Celebrating the Centennial Open: The 1st Champion, Peter O'Hara
As part of the celebration of the upcoming 100th NJSGA Open Championship, the first in a series of articles looks at the first champion, Ireland native Peter O'Hara. (Article and photo by Golf Illustrated)
When Peter O’Hara arrived at Knickerbocker Country Club on Wednesday, May 18, 1921 to compete in the inaugural New Jersey State Golf Association Open Championship, he was already recognized as one of America’s top golfers.
Born Peter O’Hare in Greenore, Ireland, in 1885, O’Hara was the oldest of three brothers who were devoted to golf. Peter, as well as the middle brother, Jimmy, and youngest brother, Pat, were professionals at Greenore Golf Club. Peter was appointed professional at Greenore at age 17 in 1886, where he stayed until 1907 when he left to design a new golf course. He remained in Ireland until 1915 when he emigrated to the United States – where he would begin a very successful playing and teaching career.
Arrival in the United States
Upon arriving in the United States in 1915, O’Hara took the position of teaching professional at the Pittsburgh Field Club in Pennsylvania, and also made his debut in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol. He failed to make the cut that year, finishing 85-79-164, but his results would improve. Two years later O’Hara finished fifth in the 1917 Western Open, behind champion Jim Barnes and runner-up Walter Hagan, both future World Golf Hall of Famers.
O’Hara remained at Pittsburgh Field Club until 1918, when he moved to New Jersey and took over as head professional at the original Haworth Country Club, which has since changed names and is now known as the White Beeches Golf and Country Club.
In November of 1918, O’Hara, while playing out of Haworth, shot 76 to win a one-day event which was a fund drive for the United War Work Campaign during World War I. His teaching ability was also on full display at Haworth, where he helped shape the playing style of a young lady named Maureen Orcutt. “He just told me to step up and slug the ball,” she is quoted as saying in a New York Times article in 1969. Orcutt, an NJSGA Hall of Famer, is a six-time NJSGA Women’s Amateur Champion, two-time U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur champion and two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur runner-up.
It was O’Hara’s skill that contributed to his hiring at Shackamaxon late in 1918. According to an article on the Greenore (Ireland) Golf Club web site, “In an exhibition match at Shackamaxon Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains, N.J., towards the end of 1918, (O’Hara) so impressed the club president that he was offered the position of club professional to replace Cyril Walker.”
O’Hara began his tenure at Shackamaxon on March 1, 1919, and was joined one year later by his brother, Pat, who won the 1914 Irish Open and emigrated from Ireland in 1920. That year, the O’Hara brothers defeated the legendary duo of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a Four-Ball match at Shackamaxon by a surprising – and decisive – 6 and 5 margin.
For O’Hara, 1920 would be the year during which he would establish himself on the national competitive circuit. In mid-August, O’Hara finished tied for 27th in the U.S. Open at the Inverness Club. One week later, in the PGA Championship at Flossmoor Country Club outside Chicago, O’Hara enjoyed his greatest success to date. He defeated Pat Doyle, 1-up, and Alex Cunningham, 5 and 4, in the first two rounds of match play. Next, he faced George McLean in the quarterfinal round, where he was defeated in 38 holes.
His strong 1920 campaign set the stage for a breakthrough year in 1921, when O’Hara would claim his biggest victory to date – the inaugural New Jersey State Golf Association Open Championship.
The 1st NJSGA Open Championship
The NJSGA was founded 1900 with the main objective of creating tournaments exclusively for New Jersey golfers. The first tournament, the New Jersey State Amateur Championship, was held in September, 1900. In 1919, the NJSGA added its second championship, the NJSGA Junior Championship, and two years later, the NJSGA Open Championship was conducted for the first time on May 18, 1921.
That first Open, a 36-hole, one-day affair, attracted the best professionals and amateurs from around the state to the Knickerbocker Country Club in Tenafly. Other than O’Hara, and runner-up Frank Dyer (an amateur from Upper Montclair), the rest of the field found difficulty with the Donald Ross-designed course.
O’Hara shot the low round of 75 in the morning, one shot better than Isaac Mackie of Canoe Brook, and two shots better than his Shackamaxon predecessor Cyril Walker (now of Englewood), Pat Doyle of Deal, and Joe Mitchell of Montclair. Dyer, the eventual runner-up, was three shots back of the lead after round one, the lone golfer who shot 78 in the morning – including a seven on the 11th hole.
A steady hand by O’Hara kept him away from danger in the second round, and most likely sealed his triumph with a birdie on the par-4, 417-yard 13th hole. According to a New York Times article: “Two yawning ditches guard the hole, and O’Hara saw his chances glimmering when his tee shot landed in the second ditch. The ball, however, stopped a scant two inches from the water. He pitched out to within a few feet of the pin, sinking his putt for a birdie 3.”
O’Hara would finish with a 75-73-148, three shots clear of Dyer (78-73-151). Walker was third at 77-77-154, Doyle fourth at 77-78-155 and Mitchell fifth at 77-79-156. Mackie, after his 76 in the morning, finished at 76-87-163 for 12th place. The first NJSGA Open Champion O’Hara was awarded $200 for his victory and presented a gold medal by the PGA of America.
The New York Times stated: “O’Hara played consistent golf all the way today. His driving was at all times straight down the course and his iron shots true and accurate. He experienced a little hard luck, however, on a few of his putts which flirted the with cup but failed to drop.”
Said a report in Golf Illustrated: “The players found the Knickerbocker course much harder than they had suspected, but they were thoroughly appreciative of its splendid condition. Everyone connected with the tournament was extremely enthusiastic over its success and there is no doubt that the New Jersey Golf Association made a wise move in staging this championship.”
The Champion Moves On
During the winter of 1921-1922, O’Hara left Shackamaxon and took a job at the newly opened Long Vue Country Club outside Pittsburgh. The irony was that the 1922 NJSGA Open was to be played at Shackamaxon and O’Hara would not be on hand to defend his championship, which was won by Martin O’Loughlin of Plainfield.
O’Hara continued to play well after his days in New Jersey. That year (1922) he tied for first place at 147 with George Bowden of Cincinnati in the Houston Professional Tournament. Legends Jim Barnes and Gene Sarazen were also in the field.
In 1923, O’Hara, then the head professional at Mount Washington C.C. in New Hampshire, set a course record of 66 at Bretton Woods (in New Hampshire), bettering by two strokes a record previously held by 1913 U.S. Open champion Frances Ouimet. In the 1924 U.S. Open, O’Hara had his best finish – a tie for seventh place – which stood as the record for the highest finish by an Irish professional golfer for over 75 years (Padraig Harrington tied for fifth in 2000). Later, he tied for eighth at the 1929 U.S. Open, tied for 11th in the 1930 U.S Open, and tied for 36th in the 1931 U.S. Open. Other wins for O’Hara include the 1931 Western Pennsylvania Open (at the familiar Pittsburgh Field Club) and the Bedford Open in 1934.
O’Hara retired from Green Oaks Golf and Country Club (formerly Westmoreland Golf and Country Club) in Pennsylvania in 1948. He enjoyed a long retirement, as he lived to the age of 91 before passing away on April 11, 1977 in Florida. His legacy remains in New Jersey; both he and his wife are interred in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Hackensack, not far the site of his victory at Knickerbocker in the very first NJSGA Open.