By Steve Pike
Depending on which source you believe, the “father of American Golf” is either John Reid, Charles Blair Macdonald, Francis Ouimet, or Donald Ross, all names well known to even the casual golf historian.
But there’s a case to be made for another potential progenitor: Alexander H. Findlay, an accomplished golf course architect, player, club maker, and collector, and ambassador of the game from 1886 until his death in 1942.
“I’ve probably read 500 articles that say Alex is the father of American golf,” says Findlay’s grandson Richard, the keeper of the family’s golf legacy. “For me to say it would be inappropriate, but what the sports writers said…that carries some weight.”
A story in the September 27, 1931, edition of the Baltimore Sun described how Findlay had spread the “Gospel of Golf” from the plains of Nebraska to New England and south Florida for the previous 44 years. On February 23, 1898, a newspaper in St. Augustine, Florida, referred to Findlay as “the best known and most popular” golfer in the country. A 1935 article from an unknown newspaper (likely in Philadelphia) granted him paternity while detailing his collection of antique golf clubs, which dated back to 1770.
And in a late 1980s conversation with Findlay’s grandson Norman, renowned golf teacher Joe Norwood—whose career spanned 80 years beginning in 1910—said, “If I recall, it was back in 1905…I was the first to call your grandfather, ‘The Father of American Golf.’”
In 1905, Norwood would have been 13 and working in the golf department of Boston sporting goods company Wright & Ditson. His boss? A 40-year-old Alexander Findlay, who had already made his name as a talented golfer on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a cowboy, course architect, and club designer.
Findlay’s life—which sounds as if it could have come out of a dime-store novel popular at the time—began in 1865 onboard a ship called Red Sea sailing from London to Hull, England. The son of a career officer in the British Army, he spent his first seven years in England. Around the time the family moved to Montrose, Scotland—where his playmates included the future King George V—Alex received three hickory-shafted clubs and a gutta percha golf ball for his eighth birthday.
For the next five years, Findlay attended military school in Ireland, where he claimed to have introduced the natives to the game. “I took a club along and talked golf to the Irish,” he said in a 1938 newspaper interview. “They didn’t play then, but they do now.”
By 16, Findlay was a regular at Royal Montrose Golf Club, where he routinely scored in the 70s playing against professionals and amateurs. On August 6, 1886, the 20-year-old Findlay carded a 72 at Montrose, making him the first player on record to shoot 72 over 18 holes.
Later in the same year, Findlay left Scotland for the U.S., hoping to become a cowboy, thanks in large part to stories told by family friend Edward Millar, who owned the Merchiston Ranch in central Nebraska. In 1887, Findlay went to work for Millar.
It was on the Great Plains—about 130 miles west of Omaha in what is now Fullerton, Nebraska—that Findlay began sowing the seeds of his claim as America’s golf parent.
On April 4, 1887, Findlay supposedly dismounted his mustang pony, dropped a white gutty on the ground, and sent it flying over the Nebraska sand hills. That same day, he and Millar built a six-hole layout that Findlay’s supporters claim was the first golf course in the U.S.
“The people round about used to come and laugh at us for running after a white ball,” Findlay said in a February 22, 1926, interview with the London Evening Standard. “But at length I asked them to have a game and soon afterwards they were all keen to play. Before very long a golf club had been formed and the first steps to making America a golfing country had been taken.
“In those days, many people came to see us, and [Theodore] Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill [Cody] were friends of mine. I therefore think that I can claim to be the founder of golf in the States, and it gratifies me considerably that is now the chief game of the country, there being over 3,000,000 players and an ever-increasing number of clubs.”
In 1888, while working on the ranch, Findlay was kicked in the head and nearly killed by a horse. The next few years are a dark period in his life as he recovered from his injuries. It is believed that he kept working on the ranch while recuperating, but there are no records of him playing golf.
What is known is that in 1896, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler contracted Findlay to design the Palm Beach Golf Club, adjacent to the posh Breakers resort and the oldest course in Florida. As Flagler’s railroad stretched from the Northeast to Key West, he kept Findlay busy designing more courses, including the St. Augustine Golf Club, St. Augustine Country Club, Ormond Links Golf Club, Miami Golf Links, and Nassau Golf Links in the Bahamas, all in 1897. Also that year, Findlay returned to Nebraska to design the Omaha Golf Club and the Omaha Ladies Golf Club, neither of which exists today.
As if that weren’t enough, in June 1897, Findlay accepted a position with Wright & Ditson, then the largest sporting goods company in the country and soon to be acquired by A.G. Spalding and Co. Findlay’s responsibilities were wide-ranging: design golf clubs, design golf courses, and promote the game in the U.S. He would be an ambassador for the game and, just as important, an ambassador for the company’s products.
Among Findlay’s attributes was a strong friendship with Britain’s Harry Vardon, then the most famous golfer in the world. On a trip to England in 1899, Findlay talked Vardon into coming to the U.S. for a series of exhibition matches that would promote both the fledgling game and Spalding equipment, notably the short-lived Vardon Flyer, one of the last gutta-percha golf balls. Vardon was paid $40,000 or $50,000 (depending on the source) and barnstormed the country playing matches against, among others, Findlay.
Among their most famous contests was one held on February 22, 1900, at Palm Beach Golf Club. Vardon won the 36-hole match one-up in what the Palm Beach Tribune called the “greatest golf match ever played at Palm Beach.” Findlay and Vardon, who stayed on to win the 1900 U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club, played more than 4,000 holes of exhibition golf over the next few years.
In the meantime, Findlay continued designing golf courses, among them the original nine holes at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.; the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Field Club; Basking Ridge (N.J.) Country Club; Tavistock (N.J.) Country Club; Llanerch Country Club in Upper Darby, Pa.; and San Antonio Country Club. According to the family, Findlay was responsible for 130 courses in the U.S., about 90 of them built before 1900.
He also continued to run Wright & Ditson’s golf department, where in addition to young Joe Norwood, he mentored another young employee—Francis Ouimet.
Richard Findlay relates the meeting of his grandfather and Ouimet this way: “He said to Francis: ‘If you would bring me 50 golf balls, I’ll set you up with clubs and teach you how to use them.’ Ouimet found the balls at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. [his family lived across the street], and Alex, along with his friend from Montrose, Scotland, Charles Burgess, taught Francis how to play the game. The end results are quite fascinating.”
As was the life of Alexander Findlay. If not the father of American golf, there’s little doubt he was among its more important founders.
Steve Pike is an award-winning journalist who has written on golf subjects for two decades.