This is the first in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open Championship, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
Picture this: Women golfers in a USGA championship at Merion Cricket Club. No short skirts, baseball caps, soft spikes or composite club shafts. Instead, their long, cumbersome skirts trail in the dust and billowing sleeves obscure the ball. Their shoes are clumsy brogans and they all wear hats. The shafts of their clubs are fashioned from hickory, which deadens in humidity and picks up a springier flex when the weather is dry. It is 1904.
Merion’s clubhouse at that time, affectionately called, “The Cottage,” is just that – a two-and-a-half story building with a long enclosed porch and dormer windows, perched on a hill above the golf course. Flags snap in the breeze and give the cottage a jaunty air. A few hundred spectators follow the matches. Most walk but some slowly circle the dirt roads around the course in early versions of the American automobile.
One keen spectator, Arthur Pottow, closely resembles his modern compatriots. Pottow is a reporter. Like today’s scribes, he strides after the matches wielding paper and a stub of pencil. That has never changed and without Pottow, we would have no record of that long-ago championship.
Pottow covers the championship for Golf, “by appointment an official bulletin of the United States Golf Association.” The publication wasestablished in 1894, the year in which the USGA was founded. When the USGA conducted its first national championships in 1895, the association conducted a U.S. Women’s Amateur championship along with the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. That move put the USGA in the forefront of promoting women’s competitive golf on a national level.
As a reporter, Pottow wasn’t focusing on Georgianna Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. Of greater interest were Charlotte “Lottie” Dod, of England, the reigning British champion, and the Curtis sisters, Harriot and Margaret, stalwart players who would win four Women’s Amateur championships between them.
The 86 entries, up by two over 1903, were dominated by Easterners. Pottow wrote that the Western entry was “disappointing.” Two contestants were from Chicago, but Frances Everett, recent winner of the Women’s Western Championship, failed to enter. “Merely a few Pittsburgh players, and one Miss Ada Smith, of Los Angeles, being the sole representatives of other sections of the country,” Pottow wrote.
The venue was a Merion course in Haverford, Pa., that no longer exists. Its architect is forgotten. More likely, Merion Cricket Club members laid out the early holes, perhaps with the assistance of a knowledgeable golfer. At 5,861 yards, however, the course was played at full stretch and competitors teed off from the back tees. Three of the holes were longer than 400 yards. After 18 holes of qualifying, Dod, Harriot Curtis and F. Louise Vanderhoef tied for medalist honors with respectable rounds of 93. Two years before, in 1902, Margaret Curtis had become the first to crack 90 in qualifying with an 87 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Dod, Vanderhoef and Harriot Curtis played off for the medal. Curtis dropped out at the 16th green, suffering from wayward shots, and Vanderhoef won the playoff on the 20th hole.
When the matches began, Dod went out in the first round, taking some of the luster from the scoreboard. Pottow, expecting the Englishwoman to march through the ranks to the final, followed every stroke and was dismayed at the outcome. Dod’s nemesis, Pauline Mackay, he wrote, “… has always been rated as a good player, but it was not expected that she would win…” He spent some 600 words excusing Dod’s loss and somewhat blaming the result on Merion’s dry, hard-baked turf. “It was quite impossible to play through the green in the same manner as would be done in England or Scotland,” Pottow wrote. Harriot Curtis was also ousted and of the favorites, only Margaret Curtis advanced but Margaret went out, 1 up, in the third round.
Bad weather bombarded the players in the second match-play round. “It was raining in torrents and a gale was blowing,” Pottow wrote. “The balls did not roll a yard and the greens were sopping wet. Everyone wore heavy sweaters and some attired themselves completely in rubber.” Photos of the championship show male USGA officials following the matches, wearing coats, ties, long pants, hats and carrying umbrellas.
Bishop advanced with a 4-and-3 win over Mrs. Batchelder and Mrs. E. F. Sanford, of Essex County Country Club in West Orange, N.J., got past the redoubtable Mrs. Caleb Fox on the 19th hole.
Pottow got down to business in the 19th paragraph by describing the semifinal match between Katherine Harley and Bishop, the eventual champion: “…their putting was very bad, putts of a foot and even of eight inches being missed by both players.” Despite a mediocre 49 on the outward nine, Bishop won, 4 and 3.
If there was a favorite in the 18-hole final, it was Sanford. In photographs, she seems an imposing figure, a heavy-set woman with a prominent chin and an intimidating glare. The more slender Bishop, the daughter of a physician and granddaughter of a clergyman, looked less impressive. A slighter figure than Mrs. Sanford, the 25-year-old Connecticut player had no real national reputation but, like Sanford, she was a product of the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association, one of the premier women’s golf associations in the United States.
Bishop and Sanford teed off for the title on Oct. 15. It was Georgianna’s 26th birthday and she had reason to pursue a terrific present – the national title. Bishop’s small reputation kept her under the radar, but she had never been taken further than the 16th green in any of her matches.
Sanford’s deadly touch on the greens, however, made her something of a favorite. As the players and their small band of spectators advanced around the Merion course, Sanford’s putting touch finally failed her. Through the green the two players hit good shots but failed somewhat in their putting. Bishop, many remarked, had a golf swing reminding them of Walter Travis and was “wonderfully good on her short approaches,” Pottow commented.
Sanford was nervous. On the first hole she had half-topped her third shot, slicing badly. Both missed easy putts in the early going, but Bishop kept edging ahead and, after a 48 on the outward nine, with the usual match-play concessions, she was 2 up on Sanford, who turned in 50. Bishop won the 10th and 11th holes with “perfect golf,” Pottow wrote. With a 4-up lead at the 15th, Bishop landed in a ditch but made what was considered a remarkable recovery and put a 6 on the card. When Sanford missed a short putt, Bishop won the hole and the match, 5 and 3.
It was the highlight of her competitive career. Never again would she advance so far in the national championship. In 1905, Bishop was co-medalist in the Women’s Amateur and won the medal outright in 1914. Merion Cricket Club hosted the Women’s Amateur again in 1909, but Bishop’s national glory was fading and she lost in the first round of match play.
By 1910 the lively Haskell ball was making the old Cricket Club obsolete and Hugh Wilson, a member, was drafted to tour the great English courses and come up with a new plan for Merion. The course in Haverford was abandoned, and Wilson’s new 18-hole layout, which is now Merion’s East Course, was built on its present site in 1912 in Ardmore, two miles from the course where Georgianna Bishop inscribed her name in the history of the game.
As she advanced in age, Bishop played some of her best golf in the Connecticut Women’s Amateur, winning four titles between 1920 and 1927. In 1959, she was inducted into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame. Georgianna Millington Bishop died in 1971, six weeks before her 93rd birthday. She is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at email@example.com.