Museum Moment: Golf During World War I and the Foch Victory Medal

Nov 19, 2010

By Michael Trostel

America’s entry into World War I had a profound impact on the lives of virtually all Americans. The Selective Service Act drafted nearly 3 million men and boys into the Armed Forces and a sweeping propaganda campaign by the Committee on Public Information galvanized Americans’ support for President Woodrow Wilson’s popular refrain to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Athletics served an important role in developing leadership skills, in addition to providing physical fitness training for the soldiers. General John J. Pershing summoned the assistance of public and private organizations such as the YMCA, the Knights of Columbus and the Playground and Recreation Association of America to assist the Commission on Training Camp Activities in developing healthy living and social arrangements for troops in aviation camps, training camps, combat zones, convalescent camps and leave areas.

Professional and amateur sports organizations were affected as well. While people found a respite from the war experience in baseball, football and boxing, many leagues lost a great number of their players to the Armed Forces. In 1918, the U.S. government called for a shortened Major League Baseball season of 125 games, as well as an accelerated World Series, as the perennial Fall Classic was temporarily transformed into a "Late-Summer" version in early September.

Like other sports entities, the United States Golf Association joined forces with the Red Cross to sponsor charity matches, with proceeds assisting those who had been injured or displaced by the fighting. Participation by prominent professionals like Walter Hagen and Tom McNamara in these wartime fundraising efforts helped erode the common perception of professionals as second-class citizens. Other prominent amateurs such as Bob Jones, Alexa Stirling and Jerome (Jerry) Travers barnstormed the country as well, popularizing the game and raising money for the troops. Jones, Stirling, Perry Adair and Elaine Rosenthal, all Georgia natives, made up the “Dixie Whiz Kids,” who raised more than $150,000 for the American Red Cross. Of all the golfers who supported the war relief effort, however, Charles (Chick) Evans may have had the greatest impact. In 1918 alone, he traveled more than 26,000 miles, participating in exhibitions that raised $250,000. The efforts of these golfers reinforced the charitable initiatives of the USGA and enhanced the sport’s perception in the public consciousness.

The patriotic call to duty encouraged other golfers to enlist in the Armed Forces to support America’s cause. The experiences of these golfers varied and included driving ambulances, fighting in Europe, working in Red Cross shelters and aiding relief organizations. Francis Ouimet served in the Army from 1917 to 1919, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. For his outstanding effort, he was the recipient of the 1918 American Red Cross Prize Medal “In Recognition of Aid to Humanity During World War I.” Margaret Curtis joined the Red Cross in France to aid families displaced by the fighting. Her efforts earned her the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honor.

The partnership between the USGA and the Red Cross proved highly successful, generating more than $1 million. Liberty Tournaments were hosted at golf clubs throughout the country on Independence Day to raise funds for war relief. In lieu of a national open championship, the USGA sponsored the Patriotic Open Tournament at Whitemarsh Valley C.C. outside Philadelphia, won by Jock Hutchison.

In addition, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller donated 1,200 medals to be awarded to the champions of 18-hole, medal-play, handicap competitions held at clubs throughout the country on Saturday, Nov. 16, 1918 to raise money for the United War Workers. Entry fees were set at $1, but each participant was encouraged to give as much as they were able. Rockefeller implored all clubs to participate in the hopes of raising between $170,000 and $500,000, according to The New York Times. The prize – Rockefeller’s “Victory Golf Medal” – was designed by John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke, a Jamaican sculptor who specialized in medals, and has a likeness of Marshal Ferdinand Foch on it.

Foch served as a general in the French army during World War I and was made Marshal of France in early 1918. Shortly after the start of the Spring Offensive, Germany's final attempt to win the war, Foch was chosen as supreme commander of the Allied armies, a position that he held until Nov. 11, 1918, when he accepted the German request for an armistice. According to a 1918 article in The New York Times, Foch was also “an ardent golf enthusiast.”

To see the Foch Victory Medal and other artifacts from the World War I charity matches, visit the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at MTrostel@usga.org.

The prize – Rockefeller’s “Victory Golf Medal” – was designed by John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke, a Jamaican sculptor who specialized in medals, and has a likeness of Marshal Ferdinand Foch on it.
(USGA Museum)