Museum Moment: Pearl Harbor Tournaments

Dec 09, 2010

By Robert Alvarez

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the United States Navy based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. For the second time in the 20th century, America found itself making preparations to enter a great world war.

America’s mighty industrial complex shifted from peacetime modes of production to a war footing, replacing the production of automobiles with military aircraft. Rationing programs were instituted to help preserve resources and to ensure the nation’s military was properly equipped for the war effort. Hundreds of thousands of Americans enlisted or were drafted into the Armed Forces, and countless millions at home entered the work force.

Golf did not escape the war unscathed. Rubber rationing led many players to return damaged golf balls to manufacturers to be repaired, rather than buying new ones. Fuel rationing caused golf course superintendents to reduce the frequency with which they cut fairways and greens, and at many clubs membership rates declined.

The game did find ways to adapt; for example, car pooling to golf courses became popular as a means of conserving fuel and reducing the wear on rubber tires. At some clubs, members volunteered to work as temporary greenkeepers, pulling weeds, raking leaves and cutting grass. Elaborate clubhouse meals were replaced by old-fashioned comfort foods.

As had been the case in World War I, many believed that the game played a crucial role in keeping America fit. The public embraced the concept that keeping fit was a key element in the war effort. Playing golf would keep civilians, government officials and military personnel in good mental and physical condition, which would reduce the risk of cracking under wartime pressure. To facilitate this, golf courses were encouraged to allow military personnel to play for free and to reduce membership fees.

Many golf courses located near factories served “War Breakfasts.” These meals were served to night-shift workers who arrived at the course early in the morning after their night’s work, played a quick round then indulged in full dinners at 10 in the morning. Such activities improved morale and encouraged camaraderie among workers.

People were less interested in how the war would affect sports than in what sports could do for the war effort. In 1942, golf writer Herb Graffis described some of the ways that golf helped: “Golf clubhouses became centers of Red Cross and Civilian Defense activities. Women golfers were especially active, collecting used clubs and balls for Army and Navy camp golf practice ranges. Augusta National Golf Club devoted proceeds from The Masters Tournament to installing and equipping a driving range at nearby Camp Gordon... At its annual meeting in January of 1942, the USGA approved defense bonds and stamps up to a $100 limit per player as amateur prizes. They also cancelled all four of the national championships.”

Professionals also did their part, volunteering to play in Red Cross exhibition matches, much like the previous generation had done during World War I. Noted golf writer H.B. Martin wrote an article that recalled the days of the World War I matches. In his opinion, the players of the World War I era were more colorful than the players of the 1940s. Whatever the case, thousands of people attended War Relief exhibition matches, raising millions of dollars for the Red Cross, USO and other worthy organizations.

Tournaments benefiting War Relief were also organized for amateur players at private and public courses across the country. In June 1942, the USGA Executive Committee approved plans for a series of Pearl Harbor Tournaments to benefit the territory of Hawaii. According to a Committee meeting report, “The USGA would contribute the expense of organizing the project and the entire proceeds from entry fees would be used to purchase some appropriate token, such as an ambulance, for use in Hawaii.”

This was not the first time the USGA made such a gesture. A similar effort was made during World War I when the USGA donated an ambulance to the town of St. Andrews, Scotland. In 2002, the USGA donated an ambulance to New York City following the attacks on 9/11.

A poster advertising a Pearl Harbor Tournament is currently on display in the USGA Museum, along with a number of other items that tell the story of how golf adapted during World War II.

Robert Alvarez is the collections manager of the USGA Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at RAlvarez@usga.org.

In June 1942, the USGA Executive Committee approved plans for a series of Pearl Harbor Tournaments to benefit the territory of Hawaii. (USGA Museum)