- Historic Sites
The Country Club
For a century now it has been a haven to some, an outrage to others—and it is one of the very few social institutions that have survived their founders’ world
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
The Tuxedo Club has two other minor claims to fame. It was the first place that women could ride astride without causing a scandal. And it was where the game of bridge was first played in this country, in 1893.
By the turn of the century, country clubs were well established near every major American city and in every fashionable resort. Among them were The Country Club and the Myopia near Boston, the Meadow Brook and Rockaway on Long Island, the Westchester Country Club and Ardsley Casino in Westchester, the Morris County Golf Club in New Jersey, the Merion Cricket Club in Philadelphia, the Baltimore Country Club, the Chevy Chase, and the Burlingame in far-off San Francisco.
One sport conspicuously absent from the early country clubs is the one today most associated with them, golf. Golf, an early version of which had appeared in Holland, was played in this country in early colonial days but practically disappeared around the time of the War of 1812, not to reappear until the 1880s, just when the country club was coming into being.
As with country clubs, the argument as to which was the first American golf course of the modern era is hotly contested. The very first seems to have been built in Foxburg, Pennsylvania, in 1885. The first important golf club, however, was founded in 1888 in an apple orchard in Yonkers, New York, and named St. Andrews after the Scottish course. This club moved several times in its early years but has been in Hastings-on-Hudson since 1897.
The early days of golf at American country clubs were very informal. The tools of the game, which originally had to be imported from Montreal, the epicenter of golf in North America, had wonderful names like cleek, midiron, and mashie instead of numbers. The courses were small and rough: the five-hole course at Tuxedo had no bunkers or hazards because, as one of the members explained, “the course [itself] was one big hazard.”
Often golf furnished an excuse for serious drinking before, after, and even during the game. The nineteenth hole, a phrase coined in the 1920s, is still a prominent and highly profitable part of most country clubs. This in turn encouraged gamesmanship of a sort that would not be tolerated among most of today’s more formal and vastly more serious golfers. At Tuxedo Park an early member named Walker B. Smith was a master of such dubious tactics.
At one home-and-home match with St. Andrews, Smith took on John C. Ten Eyck. “After we had played three holes,” Ten Eyck recalled, “Walker B., that most gracious monster, turned to me and said, ‘Golf requires two things, courage and the ability to keep your eye on the ball.’ Whereupon he drew a large flask of Scotch whiskey from his pocket. This whiskey,’ he said, ‘supplies the courage. Will you have some?’ I declined and Walker B. without apology took a copious draught himself. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I will keep my eye on the ball,’ and producing a glass eye from his pocket [Smith had lost an eye in a childhood hunting accident], he balanced it carefully on his ball and proceeded to wallop both the ball and the eye down the fairway.”
By the spring of 1895 some forty country clubs featured golf courses. Then suddenly golf exploded in popularity, and by the summer of that year more than a hundred courses were in operation. The upper middle class of successful, often self-made businessmen, loved golf. Indeed, the popularity of golf was probably the most important factor in keeping country clubs from being solely the preserve of the leisured upper class characterized by “old money.”
In the first great business deal of the twentieth century, Charles Schwab, at the St. Andrews course in Hastings-on-Hudson, persuaded Andrew Carnegie, a Scotsman and passionate golfer, to sell out to J. P. Morgan in 1901 and allow the formation of U.S. Steel. While many clubs have maintained strict rules against bringing out business papers in the clubhouse, what conversations go on on the golf course is up to the golfers. In the 1950s a prominent Seattle law firm candidly admitted that one of its partners was in the firm not because he was so great a lawyer but because he was a first-rate golfer, particularly adept at gaining new clients on the links, and belonged to a couple of very prestigious country clubs.
The early urban clubs in this country, such as New York’s Union Club and Boston’s Somerset, out of which the original impetus for country clubs had come, had been modeled on the great London clubs that developed in the eighteenth century. These clubs were strictly for men and would remain so until after the Second World War. They existed, in fact, so that their married members could get away from their families and the often stifling proprieties of the Victorian home. But the country club, as the one in Brookline’s prospectus stated, was “for the use of members with their families.” The inclusion of women and children in the activities of the country club was revolutionary and separated country clubs from all other kinds, for the country club immediately became a social center as well as a sports center.