Museum Moment: Curtis Sisters’ Championship Legacy

Apr 15, 2010

By David Shefter, USGA

At the turn of the 20th century, most golf in this country, especially on the amateur level, was played by the social elite. Prominent families dotted membership rolls at private clubs, which produced the likes of three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Beatrix Hoyt from Shinnecock Hills on the eastern end of Long Island and Genevieve Hecker of Essex County Club outside of Boston.

Hecker, in fact, became the first woman in the United States to author a golf book, “Golf For Women,” published in 1904.

But two other Essex members would also help the game progress – Harriot and Margaret Curtis. The sisters were among 10 children who grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. Their father, Greely S. Curtis, was a colonel during the American Civil War before becoming a successful businessman.

Yet it was the girls’ cousin, Laurence Curtis, who would have a more profound impact on their athletic success. Laurence Curtis served as the USGA’s second president (1897-98) and encouraged Harriot to take up golf. Margaret, two years younger, soon followed that path.

They combined to win four U.S. Women’s Amateur titles – three by Margaret – and later spurred the creation of the biennial Curtis Cup Match, which will take place this June at Essex County Club for a second time. Margaret was also a fine tennis player and in 1908 claimed the U.S. Open doubles championship with Evelyn Sears, becoming the only woman to simultaneously hold U.S. golf and tennis titles.

The USGA Museum at Golf House prominently displays clubs from the Curtis sisters’ Women’s Amateur titles (Harriot in 1906 and Margaret in 1907, 1911 and 1912) as well as other memorabilia from their period of prominence in the game.

Margaret’s athletic acumen was on display at an early age when at 13 she qualified for match play at the 1897 U.S. Women’s Amateur at her home club.

Three years later at Shinnecock Hills, she upended Hoyt, who was bidding for a fourth title in five years, in a 20-hole semifinal match at the Women’s Amateur, only to fall to Frances Griscom the next day in the championship match. Margaret had another opportunity to win at the 1905 Women’s Amateur, but Pauline Mackay beat her, 1 up, in the final at Morris County Golf Club in Convent Station, N.J.

By then, Margaret was considered one of the most powerful players in the women’s game, often winning long-drive contests with wallops in excess of 185 yards. Some had labeled her as the girl who couldn’t win the big one.

And then in 1906 at Brae Burn Country Club in West Newton, Mass., Harriot Curtis claimed the title with a 2-and-1 triumph over Mary B. Adams. It had been four years since a Boston-area club hosted the Women’s Amateur and golf was starting to produce female players who played with flair and style. The championship course was 800 yards longer than The Country Club’s yardage had played in 1902. Champions Mackay, Hecker, Griscom and Georgianna Bishop all demonstrated a power game.

Harriot and Margaret Curtis were part of this new breed of competitor.

Harriot breezed through her first three matches after qualifying with a respectable 94. But against Anita Phipps of Springfield, Mass., in the semifinals, Harriot watched a 3-up lead evaporate, only to hole a crucial 20-foot putt at the 16th hole on the way to a 3-and-1 decision.

Some 2,000 spectators flocked to see the championship match against Adams. According to magazine and newspaper accounts, Harriot’s performance was outstanding. “Her long game was far and sure … and her putting was very good.”

Harriot took the lead for good at the fifth hole, built the advantage to 3 up with wins at the ninth and 10th holes and cruised home from there.

Margaret, determined to win her own championship, went to Midlothian Country Club in Blue Island, Ill., the following year with Harriot. And when the two found their way into the championship match, it became the second final between sisters that year. May Hezlet had defeated her sister, Florence, in May for the British title, 2 and 1.

The 1907 U.S. final would not be that close. While Margaret and Harriot were 1-2 in qualifying – with scores of 95 and 96, respectively – the championship was completely one-sided. In fact, Margaret needed just 66 holes to win five matches, including a 7-and-6 rout of her older sister. Margaret won the first six holes and Harriot’s lone win came at the 10th.

One magazine account said, “Margaret was simply playing a game that was not to be denied.”

Harriot never got close to another title, while Margaret earned back-to-back championships in 1911-12.

At Baltusrol Golf Club in 1911, the final featured two of the game’s most powerful players – Margaret Curtis and Lillian Hyde from the Metropolitan New York area. To get there, though, Margaret had to upend two-time defending champion Dorothy Campbell in the semifinals, 4 and 3. In 1909, Campbell had become the first woman to claim the U.S. and British titles in the same year.

But in the championship, Margaret Curtis showed dexterity along with a powerful punch, while Hyde struggled mightily with her short game. Over the 15 holes of the final, Hyde took 37 putts to Margaret’s 31 in a 5-and-3 defeat.

The next year at Essex County Club, Curtis not only claimed the qualifying medal for a sixth time, but also successfully defended her championship, becoming the fourth player to win back-to-back Women’s Amateur crowns (Hoyt, Hecker and Campbell were the other three).

What’s remarkable about the feat is Margaret did it with a badly injured hand, the result of an accident that occurred the morning of her semifinal match against Katherine Mellus of Los Angeles. While opening the French doors to her bedroom, Margaret pushed her right hand through the glass, causing a long and deep cut on the fleshy part of the hand.

Five stitches were required to seal the wound and both her little and third finger were cut. Margaret immediately became concerned that her doctor would not give his consent to continue in the championship. He used cocaine to deaden the pain and despite a later-than-scheduled start, Margaret valiantly competed, demonstrating the heart and spirit of a champion.

She told Mellus during the match that she wasn’t bothered by the pain, even though spots of red could be seen on her hand after making shots. Nevertheless, Curtis won the match, 1 up, earning a match against Nonna Barlow of Merion Golf Club for the championship.

Still bandaged from the accident, Curtis again benefited from her opponent’s poor putting. Barlow registered three putts on eight of the 16 greens in a 3-and-2 loss to the defending champion.

Two years later, World War I broke out in Europe and Margaret Curtis left competitive golf, joining the Red Cross and helping with relief efforts throughout the continent. Harriot, too, became heavily involved in philanthropic activities.

In 1932 the sisters donated the Curtis Cup for the biennial competition and Margaret Curtis would win the 1958 Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the USGA in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. She died seven years later, at the age of 82, nine years before sister Harriot.

Yet each left a championship legacy that lives on for future generations of players.

David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.

The USGA Museum at Golf House prominently displays clubs from the Curtis sisters’ Women’s Amateur titles (Harriot in 1906 and Margaret in 1907, 1911 and 1912) as well as other memorabilia from their period of prominence in the game. (USGA Museum)