Editor’s Note: The following story is republished with permission from the John Shippen Invitational, which aims to create opportunities in golf for Black men and women, ensure Shippen’s story is told and preserve his tremendous legacy. The Shippen, which invites the nation’s top Black amateur and professional golfers, is being played June 27-28 at Detroit Golf Club. The men’s winner will earn a spot in the PGA TOUR’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. Click here to learn more about the John Shippen Invitational.
John Matthew Shippen, Jr. (1879-1968) was born on December 5, 1879. His father, born into slavery in Virginia, became a free man following the Civil War. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended Howard University and received a degree in theology. When John Jr. was 9 years old, his family moved to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton on Long Island, New York, where his father was assigned as pastor.
As a teenager, Shippen worked with crews to help clear the land and build the original Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which was near the reservation. Willie Dunn, a Scottish golf professional who designed the final holes at Shinnecock Hills, taught some of the young workers how to caddie and play the game, including John Shippen and his friend, Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock Indian. Shippen had a natural talent for the game and became one of Dunn’s best students. By the age of 16, Shippen was working full-time as Dunn’s assistant, giving lessons to members, working as a caddy, repairing clubs, scorekeeping and assisting the maintenance crew.
Shinnecock Hills was selected to host the second U.S. Open in 1896. Club members (said to include the Rothchilds, the Mellons and the Carnegies) were so impressed with Shippen’s talent that they paid his and Bunn’s entry fees for the tournament. The week of the Open, other professional entrants (all foreign-born) sent a petition to USGA officials in which they objected to “colored boys meeting them on equal terms.” They held a meeting in protest on Thursday prior to the Open and threatened to withdraw if Shippen and Bunn were allowed to compete. USGA president Theodore Havemeyer is said to have declared, with conviction: “Gentlemen, you can leave or stay as you please. We are going to play this tournament tomorrow, with them – and with or without you.” All entrants showed up the next morning for play.
Shippen was tied for the lead after shooting 78 in the first round. In the second round, his tee shot on the par-4 13th hole landed in a sandy road, which led to an 11 on the hole. He finished the second round with an 81 for an overall score of 159 for the 36-hole tournament. The seven strokes he lost on the 13th hole was the difference between his final score and the winning 152 by James Foulis of Scotland.