Before there was a PGA of America, there were golf professionals in the Philadelphia area. In 1893, the first golf courses were built at the Devon Hotel and the Philadelphia Country Club. Within a couple of years, golf instructors were being imported from the British Isles to teach the game to the new golfers.
The first U.S. Open was played in 1895. For sixteen years, none of the winners were born in America, but our young caddies were learning the game. The first to show real promise was Johnny McDermott, who had learned to play as a caddy at the Aronimink Golf Club in West Philadelphia. In 1910, the U.S. Open was held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and McDermott lost a three-man playoff for the title to Alex Smith. McDermott then proceeded to win the next two U.S. Opens in 1911 and 1912.
The foreign professionals had belonged to the British PGA before immigrating to the states, and they saw the need to organize. In some of the larger cities, they began to ban together. One of those associations which came together in 1906 was the Eastern Professional Golfers’ Association, which encompassed the northeastern states from Pennsylvania to Maine.
Some of the leading businessmen were urging the professionals to form a national organization. One of those was Charles Worthington, who made his money in pumps, and hosted the golf professionals for the Shawnee Opens at his Shawnee Inn & CC.
Finally, in early 1916, a group of golf professionals and leading amateurs met in New York at a private restaurant, in the Wanamaker’s Department Store. As that time, Wanamaker’s was in the business of selling golf equipment wholesale to the professionals, and the same equipment to the public at retail. They were interested in growing the game of golf and their customer base. When Rodman Wanamaker offered to put up a purse of $2,580 for a PGA championship, the professionals agreed to form a national association. The first president of the PGA of America was Robert White, who had been the professional at Shawnee in 1914.
When the PGA was founded, there were just seven PGA Sections for the whole country. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and all of the states to the south along the Atlantic Coast were in the Southeastern Section. Whitemarsh Valley Country Club’s professional, Jim Barnes, won the first PGA Championship. World War I followed that, and the 1917 & 1918 PGA Championships were canceled.
The championship was resumed in 1919, and Barnes won it again. By then, the golf professionals were voicing their displeasure with the size of the Sections. It took too long to travel to Section meetings or tournaments. At the national meeting in July 1921, the PGA formed a committee to study a reorganization of the Sections. The committee came up with a plan to break the seven Sections into 24. Parts of the country were sparsely settled, and some Sections were slow to organize, but the professionals in the Philadelphia region were more than ready to get started.
After several preliminary meetings, the Philadelphia Section PGA was formed on December 2, 1921. In the beginning, the Section was made up of the eastern half of Pennsylvania, with State College being just inside the western edge. The Section also included the state of Delaware, and a few clubs just across the Delaware River, in southern New Jersey. The Section’s first president was Tredyffrin Country Club professional Bob Barnett.
In June of 1922, Charlie Hoffner won the first Philadelphia PGA Championship. One year before that, Hoffner had played on an American team that traveled to Scotland to take on a British team in matches which later became the Ryder Cup. Emmet French, who had learned how to play golf while working in the locker-room at the Merion Cricket Club (later Golf Club) as a young boy, was the captain of the team.
When the professionals convened for their national meeting in 1924, it was decided to add all of southern New Jersey below the 40th parallel (just below Trenton) to the Philadelphia Section. The PGA could see that those professionals and golfers had more of a relationship to Philadelphia than to northern New Jersey and New York. (At that time, New Jersey was still in the Metropolitan PGA Section.)
In the 1930s and 1940s some of the greatest golfers in the history of golf were employed in the Philadelphia Section. Denny Shute won the 1933 British Open as the professional at Llanerch CC, and later he won the PGA Championship twice. Leo Diegel, who had won the PGA Championship twice, arrived in the Section in 1934 as the professional at Philmont CC. Byron Nelson was the professional at Reading CC from 1937 to 1939, and while he was there he won the Masters and the U.S. Open. Sam Snead signed on as the playing professional at the Shawnee Inn & CC in 1940. The next year, Milton Hershey hired Ben Hogan as the professional at his Hershey CC. As Hershey’s professional from 1941 to 1951, Hogan won six majors along with another 47 PGA Tour titles.
With our country embroiled in World War II, Section president Marty Lyons gave the tournament chairman Leo Diegel full authority to raise money in any way possible for the wartime charities. Diegel asked Glenna Collett Vare and Woody Platt to each select eleven ladies and eleven men amateurs, for an exhibition to raise money for the Red Cross. Diegel picked eleven professionals. To host the exhibition, a club had to donate $500, and the Bala GC stepped up to hold the event. The spectators paid $1, and all of the contestants signed up to donate blood. The players were paired in threes with a professional, an amateur and a lady in each group. The men amateurs received two handicap strokes, and the ladies 7. The professionals won, but the big winner was charity.
The plan for the exhibition had been to buy an ambulance for the Red Cross, but its officials told the PGA that they might do more good at the Valley Forge General Hospital, where the wounded veterans were being rehabilitated. When Lyons and Diegel visited the hospital, they immediately decided to build a nine-hole golf course for the veterans. Merion GC green superintendent was enlisted to help construct the golf course. The professionals put up nets in the hospital gym, and began instructing the veterans while the course was under construction. Every member of the Section either donated their time, money or equipment to the project.
The most famous result of the program at VFGH was Charley Boswell, who had played football and baseball at the University of Alabama. Boswell was blinded in the war when a tank blew up, and was sent to VFGH. Before being blinded, Boswell had never played golf, but with the instruction and encouragement of the professionals, he went on to win the National Blind Golfers’ Championship 16 times.
The Section hosted the PGA Championship five times. In 1938 at Shawnee, Paul Runyan demolished Sam Snead in the 36-hole final 8&7. Two years later, Byron Nelson edged out Snead at Hershey as he won
1-up. Snead finished on top at Seaview CC in 1942, and two days later, he was in the U.S. Navy. The first PGA Championship played at stroke play was won by Dow Finsterwald, and hosted by Llanerch CC in 1958. In 1962, Gary Player won the PGA at Aronimink GC.
Beginning with White, six national PGA presidents have been associated with the Section. The biggest name was probably Ed Dudley, who was the professional at Philadelphia CC and Augusta National GC at the same time. Dudley played on three Ryder Cup teams, and was national president for seven years (1942-48). The other four were Henry Poe (1975-76), Leo Fraser (1969-70), Dick Smith, Sr. (1991-92) and Jack Connelly (2001-02).
Twelve Section members have been honored as PGA of America award winners. Will Reilly and Andy Barbin have each been the winners of two different awards, which is almost unprecedented.
In the modern era, Ed Dougherty and Pete Oakley have represented the Section as tournament winners at the national and world level. Dougherty won the 1985 PGA Professional National Championship, along with winning on the PGA Tour and the PGA Champions Tour. Oakley won the 1999 Senior PGA Professional National Championship, and the 2004 Senior British Open.
For 35 years, the Variety Club has been the major charity of the Section. The Section members have raised more than $200,000 for the Variety Club charities. In 1993, five Section professionals took on a “Buddy Program”, as they teamed up with five of the Variety Club’s physically challenged children to teach them how to hit a golf ball.
In 2011, the Section celebrated its 90th anniversary. When the Section was formed in 1921, there were 50+ golf courses and about 100 PGA members. Now there are 294 facilities, employing 674 PGA members and apprentices.
Written by: Pete Trenham