With increased television coverage, scoring technology tools, and the all-encompassing net cast by camera phones and social media, it’s a golden era to be both a college golfer and consumer of college golf content. Coverage, data, commentary, and multimedia for this level of the game have never been more abundant. Just this week, Golf Channel provided nine televised hours over three days of the Jack Stephens Cup, and the network will do the same next week for the East Lake Cup.
Golf Channel, mobile phones, Twitter, and Golfstat, we’re told, were not around in 1896. But college golf did have the New York Times then, and it has Colin Sheehan now. Sheehan is the Yale men’s golf coach and an avid historian of the game, particularly at the amateur level. So Sheehan, armed with New York Times accounts from 1896, was well aware of an upcoming milestone commemorating the 125th anniversary of the birth of intercollegiate golf. That occasion was a “holes-won” match between the men’s golf teams of Yale and Columbia at the Ardsley Casino, now Ardsley Country Club, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., on Nov. 6, 1896.
“We knew this was an opportunity and a date we did not want to let pass us by,” Sheehan said. So this past summer, he went to Columbia’s director of golf, Rich Mueller, with a proposal to schedule an event commemorating that 125th anniversary. On Friday, Oct. 22, at Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., the oldest private golf club in the United States, Yale and Columbia will meet in a unique seven-on-seven match to, as Mueller put it, “participate in history” and celebrate the origin of intercollegiate golf.
The Times’ story on that first event, published on Nov. 8, 1896, documents a six-versus-six contest at Ardsley, with Yale trouncing Columbia, 35-0, in the same holes-won format that will be utilized in 2021. Invitations for the 1896 match were extended to Harvard, Penn, and Princeton as well. Both Harvard and Penn indicated it would be “difficult to field teams” for the event, while Princeton committed but then backed out because its team members wanted to watch their football game. That left Yale and Columbia to advance the story of the golf—then more of a curiosity at the college level in the United States.
“I mean, who would think Columbia University, an urban school, would have been the first school to play in an intercollegiate golf match,” Mueller said this week. “Is there a bigger oxymoron? I don’t know.”
The circumstances at Yale, which would build and open, arguably, the finest college golf course in the country in the coming decades, were indicative of a campus bitten by the 19th century golf bug. In the spring of 1895, New Haven, Conn., businessman Justus Hotchkiss and Yale professor Theodore Woolsey had a chance encounter with a 25-year-old Scottish cabinet maker. They inquired about his knowledge of golf, and by the fall the three had conspired on and built a nine-hole course, New Haven Golf Club. It was a rapid and impressive turnaround. Sheehan quipped that the Scot likely built the golf course faster than his cabinets, and the golf historian was taken with the unabated interest in the game in the New Haven area in what must have been, what he termed, quite “rugged” conditions given the quick construction of the course in that era.
Sheehan describes that meeting with the young Scot as having a “butterfly effect,” and one that eventually led to the match that will be commemorated this week. “It began an immediate burst of enthusiasm among students, alums and New Haven residents,” Sheehan said. “By the next year, the team had formed and began playing matches in the fall of 1896.”
Both Sheehan and Mueller tried to schedule the match on the exact date, Nov. 6, but team schedules, midterms, school breaks, and venue aerification plans resulted in multiple date changes before settling on Oct. 22 at Saint Andrew’s. That is Columbia’s home course, but, as a USGA founding member and the oldest private club in the country, it’s also a club as steeped in tradition as the two august Ivy schools and a fitting ceremonial place for the match.
The original 1896 members of the two school teams will be announced alongside the current members of the teams as each game arrives at the first tee. The holes-won format is rarely used today, but both coaches were intrigued by the opportunities it affords both the hot player running up the score and perhaps the one on the receiving end that could mitigate the overall damage.
“Holes won is exactly as it sounds,” Mueller said. “So if you win eight holes and I win six holes, well then you’ve won two holes overall. And so two points would go to your team. But you’re playing all 18 holes. So it’s unlike match play in the sense that you can’t be closed out quickly. … For this event, we’re using essentially match-play rules where putts and holes can be conceded, but really the scoring, that was the way it was done back in 1896, so that’s what we’re going to go with.”
The format will be the primary element lending the competition its retro feel, as Sheehan chuckled that tailoring for plus-fours and sets of hickories weren’t exactly in the budgets for an event like this. He referred to it as a “scrimmage,” as it won’t be part of the official schedule, but it’s a match he knew he wanted to pull together as soon as the historian in him made the discovery of the 1896 documentation. It’s a special occasion that he wished he could have experienced himself as a player for Yale in the late ‘90s during what would have been the 100th anniversary.
It’s not the highest stakes competition these players will play in, but Mueller expressed a similar sentiment as Sheehan about the privilege of partaking in this event, especially as it relates to the historic arc of college golf. “This is not just about a match.” he said. “Of course, that is the centerpiece, but it’s really a moment of reflection, just to understand how far golf has come, how far college golf has come. It’s a pretty amazing moment. I think as we get closer and closer, new thoughts and feelings are evoked because you kind of get to put yourself in the shoes of players from 125 years ago, and I just think that’s cool.”