The Unlikely Birthplace of the Tour, By Kevin Casey

Photo: Ocean County Hunt and Country Club (courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center)

The PGA Tour in 2019/2020 didn’t happen quite as planned due to Covid-19 considerations. Had the Tour rolled out the way its leaders intended, the best golfers on the planet would have played fifty events around the world for $430,500,000 in prize money. That’s an average tournament purse of $8,610,000 and an average first place payout of $1,549,800.

As global as it is in its reach and financial influence, the Tour’s origins are much more pedestrian. In fact, by today’s standards, they are a bit peculiar.

It all started on New Year’s Day, 1898, in Lakewood, New Jersey. That’s right, January 1, 1898, in New Jersey.

The weather was typical for a Jersey January: “Light snow in morning, followed by fair, cold wave, north to northwest gales.” Not the ideal forecast for a golf tournament, but good enough for ten, long-john-clad golf professionals hailing from a region stretching from Long Island to upstate New York to Philadelphia to meet on the first tee at Lakewood’s Ocean County Hunt and Country Club. They went at it for two frigid, wind-blown days, all for a $150 purse.

Beyond the presence of frozen turf and the absence of GORE-TEX and handwarmers, this event was remarkable for several reasons. For one, by the late 1800’s, Lakewood was developing a reputation – counterintuitive as it may seem today – as a winter tourist destination, one of golf’s first popular off-season gathering places. In those days, golfers visiting Lakewood had their choice of two resort courses whose prime season lasted from October to June.

This idea of a winter golf resort reflects the axis of America’s golf in 1898 relative to New York City and Philadelphia. Trains were the only form of mass land transportation in those days. Lakewood was not quite a day’s train ride away from these two golf centers, and golfers could hop on the train and get in some same-day play in slightly better weather than they were suffering through at home.

A better-known resort competitor for the winter golf crowd 60 miles to the south, Atlantic City, welcomed a train from Philadelphia every Saturday through the winter, laden with golfers to take on Atlantic City Country Club and Seaview Golf Club.

However, Lakewood had a differentiator – a Gilded Age social register, impressive and growing with Rockefellers, Goulds, Hamiltons and others of that era’s “one percent.” The social set was loved spending time in Lakewood, filling the nongolf hours with polo, tennis, hunting and just plain socializing. J. D. Rockefeller, widely considered the wealthiest American of all time, expressed a love for the pine scents that wafted through every breeze and spent months on end in the community. Clearly, money was flowing freely through Lakewood.

Ocean County H&CC was one of the town’s first resorts. The club was organized in December, 1895 and became one of the first 40 allied members of the USGA. By 1897, it sported a 9-hole course designed by Horace Rawlins, winner of the first U.S. Open in 1895.

However, the club didn’t last long. Its property was bought by Rockefeller in 1903. Presumably in honor of his property’s origin, Rockefeller named his latest manor “Golf House.”

The First Polar Bear Tournament?

In keeping with the hype leading up to the New Year’s Day event, The New York Times described the event as “one of golfing giants, to each of whom was granted an unknown degree of skill and each of whom had their partisans.” The partisans – today, we’d call them gallery – were fired up by the pre-tournament publicity and estimated to number about one hundred; an impressive count considering the frigid temperatures that surely afflicted the quality of play.

With a century’s worth of hindsight, we would not describe any of the competitors as golfing “giants.” Among the ten pros who competed valiantly in harsh conditions over two days was the course’s designer and former U.S. Open champ Rawlins, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club’s John Shippen and 29-year-old Val Fitzjohn, who was at the time the professional at Otsego Golf Club, near Cooperstown, NY.

Fitzjohn was a Scottish émigré who had learned the game caddying and helping his father tend to North Berwick Golf Club and, in Musselburgh, to the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Val and his youngest brother Ed came to America in 1890, enticed by its almost faddish growth of golf. By 1898, Val was nearing the peak of what we would today call a journeyman pro’s career, highlighted by a T-2 in the 1899 U.S. Open at Baltimore Country Club.

Over those frigid two days in Ocean County, Val Fitzjohn shot 92-88, well enough ahead of most of the field but only good enough for a tie with brother Ed. In what must have been a tough decision to go back out into the deep freeze, Val bested Ed on the first playoff hole and pocketed the $75 first prize.

The Importance of This Competition

As prosperous as the Tour is today, it’s hard to imagine a more modest beginning. Nonetheless, this event laid the foundation for the massive industry the PGA Tour has become.

Before Lakewood, the only American tournament staged for golf professionals to compete for a purse was the USGA’s U.S. Open Championship. The Ocean County tournament predated the third such event – the Western Golf Association’s Western Open – by a year. These three tournaments became the foundational competitions in what would be eventually referred to as the PGA Tour.

Golf historian Al Barkow explained in his book, The Golden Era of Golf, that “The Lakewood tournament was staged by the hoteliers as a way to entertain their current patrons and, by word of mouth and newspaper reports, attract new customers.” The objective of the Ocean County event was not as straightforward as the USGA’s and WGA’s goal: to identify the best players. The reason for this event was to entertain guests, rent out Lakewood’s hotel rooms and sell Ocean County real estate.

As young as golf was in America, wily marketeers saw an opportunity to draw attention to Lakewood and its still-young tourist industry by putting on a professional golf tournament. In the process, they focused on cultivating what has become a central part of today’s PGA Tour: the resort business.

Within a couple of years, golf resorts further south in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Florida were opening everywhere, and the most aggressive properties picked up on Lakewood’s idea of using professional golf as a way to attract interest. As Barkow put it, “Eventually, chambers of commerce around the country began putting on tournaments for pros as a way to get publicity for their towns and cities and attract people to live, work and play there.”

This little tournament contested in the middle of a frigid New Jersey winter, said Barkow, “was, and remains, the foundation of professional golf tours.” In a lingo understood by pros like Fitzjohn back then and Phil Mickelson today, professional golf is, as Barkow said, “a great way to drum up business, and not just golf business.”

This story is an excerpt from a book written by Kevin Casey about the history of golf in New Jersey. His book is expected to be available in pro shops and bookstores by April 1, 2021.

 

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