John Shippen Jr.: African-American pioneer; first American-born golf professional

John Shippen Jr.
Courtesy of The PGA of America
John Shippen Jr. was introduced to golf as a teenager at Shinnecock Hills, and finished sixth in the 1896 U.S. Open there.
By
Bob Denney
The PGA of America

Series: PGA

Published: Monday, February 02, 2015 | 8:52 a.m.

As American golf popularity skyrocketed at the start of the 20th century, Scottish immigrant professionals like Willie Dunn found their career footing. Dunn was a combination superb player, golf instructor and owner of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, built near the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Southampton, New York.

One of Dunn’s best young students was John Matthew Shippen Jr., one of nine children of Eliza and John Shippen Sr., an African-American Presbyterian minister who had moved his family to the reservation in 1888 from Washington, D.C.

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At age 15, young Shippen was introduced to golf. A year later, he was employed as a caddie at Shinnecock Hills, where he also elevated his career and in so doing became recognized as the first American-born golf professional. At Shinnecock Hills, he was a teacher, club repairman and served on the maintenance crew.  In 1896, a 17-year-old Shippen, encouraged by his club, entered the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Joining him was his friend, Oscar Bunn, a Native American who was not employed as a professional.

Many Scottish and English golfers signed a petition, threatening to withdraw from the Open if Shippen and Bunn remained in the field. Theodore Havemeyer, the President of the United States Golf Association (USGA), declared that the U.S. Open would be played, even if Shippen and Bunn were the only entrants.  

The Open, then a one-day, 36-hole event, began with a field of 35 players. Shippen posted a 78 to share first place after the opening round. However, his title hopes ended at the 13th hole in the final round, when his drive strayed right along a sandy road and he eventually made an 11. He finished tied for sixth in that U.S. Open, earning a $10 prize.  

Shippen competed in four other U.S. Opens (1899, 1900, ’02, ’13). He was fifth in 1902.

Shippen continued working at Shinnecock Hills and on his game.  By 1924 he retired from competition and in 1931 became the head professional and groundskeeper at Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. It was the first African-American golf and country club in the United States. Shippen remained on staff there until 1964.

Shippen was the only African-American golfer to compete in the U.S. Open until Ted Rhodes in 1948.  While a professional golfer, he was barred from membership in the Professional Golfers' Association of America due to a “Caucasian-only” membership clause, which was installed in 1934 and eradicated in 1961.

Shippen died in 1968, in a Newark, New Jersey, nursing home at age 89. In 2009, the PGA of America bestowed posthumous membership upon Shippen, along with fellow African-American pioneers Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller. The PGA also granted posthumous honorary membership to Joe Louis Barrow Sr. – better known as Joe Louis – the legendary world heavyweight boxing champion who became an advocate for diversity in golf.