As I tuned in to watch the PGA Rocket Mortgage Golf Championships out of Detroit, Michigan recently, I was enlightened by a feature on John Shippen. Shippen was the first African American man to participate and play in a U.S. Open Golf Tournament. Shippen falls into the same “first” sports category as Jackie Robinson and Fritz Pollard. There are many great names of African Americans that are traditionally mentioned in the game of golf such as, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Jim Thorpe, and of course Tiger Woods, but never had I heard of John Shippen. I wondered how this trailblazer had gone unnoticed all these years.
John Matthew Shippen Jr. was born in 1879 to an African American father and a Native American mother. Under the tutelage Willie Dunn, Shippen worked as a golf assistant at age of sixteen at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He also worked as a caddy for many of the members and was often sought after for private lessons and pointers by the players. In 1896, Shinnecock was chosen to host the U.S. Open and Shippen was sponsored to play but faced opposition from many of the white players. This incident sparked a racial boycott that was immediately snuffed out by the USGA President, Théodore Havemeyer. Shippen finished in fifth place after being tied for second in the first two rounds. His consolation prize was ten dollars. Shippen would go on to participate in six US Opens, with fifth place being his best round of play. He continued to perform as a golf professional at several clubs on the east coast before retiring from competitive play. Shippen took his expertise a step further and began designing and manufacturing his own golf clubs with his J.M. logo.
Although Shippen competed professionally, he was never granted his PGA membership. In 2009, the Professional Golf Association sought to right the well-deserved honor and granted Shippen his membership posthumously. John Shippen died in 1969 at the age of eighty-eight in Newark, New Jersey. He was a humble man, and he would be proud of the legacy he created over the years. There are numerous African American youth that have taken up the game of golf in his name, with a tournament now being sponsored in his honor. So, out of respect for John Matthew Shippen Jr., I’ll tip the bill of my cap with appreciation and say, “well done.”