Golf in Washington

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 5/15/2023
  • Essay 22641
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A group of about a dozen British expatriates introduced golf to Washington in 1894 when they founded the Tacoma Golf Club and built the state's first golf course. By 1898, similar clubs had been established in Spokane, Seattle, and Walla Walla, and by 1900, "the explosion of the game in America was complete. Proof was that, at the turn of the century, there were more golf clubs in the United States than there were in Britain" ("History of Golf ..."). Golf's popularity continued to soar in the 1910s with the introduction of public courses, including Jefferson Park, the state's first municipal course, which opened in Seattle in 1915. A handful of Washington golfers have found fame over the years, including JoAnne Gunderson Carner, who won 43 times on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, and Fred Couples, who reached the pinnacle of golf when he won the Masters Tournament at Augusta, Georgia, in 1992. By 2021, there were 277 golf courses in the state playing host to more than 3 million rounds per year.

A British Thing

While the precise date of America’s introduction to golf is unclear, a variation of the game was being played in the colonies as early as 1659. That year in Fort Orange (now Albany), New York, local authorities banned "the practice of playing golf along the streets, which causes great damage to the windows of the houses, and also exposes people to the danger of being injured" ("History of Golf ..."). Scottish officers in the colonies played golf during the Revolutionary War era, but then "the War of 1812 pitting the U.S. against Britain effectively killed the game in America for decades. Golf was seen as British, and would not be in favor in the United States for 80 years or so" ("History of Golf ..."). The oldest surviving golf club in the U.S. began as a three-hole layout in a Yonkers, New York, cow pasture in 1888. It was named the St. Andrews Club after the place in Scotland where modern golf was invented in 1764.

Golf got its start in Washington in 1894 when more than a dozen British expats – most of them employees of Balfour, Guthrie & Co., an English trading firm operating in Tacoma – founded the Tacoma Golf Club. The group's leader was Alexander Baillie (1859-1949), "not a particularly accomplished golfer, but who must have commanded some authority, and enthusiasm, on the matter … Baillie arranged to have shipped from Scotland thirty sets of Forgan golf clubs and twenty-five dozen Gutta Percha balls. The story is often told that when the clubs passed through customs, the customs agent, puzzled by their purpose and skeptical of the explanation given, declared them to be farm implements and allowed them pass" ("Early History of Tacoma ..."). 

Baillie's group leased pastures in Edison (now South Tacoma) and built 27 holes – an 18-hole layout for men, and a nine-hole "Ladies’ Course." While the setting was rustic – cows roamed the fairways – golf in Tacoma was met with tremendous enthusiasm. "By 1905, Baillie’s club had moved to American Lake in Lakewood and became known as the Tacoma Country & Golf Club – playground of Tacoma’s rich and famous. Timber barons, shipping and railroad magnates, financiers and other business moguls with names like Thorne, Rust, Kilworth, Hosmer, Perkins, Sprague, Seymour, Opie, Rhodes, Weyerhaeuser, Eisenhower, Clapp, DeLong, Baker, Titus, Will, Gonyea, Harbottle, Milgard, Cereghino" (Voelpel). 

The game's regional popularity soared immediately. The Spokane Golf Club was founded in 1898, though golf was being played informally in that city as early as 1894, when the Daily Chronicle reported that "a new game is about to amuse Spokane. This game is golf, a sport which at first seems ridiculously simple but which in practice has held its victims with a strange fascination in every town where it has appeared" ("Early History of Spokane Country Club"). Legend has it that golf was introduced to Spokane by Henry M. Hoyt, "a prominent attorney, who, returning from a trip to Pennsylvania, brought back with him three golf clubs and a half dozen golf balls. They then laid out a few holes using tomato cans as cups" ("Early History of Spokane Country Club"). Spokane Golf Club members began playing on their own nine-hole course at Liberty Park in 1898. A new course was built at Hart Field in 1904. After the clubhouse burned down in 1908, the club moved again, to its present site on the Little Spokane River about eight miles north of the city center.  

A Seattle Sensation

Seattle's first golf was played in 1895 when Josiah Collins, E. A. Strout, and James "Gillie" Gillium laid out a course in farmland along Stone Way and formed the Seattle Golf Club. "The ladies and gentlemen of the Golf Club have spent many pleasant hours on the Fremont links, and have 'teed,' 'lofted,' and 'putted' the ball to their hearts' content," reported The Seattle Times on May 29, 1897. "The season, however, is nearly over, owing to the hot weather and the long grass, which prevents good playing. The Fremont links are not the best in the world, and a great deal of the sport is lost in the long grass. As soon as a crop is taken from the field a method will be found to keep it down, and playing commenced ... A neat little club house has recently been erected at the links, and makes the sport much pleasanter" ("With the Golfers").

The Seattle Golf Club held its first tournaments in 1897, and interest in the game continued to skyrocket. “Golf now holds the boards with the older society people of Seattle to the exclusion of almost everything else just as it is doing in almost every other town of size in this country," wrote The Seattle Times. "Those who play the game become so interested in it that they desire little else in the way of amusement and have little strength and taste left after an afternoon of golf for evening functions" ("In Society"). 

Seizing on golf's instant popularity, Josiah Collins organized the Seattle Golf and Country Club in 1900 with 53 charter members who paid $50 to join and $30 in annual dues. The group rented 55 acres of hilly farmland in the Laurelhurst neighborhood and hired professional golfer John Ball to design a nine-hole course. To reach the links, members took the Madison Street cable car to Madison Park and then a boat across Union Bay to the course at Webster's Point. Within a decade, Seattle Golf and Country Club had abandoned the Laurelhurst property and moved to its permanent and more exclusive home in The Highlands, north of the city.

In 1899, six private clubs – Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane, Victoria, and Butte, Montana – joined to form the Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA). The best players from each club would travel to the other clubs for tournaments, and the top finishers advanced to national competitions sanctioned by the United States Golf Association. History was made on March 30, 1895, when six players from the Tacoma Golf Club traveled by steamer to a tournament in Victoria – the first international golf competition in North America. That same year, Charles Malott of Tacoma participated in the U.S. Amateur, the first Washingtonian to play for a national championship. 

Golf Takes Off

Golf remained a game for the upper crust, and almost exclusively white, until about 1910, when a statewide push began to make the game more accessible. In Seattle, parks commissioner Edward C. Cheasty (d. 1914) and insurance man Sherwood Gillespy (1853-1912) led a campaign to build an 18-hole municipal course on Beacon Hill. Cheasty first floated the idea in 1907, and Gillespy became its most ardent supporter. A founding member of the Seattle Golf and Country Club, Gillespy was "an ambidextrous player who always carried two sets of clubs, so that he could play either right or left handed ... He was not known as a good player and never won any cups or medals during his long golfing career, but his interest in the game never lagged" ("Memorial Fount on Golf Links ..."). Gillespy reasoned that many would-be golfers, including the caddies at his club, had no real opportunity to play. "It was Mr. Gillespy who first conceived the idea of municipal golf links, where the game might be played by young and old, rich and poor alike without allegiance to any club or social set," wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1914. "It was he who first thought out the desirability of democratizing golf and making it a game of the many instead of the select few. The links now being constructed in Jefferson park are the result of his thought and efforts" ("The Sherwood Gillespy Memorial"). 

Designed by Robert Johnstone and sprawling over 101 acres, Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course opened officially on May 12, 1915. In its first eight months, it played host to 26,309 rounds at 25 cents apiece ($6 for a season pass), attracting duffers from all walks of life. Surprisingly, "about two-thirds of the annual ticket holders of the public course are also members of one or the other of the three leading golf and country clubs" ("First Annual Report ..."). Gillespy, however, didn't live long enough to see his dream realized; he died on a golfing excursion to British Columbia in 1912. Cheasty also died before the course was completed, but the efforts of both men helped ignite a statewide boom in public-course building. In November 1915, the state's second municipal course opened at Meadow Park in Tacoma, and Downriver opened in Spokane in 1916. The first public course in Snohomish County, Hillcrest in Marysville, opened in 1929, and Jackson Park opened in Seattle's north end in 1930, easing crowded conditions at Jefferson.

Spokane, rather than Seattle, became the center of Washington golf in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks largely to the efforts of the Spokane Athletic Round Table. A fraternity of civic boosters, the Round Table "met over whiskey and cigars weekly at their own club for most of 36 years. Joseph Aloysius Albi, a fast-talking trial attorney who always had a joke up his sleeve, led the group from 1920 until 1962" (Gavrich). Among other feats, Albi convinced the USGA to hold the 1941 U.S. Public Links championship at Spokane's Indian Canyon Golf Course. "The winner that year, Bill Welch, loved the course so much that after his victory, he returned to his home in Texas, packed his belongings and moved to Spokane, eventually becoming the head pro at 'The Canyon'" (Gavrich). The PGA Tour agreed to hold three events in the city, topped by the 1944 PGA Championship at Manito Golf & Country Club – the first of golf's majors to be played in the Pacific Northwest. Indian Canyon hosted the Esmeralda Open, a PGA Tour event, in 1945 and 1947, and in 1946 the Spokane Country Club was the site of the inaugural U.S. Women's Open, won by Patty Berg over a field that included Babe Didrickson Zaharias.

From 1935 to 1943, the federal Works Progress Administration built four courses in Washington – Pomeroy, West Seattle, Seminary Hill (Centralia), and Fort Lewis – and course building accelerated further after the war as outdoor recreation boomed. By the 1960s there were golf courses – public or private, nine holes or 18 – in every corner of the state. In the 1970s and 1980s, destination courses opened at resorts such as Port Ludlow (designed by famed architect Robert Muir Jones and opened in 1975) and Semiahmoo (designed by Arnold Palmer and opened in 1987). The number of new courses surged again after Tiger Woods (b. 1975) made his PGA Tour debut in 1996 and ignited a national golf craze. In 1999, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Club at Snoqualmie Ridge opened in Snoqualmie, followed by, among others, Washington National in Auburn (2000), Suncadia near Cle Elum (2005), Palouse Ridge in Pullman (2008), and the much-praised Wine Valley Golf Club (2009), a links-style course tucked into rolling wheat fields near Walla Walla. 

Early Stalwarts

Until famed professional golfer Fred Couples (b. 1959) came along in the late 1970s, the best Washington golfer may have been Harry Givan (1912-1999), a former caddy at Seattle Golf and Country Club. Givan mastered the game with seeming ease; at age 11 he played in his first tournament, a caddies’ competition in Kirkland. "Coming up to the 12th hole at Inglewood, Harry took a deep breath, the way you do before a backswing -- and shot a hole in one! Two years later he beat all the caddies in the city for his first tournament victory" (Watson, 75). Givan succeeded in every sport he tried, including baseball, basketball, and football at Lincoln High School. He was a natural at boxing, getting paid $5 per knockout at a downtown gym. According to Emmett Watson, "These boxing purses kept Harry Givan in spending money and paid for his golf clubs. He would buy his clubs at Spelgier & Herbert, a hardware store on Pike Street. A Hoylake iron, with a hickory shaft, cost $1.49. He paid about the same for a Columbia Special wood. He did not figure he could afford to buy the better clubs at Frederick & Nelson" (Watson, 76). 

Givan won the Washington State Amateur five times and shot a course-record 61 at Broadmoor in Seattle. He might have enjoyed a long and lucrative career in professional golf, but he wasn't interested in playing golf for a living. After studying at the University of Washington, he became an engineer, later worked in the insurance business, and played golf sparingly. One of his signature victories occurred when he defeated Sam Snead "when Snead was a marquee player and an icon on the professional tour. This was at the Spokane Open in 1942. He won an exhibition match with Byron Nelson. He lost to Jack Nicklaus by one stroke in Ithaca, New York, when Nicklaus was a young superplayer. Nicklaus made a birdie on the 18th hole to win" (Watson, 79). 

A wave of Washington golfers followed Givan into the limelight. Elma native Bud Ward (1913-1968) captured the U.S. Amateur championship in 1939 and 1941. Charles Congdon, a longtime club professional at Tacoma Country & Golf Club, won twice on the PGA Tour in the late 1940s, and Bremerton native George Bayer (1925-2003) emerged in the 1950s as one of the longest drivers in tour history. Bayer, who played football at the University of Washington and was drafted by the NFL's Washington Redskins, was a sight at 6-5, 250 pounds. A four-time winner on the PGA Tour, he had a long, looping golf swing and prodigious power. "This easy, graceful, upright swing of Bayer's can produce a clubhead speed that may be close to the maximum that human beings are capable of delivering to a golf ball with the equipment now available," wrote Sports Illustrated in 1961. "As the ball leaves the tee and recedes into the distance, the gallery exhales an appreciative 'ooooh'" ("Golf's Human Howitzer").

Trailblazers in Women's Golf

Washington had already become a hotbed for women's golf by 1950, the same year 13 women founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in Florida and started the LPGA Tour. The Seattle area alone was home to budding stars Pat Lesser, Ruth Jessen, Anne Quast, and JoAnne Gunderson, who "railroaded the amateur golf scene as teenagers in the 1950s, scorching through soggy Pacific Northwest fairways on their way to national dominance" ("Fairway Femmes ..."). Lesser (b. 1933) was a fast learner; taught the game by her father at age 13, she was crowned U.S. Junior champion four years later. She then starred on the Seattle University men's golf team. In her crowning achievement, she won the 1955 U.S. Women's Amateur. 

Jessen, who turned pro at age 19, won 11 times on the LPGA Tour before her career was cut short by injuries and illness. According to the Post-Intelligencer, Jessen "had all the magical shots. She grew up a half-block from the now-defunct Meadowbrook Golf Course, hunting for golf balls and getting in her first swings. She honed her game and a wieldy reputation at Jackson Park and Inglewood Country Club. At Roosevelt High School, the principal used to let her out of class early if she would agree to play golf with his buddies" ("Ruth Jessen: Former LPGA Standout"). 

Quast was born into a golf family in Everett in 1937. Her parents owned the Cedarcrest Golf Course in Marysville, and Quast began playing tournaments by age 12. She amassed three U.S. Women's Amateur titles and won the U.S. Senior Women's Amateur four times. Spokane native Peggy Conley (b. 1947) was 16 when she finished as the runner-up to Quast in the 1963 U.S. Women's Amateur; JoAnn Washam (1950-2019) of Auburn won three times on the LPGA Tour in the 1970s; Mary Bea Porter (b. 1949) of Everett captured a tour event in 1975; and Kris Monaghan (b. 1960) of Spokane recorded two tour victories in the 1990s. 

Gunderson, who won 43 times on the LPGA Tour, was undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Born in Kirkland in 1939, she started out as "a publinks prodigy scattering ducks with her iron shots at a little bloop-and-scoop course on the shores of Lake Washington" (Owen, 183). Known as JoAnne Carner after she married in 1963, "The Great Gundy" helped to elevate women's golf in the public eye. "She became the Arnold Palmer of the women's professional tour," wrote Post-Intelligencer columnist John Owen. "That's not an exaggeration. Purse money on the women's tour totaled $435,000 when Gundy joined the LPGA. Prize money had risen to almost $1.8 million when she captured her first Player of the Year award. Prize money totaled $7 million when she was last honored Player of the Year. Like Palmer, she gave golf a consistent, appealing and dramatic identity" (Owen, 184). 

A Game for (Some of) the People

In 1917, a group of regular golfers at Jefferson Park organized the Jefferson Park Golf Club and began hosting tournaments on the municipal course – to the apparent benefit of those who could now play in tournaments without belonging to a private course. But there was a dubious catch: Jefferson Park Golf Club (and other subsequent clubs in the city) was open to whites only, and "because the golf clubs controlled the tournaments, minority golfers could not enter contests held on Seattle’s municipal golf courses" ("The Vanishing History ..."). Non-white players had to leave the city to compete, a policy that was rubber-stamped by the Seattle Parks Department for more than 40 years. A similar policy would exist in Tacoma until 1948. In response, Japanese American golfers began organizing their own tournaments in the early 1930s and formed the Pacific Northwest Japanese Golf Association in 1936. Blacks in Seattle started the Fir State Golf Club – now the second-oldest Black golf club in the U.S. – in 1947. In 1951, Chinese American businessmen founded the Seattle Chinese Golf Club, with Jefferson Park as their home course, and played their first invitational tournament the following year. 

In 1948, Robert and Madeline Wright moved to Seattle with their son Bill, age 12. Bill (1936-2021) started playing golf on Seattle's municipal courses, won the city junior championship at 15, and became a star athlete at Franklin High School. At Western Washington College (now University), he golfed and played basketball, and in 1959 he stunningly captured the United States Golf Association Amateur Public Links championship in Denver – becoming the first Black to win a USGA event and the first Black golfer to win a national championship. "Wright's victory was a singular moment for Black golfers at a time when the PGA of America's bylaws still had a 'Caucasians-only' clause (which would be abolished in 1961)," wrote The New York Times. "A Black man did not win a PGA Tour event until 1964" (Sandomir).

In 1961, with Seattle's whites-only policy still in place, Wright's father, himself an avid golfer, filed a complaint with the Washington State Board Against Discrimination. Following its review, the board requested that Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) intervene, and in November 1961, Rosellini chastised Seattle officials and ordered a full investigation. "I am disappointed that the City of Seattle Park Board has not been able to stop this practice by carrying out its agreement," he said. "Discriminatory practices against minorities in the State of Washington are indefensible" ("Rosellini Asks ..."). Begrudgingly, the clubs opened their doors to non-whites in the 1960s.

Boom, Boom Times

The Couples family – Thomas, Violet, and their three children – moved from Seattle's Rainier Valley to Beacon Hill in the late 1960s, and soon son Fred, a fourth grader, was hooked on golf. "Once Fred discovered golf, he played at nearby Jefferson Park every chance he could, sometimes sneaking onto the course to avoid paying. He wrote in an elementary school paper, 'When I grow up, I want to be just like Arnold Palmer.' He scored his first hole-in-one at age 10. At age 11, he was hired to retrieve balls hit at the course's driving range, earning $4 a night and even more time on the course. He started playing in local junior tournaments before he was a teenager, and soon was competing with the course's best adult regulars. He had taken no formal lessons, but his talent was obvious" (Drosendahl).

Couples – nicknamed "Boom Boom" for his prodigious power – is surely the best golfer in Washington history. He won two state championships at O'Dea High School and captured the 1978 Washington Open at age 18 during his summer vacation from the University of Houston, shooting a final-round 65 while playing in tennis shoes to edge Seattle touring pro Don Bies (b. 1937). Couples turned pro himself in 1980 and began a breathtaking ascent; by 1991 he was the world's No. 1-ranked player, and in 1992 he won the fabled Masters Tournament at Augusta, Georgia. 

Beyond Couples, who recorded 15 PGA Tour victories, Washington golfers have won at least 33 times on tour by 2023. Ryan Moore (b. 1982) of Puyallup and Buddy Allin (1944-2007), who was born in Bremerton and raised in California, have five tour victories apiece. Kermit Zarley (Seattle), Rod Funseth (Spokane), Kirk Triplett (Pullman), and Ken Still (Tacoma) each won three times. In 2017, The Seattle Times listed Still (b. 1935) as the fifth-best golfer in state history, behind Couples, Moore, Triplett, and up-and-comer Kyle Stanley (Gig Harbor). Still "was more than just a great golfer, he was a great ambassador of the game and a booster of local golfers. He was larger than life with his gregarious, affable personality. Years ago, he made a call to his good friend, Jack Nicklaus, and asked the world’s greatest golfer for a favor. He told Nicklaus that he wanted him to design a second nine at American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood – the only golf course in the nation designed specifically for the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans. And he wanted Nicklaus to do it for free. 'Ken wouldn’t have asked me if he didn’t think it was the right thing to do,' Nicklaus said. The Nicklaus-designed second nine opened in 2016" (Hanson). 

State of the Game

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times may have been kidding when she called golf a game for white guys with big guts pretending to exercise. But she wasn't wrong. According to the 2015 report "Golf Diversity and Inclusion," American golfers were 77 percent male and 80 percent white, while golf-industry workers were 90 percent male and 88 percent white. Golf in the U.S., the study found, was a $70 billion business supporting 2 million jobs. A 2017 industry study for the Washington Golf Alliance estimated the state's direct golf economy averages about $1.2 billion annually, though it can be much higher in years when the state hosts major events such as the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee or the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. 

Including driving ranges and miniature courses, there were 299 golf facilities in Washington in 2015, with more on the way. After the golf industry contracted from 2006 to 2018, it enjoyed a boom cycle during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Golf course operators reported that play increased by almost 6 percent nationwide in 2021. 

Sahalee (private) and Chambers Bay (public) consistently rank among the state's top courses. Golf Digest listed Chambers Bay, Aldarra (private), Sahalee, and Gamble Sands (public) as the top four in its 2021 rankings, while USA Today rated Gamble Sands No. 1. The spectacular Gamble Sands, situated above the Columbia River in Okanogan County, offers "fun for any level of golfer on layouts across which it’s difficult to lose a ball. Sometimes-immense fairways over thrilling terrain, big greens, bouncy shots, feeder slopes, [and] extreme playability" (Lusk). Proof that Washington golf remains a growth industry, a second 18-hole course at Gamble Sands is scheduled for completion in 2025.


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