| Club History || |
It takes only a bit of a stretch to imagine Philadelphia Country Club’s first course, off City Line Avenue and adjacent to Fairmount Park, or Merion’s, in the lovely Rose Lane/Fishers Road neighborhood of Haverford and Bryn Mawr. But to envision the Belmont Golf Association’s nine holes at 52nd Street and Chester Avenue in what is now the very heart of teeming West Philadelphia–ah, that does call for a willing suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, in the very late 1800s that area, too, was considered, if not the boondocks, certainly the outskirts of the city.
In the spring of 1896, a group of members led by Harrison Townsend, Clarence H. Clarke, Arthur B. Huey, and Dr. T.A. Davis introduced golf and formed, within the Belmont Cricket Club, the Belmont Golf Association. A few simple holes were constructed on the site by the Townsend group, and within a year there was a full nine in play over often hilly ground, a nine that included such colorfully named holes as "Hoodoo Hollow" and "Pons Asinorum," both, by all account card-wreckers. Total length was 3,060 yards, against a par 36 1/2. Two holes were pegged at 3 1/2 and another, 600 yards long, at 5 1/2.
It was in 1900 that the Belmont golfers incorporated themselves as the Aronimink Golf Club, which took its name from the chief of the Lenape Indians who once lived here. The charter members were Harrison Townsend, Arthur B. Huey, Henry Tatnall, Henry T. Dechert, H.H. Pigott, and Edward J. Durban.
At the time of its incorporation Aronimink had a membership of 150, with the ladies very much in evidence. Six of them–Mrs. Ella W. Shattuck, Mrs. Laura Knight Smith, Miss Mary Hannis, Mrs. Sophia West Russell, Mrs. Caroline Richards, and Mrs. Virginia Louise Dechert–outnumbered the four males on the club’s first board of governors. Membership entrance was $10. Five years later this was doubled, by which time the membership had grown to 230.
Of the Golf Association of Philadelphia’s four founding clubs, only Aronimink conducted a club championship as early as 1897. The winner was an 18-year-old Princeton freshman by the name of Hugh Wilson, whose enduring reputation would stem not from the golf he played but from the golf course he designed, the East course at Merion.
Aronimink’s first professional was John Shippen, who had grown up on the Shinnecock Indian reservation, across the road from the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Long Island. He was the son of the reservation’s Presbyterian pastor, a black minister from Virginia, and of a black woman. When the U.S. Open was played for the second time, at Shinnecock Hills in 1896, the 17-year-old finished the first round with a 78 that put him into a five-way tie for the lead. In the afternoon round of what was then a 36-hole one-day event, he hung close to the lead–indeed, at one point he may have actually held it–until the 11th hole. Here he took an 11. The resulting 81 for a total of 159 turned out to be seven strokes too many, leaving him in a tie for fifth that was worth $10 in prize money.
It was Willie Dunn, Jr., the professional at Shinnecock Hills, who apparently recommended young Shippen–arguably the first American-born golf professional–to Aronimink. In the 1899 Open, Shippen, now representing Aronimink, tied two former champions, Horace Rawlins and Fred Herd, for 24th place. In his book, The PGA, Herb Graffis described Shippen as "a pleasant, well-mannered man … far more eager to devote time to his own game than to concern himself teaching members." This may account for Shippen’s departure from Aronimink in 1900. He returned to the New York area, where he served at various clubs, including the Maidstone, as a greenkeeper or golf instructor for some 60 years.
Shippen was succeeded at Aronimink by 19-year-old Walter Reynolds. Reynolds played a prominent role in the club’s affairs for more than half a century, first as its professional, then, after being reinstated as an amateur by the USGA, as a member. No voice was more influential than Reynolds’ as the club made three separate westward moves over the next 28 years, to 54th and Whitby in 1907, to Drexel Hill in 1913, and to Newtown Square in 1928.
Following a primitive debut at the Country Club in 1891 and some 18 months when the game was quite slow to catch on, golf had by now clearly come to stay. John Reid, who in 1888 founded the first permanent golf club in America, St. Andrews, in Yonkers, New York, and as such is often referred to as the father of golf in the United States, said, "Golf is a game which exactly suits Philadelphia and Philadelphians. Neither boisterous nor effeminate, requiring alike consummate schooling and hard muscles, and tempting holding out almost boundless possibilities for fine playing and headwork, it naturally appeals to the people of that section."