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Minor Majors

Golf’s biggest stages weren’t always so

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The Archivist: Minor Majors
Art by Geoffrey Cunningham

Fred Herd just had to hold on. His third-round 74 had catapulted him into the lead, and if he could keep it together one more day, the fourth U.S. Open crown would be his. This was no certainty; Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, was thrashing the field of 49 players, who were regularly signing for scores in the 90s. Then there was the matter of Herd’s fondness for drink: Although he had come from golf’s holy land in St. Andrews, Scotland, and was the head professional at (the now-defunct) Washington Park in Chicago, Herd was known as much for his prodigious appetite for alcohol as his fine golf swing. Even in 1898, the U.S. Open never lacked for storylines.

Herd limped home with an 84, but it was still good enough to beat fellow Scot Alex Smith by seven. His victory is notable today as the first time a U.S. Open moved from 36 to 72 holes. Herd also remains the first and only U.S. Open champion to have the USGA demand he put a cash deposit down before taking the trophy—out of fear he’d pawn it for more booze. Perhaps most importantly, it was also the final time the U.S. Open has been contested on a nine-hole course.

I believed those 49 poor bastards who had to loop merciless Myopia eight times had to be an anomaly. Sure, the first couple of Open Championships at Prestwick were played on non-18-hole courses, but that had to be it.

Connor Lewis—the mischievous brain behind the delightful Society of Golf Historians—happily noted how wrong I was. He thought the number was 23, but invited me to join him as he searched for more. He took me to Maryland’s Baltimore Country Club, host of the 1899 U.S. Open, and a trove of fuzzy black-and-white images. 

This was well before the club expanded and A.W. Tillinghast designed its renowned Five Farms course, during an era when the word “major” was used more often to describe a hangover than a golf tournament. It’s possible, Lewis told me, that this iteration of BCC could have been nine holes. “You wonder where the fuck they hit their approach from,” he mused. “Look closely: I don’t see a fairway. Maybe the left?” 

After more research, Lewis confirmed that BCC was indeed an 18-hole layout. Along the way, however, he discovered this oddity: It might be the only major venue with a grand total of zero sand bunkers or water hazards. “But it surely had steeplechase land formations,” he said, “which were essentially massive vertical walls of dirt. Can you imagine if a major championship did that today?”

I couldn’t. But I wished I could. The money, TV time and accumulated prestige of today’s major championships make course selection a more difficult club to enter than Augusta National. It must have critical appreciation. It must have a reputation that meets the exceedingly august standards of the host organization. It must have enough space for a city’s worth of sponsor activations. It must, apparently, have 18 holes. I felt a pang for those unbridled early days, before golf organizations became multi-billion-dollar behemoths, before the fateful 1960 flight when Arnold Palmer famously blessed the Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship and Open Championship as the modern grand slam and instantly transformed them into “majors.”

Lewis and I rolled our eyes about the gauzy, church-like reverence that has since carefully been built around the history of these events. Don’t believe all the sepia-toned puff pieces from the telecasts; these are not immaculately conceived Sunday-school stories. More often than not, those pre-major majors were held by people making shit up as they went along—begging, borrowing and stealing to get the best players in the same place at the same time. How much whiskey went into the decision to give the Challenge Belt to the first guy who won the Open Championship three years in a row? Probably a lot!

Back to our inquiry, Lewis arrived at the first 23 non-18-hole majors quickly:

*Old Musselburgh Links: six Open Championships as a nine-hole course

*Prestwick Golf Club: 15 Open Championships as a 12-hole course

*Newport Country Club: first U.S. Open, in 1895, as a nine-hole course

*The aforementioned Myopia and our pal Fred in 1898

But—because there is always a “but” in golf history—depending on your definition of major, that number can change. The 1895 U.S. Amateur was also contested at Newport Country Club, when, Lewis said, rightly, it was a bigger deal than the fledgling U.S. Open.

Then there is the truly bananas summer of 1894, when there was not one, but two U.S. Amateurs, and a U.S. Open that predates the USGA and therefore isn’t officially recognized.

The first of those U.S. Ams also was played at nine-hole Newport, and nine-hole St. Andrews Golf Club of New York hosted the other (which Lewis called “the do-over major” and is worth more ink than this page allows) as well as that stray U.S. Open.

“So maybe it’s 27 majors,” Lewis told me. “It depends. There are many stories within every story.”

Indeed. We didn’t even dig into all of the non-18-hole venues from the British Amateur, which was considered major enough in its heyday that it was one of the four titles in Bobby Jones’ sacrosanct Grand Slam of 1930.

Substantial as it is, the number of sub-18-hole majors isn’t enough to argue that the next available U.S. Open should land at Whitinsville GC. Nor does it require a lofty meditation on the effect of corporate money on the purity of sport. But it is fair to point to golf’s bonkers history the next time one of the game’s gatekeepers refuses to unbutton his dusty old blazer.