Identifying the oldest and still operating course in each of the 50 states has all the makings of a good detective story
WHAT: I thought it would be easy to identify the oldest golf course in each state. Silly me. The first step was defining what we were looking for, which is a course that still inhabits any part of its original land, no matter how many renovations or restorations followed. In some cases, today’s courses are very much as they were when they opened; in others, perhaps a hole or two still exists, if that. What followed was sifting through competing claims and unsubstantiated, sometimes contradictory, information. The chase was on.
HOW: Hours on the internet, followed by sending emails, making phone calls, and trying to reach a club pro, general manager, or local “historian” who could vouch for a course’s provenance. To all of them and many others, thank you.
WHERE: Armed with the names of likely candidates, the task became comparing where a course was originally located and where it is now. Because golf took hold in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century, as the country was industrializing and fortunes were being made, most of the first courses were close to cities, the centers of commerce and fortune. As those cities grew, many early courses were forced to move further and further away from downtown, into what are now suburbs or even exurbs.
WHEN: This is where things get murky. Many courses don’t have records. Or what passes for a club history is really just one early member’s memories. Also, many of today’s golf clubs hosted other sports first and added golf later, so the founding date proudly touted on their logos and websites actually refers to a time well before there was a course.
WHO: Digging into a course’s history usually uncovered the names of the man or men (and it was almost always men) who got things started. Often someone saw golf played in another state or country, brought a few clubs and balls back home, cleared some land, stuck tomato cans (and it was almost always tomatoes) in the ground, and invited a few friends to play the new game. There are also tales of financial success and ruin, angry members breaking off to start their own clubs, and club presidents both benevolent and malicious. It’s great stuff.
WHY: Because golfers should want to know the history not only of their own course but those that paved the way. Because clubs should be encouraged to dig into their pasts and celebrate them. And because I’m sure this list has some mistakes, so if you know something is incorrect, let me know.
|State||Course||City||Course Opening Date||Status (today)|
|Alabama||Highland Park Golf Course||Birmingham||1903||Public|
|Alaska||Fairbanks Golf Course||Fairbanks||1946||Public|
|Arizona||San Marcos Golf Course||Chandler||1913||Resort|
|Arkansas||Hot Springs Country Club (Park Course)||Hot Springs||1898||Semi-Private|
|California||Catalina Island Golf Course||Avalon||1892||Public|
|Colorado||Overland Park Golf Course||Denver||1895||Public|
|Connecticut||Greenwich Country Club||Greenwich||1892||Private|
|Delaware||Ed Oliver Golf Club||Wilmington||1901||Public|
|Florida or||Belleair Country Club||Belleair||1897||Private|
|Florida||The Breakers Resort (Ocean Course)||Palm Beach||1897||Resort|
|Georgia||Glen Arven Country Club||Thomasville||1892||Private|
|Hawaii||Moanalua Golf Club||Honolulu||1898||Public|
|Idaho||Hayden Lake Country Club||Hayden Lake||1912||Private|
|Illinois||Downers Grove Golf Club||Downers Grove||1892||Public|
|Iowa||Fairfield Golf & Country Club||Fairfield||1892||Private|
|Kansas||Topeka Country Club||Topeka||1906||Private|
|Kentucky||Middlesboro Country Club||Middlesboro||1889||Public|
|Louisiana||The Golf Club at Audubon Park||New Orleans||1898||Public|
|Maine||Kebo Valley Golf Club||Bar Harbor||1891||Public|
|Maryland||The Elkridge Club||Baltimore||1894||Private|
|Massachusetts||The Country Club||Brookline||1893||Private|
|Michigan||Harbor Point Golf Club||Harbor Springs||1896||Public|
|Minnesota||Town & Country Club||St. Paul||1893||Private|
|Mississippi||Laurel Country Club||Laurel||1919||Private|
|Missouri||Log Cabin Club||St. Louis||1899||Private|
|Montana||Livingston Golf Course||Livingston||1905||Public|
|Nebraska||Field Club of Omaha||Omaha||1898||Private|
|Nevada||Washoe Golf Course||Reno||1917||Public|
|New Hampshire||Exeter Country Club||Exeter||1889||Public|
|New Jersey||Lawrenceville School Golf Course||Lawrence Township||1896||Private|
|New Mexico||The Lodge at Cloudcroft||Cloudcroft||1899||Public|
|New York||Shinnecock Hills Golf Club||Southampton||1891||Private|
|North Carolina||Pinehurst No. 1||Pinehurst||1897||Public|
|North Dakota||Fargo Country Club||Fargo||1898||Public|
|Ohio||Cincinnati Country Club||Cincinnati||1895||Private|
|Oklahoma||Guthrie Golf & Country Club||Guthrie||1900||Public|
|Oregon||Gearhart Golf Links||Gearhart||1892||Public|
|Pennsylvania||Foxburg Country Club||Foxburg||1887||Public|
|Rhode Island||Newport Country Club||Newport||1893||Private|
|South Carolina||Palmetto Golf Club||Aiken||1892||Private|
|South Dakota||Two Rivers Golf Club||Dakota Dunes||1909||Public|
|Tennessee||Chattanooga Golf & Country Club||Chattanooga||1896||Private|
|Texas||Hancock Golf Course||Austin||1899||Public|
|Utah||Forest Dale Golf Course||Salt Lake City||1906||Public|
|Vermont||Dorset Field Club||Dorset||1886||Private|
|Virginia||Omni Homestead Resort (Old Course)||Hot Springs||1892||Public|
|Washington||Wing Point Golf & Country Club||Bainbridge Island||1903||Private|
|West Virginia||Wheeling Country Club||Wheeling||1902||Private|
|Wisconsin||Eagle Springs Resort||Eagle||1893||Public|
|Wyoming||Cheyenne Country Club||Cheyenne||1917||Private|
Selected Course Stories
Alabama – Highland Park Golf Course
Originally the Country Club of Birmingham, it was the site of two early Bobby Jones victories in 1915 and ’16—when he was 13 and 14 years old.
Florida – Belleair Country Club and the Ocean Course at The Breakers Resort
We know both courses began in 1897, but which came first? At Belleair, none of the original six holes are still in use, but Donald Ross came in 1915 and redid the course in part over the same land. The Ocean Course claims to be Florida’s oldest. Alex Findlay (see Oklahoma) laid out the course, which was redone by Rees Jones in 2018.
Illinois – Downers Grove Golf Club
When people say Chicago Golf Club was the first 18-hole course in the U.S., they mean this course. C.B. Macdonald built the first nine holes in 1892 and convinced the members to add nine more the next year. CGC moved to its current site in Wheaton, and built a new course, in 1895. In 1899 and with new owners, this was renamed Belmont Golf Club and at some point trimmed to nine holes, with several of the originals still intact. In 1968, it was purchased by the Downers Grove Park District, and in 2023, it will again become Belmont Golf Club. Holes 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, and 9 are said to be original.
Iowa – Fairfield Golf & Country Club
According to the club, a Dr. J.F. Clarke was returning from a medical meeting in Philadelphia in early 1892 when he stopped in Chicago and, having just read an article in Harper’s Weekly about golf, bought a wooden driver and three balls. Back in Fairfield, the good doctor and his nephew “melted the tops from a few empty tomato cans, to be used as holes.” They set the cans in a nearby pasture, and by May of that year the club was organized. The course soon had seven holes, named Alpha, Diagonal, Long, Range, Stumpie, Grassie, and Omega. They played out and back for a total of 14 holes.
Massachusetts – The Country Club
Like many other clubs, it was not formed for golf. Founded in 1882, most of the members came to ride horses and enjoy other sports. In early 1893, the original six-hole course was designed and built by members and overlapped an existing racetrack. Scotsman Willie Campbell was hired that same year as the club’s first golf professional and oversaw the expansion of the course to nine and then 18 holes by 1899.
Minnesota – Town & Country Club
Began in 1887 as a social club. When golf was added in 1893, it was slow to catch on. In fact, when $50 was requested to purchase a set of “real” golf holes and flags—to replace tomato cans and fishing poles—it was voted down because “golf was a silly game which could not possibly last.” A 9-hole course was built by 1898.
Missouri – Log Cabin Club
Probably the most private club in the city, its members are local movers and shakers. There are many old clubs in St. Louis, but almost all of them moved as the city grew. Log Cabin has an arrangement with the adjacent—and almost as private—Bogey Club to share their 9-hole courses.
Nevada – Washoe Golf Course
This course was founded by a woman, Gourtley Dunn-Webb, the niece of architect Willie Dunn and believed to be the only female golf instructor in the U.S. at the time. Supposedly she designed the course and was its first golf pro, too.
New Jersey – Lawrenceville School Golf Course
There is evidence, not conclusive, that John Reid Jr., son of the man behind the formation of New York’s St. Andrew’s Golf Club and the original “Apple Tree Gang,” planted the seeds of golf at Lawrenceville School while a student there in the 1890s. Junior probably laid out a few rudimentary holes in 1895, which were replaced the following year near, but not on, the same site.
New Mexico – The Lodge at Cloudcroft
According to the resort, for its first 50 years this was the highest altitude course in North America at 9,000 feet. Today it’s number five.
North Carolina – Pinehurst No 1
Donald Ross was not the original designer, but he redid the course—and began a lifelong association with Pinehurst—four years later, in 1901.
North Dakota – Fargo Country Club
Three holes from the original 9-hole course opened in 1898 were used to create a par-3 “pitch and putt” at the club in 1965. One hole, no. 4, remains intact. In the 1930s, a new irrigation system for the then 18-hole course was paid for with the proceeds from three slot machines at the club.
Oklahoma – Guthrie Golf & Country Club
Designed by Alex Findlay, a Scot who came to the U.S. in the early 1880s to manage a ranch in Nebraska, where, it’s said, he laid out a course in 1885. He later played exhibitions in America with Harry Vardon and would design more than 100 courses. This is his only one in Oklahoma.
Pennsylvania – Foxburg Country Club
Joseph Mickle Fox of Philadelphia went to the UK in 1874 to play cricket. After a match in Edinburgh, he visited St. Andrews to see golf being played and met Old Tom Morris, who taught Fox the basics and sold him some clubs and gutta-percha balls. Back home, Fox dug some holes on his summer estate and invited others to play. In 1887, he provided the land that became—and remains—Foxburg.
Texas – Hancock Golf Course
A young Harvey Penick caddied here when it was the original site of Austin Country Club.
Vermont – Dorset Field Club
Widely regarded as the oldest continually operating golf club in the U.S.
Virginia – Old Course at Omni Homestead Resort
Began as a 6-hole course, and claims to have the oldest continually used first tee in the U.S.
Wisconsin – Eagle Springs Resort
It is believed that A.G. Spalding—former baseball pitcher and manager of the Chicago White Stockings—built the first two holes here and “let nature dictate the rest of the 18.” Spalding also started a sporting-goods store in Chicago that became the manufacturer of the same name.