A hundred years ago this month, in November 1917, the U.S. Golf Association wanted to announce its success in raising money for the war-challenged American Red Cross, but major daily newspapers were busy reporting on the European war and America's participation.
On Nov. 7-8 in Russia, for example, the Bolsheviks overthrew the czarist government, an act that later led to an armistice between Germany and Russia, and, eventually, a peace treaty between the two countries. (The November dates were on the Gregorian calendar, the current standard, but on the Russian – Julian calendar at the time, the dates were Oct. 25-26.)
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On the Nov. 8, a reporter at the New York Times finally took the time to listen to a USGA spokesman, and the next day the paper carried an article titled, "Golfers Give Huge Sum to Red Cross." The USGA proudly declared that 485 of its member golf clubs had raised $72,000 for the Red Cross the previous summer.
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It was noteworthy that sanctioning bodies in both amateur and professional golf had terminated most regular tournaments out of respect for the millions of draftees in the U.S. military and the civilian war effort. In place of the competitions, the USGA and the fledgling Professional Golfers' Association staged exhibition matches to raise money for the Red Cross, whose volunteers and staff helped minister to the sick and wounded in Europe.
The interest among amateur and professional golfers in raising money to support the war – the "Red Cross matches," as the players and the press called them – not only succeeded but also created three coincident and enduring phenomena.
First, the matches brought attention to two emerging golf icons – teenaged amateur Bobby Jones and professional Walter Hagen. Both became stars of the Golden Age of American Sports in the 1920s.
Second, the fundraising changed the public perception of golf pros from that of hired help to sports heroes who were finally welcomed through the front door of country clubs.
Last, the practice of charging admission to the matches became the financial foundation for later American and international golf tournaments and tours.
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GOLFERS DO THEIR BIT
The United States had joined Great Britain and France in the war in April 1917. Most sports leagues and organizations, including golf, cut back on regular competition, with major league baseball one of the notable exceptions until the late summer of 1918. Golf writer H. B. Martin suggested a plan to fill the void left by canceled golf tournaments – organize matches to raise money for charities engaged in war relief, and, as later described by Martin, a scheme that enabled "golfers who were not on their way to France could do their bit."
The PGA, which had been founded in 1916, joined with amateur golf associations led by USGA and the Chicago-based Western Golf Association to begin exhibitions in the summer of 1917. Remarkably, some teenagers joined the adults in the fundraising efforts
After 15-year-old Atlanta native Jones won the Southern Amateur Championship on June 9, sports equipment company Wright & Ditson began scheduling Red Cross matches for Jones and three other young people. They included two additional Atlantans – 18-year-old Perry Adair and 19-year-old Alexa Stirling, the 1916 U.S. Women's Amateur champion. Joining them was a Chicago player, 20-year old Elaine Rosenthal, the 1915 women's' Western Amateur champion.
Jones and Adair, for example, played a match at Flossmoor Country Club in Chicago on June 17 against two local amateur big shots – the reigning U.S. Open and Amateur champ, Chick Evans, and Bob Gardner, a former U.S. Amateur winner. The "Northerners" won the four-ball match 4 and 2.
The USGA canceled the 1917 U.S. Open and, in its place, conducted the Patriotic Open at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club in Chicago. Many of the top amateurs chose not to play, but the pros were there in force, including the winner Jock Hutchison.
Instead of the top prize money, Hutchison received a gold medal from the Red Cross in return for the $5,000 the event organizers donated to the charity. This was the first tournament for which the USGA charged admission, a practice that later became standard in supplying prize money for pro golfers in tournaments and underwriting amateur-event expenses.
On the Fourth of July, nearly 500 golf clubs around the country held one-day "Liberty Tournaments," which raised the $72,000 the USGA announced the following November. The PGA, not to be outdone, staged the biggest fundraiser, in terms of the field size, of the season – the War Relief International Matches, July 23-27. The five-day event was staged sequentially on four golf clubs near New York City – Englewood, Baltusrol and Garden City in nearby New Jersey, and Siwanoy Golf Club in Bronxville. Players, both men and women, made up four teams – American or "Homebred" pros, English pros, Scottish pros, and amateurs.
The Homebreds won the tournament, trailed by the Scotch, English and amateurs. The latter team included Jones, Adair and the iconic sportswriter Grantland Rice, who let the boys bunk at his Manhattan townhouse. On each of the four courses, women volunteers passed the hat throughout the galleries, and the PGA later announced the event had raised more than $4,000.
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Along with Chick Evans, another legendary amateur, Francis Ouimet, was a frequent Red Cross match participant. He had stunned the golf world as a 20-year-old by winning the 1913 U.S. over two vaunted British players – Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. He enlisted in the army in October 1917, and the service arranged for him to keep playing Red Cross matches through the end of the war. Within weeks, Ouimet and another private, golf pro Frank McNamara, played in a fundraiser near their base, Camp Devens in Worcester County, Mass. They lost, but the proceeds went to the camp's athletic fund.
Hagen, one of America's pioneer golf professionals, was a crowd favorite during Red Cross matches in 1917. "Sir Walter" or "the Haig," as he was known, dressed stylishly on the course and exuded confidence. He had won the 1914 U.S. Open, the first of his 11 major championships, and, in 1922, became the first American-born player to win the Open Championship in Great Britain. In 1916, Hagen had joined 34 other pros to form the PGA and later enjoyed enormous success in the PGA's Ryder Cup matches as a player and captain.
YEAR TWO – 1918
In April 1918, American golf authorities announced there would be no national or regional championships. In their place, prominent amateur and professional players would participate in a season-long series of events, with the overall winner taking home a Red Cross championship medal. By July, the press noted that Evans had played in 40 of these matches. Ouimet, now a commissioned officer, had been equally active on the course and in writing accounts of the matches for newspapers subscribing to the Bell Syndicate.
The "Dixie Kids" – Jones, Adair and Stirling, plus their Chicago friend Rosenthal, hit the Red Cross tour in the late spring after Bobby's high school graduation. In June, they played mixed four ball matches in Chicago and Kansas City, raising $2,000 at each stop. Their Red Cross tour ended in New England in mid-August.
At Evans' request, Jones briefly rejoined Chick for a series of Red Cross matches beginning Sept. 14 that took them to New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Boston and Philadelphia. They played four ball exhibitions against both amateurs and pros. After the final match on Sept. 22, Jones returned to Atlanta and started his first year at Georgia Tech. Several weeks later, the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Jones later wrote in his memoir, "Down the Fairway," of the Red Cross matches with Adair, Stirling and Rosenthal: "I had a world of fun. And when I heard that our combined efforts, mixed foursomes and all, had raised $150,000 for the Red Cross, I couldn't comprehend it at all."
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Author Richard Moss in his book, "The Kingdom of American Golf," reported that the Western Golf Association had raised over $300,000 during the war. Hagen biographer Tom Clavin has written that the charity golf matches, 1916-1918, had raised a total of $1.5 million for the Red Cross. Hagen, in his own memoir, wrote the PGA alone raised $1.25 million.
"I was proud that $125,000 was the direct result of my own efforts," he added. Whatever the precise total, the matches had a profound effect on golf.
Author Herb Graffis, in his landmark 1975 history of the PGA, assessed the significance of charging spectators to enter the golf course to watch a fund-raising exhibition. "Of course nobody imagined it then ... the American Red Cross golf matches were significant as the start of the tournament circuit in the United States that loosened the worldwide flow of money to the boys who played golf for cash."
Similarly, golf writer Al Barkow noted the impact of raising money for the Red Cross on the future professional golf. "This was the first golf played for charity, which later would become a cornerstone of the PGA Tour."
The Tour is a nonprofit organization that donates net proceeds to charity, but only after considerable expenses, and many of the Tour's tournaments are conducted by nonprofit organizations. (Some have criticized the Tour for its clever tax dodge.)
The commendable fundraising by American golf pros helped them to ascend beyond the working class to sports stars. Esteemed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind described the transition from the perspective of the public: "They came to know the star players as respectable citizens, and to re-evaluate the professional in particular."
Concurrently, the robust gate income at Red Cross matches convinced some of the pros to think they might make a living by traveling about the country and playing exhibitions and tournaments. Hagen was at the head of the movement.
He used the publicity generated by his matches to become the first professional golfer in 1919 and distinguished himself from a "golf professional," a person who gives lessons, fixes clubs, and sells golf shirts. The Haig broke the model and created the parallel universes of club and touring pros.
One of Hagen's most challenging opponents in the 1920s, Gene Sarazen, credited Hagen with spawning the PGA Tour, today's gazillion-dollar traveling circus.
"All the professionals who have a chance to go after the big money today should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen every time they stretch a check between their fingers," Sarazen wrote in his memoir. "It was Walter who made professional golf what it is."
(Michael K. Bohn is the author, among other books, of "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.")
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