John Matthew Shippen, Jr.

prtrait of John Matthew Shippen, Jr.
Oil Painting of John Matthew Shippen, Jr.
by Don Miller
John Matthew Shippen, Jr. (1879-1968) was born on December 5, 1879. His father, Reverend John was born into slavery in Virginia and became a free man following the Civil War. Reverend John moved to Washington, D.C. where he attended Howard University and received a degree in theology. At the age of nine, John Shippen Jr. and his his family moved to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton on Long Island, NY, where his father was assigned as a pastor.

As a teenager, Shippen worked with crews to help clear the land and build the original Shinnecock Hills golf course. William Dunn Jr., a Scottish golf professional who designed the final holes at Shinnecock Hills, taught some of the young workers how to caddie and play the game, including John Shippen and his friend, Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock Indian. Shippen had a natural talent for the game and became one of Dunn’s best students. By the age of 16, Shippen was working full-time as Dunn’s assistant, giving lessons to members, working as a caddy, repairing clubs, scorekeeping and assisting the maintenance crew.

"America’s First Professional Golfer"

Shinnecock Hills was selected to host the second U.S. Open in 1896. Club members were so impressed with Shippen’s talent that they paid his and Oscar Bunn’s entry fees for the tournament. The week of the Open, other professional entrants (all foreign-born) sent a petition to USGA officials in which they objected to “colored boys meeting them on equal terms.” They held a meeting in protest on Thursday prior to the Open and threatened to withdraw if Shippen and Bunn were allowed to compete. USGA president Theodore Havemeyer is said to have declared, with conviction: “Gentlemen, you can leave or stay as you please. We are going to play this tournament tomorrow, with them – and with or without you.” All entrants showed up the next morning for play.

After the first 18-hole round, Shippen was tied for the lead, having shot a 78 in the first round. In the second round, his tee shot on the par-4 13th hole landed in a sandy road, which led to an 11 on the hole. He finished the second round with an 81 for an overall score of 159 for the 36-hole tournament. The seven strokes he lost on the 13th hole was the difference between his final score and the winning 152 by James Foulis of Scotland.

Shippen finished the tournament in 5th place and Bunn finished 21st. Shippen was awarded $10.00 in prize money, which officially secured his place in history as the 1st U.S.-born golf professional AND the 1st Black golf professional. Shippen also played in the 1902 US Open, where he once again finished finished tied for 5th place. No other Black golfer would play in the U.S. Open again until Ted Rhodes in 1948.

John Shippen Jr. was hired as the golf professional at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, NY and Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia, PA, but he is best known for his tenure as the head pro at the Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, NJ. Shippen worked at the Shady Rest from 1924 until his retirement in 1960 during an era when Black luminaries, scholars, social reformers and entertainers such as W.E.B. DeBois, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway came to perform and enjoy themselves, and where Althea Gibson honed her tennis skills.

In 2009, the PGA of America bestowed John Shippen with his PGA Membership card posthumously, and he is now recognized by the USGA as America’s first golf professional. In 2018, he was inducted into the New Jersey Golf Association Hall of Fame’s Inaugural Class.

History has largely omitted John Shippen’s story, which has left several outlets to begin filling in the blanks that have been left undocumented. Even his ancestry has been confused over the years, with some claiming he was a descendant of the Shinnecock tribe. In John H. Kennedy’s book, A Course of Their Own: A History of African-American Golfers, Shippen’s daughter, Clara Johnson, reiterated that both of her father’s parents were Black, saying: “My father was a Negro. Every time I meet somebody, I have to correct that story.”

Today, John Shippen Jr.’s legacy is carried by a tournament in his honor that provides the opportunity for young black golfers to learn and grow within the game of golfers. The winner of the John Shippen tournament gains an exception in qualifying, allowing them to play in the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. We thank Thurman and Ruby Simmons for their endless work in researching and spreading awareness to John Shippen Jr.’s story with the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation.

“About John Shippen.” Thejohnshippen, Accessed 4 July 2023.

John M Shippen, Jr. golfing
John Matthew Shippen, Jr.
in the 1896 U.S. Open.
John M Shippen, Jr. Headstone
Located at Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, NJ is John Shippen Jr’s grave. John Shippen Jr. did not have a monument until Thurman P. Simmons, Chairman of the John Shippen Memorial Golf foundation purchased this granite headstone in his honor.

Royal Golf Club circa 1930
John Shippen (fourth from the left) poses with members of the royal Golf club of Washington D.C., c. 1960. Shady Rest and the Royal Golf Club were members of the United States Colored Golfers Association (USCGA). The USCGA, now the United Golfers Association, was organized after black golfers were barred from competing in the Professional Golfers Association (PGA)
Contributor: Ethel M. Washington

Preserve the Shady Rest Committee is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization