Indoor golf was a rage in the major urban centers for two decades, from around 1910 to around 1930. It was largely an urban recreational activity, engaged in by gentlemen businessmen and upper middle class women shoppers during their downtown lunch break. It was also a competitive sport involving high school players to golf professionals.
The Golden Age of Sports exuberance of the 1920s was at its most manifest in the many nationwide crazes that seemed to seize the imagination of the public. And one of the biggest sports fads of the decade was indoor golf, which proved to be hugely popular among businessmen and shopping ladies in the major northern urban centers, and was even taken up by high school boys and girls. The sport should not be confused with miniature golf, which emerged as a craze at the end of the 1920s. Miniature golf was a novelty game involving putting the ball through an elaborate course made up of windmills, bridges, tunnels, and alleys.
Indoor golf provided carpet “greens’ for serious putting and also driving areas to allow golfers to practice their swing form by hitting balls into a net. While indoor golf primarily was used to take instruction and to practice, the activity was a competition as well, from high school competition to the professional game, engaging some of the nation’s top golfers.
The emergence of indoor golf was one element in the huge growth of golf in the United States from the mid-1890s and to the early 1930s, the sport’s development was due in part to a rising and growing middle class that could augment the participant numbers from the original upper middle and upper class founders of the sport. As golf historian George B. Kirsch pointed out, this middle class with its greater disposable income and more leisure time brought with it a new culture of mass consumerism. The middle to upper class world thus sought to define their success with social marks of consumption—a bag of clubs, proper golf course attire, membership in a country club, as well as golf lessons in an indoor course during a generous two-hour lunch break.
By the 1920s, the business world had adopted golf where executives and middle managers could seal deals on the links in an environment of richly appointed clubhouses and beautiful fairways. And this businessman culture spilled over into the indoor version as well. 1
Before getting into the story of indoor golf, I should note that in the histories and encyclopedias on golf that I consulted, I have not found one mention of indoor golf. Apparently this sports rage has become invisible in the history of golf. This essay is an attempt to bring indoor golf into the history of sport and show how it played a role in defining the American character in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Indoor golf goes back to 1896, when the famed Scottish professional Willie Dunn started an indoor golf school on 42nd Street in New York City. It mostly emerged as a wintertime instructional activity for women in athletic clubs. By the turn of the century there was a number of private instructional indoor golf schools opened in the major cities. But for more than a decade, these indoor golf schools came and went.2
Then in 1910 came a huge explosion of indoor golf, largely in New York and Chicago, the two cities considered cradles of the sport. Indoor golf schools that year mushroomed in those cities, predominantly in their downtowns. The sport featured two different practices or competitions—a driving practice and a putting practice. The driving competition involved hitting the ball into a netted area with the hitting area generally a canvas to deaden the ball. The driving target was sometimes arranged with large pockets, each representing a different distance according to the club used in making the stroke. Or the target area might be a bulls eye or one consisting of numbered targets painted on canvas. Different colored chalk might be used to write the targets on the canvas, to more easily discern where the ball hit, when the ball bounced backwards with a distinctive colored mark. There were as many target formulations and scoring methods as indoor facilities, much too complicated to explain or figure out. Old gutta-percha balls were used for less rebound.
Greens were made with heavy carpets to resemble real grass, and were built not flat but with an undulating surface, which is created by placing rounded blocks under the carpet. Bunkers of sand approximately a foot deep were provided for practicing bunker play.3
Within five years, indoor golf spread rapidly across the country, but remained primarily a sport in the northeast, largely in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. By the beginnings of the 1920s, the sport had spread to the West Coast. The Chicago Tribune took notice of this new indoor golf development with a cartoon that had some fun with the new sport. As with cartoons, you see exaggerations, such as the undulations of the greens.4
Indoor golf particularly flourished as a middle and upper class activity for white salaried men and shopping women. All kinds of businesses opened up indoor golf facilities, led by the sporting goods stores. Gentlemen flocked to sporting goods stores, and in Chicago, there was Henry C. Lytton & Sons, Capper & Capper, and the Golf Shop. Taking his two-hour lunch break, he could mosey over to a nearby sporting goods store, examine some new clubs, and take some time to get a few golf tips from the in-house pro, $2.50 for a half hour. That’s around $30.00 in today’s money.
Most of the major department stores in downtown Chicago provided indoor golf facilities, notably The Fair and Mandel Brothers. At these facilities women shoppers after checking the new spring designs, could head to the store’s indoor golf facility and get instruction on grip, stance, and execution of shots from well-known golf pros, before finishing up the day lingering over scones in the tearoom. They might even bump into their husbands. Some business firms, such as the Crane Company, which on the top floor of its building on Michigan Avenue, laid out a nine-hole course for use by its executives and wives. 5
The biggest intended clientele for indoor golf facilities were seen as well-dressed business world gentlemen, and clothing stores jumped to claim indoor golf, making sure that not only that they had a full-line of business suits, but they also the proper golf apparel, so that they could look good while scoring bogies. The New York clothier, Weber and Heilbroner, in its advertisement related, “…it is true that any golfer will get more enjoyment out of the game if he wears clothes which are comfortable and in keeping with the atmosphere of the links.” The firm also sponsored an indoor golf facility as did its New York rival, Rogers Peet Company, which of its six stores had three indoor golf facilities. Even a New York auto supply firm got into the game, opening up a golf supply business with a indoor golf facility. Nothing like combining buying a new set of tires with a half-hour golf lesson.6
This leads to the fact that one can overstress the upper middle class air of these places. The 1920s was also an era of great democratization of golf, with a huge growth in public golf courses with modest fees, and indoor golf to a degree reflected some of this democratization. There was one sports shop in New York City that offered half-hour lessons for fifty cents, which is about $6.25 today. Still sizable, compared to full-day fees at municipal courses with fees that ranged from 10 cents to 1 dollar. The New York Times in 1924 reported that “Indoor golf is now a noonday diversion for thousands of New Yorkers…It is common for switchboard operators to “page” their business house officials in one of their favorite golf shops at the noon hour. Here the business man steals for relaxation and for practice. Here he meets at the noon hour his most humble clerk likely as not. Not infrequently they compare notes on their game and engage in lengthy arguments on “slicing,” “topping,” and “putting.”7
Hotels added indoor golf facilities to enhance their appeal, notably residential hotels, such as in Chicago, the Allerton House and the Chicago Beach Hotel. The rage for indoor golf in Chicago was so great that one course was established in a north side nightclub, the Rainbo Room (Clark and Lawrence). The New York Times reported on its facilities, “…elaborate links, with carpeted fairways, sand hazards, and undulating greens, has been installed in a bower of artificial palms alongside the dance floor, so that golfers may approach and putt while the Charleston proceeds nearby.”8
Golfing magazines regularly recommended to their readers that those who could not head South during the winter should make use of indoor golf facilities in their home cities to improve their swings and game. The Golf Shop in Chicago in its ad stressed, however, that “Only a small percentage of golfers are able to leave the city during the winter months of golf. Most of us have to work for a living. We can get away from business for an hour or two a day—and that’s all.” The Golf Shop was obviously heralding the businessman’s lunch—perhaps an indoor golf lesson instead of the two martinis.
Rogers Peet in its October ad in the New York Times, said, “Winter knocking at the door sounds the knell of outdoor golf, and starts our Indoor Golf Schools!” Chick Evans noted that indoor golf was proving lucrative to golf pros, who previously made little money during the winter. He reported that well-known Chicago pro Tom Vardon was making $300 month and was booked weeks in advance.9
Chicago’s premier indoor golf facility was Bob MacDonald’s Indoor School of Golf, located on the sixth floor of the Leiter Building in Chicago’s downtown. The 20,000 square-foot facility, opened in early 1923, provided an 18-hole putting course with some holes at 40-feet distance. Most all the holes featured sand traps. In addition, the facility supported twelve practice driving nets. Bob MacDonald was a prominent touring professional, and his school was naturally located in the downtown to provide instruction to white collar workers in the vicinity.10
Meanwhile, indoor golf had also developed into a competitive sport. Back in 1910, in Chicago, not long after the opening of O’Neil & Fovargue Indoor Golf School (185 Wabash Ave), the facility hosted the first Western Open in indoor golf. In the East such competition also developed, as in 1915 when the first intercity match between New York and Philadelphia was staged. Indoor golf competition grew popular with both men and women, junior and senior golfers, amateurs and professionals.
In 1923, Chicago hosted the inaugural “national indoor golf tourney.” Indoor golf competition was clearly on the rise at this time, but it was evolving from a driving and putting competition to putting alone. The driving part of the competition, based on targeted hits against a canvas was too abstract from the real game, and probably did little to represent true driving skill. In 1924, an indoor golf league made its debut in the city. At the same time, the city’s high schools were becoming involved in competitive indoor golf..11
The Chicago Public High School League introduced indoor golf for boys in the winter of 1924. Superintendent of athletics in the public schools, Edward C. Delaporte, emphasized the virtues of the game in their educational mission: “We find athletics develops (sic) character and poise in students—Golf is particularly valuable in this respect. It has a remarkable ‘carry over’ value, which immediately manifests itself in the later life of the schoolboy and schoolgirl.”
The impetus for the adoption of the sport came from Board of Control member Sam Gilbert, who was a member of the Illinois Senior Golf Association, and the father of a top schoolboy golfer at Lake View High, Sam Gilbert Jr. The elder Gilbert continued his promotion of youth golf by forming the Illinois Junior Golf Association in the summer of 1924. He promoted the group as a wholesome organization. The forty initial members pledged, “to play golf according to the rules and not to gamble on their games.” Gilbert said he formed the organization to encourage boys to play the game “in the spirit of true sportsmanship.”12
Although the high schools sometimes engaged in dual meet competition, the league championship was determined by one big tournament in the third week of February. It was usually held at Bob MacDonald’s. Throughout the winter, the high school boys would usually venture to the facility about twice weekly to practice. The first year’s meet attracted ten school teams, of four golfers each, and consisted of 72 holes. The Lake View team, captained by Sam Gilbert Jr., took the team title. Taking second was the Tilden Tech team, and the Chicago Tribune commented on its blue-collar origins by writing, “Tilden Tech showed that golf is progressing in the stockyards district.”13
At the second annual public high school indoor tournament in 1925, nine schools participated. The Lake View team again took the team title, and Mr. Gilbert’s favorite son, Sam Jr., won the individual title. A few days later, two high school girls’ teams competed at MacDonald’s, Schurz and Lake View, which inaugurated competition for girls. An indoor championship was held for girls in this year, won by Schurz under the leadership of the great Florence Beebe, but it does not appear there were any other city meets for girls.
Lake View High was particularly vigorous in encouraging and training its students in golf. Its golf club with more than seventy members was the largest in the league, and the school brought in a notable golf pro, Scottish-born Amber Andrews, to give weekly instruction on Fridays to a special gym class of the golf club members. The class, in which students received regular physical education grades, received national attention.14
In 1926, the high school boys had two tournaments to compete in—the annual Chicago Public League tourney in February and the National Golf and Country Club Exposition schoolboy contest held at the Furniture Mart (666 Lake Shore Drive) in early April. In the city meet, Senn won the team title with three juniors, the school’s Vernon Marklund copped individual honors, earning the title as the “city’s best prep putter.” The Senn team followed that win in February by capturing the National Golf Exposition prep held at the Furniture Mart (666 Lake Shore Drive) in early April. Senn’s league title was the first of three consecutive.
The 1927 league meet again attracted ten schools, but the Chicago Tribune did not see fit to report on the outcome of the meet. The sport was fading by the late 1920s, as the 1928 meet, won by Senn for the third consecutive season, went uncovered in the Chicago Tribune. Perennial golf power Lake View broke Senn’s streak in 1929, beating Lindblom in second place and Senn, which fell to third. The 1930 meet was won by Hyde Park High, and was the last conducted by the Chicago Public High School League.15
By the 1920s, indoor golf was fast being replaced by something else, miniature golf. Increasingly, as the game had become a putting-game only, indoor golf courses were built larger and more elaborately, one saw more and more references to the “miniature” game. New York City’s 10,000 square-foot Vander-Built-In course on 42nd Street featured an 18-hole layout with sand traps and uniquely a water-hazard. The Eastern Indoor Championship of 1927 was held on this course. One of the largest indoor courses was the 65,000-square-foot Boulevard Indoor Golf Club in the General Motors Building in Detroit, at an incredible 65,000 square feet.16
A number of indoor tournaments in 1929 in New York were described as being played on “miniature links.” In October of that year, the New York Times devoted a feature article, called, “Miniature Golf Wins Favor,” which was fast becoming the novelty recreation we know today. With the onset of the Depression allowing less disposable income and time for serious golfers, the decidedly elite indoor golf went into decline. In its place emerged the inexpensive novelty game of miniature golf.17
An examination of mentions of both activities in the Chicago Tribune from the 1920s and the 1930s shows the dramatic change in interest between the two activities. In the 1920s there were 212 mentions of indoor golf and only 16 mentions of miniature golf; and the following decade saw 128 mentions of indoor golf and 233 mentions of miniature golf. Indoor golf was waning by the late 1920s.18
Indoor golf did indeed eventually go away, but in the last quarter century it has been revived with high tech driving and putting emporiums that recreate the outdoor experience with far more fidelity than any facility did in the 1920s.
Among all the sports studied by historians, golf has inordinately been treated in terms of how it defines the class and culture of its participants. In indoor golf, we find that it was far more than a golf lesson, a recreation, or a competition, it was way of defining who they were, a modern businessman, a socially with-it shopper, a well-bred morally upright high school boy or girl.
1. George B. Kirsch, Golf in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp. 69, 92-93..
2. John G. Anderson, “Indoor Golf Schools,” Golf Illustrated & Outdoor America, January 1915, p. 34; “Indoor Golf for Girls,” New York Times, 14 November 1897; “For a Popular Loan,” Chicago Tribune, 28 April 1898; James Shields Murphy, “End of Winter Golf,” Chicago Tribune, 7 January 1900.
3. Anderson, “Indoor Golf Schools,” p. 34; John G. Anderson, “The Month at a Glance,” Golf Illustrated & Outdoor America, January 1915, p. 10; Westward Ho!, “Western Department,” The American Golfer, February 1910, pp. 291-92.
4. Bunker Hill, “New England Notes,” The American Golfer, January 1915, p. 216; Keystone, “Western Pennsylvania,” The American Golfer, March 1911, p. 391; Hazard, “Eastern Pennsylvania Notes,” The American Golfer, March 1916, p. 347; “Golf Topics the World Over,” Golf Illustrated, April 1919.
5. “Players Turn to Indoor Schools,” New York Times, 10 December 1916; [The Golf Shop adv.], Chicago Tribune, 16 November 1913; [Clapper & Clapper adv.], Chicago Tribune, 25 September 1917; [Henry C. Lytton & Sons adv.], Chicago Tribune, 11 January 1921; [The Fair Store adv.], Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1916; “Golf [Mandel Brothers adv.], Chicago Tribune, 16 April 1918.’
6. [Weber and Heilbroner adv.], New York Times, 25 April 1924; [Rogers Peet Company adv.], New York Times, 16 October 1925; [Times Square Auto Supply adv.], New York Times, 28 January 1923.
7. [Little Golf Shop adv.], New York Times, 17 August 1925; “Carpet Golfers in Training,” New York Times, 7 September 1924; Kirsch, p. 97.
8. [Allerton Hotel adv.], Chicago Tribune, 11 April 1928; [Chicago Beach Hotel adv.], Chicago Tribune, 6 October 1918; [Rainbo Room adv.], 20 February 1926; “Golfers to Vie With Charleston Dancers; Chicago Cabaret Has Miniature Course,” New York Times, 17 February 1926.
9. ”Dorothy Campbell Hurd, “Women’s Golf,” Golf Illustrated & Outdoor America, January 1915, p. 38; John G. Anderson, “The Month at a Glance,” Golf Illustrated & Outdoor America, January 1915, p. 10; [The Golf Shop adv.], Chicago Tribune, 16 November 1913; [Rogers Peet Company adv.], New York Times, 16 October 1925; Charles (“Chick”) Evans, “Western Comments,” The American Golfer, April 1916, p. 443-44.
10. “Bob O’ Link Club to Be 1920 Home of Pro MacDonald,” Chicago Tribune, 30 November 1919; “Play Golf at Bob MacDonald’s Indoor School of Golf” [adv], Chicago Tribune, 7 March 1930.”
11. J. G. Davis, “Golfers Play on Wabash Avenue,” Chicago Tribune, 18 January 1910; “Winner of Western Indoor Golf Title,” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1910; “New Yorkers Lose At Indoor Golf,” New York Times, 10 February 1915; “National Indoor Golf Tourney Here In March,” Chicago Tribune, 14 January 1923; “Indoor Golf League Ready for Title Play,” Chicago Tribune, 6 February 1924.
12. “Prep Golfers Decide Indoor Title on Feb. 22,” Chicago Herald & Examiner, 19 January 1926; “Junior Golf Association is Formed,” Chicago Tribune, 24 August 1924; Joe Davis, “Juniors Agree Not to Gamble on Golf,” Chicago Tribune, 7 December 1924; “Gilbert Leads Junior Golfers,” Chicago Tribune, 15 December 1924.
13. Joe Davis, “City Preps Will Hold Indoor Golf Tourney,” Chicago Tribune, 15 February 1924; Joe Davis, “Lake View Golfers Sweep Prep Tourney,” Chicago Tribune, 23 February 1924; “Golf,” The Forum 1928 (Chicago: Senn High, 1928), 177.
14. “Lake View Preps Win Indoor Golf Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 24 February 1925; Morrow Krum, “Lake View High Golf Club to Have Regular Classes,” Chicago Tribune, 5 March 1925; “Golf Now an Extra Course in a Chicago High School,” New York Times, 6 March 1925.
15. “Golf,” The Forum 1926 (Chicago: Senn High, 1926), 173; Morrow Krum, “High School Indoor Golf Tourney Set,” Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1926; Morrow Krum, “Believe It Or Not, Golf Season’s Here, 8,000 At Show,” Chicago Tribune, 7 April 1926; “Ten City Prep Schools in Indoor Golf Tournament,” Chicago Tribune, 19 February 1927; “Golf,” The Forum 1927 (Chicago: Senn High, 1927), 194; “Lake View High Golfers Take Indoor Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 23 February 1929; Chicago Public High School League, Chicago Public High School Championships (undated mimeograph manuscript from league files).
16. George Girard, ”Concentrating on the Short Game,” Golf Illustrated, February 1927, p. 22.
15. “Indoor Golf Play Won by Richard Jones, Jr.,” New York Times, 18 January 1929; “Miss Singer Wins Indoor Golf Play,” New York Times, 16 January 1929; “Indoor Golf Tourney Won by Miss Fisher,” New York Times, 6 February 1929; “Miniature Golf Wins Favor,” New York Times, 6 October 1929.’
16. This survey was derived from a search of the Chicago Historical Tribune database, dating from 1 January 1920 to 31 December 1939.