By Ron Driscoll
Museum Moment: Exhibition Matches of 1903 Set Stage For International Competition
Oct 20, 2011
In early 1903, the USGA extended an invitation to the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society to play a series of matches in the United States. Over a five-week span in late summer 1903, a team of British players widely reported to be the first team of foreign golfers to play in the U.S., competed in nearly a dozen matches against a collection of regional and national U.S. squads.
Although the British squad dominated the competition, the U.S. team recorded a victory in the final team match and in a closing individual competition that bolstered the home side’s confidence. The matches also helped lay the groundwork for some international matches that are still contested today.
And yet, one might wonder whether the British squad succumbed to something of a war of attrition. At the outset of their visit, despite delays in their Atlantic crossing that left little time to adapt, their 11-man side earned raves for their skilled play. After five weeks of travel from the Northeast to Chicago and back again in matches against a series of fresh opponents, the British roster had shrunk to seven able-bodied players for the final competition, an individual match-play event at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt.
The final team match, a 5-4 victory for the U.S., had the added subplot of an advancement in golf technology, the Haskell ball, that was widely trumpeted by its manufacturer as having helped the home side edge the visitors.
The British team departed Liverpool for Boston several days late, owing to the liner Mayflower running aground in the River Mersey. The group was greeted stateside by a contingent headed by USGA President G. Herbert Windeler, and almost immediately took a train to Hamilton, Mass., and the Myopia Hunt Club, where the first match was slated for the following day.
A newspaper account reported that “only two or three of its members were seasick, and that but for a brief time, so that all land in capital physical condition and look forward with pleasurable anticipations to a delightful tour through the United States.”
The reporter also noted the visitors’ evaluation of the host course, Myopia Hunt, which had by then hosted two of its eventual four U.S. Opens. “The Englishmen had anticipated finding American courses much inferior to those on their ‘right little, tight little island’ and … the Myopia links was an agreeable surprise.”
The British won the initial match against members of the U.S. Intercollegiate Golf Association over two days at Myopia, 9-7. The scores were 3-2, Oxford and Cambridge, in the five four-ball matches and 6-5 in the 11 two-ball or singles matches, with several hundred spectators attending. “The English collegians labored under the disadvantage of having been on land scarcely more than 24 hours after a sea voyage of 10 days,” one account read. “When they have got their land legs under them they will prove a pretty difficult proposition for the American team to solve.”
On the following day, the visitors battled a Massachusetts team at Essex County Club to an 8-8 draw. The English side took a 3-2 edge in the morning four-ball, but the “surprisingly strong” Massachusetts team came back to square the match in the afternoon singles, as the British, “feeling the fatigue of their somewhat strenuous four days on the links, tired perceptibly toward the end.”
When the Britons moved West, they found their collective game, defeating a team representing the Western Golf Association, 11-5, at the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill. The headline read, “Britons Show Brilliant Golf,” and the story went on to say, “The Britishers were in fine fettle for the contest, and whatever adverse opinions might have been formed from the opening games in the east were soon dissipated.”
In particular, the visitors’ Norman F. Hunter, of North Berwick, defeated American standout H. Chandler Egan, 4 and 3, in a two-ball match, smashing the course record in the process. One report said, “A gallery of 300 … saw the best golf that has ever been played over an American course either by a professional or an amateur.” Hunter’s score of 71 bettered Harry Vardon’s record by three, and was six strokes better than the previous amateur mark held by Charles Blair Macdonald and H. Chandler Egan. Hunter was called “invincible in every department of the game.” Egan, who shot a very respectable score of 76, would go on to win the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1904 and 1905.
As one Chicago columnist noted of the schooling at the hands of the English, “Occasionally we are forced to have our youthful enthusiasm curbed and for the moment acknowledge to ourselves that at certain very great intervals old Albion can teach us a bit.”
A team of Chicago-area golfers fell next, 7-4, at the Glen View Club, leading one writer to opine, “There is a lot to be learned about the game of golf even by our best experts.” Still, it was noted, “The guests were good fellows. They liked the course, they liked the club, they liked Chicago… It was one of the pleasantest international contests ever waged in these parts.”
Differences in play were noted: “As they went along, it was noticed that nearly every one of the visitors chopped up an occasional divot with his iron, which is considered bad form by Americans generally.” Another writer said, “One could follow them by the holes they left on the course. … While all of home players were out, as usual, in their shirtsleeves, the Englishmen without exception, stuck to the English fashion and wore their coats.”
At a farewell dinner at the Glen View Club before leaving Chicago, USGA President Windeler “voiced the hope that a cup to be known as ‘The Johnny Low Perpetual Golf Challenge Trophy’ would be put up for the golfing enthusiasts of this and other countries to compete for.” Low, as the captain of the Oxford and Cambridge team, was thus the first man to head a foreign squad on U.S. soil. The report went on to say, “It is considered likely that President Windeler will have little difficulty in securing a cup which would hold a similar position in the golfing world to that occupied by the America’s Cup in yachting circles and the Davis trophy in the tennis world.”
The USGA Museum’s collection includes three medals from “The First International Match” commemorating the contest between the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society and an “All-American” squad captained by Walter J. Travis, played on Sept. 7, 1903, at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y. It also contains a trophy for the invitational match-play event contested at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt., from Sept. 15-17, 1903, which was won by Eben M. Byers.
The victories for the British team continued upon their return to the Northeast: at Philadelphia, an 11-0 thumping of a local contingent; at Garden City Golf Club, an 8-7 victory over a team of Metropolitan Golf Association players; an 8-3 win over an American team at Shinnecock Hills; and a 10-6 triumph over a New Jersey Golf Association contingent at Baltusrol, accompanied by the headline “Visiting Golfers Teach a Lesson.”
The lone setback for the English squad was a 5-4 defeat – with a format of nine two-ball matches played at 36 holes – at the hands of Walter Travis’ “All-American” U.S. team at Nassau Country Club on Long Island. The U.S. squad staged a furious rally in the afternoon, since they trailed in six matches and only led in two after the morning 18 holes. One report said, “The wildest enthusiasm prevailed when the result became known, as the home team had been 4 down in the forenoon half.”
Travis, who had won his third U.S. Amateur title only days earlier at Nassau, extended a 3-up lead after the morning 18 over Low, the British captain, to earn a 7-and-6 victory, turning the tables on Low, who had defeated him in the Garden City matches.
The deciding point was secured by Eben Byers, who had finished runner-up at the U.S. Amateur to Travis. Byers was 2-down to Mansfield Hunter of the visiting side at the break, and Hunter’s 10-foot putt on the 34th hole left the men all square, but Byers won the final two holes to break the 4-4 logjam and secure the U.S. victory.
The biggest surprise of the day was George T. Brokaw of the U.S. overcoming a 5-hole deficit after 18 to Britain’s J.T. Bramston, squaring the match on the 36th hole and prevailing on the 38th. This victory was trumpeted by the manufacturer of the Haskell ball, a wound rubber-cored ball which had been adopted by many accomplished players. Bramston, who continued to use the solid gutta-percha ball, was unable to reach the green on the deciding 500-yard par 5 hole in three shots, while Brokaw, a shorter hitter, easily reached the green in three and won the match.
An ensuing advertisement for the Haskell ball noted that “a number of Englishmen made pilgrimage to this country to play golf, and they played excellent golf, too. Perhaps they were aided by the Haskell ball. … One Rip Van Winkle pilgrim insisted on playing with another kind of ball – and although a very eminent player, he got beat at Myopia, Manchester, Chicago, Garden City, Shinnecock Hills and Nassau. The moral is, to keep up with the procession you must use a Haskell.”
Another ad headlined, “History Repeats Itself!” recalled the battles of 1776 and 1812, noting that this time the battle was waged with golf balls in a “cousinly” fashion. “It is quite fitting,” the ad said, “that there should also be unity of sentiment – both Britons and Americans joining hands in playing with Haskells, with but one exception – an Englishman, who by the way, got beaten at both Myopia and Manchester.”
The final competition of the trip was an individual match-play event at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt. Although four of the Englishmen had departed for home by this time, three of the four semifinalists were from the Oxford and Cambridge side, including Norman Hunter, who had taken out Travis in the third round. However, Byers of the U.S. prevailed, defeating Mansfield Hunter in 23 holes in the semifinal round, and Norman Hunter, 1 up, in the final match.
Byers’ performance was called “sufficient evidence, coupled with his having been runner-up in the last two amateur championships, of his consistently strong golf.”
The genuine sportsmanship and competitiveness of the 1903 international matches laid the groundwork for the continuation of such competitions, which ultimately resulted in the Walker Cup, Curtis Cup and Ryder Cup matches that have become a staple of the golf calendar for decades.
Ron Driscoll is manager of editorial services for USGA Communications. Contact him at email@example.com.
The USGA Museum’s collection includes three medals from “The First International Match” commemorating the contest between the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society and an “All-American” squad captained by Walter J. Travis, played on Sept. 7, 1903, at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y. It also contains a trophy (above) for the invitational match-play event contested at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt., from Sept. 15-17, 1903, which was won by Eben M. Byers. (USGA Museum)
In early 1903, the USGA extended an invitation to the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society to play a series of matches in the United States. Although the British squad dominated the competition, the U.S. team recorded a victory in the final team match that bolstered the home side’s confidence. Led by Walter Travis (above), who had won his third U.S. Amateur title only days earlier at Nassau Country Club on Long Island, the U.S. squad defeated the English squad, 5-4. (USGA Museum)
USGA President G. Herbert Windeler “voiced the hope that a cup to be known as ‘The Johnny Low Perpetual Golf Challenge Trophy’ would be put up for the golfing enthusiasts of this and other countries to compete for.” Low, as the captain of the Oxford and Cambridge team, was thus the first man to head a foreign squad on U.S. soil. The report went on to say, “It is considered likely that President Windeler will have little difficulty in securing a cup which would hold a similar position in the golfing world to that occupied by the America’s Cup in yachting circles and the Davis trophy in the tennis world.” (USGA Museum)