The Brief Golfing Life of Oscar Bunn

Baylis Greene

So what would lead a Shinnecock Indian, born in 1875, on looping peregrinations across South America, from Uruguay to Chile, from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil down to Buenos Aires, Argentina?

How about a little white ball?

Or, as Oscar Bunn’s American passport has it, in the carefully typed words of one James Richardson, clerk of the New York State Supreme Court in Riverhead, NY, dated December 20, 1916: “Golf instruction.”

Departure? January 6, 1917, from the port of New York, aboard the S.S. Vauban, Belfast-built, 500 feet bow to stern, crew of 250. Time abroad? Three months.

The game of golf as we know it may date to 15th century Scotland, but in this country around the turn of the 20th century, it was still a new sport. Yet Bunn not only made it his own, he made it his life’s work, finding employment as a club pro in Lake Placid, NY, in Jacksonville, FL—even then a destination for snowbirds of some means—and in New Britain, CT, the, uh, home of the wire hanger.

As with any number of pros, he got his start as a caddie. First off, there was the nearby Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, established in 1891. “Shinnecock Indians Good Golf Caddies,” crowed a headline in a September 22, 1900, issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, for a time the most-read afternoon newspaper in the country and, in those days, a kind of official paper for all of Long Island. “The Aboriginal Long Islander Always Carried the White Man’s Burden,” read a subheading. (Rudyard Kipling’s harrowing colonialists’ hymn had been published the year before in McClure’s Magazine.)

The “Indian boys from the neighboring Shinnecock reservation” were described as “bright, willing, intelligent, lynx-eyed and quick as a cat in their movements.” If that means Bunn was a natural, then sure. By 1896, he was good enough to play in the second U.S. Open, held at Shinnecock Hills. It wasn’t his best effort: he shot a first-round 89 and finished 21st, but merely taking part has done more than anything else to keep his name alive down through the decades, even if he’s always been overshadowed by his friend and competitor, John Shippen, a black golf pro taking his cuts 101 years before Tiger Woods won his first major tournament.

Shippen finished fifth—tops among the few Americans, good for 10 bucks—and would go on to play in four more U.S. Opens. He also caddied at Shinnecock Hills, having moved to the reservation with his family from Washington, D.C., when his father was named minister of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church.

Their presence caused a protest among the white golfers at the Open—mostly Scots and Englishmen—a revolt that was famously put down by Theodore Havemeyer, the first head of the United States Golfers Association, who decreed if they didn’t take up their irons, he’d simply run Bunn and Shippen out there to play by themselves.

Photograph: Courtesy of David Bunn Martine

Photograph: Courtesy of David Bunn Martine

Bunn’s reputation reached the point where he merited a Sunday profile in the October 20, 1901, issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, complete with a four- panel photo illustration of his flawless swing and no fewer than seven paragraphs’ worth of his golf tips. In the wake of the Open, “young Bunn, swarthy of face, black of hair...has met some of the most formidable players on the links, and always with honor.”

He lost by one stroke, for example, to Walter Travis, who was then the two-time defending U.S. amateur champion, and who went on to found American Golfer Magazine. A year earlier in Lake Placid, when he faced the legendary Harry Vardon, who had won the 1900 U.S. Open and several British Opens, “I was beaten,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle quotes Bunn as saying, “but I was nervous, of course, meeting the player ranked as the best in the world, and I am sure only for that I would have won.”

“Bunn is not a big man,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle enthused, “only 150 pounds, yet his driving is terrific.” His photoless passport fleshes him out: “Stature: 5 feet, 11 inches. Forehead: narrow & high. Eyes: brown. Nose: large. Mouth: average. Chin: rather deep.”

“He has driven over 250 yards often,” the writer went on, before relaying how he personally witnessed just such a drive, followed by Bunn’s “unerring sense of the hunter” in ferreting out a stray ball from the oddest place, “searching the ground as a hunter tracks a quail. Perhaps he developed this instinct, to a certain extent, hunting with the parties he and his brother, Charles Bunn, a noted Long Island guide, take after snipe, wild duck and geese...”

It’s true that Oscar Bunn was much more than a golfer. He was a woodcarving artist, for one thing. Examples of his work hang at the Southampton Historical Museum’s 1660 Thomas Halsey House, most notably a graceful, dark-wood bow, at least six feet long and still strung.

More prosaically, he made scrubs, sections of white oak “repeatedly slashed,” the wall text reads, “until it splinters to make the bristles which can scrub pots and pans and dishes clean.” (Point its bristles up and you’ve got the world’s most artistic dollhouse tree.) In the early 1900s, these were made in the winter months and sold door-to-door in the village.

Below this sits a sizable display case of items from early Shinnecock history— arrowheads and striking and scraping tools, for the most part—with a placard: “This case of genuine artifacts of the Shinnecock Tribe was made by Oscar Bunn and presented by him to James C. Parrish in 1898.” James was the brother of Samuel Parrish, the founder of the art museum in Southampton and one of the founders of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

Just as it’s unexpected that a turn-of-the-century Native American would take such a shine to the bourgeois preoccupation that is golf, the juxtaposition of an exhibit of Shinnecock history at the back of the home of one of Southampton’s first settlers is a physical manifestation of the two populations’ necessary symbiosis.

What’s unusual about Oscar Bunn is that he stood at the intersection of so much that defines the Shinnecocks, from the golf course, built by workers from the reservation on ancestral tribal grounds following a disputed 1859 land transfer, and with a long tradition of being tended by Shinnecocks, to the traditions of craftsmanship and hunting, to, in later years, his extended family’s long tenure running the Teepee in the Hills souvenir shop, to, more profoundly, losing his father when he was an infant to one of Long Island’s most notorious shipwrecks, that of the Circassian, a 280-foot freighter, in a raging winter storm off Bridgehampton in December of 1876. David Waukus Bunn was one of 10 full-blooded Shinnecock men to perish in what was really a tragedy twice over, as they were a salvage crew ordered to off-load the foundering ship.

“The impact is manifest in many ways right up to the present day,” the Shinnecock historian Arthur P. Davis wrote, in Squaw Man Rambles on ‘the Neck,’ from 1972. “The entire mode of life changed.” He quoted the Daily Eagle: ”When those 10 men went off shore, there wasn’t much but women folks left on the reservation.”

Their neighbors rallied. Early in 1878, The Sag Harbor Express reported on a “committee appointed to distribute funds and provisions to the families of those lost on the Circassian, and living in Shinnecock.” Donors included two DeBosts of Southampton, a Halsey and a Corwith from Bridgehampton, and a couple of Hunttings from East Hampton. At that point, of the $469 that had been raised, $139 had gone to funeral expenses.

As for Bunn and his South American excursion, coming home killed him. Returning from Buenos Aires, he was apparently unprepared for the cold weather and caught pneumonia, “from which he never recovered,” according to his obituary in the January 31, 1918, edition of The Southampton Press. He was all of 42.

Emily Gilbert