It’s hard to believe today, in this age of celebrity worship, that professional golfers were once second-class citizens. But in the early 1900s, as golf first took root in the U.S., making a living at the game was considered an unrespectable occupation. Amateur golf ruled the day; pros were on a par with caddies and weren’t allowed in most clubhouses.
Department-store heir Rodman Wanamaker was instrumental in changing the golf pro’s lot. He wasn’t being altruistic: he helped them because they could help him make more money. In fact, Wanamaker wasn’t even a golfer. But he thought golf professionals would increase sales of endorsed clubs at his namesake store in New York City if they were part of an association with a national championship that would help elevate their status.
On January 17, 1916, Wanamaker invited a number of prominent pros, including Walter Hagen, top amateurs, and industry leaders to a luncheon at the Taplow Club in his store on Broadway. From that beginning, the PGA of America was founded on April 10th with 35 charter members. The inaugural PGA Championship was held that October at Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, N.Y., with Wanamaker donating the trophy and a purse of $2,580.
Wanamaker had other causes besides golf, including the arts, education, aviation, and Native Americans. His support of athletics led to the 1908 creation of track-and-field’s Millrose Games, which were named after his beloved country estate in Pennsylvania and still take place each February at Madison Square Garden; the featured race is the Wanamaker Mile. The tradition of opening sporting events with the Star Spangled Banner also came out of the Millrose Games.
Wanamaker funded early expeditions to the North Pole and built the first multi-engine plane to fly across the Atlantic, piloted by Admiral Richard Byrd a few days after Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight in 1927.
Wanamaker died the next year at age 65, yet his contributions are still visible, perhaps most notably when one fortunate golf professional lifts the 27-pound Wanamaker Trophy for winning the PGA Championship.
Less visible but no less important is the respect we give to the 28,000 men and women who make up the PGA of America.