John Matthew Shippen, Jr. was born on December 5, 1879 to the Reverend John and Maude Lee Shippen in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. At the age of nine, his family moved to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Long Island, New York where his father was sent to minister at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church. Close to the Reservation was Shinnecock Hills - one of America’s oldest golf clubs - where Shippen Jr. worked as a caddy earning just $15 a summer. At the age of 16, he was introduced to the game of golf by Willie Dunn, Jr. who was the club’s Scottish professional. Dunn hired John and others to help clear the land of heavy brush. Shippen was a natural athlete and picked up the sport on his own.
Shippen took a very large role in the Shinnecock Hills Country Club. His responsibilities included tending to the course, repairing clubs, serving as a starter and scorekeeper for club tournaments, and giving lessons to the all-white club members.
"America’s First Professional Golfer"
At the age of 18, John entered his first U.S. Open Golf Tournament. The Scottish and English pros threatened to boycott the tournament if Shippen was allowed to enter. Theodore Havemeyer, the first USGA president assured golfers that the tournament was going to be played, even if Shippen and Oscar Bunn (a Shinnecock Native American golfer) were the only two playing. Because Oscar Bunn was not a professional golfer, John Matthew Shippen, Jr., earned the status of “FIRST AMERICAN BORN PROFESSIONAL GOLFER” to enter the U.S. Open Championship. John would go on to compete in four more U.S. Open Championships in 1899, 1900, 1902, and 1913.
John worked at several golf clubs along the East Coast, serving as golf pro and teaching many wealthy white club members such as steel magnate Henry C. Frick, James Cromwell, and former New Jersey Governor J. S. Freylinghuysen. He was the greens keeper at the National Golf Links in Southampton and part owner of a course he designed in Laurel, Maryland. Eventually, the Maryland club went out of business.
In 1931, John found his home at the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club. He would serve as the Club’s pro and greens keeper until 1964 when he retired. John Matthew Shippen, Jr. died on May 15, 1968 at the age of 89 in a nursing home in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried without fanfare in the Rosedale Cemetery, Linden, New Jersey. Years later, Thurman P. Simmons Sr., Chairman of the John Matthew Shippen, Jr. Memorial Golf Foundation, would spearhead the effort to purchase a granite headstone at the grave site of John Matthew Shippen, Jr., to commemorate his place in history as America’s first golf professional.