Baltimore's Open shot

Championship: In 1899, Baltimore Country Club -- then located in Roland Park -- played host to the U.S. Open and Willie Smith's record 11-stroke win. It was the only time the men's U.S. Open has been played here

June 18, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The champion took home $150 in prize money and a $50 medal. The margin of victory -- 11 strokes -- is still the record for a U.S. Open championship. The golf course on which it was played closed more than three decades ago.

But go out to the elevated first tee at the original Baltimore Country Club in Roland Park and envision what it must have been like a century ago. Gaze out from the 100-foot drop and turn back the clock.

Jack Emich has.

"I could picture the U.S. Open being played there," he said last week. "It was a very fine golf course, with a lot of tradition. And that tradition started with the Open."

Emich and his wife, Jane, have lived across from the club for the past 45 years and have been members there and at its current Five Farms location for 53 years. Combined, they have won 17 individual club championships.

Now 81, Emich has heard enough stories, read enough accounts and seen enough pictures to figure out what it must have been like to have witnessed the 1899 U.S. Open.

"I thought the scoring was pretty interesting, especially when you consider the kind of equipment they were playing with," he said.

The tournament featured a record single-round score for the then 5-year-old Open, a third-round 75 by Jack Park that was only five shots more than the legendary Harry Vardon's world record at the time.

And it ended with a Scot named Willie Smith, a pro at the Midlothian Country Club in Chicago, winning in a runaway.

Not only did Smith's margin of victory in a major championship set a record that would stand for 98 years -- it was finally broken when Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots -- but Smith's play established the mind-set that still goes into winning the Open. The 99th version is under way at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in Pinehurst, N.C.

"Smith's scores -- 77, 82, 79 and 77 -- show a steadiness which cannot fail to win out in a long match," The Sun reported. "And while others went around in fewer strokes [for one round] than he did, he struck a good gnit and persistently refused to do anything startling. He was not lacking in nerve, but he took no chances "

The 1899 Open broke ground in other ways. It was the first to be played in a city. It was the first played south of the Mason-Dixon line, mostly because courses in the North were irrigated.

"The club distinguished itself with its Southern hospitality," said Paul Spellman, general manager of the Baltimore Country Club.

The pros -- "or profs," as they were called -- were given a tent in which to change clothes, and relax with a post-round pipe or pint. Generally, pros were not allowed inside the clubs they represented.

Smith was one of five golfing brothers from Carnoustie, Scotland. Another brother, Alex, finished seventh that year but would go on to win three U.S. Open titles. Like the Smiths, most of the pros were Scots who answered ads to come to America and work in what had become the latest rage -- private golf clubs. "One only had to shut his eyes while listening to the conversation to imagine himself at St. Andrews," wrote The Sun.

Among the Americans were John and C.S. Shippen of the Aronimink Golf Club in Philadelphia, whose ethnic heritage was black and Native American, as well as Native American Oscar Bunn, a Shinnecock representing the Lake Placid (N.Y.) Golf Club.

In researching the history of the club, one of the first 15 members of the fledgling U.S. Golf Association, Spellman came to learn much about the 1899 Open and the course on which it was played.

Baltimore Country Club, which had opened the previous year, was the first 18-hole course built in Maryland. It was the centerpiece of Roland Park, one of the country's first golf course communities.

"As a result of a depression in 1890, the Roland Park Company laid out the golf course to draw families to the community," said Spellman.

The lack of built-in irrigation for the course almost proved disastrous. Since much of the soil in Roland Park was clay, a prolonged drought had dried out the greens. Only by covering the greens with "shades" after it had rained was the tournament saved.

The 72-hole, two-day tournament, held on a crisp weekend in mid-September, drew 81 players from around the country. It was preceded by a long-driving contest in which one of the participants, W.V. Hoare of Dayton, Ohio, hit a winning blast of just over 269 yards and a 7-year-old caddie named Gus Henze reportedly hit a shot 150 yards.

On opening day, The Sun said, "the links were dotted with `galleries,' gayly attired in red coats and other distinctive golf paraphernalia, following the best known cracks [crackerjacks] as they struggled for a commanding position which will make one of them the happiest golfer in America."

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