WILFRED AND MEL REID
When Mel Reid tees off at the US Women’s Open at the Olympic course in San Francisco, she will be swinging with a spiritual affinity with the designer of the original course Wilfred Reid, a distant relative. Although the course has been expanded and redesigned numerous times, Wilfred Reid is still recognized as the original course designer.
Mel Reid got an automatic invitation to the Open based on her winning her first LPGA event, the 2020 Shoprite Classic at the Seaview Country Club near Atlantic City, where Wilfred Reid was the first golf pro in 1914.
As the author of The Birth of the Birdie – 100 Years of Golf at the Atlantic City Country Club, I devote a chapter to Wilfred Reid, so when I heard Mel Reid was from England; I looked her up and discovered she is from near Nottingham, where Wilfred was proud to be from Robin Hood country. I then sent Mel Reid an Instagram, asking her if they were related, and she said they sure were.
Wilfred said that everyone in his family played golf, and he wanted to become a golf professional, and met up with Harry Vardon, unquestionably one of the greatest golfers of all time, who took young Wilfrey under his wing and taught him the ropes.
Vardon and his usual sidekick Ted Ray were from the British isle of Jersey, off the French coast, and between them won a dozen major tournaments. Whenever they came to America to give demonstrations, they usually took the US Open trophy home with them.
The first twelve U.S. Open golf championships were won by British and Scottish professionals, until 1911, when a young, Spunky Irish-American John McDermitt became the first American and at 19, youngest still to win the US Open in Buffalo, New York. Inspired by McDermott’s victory, an equally young Walter Hagen quit his assistant pro job and took up playing tournament golf, changing the nature of the game completely.
When McDermott, the Atlantic City Country Club pro won the following year in Chicago, back to back, Hagen said it was the sign of a true champion. But neither Vardon nor Ray were in either tournament, so they decided to come over in 1913, and Vardon brought his protégé Wilfred Reid with him.
After giving demonstrations around the country, the Englishmen headed for Brookline, Massachusetts, the site of the 1913 Open. Before hand though they were invited to play a tournament at Shawnee, a course on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania that included most of the Open field. At some point, after the days golf was over, they went to a bar for some drinks, where a fist fight broke out between Ted Ray and Wilfred Reid. Reid later said that he sparked the fight by asking Ray - how he could be a socialist while making so much money playing golf?
After John McDermott won the Shawnee tournament by eight strokes, he gloated in the locker room, promising everyone that neither Vardon nor Ray would take the Open trophy home with them, a threat that was picked up by the media and took golf off the sports pages and put it on the front page of every English language news paper in the world.
The USGA reprimanded Wilfred Reid and Ted Ray for fighting and McDermott for his rude outspoken promise, and they all apologized.
At Brookline Wilfred Reid was tied with Vardon for the lead at the half way mark, but both Reid and McDermott fell off the lead, leaving young amateur champion, caddy and son of the groundskeeper Francis Ouimet to full fill McDermott’s promise. The tournament ended in a three way tie between Vardon, Ray and Ouimet, and played out the next day in what has been described as “The Greatest Game,” won by Ouimet, who maintained his amateur status throughout his career.
While Vardon and Ray went home without the Open trophy, Wilfred Reid liked America and took up the offer from gas magnet Clarence Geist to be the first golf pro at his new, luxurious, private club, the Seaview, off bay from Atlantic City. When Geist couldn’t get a tee time to play the Atlantic City Country Club, he had his own club built - Seaview. Geist saw Wilfred Reid’s name at the top of the leaderboard in most tournaments, and named him the Seaview pro.
In 1916 Wilfred Reid attended the first meeting of the PGA, where the first order of business was to take up a collection for John McDermott, one of golf’s greatest tragedies. While returning from the British Open, his steamship was rammed and sunk, and McDermott survived in a life boat, but when he got home, learned his life’s savings were lost in the stock market. He had a nervous breakdown and never recovered to play serious golf again.
After awhile Wilfred Reid went on to the Wilmington Country Club in Delaware, and later Michigan, where he not only worked as a club professional – making golf balls, clubs, giving lessons and playing tournaments, he also designed and laid out a number of golf courses, some in Michigan, but also the original design of the Olympic course in San Francisco in 1917, where the US Women’s Open will be held.
At Seaview, Reid was replaced by “Jolly” Jim Fraser, from Scotland, whose son Leo became a golf professional. When Leo returned home from World War II, he purchased the deteriorating Atlantic City Country Club and restored it to its former glory, and in 1946 brought Wilfred Reid in to be his golf pro.
In 1948, while Wilfred Reid was the pro, Leo hosted the third U.S. Women’s Open, won by Babe Zaharias. At that time Wilfred Reid became known for coaching women golf champions, both amateur and professional.
Before eventually retiring to Florida, Wilfred Reid wrote a letter addressed to Leo Fraser in which he put his career in a nutshell:
My Life in Golf – By Wilfrid Reid
It’s hard to believe it now, but
I almost became a minister instead of a professional golfer. At least my family
had that in mind for me until I was about 14. My family all played golf – my
grandfather, my father, my brother – all of them – so it was only natural for
me to start. I was about five years old when I began and by the time I was 14 I
was a pretty good player.
I was born in Sherwood Forest – an outlaw, you know – and golf was popular in Nottingham like every place else. The Notts, the gentlemen of Nottingham, allowed us to play on the golf course. We were artisans, you know, the working men. Anyway, in 1898 Harry Vardon played an exhibition match there and after seeing him I don’t think I ever considered any other career besides golf.
Instead of studying for the ministry I went to Edinburgh as an apprentice to golf professional. Well, this was a few years before the rubber-core ball came out and people were still using the guttie. I learned to make golf balls using molds, two halves and put them together. I used to make several dozen balls a day.
Harry Vardon was very quiet on the course. The thing I remember most is that there was a great crowd of people gathered there, and when I stepped up on the first tee I was so scared I couldn’t talk. Then Vardon came up and said, “What’s the matter, lad?” I pointed to all the people and he said, “Don’t worry about them, they’re only trees.” I never forgot how kind he was.
It was during these years that we had what we were called international matches, between teams from England and Scotland. I was on the English team seven years – from 1906 through 1913 and my record was 10 victories, one loss and one match halved. There were some great matches, as you might imagine, since England has players like Vardon, Taylor and Ray, while Braid, Herd and Willie Park were on the other side.
It’s funny how some things remain in your mind, while more important ones are sometimes forgotten. I recall looking for Ray at the 1913 Open and found him in the bar of the hotel with Alex Smith. They were having a big argument about socialism. Then I had to open my big mouth. I said, “Ted, how the hell can you argue in favor of socialism when you make as much money as you do?”
Well, Ted really got angry at that, really upset, and he punched me right in the face and knocked me clear over the table. My face was swollen clear out to the ear, and the next day I had a devil of a headache. Vardon was very upset and said he was going to withdraw, but I talked him out of it.
While I was here, I talked to a lot of fellows I had known in Britain and saw how well they were doing and how much golf was growing here, and I began to wonder if it might not be a good thing for me to make the move. As it turned out, I went back home and stayed there a couple of years, then came here permanently in 1915 and took the job at Seaview in Atlantic City.
I don’t know what I would have done in other circumstances, but the war was on and golf in Britain was almost at a standstill.
I wasn’t too happy there and was soon looking for another club. Then Gil Nichols came to me and said he was accepting an offer from Great Neck, on Long Island, and he told me to come down to his present club at Wilmington and play a match with him. He wanted to introduce me to the people at the club because he thought he might be able to get the job. It was a sort of a game of musical chairs because I took Gil’s place at Wilmington, he took Jimmy Fraser’s place at Great Neck, and Jimmy took my place at Seaview.
I stayed at Wilmington seven years and during that time I became an American citizen. I had studied the material from top to bottom so I answered all of them correctly, and when the judge congratulated me he admitted he hadn’t known all the answers himself.
Well, I’ve been here and there since then. I spent several years in Detroit and I used to spend every winter in St. Augustine. I was around when the PGA was founded in 1916, and after I went to Detroit I got Leo Fraser and Warren Orlick into the PGA. Both of them later became president of the association, you know?
I played quite a lot of tournament golf the first few years I was over here and in fact, I’ve never completely stopped, because I played in the PGA Seniors.
It’s been a good life and I wouldn’t have had it any other way, although once in awhile I wonder what my life would have been like if I had gone ahead and studied for the ministry.
Wilfred Reid is now buried in a grave in Florida, not far from where Mel Reid lives when she isn’t on the LPGA tour.
After winning four tournaments in Europe, Mel Reid turned to the LPGA in America, and in her first year on the tour, won her first tournament at Seaview in 2020, during the pandemic when no spectators were allowed.
Just as McDermott, Wilfred and Ted Ray were reprimanded by the USGA for their behavior at Shawnee; Mel Reid was reprimanded by the LPGA for breaking Covid protocols by taking her caddy and friends to dinner at a restaurant, and drinking beer out of the glass trophy mug she won as the Seaview champion.
If Wilfred Reid was looking over her shoulder at Seaview, he certainly will be at the Olympic, and Mel Reid will return to the Seaview to defend her title in October, this time with spectators.
When asked about it, she simply said, “History will never be forgotten,” and while it often is, it doesn’t have to be.