100 Years Ago: The U.S. Open Stops for World War I
April 25, 2017 By Michael Trostel
Francis Ouimet was in the prime of his golf career when he served the country during World War I. (Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund)

Bob Jones holed a short putt on the 18th hole, capping off a round of 83 at Shawnee Country Club in Pennsylvania. He and his partner, Elaine Rosenthal, had lost their match to Perry Adair and Alexa Stirling three holes before, but Jones was not upset. The “Dixie Whiz Kids” had raised another $700 for the war effort.

It was Aug. 14, 1918, and there was no time to rest. They had another exhibition in Philadelphia in two days.

Jones was just 16 years old at the time, but he was already a well-known figure in the game, having reached the quarterfinal round of the 1916 U.S. Amateur at age 14, the youngest competitor in the field. The precocious talent from Atlanta would play in more than 50 exhibitions, showcasing his skills across the United States in events that raised $150,000 in support of the American Red Cross. The championship titles would come – in record numbers – but for now, Jones’ duty was to his country.

In April 1917, the United States entered World War I. Nearly 5 million Americans served in the country’s first great military conflict of the 20th century, many of them golfers. While some of the game’s biggest names, such as Jones and Stirling, supported the war effort through exhibition matches, others such as 1913 U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet and two-time U.S. Amateur winner Robert Gardner, served in the armed forces.

In addition to the game’s stars, thousands of young American golfers volunteered to serve in “The Great War,” from scratch golfers to weekend duffers, from courses across the nation. Their experiences included driving ambulances, fighting in Europe and working in Red Cross shelters.

The USGA embraced the national campaign to support the war effort. Championships were suspended in 1917 and 1918, and like other sports entities, the USGA worked in tandem with the American Red Cross to sponsor charity exhibitions, with proceeds assisting those who had been injured or displaced by the fighting.

Within the war’s profound impact on society, the game had its function. Golf served as a diversion, something that Americans relied on to entertain and distract them during an uncertain time. Golf and war forged an unlikely, yet powerful connection in the United States, demonstrated most visibly by the president’s affinity for the game.

America’s entry into World War I galvanized support for President Woodrow Wilson’s popular refrain to “make the world safe for democracy.” Wilson himself was a dedicated golfer who played approximately 1,500 rounds during his eight years in the White House. He often played when considering a difficult situation, such as after finding out about the sinking of the Lusitania, or immediately before delivering his message to Congress asking for a declaration of war in April of 1917.

The onset of World War I slowed, but did not halt, golf’s growth in the United States. Golf had transformed from a virtually unknown entity in the 1890s to one of the most popular sports in the country in just a quarter century. In 1917, it was estimated that there were 2,500 courses and more than 1 million golfers in America.

The question that faced the governing bodies of various sports was the role of athletics in wartime society. Shortly after Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, representatives from the national associations for golf, tennis, amateur and intercollegiate athletics agreed to cancel all championships for 1917. The general feeling was that conducting these events, whose purpose was to identify the best players, would be unfair given that many of the country’s top competitors were serving in the war.

Additionally, they concluded that while holding these championships might interfere with one’s duty to his country, general play would keep the spirit of athletics alive. In fact, they decided that exhibitions held for the purpose of raising funds for war relief should be encouraged.

The Red Cross was one of several organizations that utilized golf exhibitions to raise money for the war effort. (USGA Archives)

In 1917 and 1918, the USGA’s Liberty Tournaments raised more than $1 million and generated widespread publicity for war relief efforts. Newspapers carried the stories of prominent golfers such as Jones, Chick Evans and Walter Travis as they traveled the country playing matches in front of thousands of spectators.

In his 1927 biography, “Down the Fairway,” Jones reflected on his experiences with Rosenthal, Adair and Stirling, writing, “[We] had the time of our young lives, traveling all over the country, playing golf almost every day, and being acclaimed as fine young patriots ... And when I heard that our combined efforts had raised upwards of $150,000 for the Red Cross, I couldn’t comprehend it at all. It had been so much fun!”

Participation by prominent professionals, including major champions Walter Hagen and Jim Barnes, in wartime fundraising matches helped erode the common perception of professionals as second-class citizens. Before World War I, golf professionals were prohibited from using the facilities at America’s top courses. It was not until the 1920 U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, that golf professionals were allowed to enter the clubhouse of a host club. The efforts of these golfers reinforced the charitable initiatives of the game and enhanced the sport’s perception in the public consciousness.

The game was also viewed as a means of promoting physical fitness. Athletics were used as a method of training for young men preparing to enlist in the military, as well as a necessary requisite for those already in the service.

New York Times article from April 1917 suggested that golf was the best activity to ready the country for war: “The great benefit of golf is to bring businessmen out of their offices and fit them for marches and military maneuvers better than any other sport these men could take up.”

In 1918, the War Department endorsed the introduction of the game in military camps, having “conclusive evidence that golf provides a form of recreational activity which plays an important part in counteracting the tension of intensive training.” The USGA urged its Member Clubs and golfers around the country to assist the effort by donating golf clubs, balls and other equipment to the military.

Clubs too, did their part, waiving dues for members who enlisted in the armed services and opening their courses to convalescing servicemen. Many clubs also grew vegetables and raised farm animals on their grounds to help alleviate the food shortage. For example, “war gardening” at Winchester (Mass.) Country Club yielded more than 1,000 bushels of potatoes in 1917.

Additionally, the government asked the USGA to coordinate an effort to conserve coal by recommending that clubhouses be closed between December and April. This measure saved approximately 100,000 tons of coal in the winter of 1917-18 to help offset the increased demand brought about by the war.

When Germany signed an armistice with the Allied forces on Nov. 11, 1918, World War I was over. For 1½ years, Americans had endured the trials of conflict; now they were on the brink of dramatic growth and transformation. The aftermath of the war brought sweeping changes in technology, communication, diplomacy, medicine and culture.

On Jan. 24, 1919, the USGA’s Executive Committee voted to resume its championships, scheduling them at the same venues that had been planning to host them in 1917.

An increase in leisure time and a booming economy led to heightened popularity for the game. Participation surged, creating the need to construct hundreds of new courses. Grantland Rice wrote, “With the return of peace, golf not only came back, but returned with the most unprecedented rush and dash of all history.”

Bob Jones emerged as the game’s next hero, transitioning from a teenager eager to help the war effort to the greatest amateur in golf history. Jones would win 13 major championships in his career, culminating in his Grand Slam season of 1930. The excitement that Jones brought to the game, coupled with an era of economic prosperity in post-war America, launched a Golden Age of golf in the United States.

Michael Trostel is a senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.