Museum Moment: Trophy Recalls “Gilded Age” of Newport

Aug 11, 2011

By Rob Duca

The magnificent golf course exists now only in the imagination, its once-pristine fairways, greens and bunkers obscured by trees, buried beneath brush or bulldozed for private homes. The Ocean Links at Newport, R.I., lasted barely a decade, disappearing nearly 70 years ago. Vanishing into history along with the course was the Gold Mashie Tournament, which in its heyday was considered among the premier amateur events in the world.

The championship trophy on display at the USGA Museum was first awarded in 1923. Among the legendary golfers who journeyed to the nine-hole oceanfront course to compete for the miniature mashie made of solid gold were Francis Ouimet, a decade after he won the landmark 1913 U.S. Open, and fellow former U.S. Amateur champions Jesse Guilford, Jess Sweetser and Max Marston. The trophy reportedly cost $3,000, an extraordinary amount for its time. Also awarded was a silver mashie trophy to the runner-up, a gold ball for the lowest 36-hole score and a silver ball for the lowest 18-hole score.

Two years after its debut, Golf Illustrated labeled the 72-hole tournament “the greatest test of medal play of the year for the amateurs.”

The names of the champions were inscribed on a bronze plaque affixed to a Well of Fame, where players quenched their thirst at a working water fountain upon arriving at the seventh tee. The Well of Fame was designed by John Russell Pope, whose later work included the Jefferson Memorial and the building that now houses the USGA Museum. The 1926 unveiling of the Well, supposedly made of 1,100-year-old Italian carved stone, was covered by The New York Times, which reported, “Like other Greek and Roman cities, Newport now has a well of fame, the first in the country.” All that remains today of the well is its brick foundation.

The tournament and the golf course were the inspiration of Thomas Suffern Tailer Sr. A wealthy New Yorker who summered in Newport, Tailer was a member of the Newport Country Club and also, quite clearly, bitten by the golf bug. In 1919 he purchased 65 acres adjacent to the Newport C.C. and built his own nine-hole course.

He did not cut corners. He hired one of the country’s finest course designers, Charles Blair MacDonald, who brought along his protégé, Seth Raynor. At Ocean Links, they fashioned a seaside masterpiece, with nearly every hole featuring a water view and three greens resting on the ocean’s edge. The course was ready for play in less than two years.

It was immediately lauded. “The Ocean Links stands for the last word in golf architecture,” praised Golf Illustrated in 1923.

Tailer invited fellow Newport members to venture across the street to play his private layout. He then organized a tournament, provided his own trophy, supplied all the prizes and lured the finest amateur golfers of the day to Newport.

Measuring 3,034 yards and playing to a par of 36, the course replicated some of the world’s greatest holes, including No. 17, the Road Hole, and the par-3 11th at St. Andrews, and the Redan hole at North Berwick, the latter with Narragansett Bay as its backdrop.

Because the course had to be routed over four small parcels of land, it featured a series of short par-4 holes, some with curious designs. The seventh hole was only 286 yards, with a 30-foot mound approximately 180 yards from the tee. Called “Hill to Carry,” golfers saw a bunker against the far side of the mountain, then later the fairway, and finally the green.

The 460-yard, dogleg-left ninth hole was called a par-4 and a bogey-6. Hazards and a large tree protected the right side of the fairway.

“(Ocean Links) is possibly the greatest nine-hole course ever in the United States,” wrote Anthony Pioppi in his 2007 book “To The Nines,” which chronicles the role of nine-hole courses in golf history.

Philip Connell, 81, of Newport, caddied at Ocean Links in 1940-41. “I walked it many times, and oh my gosh, it was beautiful,” he said. “The third hole was near the ocean, and then you came back on the fourth near these beautiful stables. Then you went to the fifth, which led back to the ocean, and the sixth was also along the ocean. You could just picture what it must have been like in the 1920s.”

The Gold Mashie trophy was first captured by Guilford in a playoff over Sweetser. The following year, Sweetser suffered another frustrating defeat when Clark Corkran drained a 40-foot putt on the final hole for a one-stroke triumph.

Ouimet was victorious in 1925, thanks in large part to a 40-foot eagle putt on the par-5 eighth hole that a newspaper account said “accomplished the seemingly impossible.”

Guilford became the first player to win the Gold Mashie twice in 1926.

Sweetser, who later served on the Executive Committee of the USGA, finally prevailed in 1927, establishing a tournament record of 287. His final-round 69 propelled him to victory over Guilford, Ouimet and Eddie Driggs, also earning him the prize of a diamond-studded rabbit’s foot.

The final Gold Mashie Tournament was held in 1928 when George Von Elm, the only man to defeat Bob Jones over the previous four years, truly did appear to accomplish the impossible. In a dominating performance, he posted rounds of 65-67-71-69 for 16-under-par 272, winning by a remarkable 21 strokes. His final total shattered Sweetser’s tournament record by 15 strokes and was two shots lower than anyone had ever shot over 72 holes in competition.

Gushed the local Newport newspaper, “Sweeping across the Ocean Links for the third consecutive day with unabated fury, leaving a trail of wreckage unprecedented in the history of the annual gold mashie classic, the golden cyclone from the West whirled about, not content with the complete devastation it has brought forth, and rushed the sanctum of world’s records, to eclipse the former mark by two strokes.”

It was the final moment of glory in the course’s brief history. Tailer, 61, died of a heart attack at the Christmas dinner table in 1928 and his wife announced the cancellation of the tournament the following March. In October, she offered to sell Ocean Links to the Newport Country Club, which turned down the opportunity. The course fell into disrepair over the ensuing decade, even though Tailer had left money in a trust to maintain it.

“It was just dead. Overgrown. No members,” Connell remembers. “Nobody was there in the 1930s.”

Charles Young, the superintendent of the nearby Bailey’s Beach Club, entered the picture in 1940, purchasing Ocean Links from the Tailer family. After it was refurbished, the course opened to great fanfare that July, with the mayor of Newport and other dignitaries in attendance. But the optimism quickly faded.

“The only thing that kept it going was that dances were held in the clubhouse every Saturday night in the summer. But then it started going back downhill again in 1941,” Connell said. “When the war came, the U.S. Coast Artillery [a U.S. Army unit during the first half of World War II] took over the property and that was it. There wasn’t a great demand to save the course. Even the Newport Country Club had fallen on hard times because of the war.”

The once majestic layout is now the site of private homes and a corner of Brenton Point State Park. But remnants remain, as detailed in Pioppi’s book. In 2004, a fairway bunker from the eighth hole was discovered buried under dense brush and thick vines on land owned by Newport summer resident Dave Donatelli. In an eerie coincidence, Donatelli had named his home “Ocean Links” when he purchased it in 2000, oblivious to the existence of the golf course decades before.

“I looked out the window and saw the ocean. Then I looked over there and saw the [Newport] Country Club. So I just named it Ocean Links,” he told Pioppi.

Donatelli cleared away the brush and restored the bunker to pristine condition. And now, like the Gold Mashie trophy, the golf course on which it was contested also, in a faint way, lives on.

Rob Duca is a freelance writer in Plymouth, Mass. Contact him at rd0779@comcast.net.

Among the legendary golfers who journeyed to the nine-hole oceanfront course to compete for the miniature mashie made of solid gold were Francis Ouimet, a decade after he won the landmark 1913 U.S. Open, and fellow former U.S. Amateur champions Jesse Guilford, Jess Sweetser and Max Marston. The trophy reportedly cost $3,000, an extraordinary amount for its time. (USGA Museum)