Photo: The Kansas City Country Club clubhouse was located near the rose garden in Loose Park. Image from 1900. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections
Kansas City’s first country club was far from par for the course
By Diane Euston
Recently I was asked why Kansas City has so many golf courses, and as a person who grew up playing the sport myself and even played on the Junior LPGA, I couldn’t help but to delve even deeper into Kansas City’s love of the links. The origin of hacking the little white ball around the course is an interesting history that many here know little about.
Kenwood Golf Links
Even though the origins of golf go all the way back to the 15th century in Scotland, golf didn’t reach the United States until 1888. In Kansas City, a group of people with ties to Scottish heritage decided to build a nine-hole course in the Hyde Park neighborhood in the fall of 1894. The course, called Kenwood Golf Links, was between 34th and 36thcStreets from Gillham (Oak) and Charlotte Streets. The ninth hole ended in the backyard of famed architect Henry Van Brunt’s home at 3617 Oak St. Alice Van Brunt, his wife, was one of the original founders of the course. It was the seventeenth golf course built in the entire United States.
William D. McLeod, one of the first members, recalled the condition of the first course. There were no bunkers, but there were “enough natural hazards” to make the nine-hole course difficult. The putting greens were anything but in stellar condition, and the only time the grass was ever cut was “when some ambitious player brought his own lawn mower out and personally performed the work.”
The clubhouse burned down a year after opening, and while maybe a dozen men and women swung their sticks on Kinwood Golf Links in the beginning, the exclusive golf course was growing in popularity. It was clear they had outgrown their amateur course, so in 1896, they reorganized as the Kansas City Country Club and moved to a new, bigger location.
The First Kansas City Country Club
Hugh Ward (son of Seth E. Ward) and his family owned around 400 acres of land that was in the heart of what would become the Country Club District, aptly given the name by J.C. Nichols in homage to the city’s first country club. Ward agreed to lease 110 acres of land to Kansas City Country Club so they could build an 18-hole course and clubhouse. The “handshake deal” paid him one dollar per year and took care of the property taxes on the land.
The course stretched from 51st to 55th Street west of Wornall Rd. The clubhouse, located near the rose garden in Loose Park today, was designed by architect W.C. Root and was two stories with a wide porch on the east and south sides. Large rooms were designed for receptions, dancing, and billiards. A café welcomed country club patrons and upstairs, “lodging rooms” could be used by members. When it was built, it was said, “From the veranda the Wornall Road can be seen stretching away to the south in a white line through a forest of oaks and elms.”
Kansas City Country Club formally opened September 1898 with a tournament followed by a night of dancing. C.A. Rockwell won the opening day’s tournament by scoring 90 on nine holes–an average of ten strokes a hole! Ten strokes a hole wouldn’t win any tournament now, nor would it even come close to par golf as we recognize it today. But the players and the course greatly improved with practice over the years.
Most players joined the new, improved club but there were still many obstacles. A herd of cattle frequently chose the greens as a place for grazing, so the City of Westport established a “herd law” to keep cows in their pasture and off their beloved Kansas City Country Club. The land itself held historical significance in the city, as the Battle of Westport was fought on its hills. Bullets, cannon balls, and pieces of rifles were still being found there by golfers at Kansas City Country Club. At the pond on the course, still seen today, children would wade in the waters and retrieve golf balls from the mud with their feet.
Due to development by J.C. Nichols, the land in the area was becoming quite pricey. In 1921, Ward’s widow became interested in developing the land and gave notice to the Kansas City Country Club that they’d have to move when their lease ran out in 1926. Thus, Kansas City’s first country club had to move for a third and final time. They chose their current location at 62nd and Indian Lane in Mission HIlls, KS, and opened their doors in December 1926.
From a Golf Course to a Famed Kansas City Park
J.C. Nichols was quite worried about the loss of green space in the heart of his most prized development and sought to do something about it. He approached Ella Loose, widow of Jacob L. Loose who was the founder of Sunshine Biscuits and asked her to purchase the land where the golf course was and donate it to the city as a public park named after her late husband.
Loose loved the idea and offered a whopping $500,000 for the land. Shockingly, the Wards declined at first but then settled on selling the east 75 acres of the original 110 acres of Kansas City Country Club for the agreed-upon price.
The rest of the acreage from the golf course was developed into the Sunset Hill neighborhood from Summit to Belleview, 52nd to 55th Streets.
Kansas City Country Club and Loose Park Live On
Kansas City Country Club at Mission Hills was designed by famed golf architect A.W. Tillinghast. It remains one of the most challenging and beautiful courses today.
When working to purchase the land for Loose Park, Loose told the Kansas City Times, “The idea appealed to me not only because the gift would be something for all people to enjoy, but because that property possesses an unusual historical and sentimental value to Kansas City.” Today, Jacob L. Loose Park stands as a beautiful homage to the past where a famous battle is preserved underneath its green space and Kansas City’s first avid golfers used to hack the little white ball across its rolling hills.
Diane writes a blog of the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com