A PGA Member At Last

November 02, 2009

DULY NOTED: The PGA of America's granting posthumous membership to Shippen brings his pioneering work as a player and pro some overdue recognition.

Better late than never, the PGA of America is trying to clear its conscience. At its annual meeting Nov. 14 in New Orleans, it will bestow posthumous membership on three African-American golf pioneers -- Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller and John Shippen. Because of their skin color, they could not comply with the "Caucasian only" clause that existed in the PGA by-laws from 1934 to 1961. Now, finally, they will be celebrated along with Joe Louis, the legendary boxer who will be granted posthumous honorary membership for punching open the diversity doors in golf.

Ever since Tiger Woods thanked Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder for having paved his highway to 14 majors, historians have unearthed the skills of Rhodes and Spiller, but what about Shippen? Except for the obligatory tale of his sixth-place tie in the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills where he was a 16-year-old assistant pro who gave lessons and made clubs, whatever happened to him? And to his legacy? The answers provide a resurrection of John Shippen, the son of a Presbyterian minister assigned to the Shinnecock Indian reservation.

About two decades ago Arthur (Red) Hoffman, a Newark Star-Ledger golf writer with a sense of history and social justice, persuaded sports columnist Jerry Izenberg to write about Shippen's longtime presence as the pro at one of America's first black country clubs, Shady Rest, in Scotch Plains, N.J., 20 miles west of New York City. Shippen had arrived there in 1931 after having played in five more U.S. Opens and having been the teaching pro at prominent clubs, including Maidstone and Aronimink.

Over his 33 years as Shady Rest pro and greenkeeper, Shippen saw Rhodes, Spiller and Louis tee off there; tennis great Althea Gibson play there; Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Count Basie lead their bands there; Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan warble there; and W.E.B. Du Bois lecture there. Izenberg's words prompted Larry Hogan, a Union County College history professor, to alert Scotch Plains' mayor to the historical value of Shippen at what is now Scotch Hills, a public course (its name was changed in 1964 when the town took it over). Shippen, alone and broke, had retired. After moving from his clubhouse apartment to a Newark nursing home, he died in 1968.

"Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing when I quit school and went into golf," he once said at Shady Rest. "I wonder until I look out the window and see that golf course. Then I realize how much enjoyment I've gotten out of the game, and I don't wonder anymore."

Shippen's resurrection inspired Montclair State University professor and filmmaker Larry Londino to create the PBS documentary, "A Place For Us: The Story of Shady Rest and America's First Golf Professional." The artist Don Miller painted a Shippen oil portrait. Hogan also had his class write a Shippen paper. One student, Ruby Simmons, now a retired teacher, told her husband, Thurman, a chauffeur for Merck & Co. pharmaceuticals, about Shippen. Neither was a golfer then, but when the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation was formed, Thurman was named chairman. He and Ruby manage the foundation out of their home.

"We have a tournament here every year to raise funds for kids 9 to 17 at our multiracial Shippen Golf Academy," Thurman Simmons said recently at the neat 2,247-yard, par-33 course. "Every kid gets a set of clubs, a red shirt and a tan cap with John Shippen's face and 1896 on it."

Every kid also must know who John Shippen was and what he did. And where he is now. Originally, his grave at the Rosedale cemetery in nearby Linden, N.J., had only a small inconspicuous marker, but the Simmonses led a drive to place a prominent granite headstone there. It reads: John Shippen 1879-1968 The First American Born African-American Golf Professional.

And better late than never, he's about to be a PGA member.