“Has It Ever Happened to You?”

June 26, 1909

James Montgomery Flagg

“Has It Ever Happened to You?”

Sports and Recreation; Women, Sports;

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He had offered her a stroke a hole--he is now five down, and playing even--and he did so want to make an impression.

This double-page cartoon about golf points to several trends in early-twentieth century America:  the rise of the sport's popularity (at least among the well-to-do), the social acceptability of women playing golf, the model of the independent young woman (who anticipates the flapper of the 1920s), and the increased liberty in dating (the couple does not appear to be chaperoned).  The young man has, to his way of thinking, been gallant by giving the young woman a stroke a hole.  The condescending move, however, has left him perplexed as the woman has pulled even and is about to sink a putt on the sixth hole, while his ball has already come up short.  How will he demonstrate his worth as a man if the woman proves to be his equal (or--horrid thought--wins!)?  Meanwhile, the amused caddies confer in the background.

The exact origins of golf are lost in the mists of history, but the ancient Romans played a prototype of the sport with club-shaped sticks and feather-stuffed balls.  A similar game appeared in other European countries, and Scotland and England both lay claims to have developed the modern sport.  St. Andrews, Scotland, is the home of the oldest golf course in the world, dating back to the sixteenth century.  With the expansion of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, gutta-percha, a rubber like gum from Southeast Asia, replaced feathers in golf balls.  The first British Open was played at Prestwick, Scotland, in 1860.

Although popular in the British Isles, attempts since colonial times to introduce golf to America failed until the 1880s.  In 1882, John Reid opened the first country club in the United States at Brookline, Massachusetts.  Along with hunting, racing, and polo, the wealthy members could play golf.  In 1888, St. Andrews Club in Yonkers, New York, opened as the nation's first golf club, and other courses soon appeared in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities, usually in suburban areas.  In 1893, the Chicago Golf Club near Wheaton, Illinois, became the first 18-hole course in the country (previous courses being 6-, 8-, 9-, and 12-hole).  The following year, the United States Golf Association was founded, and by 1898 counted 103 clubs as members.  During the 1890s, the sport spread westward, with 20 courses in the Pacific coast states by 1897.

In earlier decades, social norms for women deemed that, except for horseback riding (side-saddle) and ice-skating, the strenuous exertion of sports was improper for ladies.  More liberal attitudes in the 1890s allowed women to participate (often with men) in cycling, lawn tennis, and golf.  The latter was particularly respectable for upper-class women because it required less physical exertion than many sports.  The illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson in the 1890s popularized an image of the ideal American young woman as tall, beautiful, and physically fit.  The Gibson Girl was based on the elite sportswoman of the period.  Gone were the corsets and bustles, replaced by a shirtwaist and long skirt that emphasized her natural figure.  These idealized sportswomen were independent and sexy, though assumed to be innocent, unlike the worldlier 1920s flapper.

While women golfers were allowed on men's courses in the early years of the sport's arrival in America, they were often restricted to off-peak hours.  Consequently, women began to organize their own golf associations in the 1890s, and even opened a women's golf course at Morris Country Club in New Jersey.  The first national golf championship for women was held in 1895, only one year after the first men's championship.  In 1900, Margaret Abbott won an Olympic gold medal in golf, the first American woman to achieve that honor.  In the twentieth century, women like Mildred "Babe" Zaharias brought new prestige to women's golf and helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association.  In 1976, Judy Rankin became the first woman to win over $100,000 as a professional golfer, while Kathy Whitworth passed the $1 million mark in 1981.

One sports historian has labeled the first two decades of the twentieth century the “great years” for golf.  Inspired by a visit to the Goodrich Rubber factory in Akron, Ohio, amateur golfer Dr. Coburn Haskell introduced a rubber-core golf ball in 1902.  The innovation made the sport livelier and consequently attracted more participants.  Golf in the United States was also enhanced in the early-twentieth century by the promotional tours or immigration of top professional players from the British Isles.  In 1908, the year this cartoon appeared, Harper’s Weekly presented a series of sketches (including one in this issue) on famous (male) professional golfers.  Golf continued to grow in popularity throughout the twentieth, although it remained a sport of the wealthy until well after World War I. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“Has It Ever Happened to You?”
July 14, 2024

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