Westchester’s St. Andrew’s Boasts First Olympic Golf Champion

Golf returns to the Summer Olympics in Rio this year. Sixty golfers will be hoping to earn the title first claimed by St. Andrew’s member Charles Sands.

Perhaps the biggest news in golf this year is that the game will return to the Summer Olympics for the first time since 1904. The very first time golf was played in the Olympic games, though, the big news was the first-place winner, a golfer from St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Hastings who had been playing the game for only five years. Charles Sands, who joined the Westchester club in 1895, took home the (then) solid-silver championship medal in 1900, making him the first, and so far America’s only, men’s Olympic golf champion.

What makes Sands’ triumph all the more interesting is that he was much better known for his tennis game than for his golf. He spent two years preparing for tennis in the Paris Olympics, winning the Racquette D’Or in 1899, 1900, and 1902, but went down in flames in the first round of singles, doubles, and mixed doubles in the Olympic competition.

The Olympic golf event didn’t come along until several months after tennis, so Sands had time to lick his wounds and prepare for the tournament held at the Compiegne Club about 60 miles north of Paris. The event called for 36 holes of stroke play and was contested by a field of 12 golfers from the U.S., Britain, France, Greece, and Australia. Sands shot rounds of 82 and 85 to beat Walter Rutherford of Scotland by a single stroke. The first place award was a silver medal—gold wasn’t awarded until later in Olympics history.

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Charles Sands, the son of a prominent family in New York City, played football, crew, and racquet sports at Columbia College (now Columbia University). After graduation, he competed and won on the amateur tennis tour.  In 1895, he joined St. Andrew’s, which had been founded in Yonkers just seven years earlier. At the time Sands became a member, the club had a nine-hole course laid out on what had been Odell Farm at Grey Oaks on the Saw Mill River. St. Andrew’s moved to its current location to build its first 18-hole course in 1897.

In October, 1895, just three months after taking up golf, Sands made his first mark on the game by advancing to the finals of the first official U.S. Amateur Championship at Newport Country Club. Charles Blair Macdonald—a lion of the game—was favored to win even though he had lost the first (unofficial because the USGA didn’t exist at the time) National Amateur tournament played at St. Andrew’s the year before. At Newport, Macdonald got his revenge by downing Sands in the 36-hole final 12 & 11.

Later that fall, Sands cemented his place in amateur golf by defeating another high-profile golfer, Winthrop Rutherford, 3 & 2 in a $1,000 side-bet challenge match at Meadowbrook GC. Rutherford, who represented the Newport GC at the founding meeting of the USGA, had said Sands “was not much of a player” after the just-completed U.S. Amateur. Trash talk on the golf course isn’t a recent invention.

After the 1900 Olympics, Sands concentrated primarily on tennis, winning the U.S. National Court Tennis Championship in 1905 and competing in tennis at the London Olympic Games in 1908—when golf was no longer part of the games.  Sands died at his summer home in Brookville, NY, in 1945.

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