One fall day in 1896, a group of Yale students caught up in a new sports frenzy called golf traveled by train and stagecoach from their New Haven, Connecticut campus to a course north of New York City – one of the few clubs in the country at the time – to take on some guys from Colombia.
In what became the country’s first ever intercollegiate match, 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 college game was born 125 years ago,” said Columbia’s current coach, Rich Mueller, of the two teams gathered on the practice green at Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson . NY
Yes, the first college golf match was played between two Ivy League teams who have rarely cracked the top 100 Division I schools in decades.
Those were of course different times in university sports. After Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in 1869, the Ivy League football teams remained athletic powerhouses that made national headlines for decades.
Similarly, the 1896 match in college golf signaled the beginning of Ivy’s dominance. The following year the first national college championships were held, and nearly every team and individual title up to 1930 was won by an Ivy League school – particularly Yale, whose 21 national titles are still the most common of all colleges.
Credit…The New York Times
This was long before major warm-weather state schools like Houston (16 national titles) and Oklahoma (11) enjoyed dominant eras, after the NCAA took over the national championships in 1939 and became a feeder to the PGA Tour.
Yale gentlemen’s golf coach Colin Sheehan, who loves his golf history, recently came across two articles in the New York Times from 1896 about the Yale-Columbia game that he immediately mentioned to Mueller.
The coaches arranged a reminder of this match, which became the melting pot of college golf, to get their players excited about the history and traditions of college golf and to create spirited competition.
The original game was played on November 6, 1896 at Ardsley Casino, which opened the previous year as one of the first 18-hole golf courses in the country and whose members include prominent financiers such as Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. Pierpont. belonged to Morgan.
The club, now called Ardsley Country Club, near Dobbs Ferry, was not available to host the game that fall. And because of logistical issues with the original date, the coaches rescheduled the game for October 22nd at Saint Andrew’s, Columbia’s home course that has its own place in golf history.
Founded in 1888, the club claims to be the oldest continuously operating golf club in the country (although several clubs claim different versions of this title) and is one of the five clubs that founded the United States Golf Association in 1894.
In fact, Columbia and Yale have had many rematches over the years, with Yale winning the most, but both teams now largely play a tournament schedule rather than head-to-head games.
So they agreed to play this game as an unofficial scrimmage. Still, the importance of this momentous game of challenge seemed to be felt by the players as they pulled up to the club in elegant passenger coaches rather than stagecoaches.
They wore bright golf shirts, baseball caps, and khakis or shorts – a far cry from their 1896 counterparts who wore panties, monogrammed blazers, tweed hats, shirts, and bow ties.
The 1896 teams played their top six players in a hole-won format, with the winner being the team with the most holes won by all players. The coaches decided to keep this now obscure format for the rematch and play their full starting line-up of seven players each.
An official on the first tee – Mueller’s son Kurt, 9 – announced each pair along with the names of the 1,896 golfers who played in that group.
In one group, William Sung, 18, a freshman from Columbia, was paired with Yales Darren Lin, 21, a senior.
Their counterparts 125 years ago were Yale’s Roderick Terry Jr. and Columbia’s GC Pier. Terry beat his opponent 7-0 for an 88, the lowest score of the day. It was also an impressive feat as Terry and his teammates hit rubbery gutta-percha balls with handcrafted wooden shaft clubs that had names like Brassie, Niblick, Spoon, and Cleek in place of numbers.
Lin and Sung both grew up in California, participate in junior golf tournaments and refine their swings with the help of top teaching professionals, video aids and various learning tools. On the field, they use rangefinders that give an accurate range to a target.
“It’s cool to see how far golf has come. It’s really surreal how important technology has become, ”said Sung, whose driver had a titanium head for space travel.
Golf was just beginning to take hold in the United States in 1896 and had only recently found its way into colleges, a Times preview of the game noted.
A second article in The Times summarizing the game describes how Yale knocked out the young Columbia squad 35-0. The winning Yale players each received a “First Intercollegiate Golf Meet” medal.
Columbia’s defeat came as no shock. Columbia in Manhattan didn’t have a home course and had put together a team only weeks before the game. His star player, mentioned as L. Tappin in an 1896 article by Columbia Spectator, was “out of his game” and lost by four holes as his team “got a high score but was still not embarrassed “.
“You basically brought a knife to a shootout,” Mueller said. “You can imagine how calm the stagecoach trip 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 ass kick the first time,” he said. “Some of my boys said they were never more nervous than they were on that first tee.”
The superior Yale team grew out of the explosive popularity of golf in New Haven, coupled with the opening of the New Haven Golf Club in 1895 near campus.
Yale had dozens of golfers on its team, and the first six were seasoned players from prominent golfing families, including John Reid Jr. and Havemeyer FC, whose fathers founded the USGA. helped
Reid Jr. won his match against Columbia by 10 holes and would win the first national singles title at Yale in 1898. He was the son of John Reid, a Scottish immigrant who helped start Saint Andrew’s as a three-hole course in a cow pasture in Yonkers in 1888.
Older Reid’s old golf clubs are on display 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.
The Ivy League’s athletic dominance, including golf, eventually faded as large state colleges outside the Northeast gained prominence and Ivies prioritized academics over athletics.
“I’m joking 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 Tiger Woods played in.
Yale is still a dominant force in the Ivies, and while unfamiliar with Saint Andrew’s, it had its moments in the last game. There was Ben Carpenter’s difficult ups and downs from the green to win the 16th hole and Lin’s back nine comeback that included a chip in on 18 to beat Sung 1-0.
But in the end, the day belonged to Columbia, whose 15-2 victory rubbed the 125-year-old beating with some balm.
Seeing his team rise to this historic moment, Mueller said later, was “by far the proudest moment of my 22 years as a coach”.
That night, he said, he wrote to his players that the Columbia boys of 1896 would be proud.
“Despite the fact that they are now dead,” he wrote, “I am also sure that tonight they will smile down on you all and bask in redemption.”