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Golf in Kansas

Golf bag and clubsThe sport of golf dates back to the mid-1400s in Scotland. When the first course was built in New York in 1888, it took just a few years for the sport to spread to the West. One of the first golf clubs (or “country clubs”) west of the Mississippi was built in 1896 in the Mission Hills area of Kansas City. Just three years later Topeka built its first golf course. As the Topeka State Journal proclaimed that year, “Golf is the rage.”

Harold “Jug” McSpaden was born in Monticello (Johnson County) in 1908. He worked as a caddie to learn the game and played money matches on area golf courses. In 1926 McSpaden joined the Professional Golf Association. He played his first Masters Tournament in 1934. He won several professional tournaments in the United States and Canada, and played on the Ryder Cup team. McSpaden set a record in 1939 when he shot a 59 in a practice round of the Texas Open.

Because of a sinus condition, McSpaden couldn’t perform military service during World War II. Instead, he and golf rival (and friend) Byron Nelson partnered to use their talents on the links to raise money for war bonds. The two men had previously worked together with shoe manufacturer Field and Flint to improve the comfort and grip of golf shoes. McSpaden and Nelson became known as the “Gold Dust Twins” because they finished first and second place in almost every tournament they entered.

Golfer Judy Bell was born in Wichita in 1936. “I played my first tournament when I was 10,” Bell said. “The good news is that I won the girls” division. The bad news is that I was the only girl.” That win was at the prestigious Broadmoor Invitational Golf Tournament. Bell’s father entered her in the tournament when he saw her putting around the course.

Bell won the city title in Wichita at the age of 14 and became the state amateur champion the next year. She returned to the Broadmoor Invitational and won the tournament in 1957, 1958, and 1959. Bell also played twice on the Curtis Cup team and later coached the team. She was the first woman president of the United States Golf Association (USGA) and is a member of the Kansas Golf Association Hall of Fame and World Golf Hall of Fame.

Kenneth Smith was a caddy in Kansas City, Missouri, when the USGA was founded in 1916. With his knowledge of golf technique and equipment, he started making his own clubs. Golf pro Horton Smith bought a set of Kenneth Smith’s clubs in 1928 and went on to become the leading money winner on the 1928-1929 pro tour. Kenneth Smith Golf Clubs gained national recognition.

Smith purchased a country home in Shawnee (Johnson County) in 1933 and built a factory on the land. Farmers in the area had been hit hard by the Great Depression and Smith was able to give them jobs in his company. “They understood machinery, had patience, and wanted to learn a skill,” Smith said.

Smith employed as many as 60 people in his business, now recognized as the first American company to manufacture golf clubs. Clubs were made to order for each customer; no inventory was kept. Smith’s customers included pros such as Babe Zaharias and Tom Watson and notables such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Smith died in 1977 and his company closed in 2003.

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Entry: Golf in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2012

Date Modified: May 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.