A perfect match

The origins of the two dollar Nassau
By Doug Fletcher, Jr.

In the early days of golf, match play
—the practice of scoring by number of holes won—was the predominant form of competition. In his classic book A History of Golf, Robert Browning notes that the game was played for over 250 years
before a total medal score—or the
number of strokes for a round—was ever used in competition. Before then, competitors were drawn in pairs, and the player who scored the largest margin over his opponent was declared the winner. In those early days, the handicap system was not yet in place, and all too often "luck of the draw" was the chief factor in
a match’s outcome.

The best player in the field might be
paired against someone of equal ability and win his match one up, while a player of lesser skill might face someone with very little talent at all and win his match five up—thus taking the tournament. This method was improved, if only slightly, by the introduction of "classes". Golfers were divided based on ability, with a difference of a set number of strokes between each class. Since each club used the ability of its best player as the benchmark, from club to club the skill level within each class varied a great deal. Thanks to inequities in the pairings, it was not uncommon for players to win matches by a wide margin.

Against this backdrop of scoring troubles, the Nassau system came into vogue around the turn of the last century. There are two slightly different explanations of why it became popular. Some say that the Nassau helped to keep matches closer and more competitive, while others say the system quite simply kept losers from embarrassing themselves.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, the Nassau was not, as many golfers think, named for that port town in the Bahamas. According to an article in a contemporary golf magazine, the Nassau system of scoring was first conceived in 1900 by Mr. J.B. Coles Tappan, then captain at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y.

Most famous for being the spot where Bobby Jones met his Calamity Jane, Nassau was home course for golfers with surnames like Morgan, Tiffany, Pratt and Coffin. In those days, especially at tony golf clubs around New York City like Nassau, interclub matches were all the rage, weekend fodder for bragging rights on Wall Street and Park Avenue. The results were reported in the papers, and no one wished it entered into the public record that he had been defeated by eight or nine strokes the weekend before. Findlay Douglas, onetime president of the USGA and a Nassau member, may have summed up the system’s social graces best when he explained that it always sounded friendlier to say you won three points from your foe than that you beat him seven and six.

Over the years, many variations have sprung from the original Nassau system, including several common betting schemes. At Nassau Country Club today, the overall match is worth double an individual nine. The front nine is worth two dollars, the back nine two and the overall match four. In the course of either nine holes, if a player or team is two down, a new match starts for the remainder of the nine. With this method, there is always a match in play, so the final financial outcome always hangs in the balance.
Originally formed as the Queens County Golf Club in 1895, the name was changed to Nassau Country Club in 1898 to coincide with the formation of Nassau County. If J.B. Coles Tappan had devised his scoring system a few years earlier, we might be playing the "two dollar Queens" instead of the "two dollar Nassau". It just doesn’t have the same ring, now does it?

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