CoursesSeptember 12, 2016

Is the oldest club in America celebrating its 130th birthday today?

The Dorset Field Club in southern Vermont was a nine-hole course that became a full 18 the year I shipped off to college, 2000, which I thought was especially poor timing. Growing up my family belonged, and I knew it as the place that made the incredible demand everyone wear a collared shirt. There were tennis players with mesmerizing wrinkles on their elbows and knees, some even older than my grandparents, and so the club’s claim as “the oldest continually operated in the country” certainly felt plausible to me. There were tournaments most every other weekend, and if you won or came close you got a trinket, like a pewter ashtray or glass vase, with the club logo: “est. 1886.” It was always an object that seemed to belong in an old person’s house, and I longed for the alchemist’s power that would let me transform the collection on my bedroom shelf to plastic figurines painted gold. You know, proper trophies.

Photo: Dorset Field Club

The question of the oldest golf club in the United States has been debated for quite some time. The St. Andrews Golf Club, in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., has well-preserved documentation to prove it began in 1888. Foxburg (Pa.) Country Club, 1887, has an origin story about as sketchy as Dorset’s. The strongest, if not most entertaining piece of evidence backing DFC is a map of the original layout with the following attest from Ransom H. Gillett, a lawyer from nearby Troy, N.Y.

“Course laid out by A.W. Harrington Esq, and Mayor of the City; assisted by a crowd of thugs, touts and loafers. 1st Assistant Civil Engineers “Doc” Holley D.D. “Bill” Kent A.M, MD., D. QL. The course was planned and laid out on Sunday September 12th 1886. The aforementioned A.W. Harrington, Chief Engineer and Mayor of the City was late to dinner on this account and caught Hell when he got home. All of which I can swear to." ~Gillett

If this sounds incontrovertible, the problem is these touts and loafers didn’t get around to completing their club’s constitution and bylaws until 1896, or incorporating with the state until 1918. It’s a matter of semantics, but when exactly the club was “established” is open to interpretation. Less important, this original map with the funny note was destroyed (oops!) when it was copied for the centennial celebration in 1986 (I was 4 and so unable to supervise). Nevertheless, there exists additional supporting material that has swayed great minds. In 1964, John English, founding editor of the USGA Golf Journal, wrote “recent inquiry has turned up strong indications, but as yet no definite documentation, that the Dorset Field Club of Dorset, Vermont, may well be the oldest golf club and course in the United States.” In 1987, Ross Goodner wrote in Golf Digest, “I think it’s possible to go one step farther and accept that Dorset Golf has been in existence since 1886, Foxburg since 1887, and St. Andrews since 1888.”

And now a newly published club history written by Daniel Beck explains the case in greater detail.

What’s certain is that golf shots were hit in Dorset on September 12th, 1886. When those shots reached the legal level of organized club golf is a niggling matter over which the current membership doesn’t much concern itself. Their focus is on the future. The club recently lengthened the driving range, is building a gym and cross-country skiing hut, and has attracted lots of new junior members with a special initiation fee ($0).

Which isn’t to say the new members aren’t proud of their heritage and welcoming of a reason to party.

I talked to my dad on the phone this morning, and he didn’t go to last week’s gala celebrating the 130th anniversary. He now dismisses such events as “too crowded.” Staying up late drinking and dancing doesn’t sound fun to him. He’s become one of the old guys.

Nevertheless, he appreciated my surprise birthday greeting of, “Happy 130th!”