Robert D. Pryde and the first courses
As the Yale Alumni Weekly reported to its readers, the rage among seniors in the fall of 1896 was a new game, using hockey sticks and tennis balls to play golf through a makeshift course around campus buildings, which both fascinated and alarmed fellow students, faculty, and townspeople. For a more serious game, these same seniors shouldered a bag of clubs and climbed on the trolley car that took them out Prospect Street to the end of the line at Winchester Avenue, where they alighted to find a nine-hole course laid out across farmland just the year before. Golf had arrived at Yale with a passion
John Reid, a transplanted Scotsman, played his first round of golf in America on February 22, 1888. The course was three holes that he had laid out in a pasture across from his home in Yonkers, New York. By November of that year, he had enlisted four friends to establish the St. Andrew’s Golf Club with a longer course of six holes. They were known as the “Apple Tree Gang” because their clubhouse was a gnarly apple tree from which they hung their coats and their refreshments of scotch whiskey. They incorporated the St. Andrew’s Golf Club in 1894, and, with The Country Club, the Chicago Golf Club, the Newport Golf Club, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, they founded the United States Golf Association (usga) in 1895. The first usga amateur champion was Charles Blair Macdonald of the Chicago Golf Club. John Reid and his “Apple Tree Gang” kept moving their site until, in 1897, they built an eighteen-hole course that remains today at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York (the location has also been known as Mt. Hope and Ardsley).
Both John Reid and C. B. Macdonald were important figures in Yale golf, but to begin Yale’s story we should go back three years earlier than Reid’s fateful first round — to 1885 to the Scottish town of Tayport, in Fife, just north of the Old Course at St. Andrews. It was here that a 15-year-old Robert D. Pryde was learning to make and repair golf clubs as an apprentice in the shop of the Scotscraig Golf Club. The Scotscraig Golf Club was established in 1817 and is the thirteenth oldest club in the world. Pryde had attended Harris Academy in Dundee and the Technical College in Glasgow, where he qualified as a teacher in drawing. However, he was more drawn to golf and entered his apprenticeship. In 1892, at the age of twenty-two, he immigrated to America where, three years later, he found himself working as a cabinetmaker for David H. Clark in New Haven.
In the spring of 1895, Justus S. Hotchkiss, a retired New Haven businessman, decided that he wanted a cherry wood wardrobe built to match one in his home at the corner of Wall and Church Streets. He contacted David H. Clark, who sent his young employee, Robert Pryde, to begin the job. Golf was already in the mind of Justus Hotchkiss because he and Yale professor Theodore S. Woolsey had recently been given the task by the New Haven Lawn Club of exploring ways to start the new game of golf in New Haven. Hotchkiss discovered that the tradesman who was working in his home was from Scotland and was further delighted to learn of his love and knowledge of the game. Within a day of the meeting, Hotchkiss and Woolsey took Pryde around the city and together they found what Pryde later described as “suitable ground for a nine-hole course between Prospect Street and Winchester Avenue from Division to Goodrich Streets.” Hotchkiss and Woolsey rented the land, and by the time that he had finished the cherry cabinet, Pryde had also laid out and built the course! It was open for play when the College convened in the fall of 1895.
The New Haven Golf Club was organized in 1895. At the beginning, the membership was mostly Yale professors and undergraduates. The undergraduates, according to Pryde, “took to golf as easily as a duck to water.” They organized a separate Yale Golf Club in 1896, which was also known as the University Golf Club or The Golf Club. A team was chosen from among club members to play an inter-club match in October against Brooklawn Country Club members. The team’s first intercollegiate competition was in November against Columbia University.
At the New Haven Golf Club, Pryde was the greenskeeper. He made and repaired clubs and was “to instruct those who need it, and also to enter into a game with those who may be more advanced.” From Scotland, he imported red coats for the Yale team, which they wore when they won the first intercollegiate championship, administered in 1897 by the USGA.
That first “national” tournament included teams from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. Later, Dartmouth, Williams, and Cornell joined the competition. Yale, however, continued to dominate the intercollegiate championship, and, by 1913, it had captured twelve national titles. During this period, Pryde was at times referred to as “trainer” or as the “professional coach” of the golf team.
The New Haven Golf Club was expanded to eighteen holes, when it acquired the landfrom Goodrich Street to Millrock Road. Interestingly, it then covered 200 acres, which exceeds even the acreage of the current course. By 1898, professors and businessmen lobbied for another location where they could play without being crowded by undergraduates. The New Haven Country Club in Hamden was organized and, again, Pryde laid out the course. Twenty years later Willie Park, Jr., altered the course to its present configuration.
In 1913 University golfers faced a crisis when the rented land in New Haven began to be sold as large house lots. The first of those houses, built as a wedding present, is now the “Rosary” building of Albertus Magnus College. In response, the University and others purchased land in Orange and organized the Race Brook Country Club. Again, Pryde laid out the course and served as the club’s Secretary-Treasurer from 1913 until 1937. One hundred and fifty memberships were set aside for Yale undergraduates, and Pryde continued as the unofficial golf team coach. However, even after it had been expanded to thirty-six holes, Race Brook was crowded. In a 1922 letter to the Yale Graduate Manager of Athletics, endorsing the proposal to build a Yale golf course, the team captain, Nathaniel Lovell, wrote that it was “due to the efforts of Mr. Pryde” that student memberships were maintained in spite of a waiting list for non-Yale members. Playing at Race Brook, Yale won three more intercollegiate championships. Indeed, the first fifteen of Yale’s twenty-one national intercollegiate golf championships, a record that still stands, were led by Robert Pryde.
The 18-hole layout at the New Haven Golf Club
Holes and yardages at The New Haven Golf Club
As secretary of the Connecticut Golf Association (csga), Robert Pryde wrote to the Yale Athletic Association on December 20, 1928 to inform it that the Yale Golf Club had been elected to membership. He was active in usga national committee work as well as in the csga. He retired in 1937 and spent the next year traveling around the world. Pryde visited golf courses in the western United States, Japan, South Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the British Isles, about which he wrote periodic reports for the New Haven Register and the Hartford Courant.
In 1947 Pryde presented a paper before The New Haven Colony Historical Society on “The Early History of Golf in New Haven.” On the occasion, he presented the Society with his collection of seventy-seven items of golf memorabilia. Among them were a red golf coat with a Yale University Golf Club monogram on the pocket (their retail cost in 1900 had been nine dollars) and an apple tree branch from what he said was the original Apple Tree Gang course, which he had probably obtained from the sons of John Reid. Regrettably, neither of these items remains at the Society today, although another branch of the famous apple tree is in the John Reid Room at the clubhouse of the St. Andrew’s Golf Club, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
What do remain at the Colonial Historical Society (now the New Haven Museum) are examples of some of the innovative golf clubs that Pryde designed and made over his lifetime. The most important of these is a club he had patented in 1922, “with a reversible type of brass weight with a tongue running towards where the ball was hit, on the top of the club. This would tend to keep the ball low when it was hit, and if the weight was put in the bottom of the club it would tend to raise the ball off the ground.” Pryde’s advertising was direct: “Every golfer knows what these clubs are, and there is no need of talking about them.” It was very effective because 50,000 of these club heads had been sold by the time of his presentation! Of course this same concept can be seen today in glossy golf magazine ads or on television, ballyhooed as the latest clubhead technology. These clubs bear the logos of Callaway or TaylorMade, not the Pryde bulldog logo.
Robert D. Pryde died in 1951 at his home on Racebrook Road, across from the third green of the country club. Certainly no one had more influence on Yale’s early golf history than he.