USGA, Shinnecock Nation honor Native American golf history
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (AP) — Oscar Bunn grew up two miles south of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the site of this week’s 118th U.S. Open, caddying and learning to play at the course that took its name from his Indian nation.
The first Native American professional golfer, Bunn befriended the first African-American pro, John Shippen. Together they entered the 1896 U.S. Open to be held at their home club, but many Scottish and English golfers threatened to drop out rather than play alongside them.
The USGA refused to budge.
“Credit to the USGA at the time and credit to the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, who stood up and said, ‘You don’t have to play in this if you don’t want to play.’ They ended up playing,” current USGA chief executive Mike Davis said Wednesday. “But that’s what was done. To think about that happened in 1896, it’s been great.”
Shippen finished tied for sixth. Bunn placed 21st.
More than a century later, the U.S. Open returns to Shinnecock Hills for the fifth time, and the tournament’s organizers are celebrating Bunn’s contribution to the sport. The USGA recognized the Shinnecock Nation during its opening ceremony (and plans to do so again at closing), and it announced this week that it will build the Oscar Bunn Golf Facility once the event is over.
“I’d say we have a different relationship now, one that we’re quite proud of and I hope they are, too,” USGA spokesman Craig Annis said. “It’s moved away from simply a transactional relationship between two organizations to one of mutual respect and that’s geared toward more longer-term opportunities.”
Shinnecock golfers of all ages will be able to learn and practice golf at the Bunn facility. A video will share Bunn’s story and that of the Shinnecock Nation, which since the course was established in 1891 has protested the way the land was taken from their people.
Annis, who has been in contact with the protesters, said the USGA worked with local officials to make sure they have a safe space to get their message out this week specifically.
“They’re really interested in drawing attention to the larger issues that the Shinnecock Nation and other Native American tribes and nation face, having nothing to do with the U.S. Open and nothing to do with the USGA,” Annis said. “But really because this is such an important event with so many people they thought this would give them a platform.”
And the USGA wanted to be a facilitator, he said, not an adversary.
After a relative of 101-year-old Lubin Hunter, a lifelong Shinnecock Nation resident, mentioned that the former Shinnecock Hills caddie wanted to meet Tiger Woods, Annis helped make it happen.
“He was just like, ‘Oh, hey!’ and held out his hand,” said Scot Hunter, the grandnephew of the World War II veteran who was once honored by President Barack Obama. “It was a very nice interaction. My uncle didn’t try to be like, ‘Well, here, let me try to give you tips,’ because he knows golf.
“It was a great experience,” Scot Hunter said, adding, “I look at it as a memory I can always have.”
Hunter, who was born in Hawaii and lives in California, visited the Shinnecock Nation for the first time when he was 11. Intrigued by the history, he has been asking family and friends questions when he visits, but he had only heard bits and pieces about Bunn.
“Golf and Indian culture seems to be almost as old as (it is for) the Scottish,” he said. “Which I think is really interesting because I’ve heard and I’ve seen some stories about how golf was here before it was ever brought here.”
The U.S. Open will come back to Shinnecock Hills in 2026, and the USGA’s Davis said inclusivity will be just as important — if not more — than it was in when Bunn and Shippen played.
And they have Shinnecock to thank — the people and the course.
“It’s important for golf,” Davis said, “to look the way the United States does.”