By CONNIE ZEIGLER
Contributing editor, Urban Times
In 1904, the Highland Golf Club opened on land west of the White River in Riverside Park. The clubhouse that members built for their private club on public park land was said to be “the finest in this part of the country.” The pleasure of playing on the course was limited to an exclusive 100 members.
The club ensured that the well-heeled golfers of Indianapolis no longer needed to play with the middle-class, or even working-class golfers who played the free city course. The deal that Highland worked out with the city through the parks department included a renewable five-year lease and an agreement that the city would refund half of the construction costs of the course at the termination of the lease, according to an article in The Indianapolis Star.
Glen Diddel was one of the club’s founding members and his son, William H. “Bill” Diddel, became a local golfing sensation playing for the Highland club at numerous local and regional championships in the early years of the country club. Women were in the mix there, too. In 1907, Highland’s president, William Dollman, donated a trophy to be given to the winning woman golfer in a new annual ladies tournament.
The parks department and the country club renewed the lease when it came up in 1909 and again when the five-year term expired in 1914. But in 1919, the parks department decided to end the contract and take over the Highland club to use as another city course – now the Coffin Golf Course.
In 1919, The Indianapolis News reported that Highland Country Club had grown so much that the officers were having difficulty keeping membership down to 300. The club’s president at that time was C.L. Kirk. The News article noted that Kirk was also president of the newly formed Highland Golf Realty Co., which was established to find and purchase new land for the course after the city decided to end its rental agreement at Riverside. That year the club purchased 143 acres on the north bank of White River (bounded by present-day 56th Street and Grandview Drive).
The club’s plans were to build a “championship golf course,” according to reports in The Star. It would be the seventh golf course in Indianapolis. The same article noted that the club had incorporated on Aug. 15, 1919, with captitalization of $260,000. Of that amount, according to C. F. Coffin, whose name would soon grace the course that Highland was leaving behind at Riverside Park, $37,000 was dedicated to build the country club’s new course.
Tom Bendelow was a former Scotsman and golf’s most prolific course designer in the United States. He was also the game’s great proselytizer, and had come to scope out the course land and proclaimed that “it could be made into one of the ideal courses in the country.” Highland members must have been excited by Bendelow’s observation, not knowing that he said just about the same thing about just about all of the more than 500 courses he designed in his career.
By 1920, Bendelow was out and another Scottish-born golf course designer, Willie Park, was hired to design the course. However, Park dropped the ball after the design work was finished and it fell to local boy, and former Highland golf champ, Bill Diddel, to supervise the work of constructing the course and transcribing Park’s design onto the land. Highland was Diddel’s first professional course design in what would become a prolific and heralded career in golf course layout.
The Indianapolis firm of Bass Knowlton and Graham designed the clubhouse. It was origionally planned in a Tudor Revival style, based on a sketch shown in The Indianapolis News in early 1921, but by December 1921 the architects had morphed the style into NeoClassical. The new sketch looked much as the buildng does today.
Memberships at the new club were $500, an astronomical amount for most people in Indianapolis in the 1920s.
The course opened in 1921, during golf’s golden age. The imposing building opened a year later and became the nexus of social and recreational activities for the movers and shakers of Indianapolis.
In 1922, the two biggest names in golf at that time, Brits Abe Mitchell and George Duncan, visited the course, on which members had already been playing for almost a year, for an exhibition game that would be its official opening. Duncan had just achieved the best score up to that time on the Old Course in St. Andrews Scotland, golf’s mecca. And Mitchell was the longest hitter in the game. The game attracted a hugh audience to the new club.
A few years later, in 1926, Highland hosted the Western Open, won by Walter Hagen. But the country club’s folklore remembers that Open as the one in which Hagen and another famous golfer, Bobby Jones, settled a long-running feud with a handshake on the course at Highland.
Dinner parties and “Junior Jumps” dances, keno parties and fashion shows lured those who were interested in more than golf. A small swimming pool was added in the 1920s and tennis courts were constructed in 1936. In 1946, the club had 400 members; that year a local newspaper called Highland “the Golfingest Club in Town,” when it hosted the Women’s Western Open.
The club also became a significant selling point in promoting the upsale nature of the subdivisions that built up around it. Advertisements as late as 1956 tout the location of houses for sale within “the Highland Country Club area.” One advertisement from 1947 notes that the house for sale was “in the neighborhood of Highland Country Club” in a subdivision that was “well-restricted and in the neighborhood of a number of fine country estates.”
Highland’s members have had the foresight to maintain their original course layout and their clubhouse’s historic design for almost a century, and still relish in recouting the tale of Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. And surprisingly, the club that has maintained its exclusivity has also had a significant impact on the city of Indianapolis, constructing one of its public golf courses (Coffin) and spurring northward suburban growth. n
Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.