PART 1: The first 25 years of the Michigan Section PGA (1922-1947)
This is the first of a four-part series produced in celebration of the centennial year of the Michigan Section PGA. The series will be published at michiganpga.com and released to the media over the 2022 golf season.
The Other Ross, Wilfrid Reid Help Set Course for Michigan PGA Golf Professionals
The first golf professionals in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s were in most cases immigrants from Scotland and England who brought with them their trained abilities to make the clubs needed for play, teach others proper swings, and design the hundreds of golf courses constructed though the first three decades of the game in this country.
A small group of golf professionals, including Alexander “Alec” Ross of Scotland, the younger brother of famous course designer Donald Ross, met 100 years ago in 1922 at Detroit Golf Club to form the Michigan Section of the PGA of America.
Section records from the early years were either not chronicled or simply not saved, but in addition to Ross, participants in that first meeting may have included W.H. Lewis, the golf professional at the then Detroit Masonic Country Club in Mt. Clemens, Jack Elphick, golf professional at Grosse Ile Golf & Country Club, Al Watrous, one of Michigan’s winningest players ever who was then at Redford Country Club and later served Oakland Hills Country Club for 37 years, and Wilfrid Reid, who had just arrived in Michigan and was soon to design Indianwood Golf & Country Club’s Old Course. He had just served as the vice-president of the PGA of America in 1920 and ‘21 and also helped found the Philadelphia Section PGA in ‘21.
Ross, Lewis, Elphick, Watrous and Reid were clearly active in the Michigan PGA as each served terms as section president during the first 25 years.
Today’s Michigan PGA membership includes over 800 golf professionals, including active and those retired and listed as lifetime members. They are or were employed at 380 Michigan courses, clubs and ranges, and the Michigan Section is one of 41 sections and the 12th largest of the PGA of America.
“We feel we are one of the top sections in the country when you consider the quality of golf courses, legendary and accomplished PGA Professionals that have been involved in the Michigan Section and the impact Michigan golf has had on the game,” Kevin Helm, the current executive director of the PGA, said.
“We certainly have a great history. It’s a shame there are not more complete records, but we know the section has not always had a home office and for more than 50 years didn’t have a staff. In recent years our members established a Michigan PGA Hall of Fame, and some of the historic golf clubs in our state have shared their history. This series of stories can help document things for the future members and leaders of the section.”
In 1922 The American Annual Golf Guide was published in New York by editor John G. Anderson who had surveyed golf courses across the country. The results for that year in Michigan lists 68 courses with just less than half of them listing golf professionals. PGA of America historical archives and golf books published early in the 1900s report that golf professionals served more than one club, often in cold/warm climate combinations, and that they were often regarded as employees/staff not necessarily welcome until summoned into the member-only clubhouses.
Amateur golfers of the time period were usually among the more affluent members of various communities who formed the clubs, though Francis Ouimet’s win as a hometown amateur/caddie from a working class family in the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., is credited by multiple golf historians with setting off a new-golfer boom and helping tear down the perception that golf was only for the wealthy and elite.
Golf legend Walter Hagen, listed as a charter member of the PGA of America in 1916, is likewise generally regarded for using his popularity, personality, and influence to help bring golf professionals to a higher level of regard. The longtime Michigan resident and other great champions became the stars of the game and celebrities. He was a section member likely starting with his brief time as the first golf professional at Oakland Hills Country Club 1918 and ‘19, but never served as an officer. He was busy barnstorming matches, later lending his name to a club-making company in Michigan, competing and winning 11 major championships and becoming one of the game’s original stars and personalities.
After establishing themselves over 15 years or more in the U.S., working in all manners of the game and taking ownership of the early golf shops at clubs, the golf professionals organized in large part to create more tournament and job opportunities by growing the game.
“The Michigan Section was created for the purpose of promoting the enjoyment and involvement in the game of golf and to contribute to its growth by providing services to golf professionals and the golf industry,” historic Michigan PGA boilerplate language reads.
The Michigan PGA website (michiganpga.com) currently cites the mission in this way: “THE MISSION OF THE MICHIGAN SECTION PGA is to ‘Serve the Members & Grow the Game.’”
The first leaders of the Michigan Section, especially Ross and Reid, have historic ties to golf’s birth in America, which boomed in the 1920s with expansive golf course construction and many new golfers.
Alec Ross was famous in golf at that point as a world-class player with multiple significant wins including a record six North and South Open wins and the 1907 U.S. Open Championship. He was hired in 1918 at Detroit Golf Club to serve as its first full-time professional.
Historically he has understandably been overshadowed by his older brother Donald, a golf professional who Alec followed from their native Scotland. Donald built his legendary reputation as a prolific course designer and was famously an apprentice to Old Tom Morris, who golf history has it was an apprentice to Allan Robertson of St. Andrews, who has been called the very first golf professional.
Alec followed big brother Donald first to Pinehurst in North Carolina and a few other notable stops before landing at Detroit Golf Club and working there for over 30 years. Brother Donald, between 1913 and ’16 had designed for a then huge sum of $100,000 paid by member and noted Michigan philanthropist and businessman Horace Rackham, the two golf courses at DGC, which today is the home to the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. It was at the urging of Rackham, who club history denotes took lessons from Alec, that the younger Ross brother became the golf professional at DGC.
Reid, who became the fourth president of the Michigan Section in 1928, immigrated from England to the U.S. in 1915 according to a biography penned by his grandson William Zmistowski, Jr. At an early age he was mentored by famous English champion golfer Harry Vardon and served as an apprentice to Willie Park Jr., a noted golf professional, player, and course designer. Through his career Reid was a tireless teacher of the game and provided lessons to the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, King Leopold of Belgium and President Warren G. Harding.
Soon after arriving in Michigan either in late 1921 or ‘22 he went to work at Indianwood Golf & Country Club where he famously designed the Old Course, which first opened to play in 1925. He was also partnered, according to his grandson, with William Connellan as a design and construction team to work in various design and construction roles on multiple courses around the country as well as possibly 29 in Michigan. He spent several summers teaching and doing golf design and construction from Detroit to Gaylord and all points in between.
It was Reid’s son-in-law Joe Devany who followed Reid as section president in 1931. Devany would wield influence in the section for several years and serve again as president from 1948 to ’50 to start the second 25 years of section history. He became the head golf professional at Grosse Ile Golf & Country Club and was one of the original teachers of the Dunedin Educational and Professional Training Program, which later became the PGA Business School.
Devany was also active nationally with the PGA of America as a chairman of national committees, such as the War Program in 1952 and the Veterans Program in ‘54. The Michigan PGA Pro-Assistants Championship Trophy is named the Joe Devany Trophy in his honor.
Another notable Michigan Section professional who made significant contributions in the first 25 years was Frank Sprogell, who taught the game, managed clubs, and worked on the turf, too. He was president of the Michigan Section from 1941-47 and nationally as secretary of the PGA of America from 1941-46. Among his jobs in Michigan were serving Meadowbrook Country Club and Blythefield Country Club as a course superintendent.
In 1954, while working as head professional and general manager at PGA Golf Club in Dunedin, Fla., he organized a group of sales representatives to show merchandise in his parking lot. By 1957 the sale had grown large enough for him to rent a tent. This annual gathering later became the huge annual gathering of the golf industry – the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
COMING IN PART 2 (1947-1972) Warren Orlick of Tam O’Shanter Country Club, known nationally as Mr. Rules, helps rule the Michigan PGA and more.
ATTACHED IMAGE: A collage of historical photos from Michigan PGA archives includes, clockwise from upper left, Alec Ross, Wilfrid Reid, a Michigan PGA award of merit given to Reid, and a signed Walter Hagen photo that is on display at the section office.