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Sat, 12.05.1874

John M. Shippen, Jr., golf’s first Black professional

John Shippen Jr.

John Mathew Shippen, Jr., was born on this date in 1874. He was a Black golfer.

Born in Washington D.C., Shippen was the fourth of nine children of John, Sr., and Eliza Spotswood Shippen. His father, a Presbyterian minister, held a degree in theology from Howard University. One of his father’s early assignments was pastor of a church on the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Southampton, New York. Two years later when a group of Southampton residents bought 80 acres in the area to build a golf course, Shinnecock Hills opened for play in 1894 as a 12-hole golf course, which was expanded to 18 holes.

The owner, Scotsman Willie Dunn began to teach some of the local youth how to caddy and play golf. One of his star pupils was John Shippen, Jr. Under the watchful eye of Dunn, Shippen become a fine caddy and an accomplished golfer. He was made an assistant and he gave lessons to some of the club members. In addition, he served as a starter for tournaments, repaired clubs and helped out the maintenance crew, all this at the age of 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 and convinced one of his young friends, Oscar Bunn, a full-blooded Shinnecock Indian, to play also. This was a first for both races in the U.S. Open. It was not long before the nasty side of golf’s elite reared its ugly head. Several of the English and Scottish professionals confronted USGA president Theodore Havemeyer and threatened to withdraw if Shippen and Bunn were allowed to compete. Considering the times, Havemeyer’s response was one of a truly enlightened man. He informed the protesting professionals that the tournament would be played as scheduled, even if Shippen and Bunn were the only players. Everyone arrived for their assigned tee times when the Open started the next morning. Shippen quickly demonstrated his skill by carding a 78 in the first round, leaving him in a tie for first. The early Opens were contested over 36 holes and in the second round Shippen made the turn with a shot at the title.

Then came hole number 13 where he shot an 11, stopping any chance for the trophy. Still, he finished with an 81, for a 159 total, 5th place, and a $10 prize. Shippen said that hole haunted him his entire life. He just could not believe he took that many strokes on a hole he had played so many times.

He played in four more U.S. Opens but his best finish was in 1902 where he again finished fifth. In 1898 when Shippen’s father completed his tenure as pastor on the Shinnecock Reservation, he moved to Washington. Everyone in the family went with him except young Shippen who stayed in golf, his first love, for the remainder of his life.

He served as golf professional at several clubs with his last stop being the Shady Rest Golf Course in New Jersey in 1924, where he remained until he retired in 1960. He died in 1968 in a nursing home in Newark, N.J.

Shippen played in the U.S. Open six times, ending in 1913. No Black 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.

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