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Yale and Columbia Throwback Match Celebrates the Birth of College Golf

The schools will play a holes-won scoring match at Saint Andrews Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. to commemorate the first college golf match played in 1896.
The New York Times on Sunday, Nov. 8, 1896.

News of Yale's win (top left) in the New York Times on Sunday, Nov. 8, 1896.

Welcome to (pick one): The Big Showdown; The Revenge Bowl; The Clash of the Titans; or the Mostly Civil War. Call it what you wish, it’s the golf match 125 years in the making…

Yale versus Columbia.

It isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.

All right, ignore that phony hype. It will actually be a celebration when Yale University plays Columbia University on Friday at storied Saint Andrews Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. The occasion is the 125th anniversary of these two schools inventing intercollegiate golf.

The teams played Nov. 6, 1896, at Ardsley Casino (now Ardsley Country Club) in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Golf was still new to America but had “found its way among the colleges,” The New York Times reported before the historic first-ever match.

Harvard, Penn and Princeton were also invited to compete but the first two schools were unable to field teams. Princeton had a team but took a pass because its athletes didn’t want to miss the school’s football game against Harvard.

That left Yale and Columbia to field six-man teams for a match with holes-won scoring (versus the now-traditional matches-won format). Yale crushed Columbia, 35-0. That’s right, the beleaguered Lions didn’t win a single hole in six matches. It was a precursor to Yale’s dominance in early 1900s golf, including a stretch of nine straight national collegiate titles starting in 1905.

Yale versus Columbia wasn’t the biggest event of 1896, which saw the discovery of X-rays, Utah added as the 45th state, the creation of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the first modern Olympic Games in Athens and a Presidential election won by William McKinley, but it was a significant date for college golf.

The 125th anniversary might have slid by unnoticed if not for Yale golf coach Colin Sheehan, who dug up newspaper clippings and got together with Columbia director of golf Rich Mueller to set up this unique match.

“I’m a history major, this is what I do,” Sheehan said with a laugh. “I archive all this stuff. This isn’t work. It’s fun. I called Rich and told him, We’re not going to be around for the 150th anniversary so let’s celebrate this. Now’s the time.”

Said Mueller, “It was a revelation. It means our programs are 125 years old, which is pretty incredible. Our players are super excited to be part of this.”

Saint Andrews, the Columbia team’s home course, was founded in 1888 and is the oldest private golf club in America. Jack Nicklaus remodeled the course extensively in 1985. Foxburg Country Club, a nine-hole track in Foxburg, Pa., that started in 1887, is America’s oldest continuously-operated golf course and has remained relatively unchanged

“The closer we get, this takes on new meaning,” Mueller said. “We all strive to have some relevance in the game, whether it’s winning a tournament or just being part of a team. This is a once-in-a-lifetime match. Our players were talking about it during the van ride back from Saint Andrews the other day and they are incredibly humbled and honored.”

The event has added significance because the players lost a year of competition. Due to the Covid pandemic, the Ivy League canceled varsity sports in March 2020, for more than a year. Plus, these golf athletes are Ivy Leaguers, not scholarship athletes. They compete for the love of the game.

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“Academics are the top priority for our guys,” Sheehan said. “The kids that play for Rich and I are basically paying approximately $80,000 a year for the privilege of competing. In 1896, the people who loved this sport enjoyed the aspect of being on a team to represent their university. That’s as true today as it was 125 years ago.”

This Yale-Columbia match will feature seven-man lineups and the same holes-won format as the original 1896 event.

“It’s cool for us to be entrenched in the history and be part of the anniversary of the first intercollegiate golf match at the oldest private country club in the U.S.” said Columbia’s Patrick Healy, a junior from Centerport, N.Y. “All of us are excited to be part of something so special.”

The original match didn’t go so well for the Lions, according to the Columbia Spectator in November, 1896: “The Yale team is one of the best and most experienced amateur golf teams in the country and apparently had no difficulty in beating our men, who were playing their first match as a team. None of the Columbia men succeeded in beating his opponent… R. Betts played an admirable game and his second nine holes, 42 strokes, was the best round of the day. The Columbia men must not be discouraged at the result.”

The Columbia Spectator's coverage of the 1895 golf event.

The Columbia Spectator's coverage of the first college golf event.

Thanks to Sheehan’s research, it hasn’t been forgotten that Princeton’s players missed being part of collegiate history in favor of watching football. “We’ve given the Princeton coach a ton of crap about that,” joked Mueller. “My gosh, how Division I athletics have changed, Can you imagine telling your coach, ‘I’m going to watch the football game instead?’ We’ve all had a good chuckle about that.”

Said Sheehan, “It was probably unfair to invite Princeton and Harvard on a big football weekend. I can’t blame them. That game was the height of popular entertainment back then.”

The scoring system will be a novelty in the rematch. Today’s players are used to stroke play and posting 18-hole scores while competing in 10- or 12- or 15-team invitationals. Five players compete and the best four scores comprise the team total. Even in match play, the only number that matters is the final score, such as 1up or 3 & 2. Counting both players’ holes won will be very different.

“Potentially, you could lose the first nine holes, then win the next nine and still get nine points for the team,” Columbia’s Mueller said. “It’s like your match is never over. I can’t remember doing anything like this. It should be pretty fun.”

The seven-man teams will play in twosomes. They will be announced on the first tee, along with the names of the men who played in each comparable 1896 match. Mueller said it isn’t confirmed but in keeping with the day’s fun factor, he’s asked his son to be the emcee-starter on the first tee.

His son is nine. His name is Kurt.

“My son is a complete ham and will have no problem speaking in a loud, boisterous voice,” Mueller said.

As for the matches, he added, “My goal is to provide everybody with a memory and a great experience. It hasn’t been said enough but this is really an important moment for Yale and Columbia. They’re part and parcel to the birth of intercollegiate golf.”

Friday, they’ll be part of an anniversary commemoration. And, a rematch.

“Being a sports fan and seeing the score of the previous match (35-0) bothers me,” said Columbia’s D.J. Francey, a sophomore from Weston, Fla. “These schools are not particularly rivals but we’d definitely like to flip the script. I know 125 years is obviously a special mark of time but we should do this every year.”

It’s not a bad idea. Don’t tell Princeton.