How a Round of Golf Turned Hazardous in Downtown Pittsburgh

Could a golfer make it from the North Side to Penn Avenue In 150 strokes or fewer?
Golf Vintage Jul23 4ck


It was 5 in the morning. July 20, 1900. A Friday.

Those early risers responsible for getting the City of Pittsburg(h) started were already up to their elbows in activity. Butchers, trolley operators, bakers. The day’s forecast called for “southerly winds” and a chance of rain — and heat. The temperature was 72 degrees at sunrise, expected to reach a sweltering 88 by noon.

The sun had just fully breached the horizon. The quiet streets, empty of the commuters who would descend upon the metropolis in a matter of hours, echoed only with the occasional clip-clop of horseshoes.

A peaceful respite awaiting the daily chaos of industry and ambition.

On July 20, 1900, that early-morning peace would be interrupted by the unmistakable crack of a golf ball rocketing off the face of a golf club. That golf ball was the first shot of a miles-long course set not through the verdant hills of one of Pittsburgh’s country clubs but rather through the asphalt streets of Allegheny City (the North Side today) and Downtown proper.

And over the next two hours, that golf ball would disturb a whole lot more than just the peace.

To understand how this came to be, we have to go back three weeks. We must enter the doors of the 5-year-old Allegheny Country Club and listen as an argument unfolds among some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and most influential men. At the time, the club sat on a 6-hole golf course near Brighton Road and California Avenue on the North Side. Among its early members were names familiar to modern Pittsburghers: Moorhead, Denniston, Darlington, Denny, Rea.

In early June, an argument erupted between the men of Allegheny Country Club and another swanky, exclusive club, this one Downtown on Penn Avenue — the Pittsburgh Club, which counted among its members names like Mellon, Heinz, Scaife and Hillman.

The question: How far could a golf ball be driven through the city streets?

The men of Allegheny insisted it could be done from their property to the front door of the Pittsburgh Club in 150 strokes or less.

Before long, bets were placed among the men of both clubs. Crack golfer William J. Patton, 40, was chosen to make the attempt on behalf of the Allegheny Club. A street route was planned, police permission obtained, a course referee selected and two caddies identified. A few weeks later, Patton awoke at 4 a.m. for his engagement with a golf ball. Par: 150. Distance: 4.5 miles. Hazards: the streets, bridges, conveyances, buildings, rivers, and, yes, the people of Pittsburgh.

The golf cart: a horse-drawn wagon.

As dozens of men from both clubs looked on, some on horseback and all of them clad in full golf attire including knickerbockers, Patton approached a ball on the club property and aimed for California Avenue. Shot 1 cracked through the air and the game was officially afoot.

The first mile was challenging. The cobblestone streets of Allegheny City sent the ball bouncing at awkward angles. The agreed-upon rules forbade the retrieval of any ball that sailed beyond a backyard fence, an occurrence that would earn Patton a two-stroke penalty. Adding to his early woes, he sent his 17th shot off the ankle of the Avalon car trolley driver who was riding the running boards. Reportedly, shouted warnings reached the driver too late to avoid the ball.

The first mile of cautious residential play required 50 strokes from a struggling Patton. The men of the Pittsburgh Club were beginning to believe they’d wagered correctly; there were still several miles and a whole lot of asphalt to go.

By the time the surely comical-looking group reached Ridge Avenue, Patton was taking shot 75 and things were warming up in more ways than one. A few long shots down straight roadways were a confidence boost, but there was a small hiccup when he blasted a ball through the bedroom window of a “prominent citizen,” who (we can only assume) whipped said ball back as hard as he could along with some old-timey cuss words like blazes, dratted and jagoff.

Jagoff is timeless.

Stroke 98 came near Federal Street. Patton, perhaps overeager now that he was seeing substantial progress on the smoother-bouncing asphalt, absentmindedly fired a ball from the center of Federal without checking for hazards like windows, horses, or, in this case, pedestrians.

It was a laborer, his dinner pail in hand, who painfully stopped Patton’s shot with the center of his back. Needless to say, when a privileged country club golfer spends a Friday morning launching balls through city blocks with a crowd of goofily dressed country club friends tagging along — and then proceeds to blister a golf ball into the back of a laborer — well, the laborer gets irate.

According to reports, he dropped his pail and marched toward the group with plans to “knock all joy and gladness out of the man in the golf suit.” Tension! Thanks to the intercession of his friends who calmed the charging worker, Patton was not “compelled to give an exhibition of his prowess as an exponent of the fistic art.” (This is just an old-timey journalist’s way of saying, “Golf boy nearly got his butt whupped in the streets by a steel worker.”)

Soon it was time to cross the Sixth Street toll bridge over the Allegheny River (where the Roberto Clemente Bridge is today). When Patton swatted his ball toward the bridge, it thunked off the window of the toll house, sending the toll-taker rushing out in search of the scamp he suspected of rock-throwing. Imagine his surprise to see it was a golf ball in the midst of a fortunate ricochet that plopped it cleanly on the bridge’s trolley tracks. A good lie.

It was here, now in the triple digits of strokes, that Patton poetically encountered both soaring beauty and a crushing blow. His shot off the tracks “sailed up through the lateral rods and struts of the bridge and seemed to dodge through them as a bird would in its flight.” Glory, glory, hallelujah. However, his next shot sent the ball bouncing toward Duquesne Way (today Fort Duquesne Boulevard) just as the Troy Hill trolley car was racing from the opposite direction. The ball rolled into its path where it was “crush[ed] to a pulp.”

The referee marked the time, 6:45 a.m., as he handed Patton a fresh ball and a two-stroke penalty.

By now, the city was awake and a larger crowd of curious commuters and residents joined the party of spectators, golfers and horses. They followed excitedly as Patton used his 110th stroke to find Duquesne Way and his 116th to hop onto Fifth Avenue. They cheered as he used his 118th stroke to touch Penn. His target was now in sight. Just before 7 a.m., with his 119th shot and a crowd holding their collective breath behind him, Patton sailed the ball cleanly to the steps of 425 Penn Ave.

Course complete. 31 shots under par. The unforgiving streets of Allegheny and Pittsburgh conquered. The crowd erupted in congratulatory jubilation.

All told, Patton lost about a half-dozen balls and destroyed three clubs, victims of either unforgiving asphalt or human frustration. Soon, reports began popping up across the Atlantic, telling the tale of the man from “Pittsburg, U.S.A.” who drove a golf ball through more than 4 miles of city streets and only left two smarting bruises and a negligible amount of structural damage in his wake.

Also left behind was a crowd of Pittsburghers who went home that evening to tell their families about how they went to the city … and a golf game broke out.

Dahn Memory Lane
In her quarterly column, Virginia Montanez digs deep into local history to find the forgotten secrets of Pittsburgh. Sign up for her email newsletter at:

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