From caddie to pro: America's first home-grown golf pro, John Shippen Jr.

By Bob Denney
Published on
From caddie to pro: America's first home-grown golf pro, John Shippen Jr.

Born John Mathew Shippen Jr., on Dec. 5, 1879, in Long Island, New York, he became America’s first home-grown golf professional. Shippen was a pupil of Scotsman Willie Dunn, owner of Shinnecock Hills. Shippen became a star caddie, then an assistant to Dunn and moved into giving lessons to some of the club members.

Shippen served as a starter for tournaments, repaired clubs and assisted the maintenance crew, all at age 16.

In 1896, his golfing ability was so evident that members encouraged him to enter the second U. S. Open, scheduled to be played at Shinnecock. With the club’s support, Shippen entered the Open which led to protests from several of the English and Scottish professionals.

They confronted USGA President Theodore Havemeyer, threatening to withdraw if Shippen and his friend, Native American Oscar Bunn, were allowed to compete. Havemeyer informed the objectors that the tournament would be played as scheduled, even if Shippen and Bunn were the only players.

Shippen demonstrated his skill by posting a 78 in the first round, leaving him in a tie for the lead. Shippen’s title hopes ended on the 13th hole of the second round, when his wayward drive found a sandy road. He recorded an 11 on the hole and finished tied for sixth. He earned a $10 prize. Oscar Bunn finished in 21st place.

In 1900, Shippen gained a greenkeeper position at the Marine and Field Club in Brooklyn and competed in the 1900 U.S. Open, finishing tied for 25th. He served as golf professional at several clubs including the famed Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia with his last stop being the Shady Rest Golf Course in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, in 1924, where he remained until he retired in 1960.

“I wonder if I did the right thing when I quit school and went into golf," Shippen told Tuesday Magazine. "Maybe I should have kept going and gone to Yale like my brother, who's a teacher. I wonder until I look out the window and see that golf course. Then I realize how much enjoyment I've gotten out of the game, and I don't wonder anymore."

Shippen died in 1968, at age 88, in a nursing home in Newark, New Jersey. He competed in six U. S. Open, the last in 1913. No African American played in the Open again until Ted Rhodes in 1948. It wasn’t until 1995, that the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation was formed, honoring the memory of one of American golf’s true pioneers.

In 2011, the PGA of America bestowed PGA Membership posthumously upon Shippen, with his grandson, Hanno Shippen Smith of Washington, D.C., accepting.