125 Years After the First College Golf Match, a Rematch

On a fall day in 1896, a group of Yale students, caught up in a new sports craze called golf, traveled from their New Haven, Conn., campus by train and stagecoach to a course north of New York City — one of the few clubs in the country at the time — to take on some chaps from Columbia.

In what became the first intercollegiate match in the country, Yale swept Columbia, with all six golfers winning their matches.

Earlier this month, after 125 years, Columbia finally got its rematch.

“This is an extraordinary day for our game — the collegiate game was born 125 years ago,” Columbia’s current coach, Rich Mueller, said to the two teams gathered on the practice green of the Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Yes, the first college golf match was played between two Ivy League teams that have rarely cracked the top 100 Division I schools in decades.

Of course, these were different times in college sports. For decades after the first intercollegiate football game was played by Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, Ivy League football teams would remain athletic powerhouses making national headlines.

Similarly, in college golf, the 1896 match signaled the beginning of Ivy dominance. The following year, the first college national championships were held, and nearly every team and individual title through 1930 was won by an Ivy League school — especially Yale, whose 21 national titles are still the most of any college.

The original article in The New York Times on Nov. 8, 1896.Credit…The New York Times

This was long before big warm-weather state schools like Houston (16 national titles) and Oklahoma (11) enjoyed dominant eras after the N.C.A.A. took over the national championships in 1939 and became feeders for the P.G.A. Tour.

The Yale men’s golf coach, Colin Sheehan, who loves his golf history, recently came across two New York Times articles from 1896 covering the Yale-Columbia match, which he promptly mentioned to Mueller.

The coaches arranged a commemorative replaying of this match that became the crucible of intercollegiate golf, to get their players fired up about college golf history and traditions, and to make for some spirited competition.

The original match was played on Nov. 6, 1896, at the Ardsley Casino, which had opened the previous year as one of the country’s first 18-hole courses and whose members included prominent financiers such as Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. Pierpont Morgan.

The club, now called the Ardsley Country Club, in nearby Dobbs Ferry, was not available to host the match this fall. And because of logistical problems with the original date, the coaches scheduled the match for Oct. 22 at Saint Andrew’s, which is Columbia’s home course and has its own place in golf history.

Athletes from Columbia University practice golf indoors in 1932.Credit…Columbia University Archives

Founded in 1888, the club claims to be the oldest continually operating golf club in the country (though several clubs make claims to various versions of this title) and is one of the five clubs that in 1894 founded the United States Golf Association.

In fact, Columbia and Yale have had many rematches over the years, with Yale winning most, but both teams now largely play a tournament-only schedule instead of head-to-head matches.

So they agreed to play this one as an unofficial scrimmage. Still, the importance of this momentous challenge match seemed to register with the players as they pulled up to the club not in stagecoaches but in sleek passenger vans.

They filed out dressed in bright golf shirts, baseball hats and khakis or shorts — a far cry from their 1896 counterparts, who wore knickers, monogrammed blazers, tweed caps, dress shirts and bow ties.

The 1896 teams played their best six players in a holes-won format, with the victor being the team with the most total holes won by all players. The coaches decided to keep that now-obscure format for the rematch and to play their full starting lineups of seven players each.

Columbia defeated Yale in the rematch.Credit…Misha Friedman for The New York Times

An official on the first tee — Mueller’s son, Kurt, 9 — announced each twosome along with the names of the 1896 golfers who played in the respective group.

In one group, William Sung, 18, a Columbia freshman, was paired against Yale’s Darren Lin, 21, a senior.

Their counterparts 125 years ago were Yale’s Roderick Terry Jr. and Columbia’s G.C. Pier. Terry beat his opponent 7-0 and carded an 88, the day’s lowest score. It was also an impressive feat, given that Terry and his teammates were hitting rubberlike gutta percha balls with handmade wooden-shafted clubs that, instead of numbers, bore names like brassie, niblick, spoon and cleek.

As for Lin and Sung, both grew up in California competing in junior golf tournaments and honing their swings with the help of top teaching pros, video aids and various learning tools. On the course, they use range finders that give exact yardage to a target.

Yale’s 1907 varsity golf team.Credit…Yale University Library

“It’s cool to see how far golf has come. It’s really surreal how important the technology has become,” said Sung, whose driver had a head made of aerospace titanium.

In 1896, golf was just beginning to take root in the United States and had only recently “found its way among the colleges,” as a preview of the match in The Times noted.

A second Times article, recapping the match, detailed how Yale blanked the fledgling Columbia squad 35-0. The victorious Yale players each received a “First Intercollegiate Golf Meet” medal.

The Yale and Columbia University golf teams posed for a group photo.Credit…Misha Friedman for The New York Times

Columbia’s defeat was no shock. Located in Manhattan, Columbia had no home course and had only pulled a team together weeks before the match. Its star player, mentioned in an 1896 Columbia Spectator article as L. Tappin, was “off his game” and lost by four holes as his team was “beaten by a large score but still did not disgrace themselves.”

“They were basically bringing a knife to a gunfight,” Mueller said. “You can imagine how quiet that stagecoach ride back was for Columbia.”

So this time, the Columbia men were playing “with the weight of history on their shoulders,” he said.

“We got such a big butt-kicking the first time around,” he said. “Some of my guys said they were never more nervous than on that first tee.”

The superior Yale team grew out of an explosion in golf popularity in New Haven coupled with the 1895 opening of the New Haven Golf Club near campus.

Yale had dozens of golfers on its team, and the starting six was stocked with skilled players from prominent golf families, including John Reid Jr. and F.C. Havemeyer, whose fathers helped found the U.S.G.A.

A yearbook photograph of Columbia’s golf club in 1905.Credit…Columbia University Archives

Reid Jr. won his match against Columbia by 10 holes and would win the first Yale individual national title in 1898. He was the son of John Reid, a Scottish immigrant who helped found Saint Andrew’s in 1888 as a three-hole track in a cow pasture in Yonkers.

The elder Reid’s old golf clubs are displayed in the John Reid Room at Saint Andrew’s in the original clubhouse where members like Andrew Carnegie and Stanford White relaxed, said Rick Powers, a member of the club’s historical committee.

Ivy League athletic dominance, including golf, eventually faded as big state colleges outside of the Northeast grew in stature and the Ivies prioritized academics over athletics.

“I joke that everyone on the team is here because Conrad Ray didn’t make them an offer,” Sheehan said of the men’s golf coach at Stanford, the golf powerhouse where Tiger Woods played.

Golfers from Yale and Columbia at the Ardsley Country Club in Westchester.Credit…Misha Friedman for The New York Times

Yale is still a dominant force in the Ivies, and despite its unfamiliarity with Saint Andrew’s, it had its moments in the recent match. There was Ben Carpenter’s tricky up-and-down from just off the green to win the 16th hole and Lin’s back nine comeback that included a chip-in on 18 to edge out Sung, 1-0.

But in the end, the day belonged to Columbia, whose 15-2 victory rubbed some balm on that 125-year-old spanking.

Seeing his team rise to the historic moment, Mueller said later, was “by far the proudest moment in my 22 years of coaching.”

That night, he said, he texted his players that the Columbia chaps from 1896 would be proud.

“Despite the fact that they’re dead now,” he wrote, “I’m also certain that tonight they’re smiling down upon you all basking in the redemption.”

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