Forgotten Pioneers: Golfer John Shippen

photo credit Cronica golfFor many novice fans of the sport, there are many that believe that Tiger Woods put African Americans on the map when it came to the game of golf, but that’s so far from the truth. Charlie Sifford (the first African American to obtain a PGA tour card), Pete Brown (the first to win a PGA sanctioned event, “The Waco Turner Open”), Business Ron Townsend (the first black member of the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club), Lee Elder (the first African American to play to play in the masters and be named to the Ryder Cup team) all have played influential roles in the sport as African Americans. Calvin Peete was perhaps the most decorated of the group prior to Eldrick “Tiger” Woods; his first tournament win came in 1979 at the Greater Milwaukee Open and he later had 12 career PGA victories, but the gentleman that started it all was John Shippen; the first African American golfer to participate in the U.S. Open.

Initially being hired to clear heavy brush from a plot of land that eventually became the location of the Shinnecock Hills, one of the country’s first golf course, Shippen stayed on as a caddy and being a natural athlete was able to quickly pick up on nuances of the game. In 1896 at the age of 17 John Shippen, who was half African American and half Shinnecock Indian, was given the opportunity to participate in U.S. Open after having impressed the club members with his talent for the game. He was hired as an assistant and became a pro at the club and held many responsibilities one that included giving lessons to the all white members of the club. Shippen was only allowed to initially play because he registered as Indian rather than black, but shortly after the competing golfers protested but relented their argument after the USGA president Theodore Havermeyer stated that the tournament would be cancelled if Shippen did not participate.

Going into the 13th hole tied for second but an untimely score of 11, after having drove a shot onto a sandy road, ultimately eliminated him from winning contention Shippen still went on to finish tied for 5th which was a great achievement for someone so young. He was awarded a $10 prize for his talents.

Shippen would later go on to play in five more U.S Opens and eventually made a career in golf and served as the local professional for several clubs, the last being Shady Rest Golf Course in which he served from 1924-1960. During this period he also made and sold his own clubs which carried the name of “J.M. Shippen”

In 2009 the PGA of America posthumously granted Shippen membership into the prestigious club. Shippen passed on May 20th 1968.

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