Rich Mueller
Coaching requires the constant balance of not pushing kids too hard during exam periods. Ivy League teams generally like to play tournaments on the weekends to help academically, but the majority of college tournaments are played on Mondays and Tuesdays because that is when courses are most available. Missing class is a big deal, and the kids want to be in class.
You can’t coach or play unless you absolutely love the game. There is just no room for anyone else.
“To play at Yale and Columbia, it costs $82,000 a year,” Sheehan said. “The through line for all of my players over the years is that they care deeply, they are thoughtful, they are great time managers and they all want to compete.”
Mueller echoed the same sentiment and also expressed hope that this match would shine a light on both the competitiveness and passion of Ivy League golf. He mentioned that only one Ivy Leaguer has ever reached the PGA Tour, and that was former Yale student and current Duke University assistant coach Bob Heintz — but Mueller believes the talent level is rising and that will change soon.
“I don’t think the Ivy League ever gets the respect it deserves for how competitive our teams are,” Mueller said before mentioning that Harvard recently shot 18-under over two days to beat a Columbia squad that had won its first tournament of the fall. “And our kids truly love the game … they are dedicated to the amateur ideal, and that is something that really differentiates us with many other Division I schools.”
It’s hard for a young man to grasp the concept of 125 years separating their teams from the first college golf shot ever struck, but when Global Golf Post talked to representatives from both squads, they showed a true appreciation for this moment.
They will be playing with modern-day equipment, but there will be some fun elements beyond the format. Stymies are in play and when each match is announced, the names of those who played against each other in the 1896 match will be announced as well. Every match will go all 18 holes, even if a player is losing. The player who is trailing can still win holes for his school.
“We are more excited for this event than any other event we’ve played in the past or will play in the future,” said Columbia sophomore Alvin Kwak.
Yale captain Teddy Zinsner took last year off because of the pandemic but decided to come back for his senior season. He has been sifting through the many articles Sheehan has shared with the team.
“Any time you can take part in something with this much history, it’s pretty cool,” Zinsner said. “As soon as I found out we were playing, I shared it with all of my family and friends. Everyone has come back saying, ‘Wow, that is so cool.’”
It’s not just a celebration of college golf, it’s a celebration of Ivy League golf.
The score will be a little closer this time and the appreciation for the moment will be exceptional, even if they aren’t wearing plus-fours and swinging hickories.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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