The first game of golf in Des Moines was played on Saturday, Oct. 2, 1897, on 40 acres of pasture land at the end of the Ingersoll Avenue streetcar line where Polk Boulevard intersects today.
With the Principal Charity Classic at Wakonda Club this week, it’s appropriate to recall how and when the game came to Iowa.
The players that fall weekend 116 years ago included two young men who had played previously and who were instrumental in organizing the city’s first golf club: Arthur Whitworth, a young Englishman whose father owned the Liverpool and Des Moines Packing Co., and Nat T. Guernsey, a local athlete who had recently graduated from Yale University and would go on to become a vice president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co.
The course they played was put together in less than a week by a club of 50-plus members, which had held its organizational meeting on the Wednesday before that first Saturday round. During the early years, the course continued to do double duty as pasture for J.S. Polk’s cows and later sheep.
Local historian John Zeller said the game of golf caught on in the East during the 1880s and 1890s, and by the turn of the century was sweeping the country.
“The Englification of the upper classes” is the way Zeller described the golf craze.
“When they (wealthy Des Moines residents) would vacation, they would go to the East Coast where English traditions were big,” he said. “They’d come back from these vacations, and they’d want a yachting club and they’d want a golf club and tennis.”
That’s pretty much exactly what happened, according to a series of articles about early golf written in 1927 for the Des Moines Evening Tribune-Capital by Charles Darlington, who quoted extensively from articles from the 1897 Des Moines Leader.
One of 1897 news stories said: “Golf is also, by the nature of the game itself, a most aristocratic exercise, for no man can play at golf who has not a servant at command to assist him.”
In Des Moines, the aristocrats had the game to themselves for only a few years. The popularity of golf grew quickly. Just four years after the first game in 1901, Waveland Golf Course, the first public course west of the Mississippi River, was built on city land just north of the private Golf and Country Club. Des Moines’
East Side course, now called Bright Grandview, was built in 1902, and the Hyperion Field Club course north of Des Moines was built in 1910.
The original Golf and Country Club at the end of the Ingersoll streetcar line had 18 holes haphazardly arranged for that inaugural game on Oct. 2, 1897. But the course was soon trimmed to nine permanent holes and a clubhouse built at the northwest corner of today’s Ingersoll Avenue and Polk Boulevard intersection. It was later restored to 18 holes with a new nine holes to the west, near where Country Club Drive is today.
In 1919, a split occurred, and many of the Golf and Country Club’s best golfers left to form Wakonda Club, which opened on Sept. 8, 1921.
Also in 1921, the remaining Golf and Country Club members, who still included many people from Des Moines’ wealthiest families, began looking for a new location because their lease on the former pasture land was set to expire in 1923.
In 1924-25, the club moved to a new location just west of Des Moines, and in 1933 the name was lengthened to Des Moines Golf and Country Club.
The club was forced to move again during the 1960s when Interstate 235 was built, and part of its former site became the campus of Dowling Catholic High School.
One of the unfortunate aspects of early golf in Des Moines, said historian Zeller, is that the clubhouses of the original Golf and Country Club, Wakonda and Hyperion all burned.
All that remains in the way of records of those early days, he said, are old newspaper and magazine stories.