Although there is evidence that Americans played golf in the 17th cent., the first permanent clubs in the United States were not organized until the late 1880s. A dispute between the sponsors of two "national" championships led American golfers to found (1894) the United States Golf Association (USGA) as a governing body for the sport. The USGA also conducted annual tournaments, including the National Amateur and the National, or U.S., Open (which includes both amateur and professional players). The first of these championships took place in 1895. In 1916 the United States Professional Golf Association (PGA) was founded and the annual PGA championship inaugurated. During the first several decades in which these major tournaments were held, golf had little broad appeal.
Though the game boomed among business executives in the 1920s, amateurs were usually members of exclusive clubs, and professionals were usually teachers of the game. The only golfer to ever win a grand slam (the four major championships—then the British Amateur and Open and the U.S. Amateur and Open—in one year) was an amateur, Robert Tyre ("Bobby") Jones, Jr., who retired shortly after his 1930 feat. During the Depression, many private courses opened to the public, and agencies of the New Deal built nearly 1,000 public courses.
Golf today is one of America's fastest growing participant sports, particularly among public course players. Many private clubs still exist in the 1990s, with some determining membership on racial or religious grounds. The growth of the game has been consistent since the advent of televised tournaments in the 1960s and the gradual strengthening of the professional circuit (which has lessened the distinction of playing as an amateur). Two of golf's greatest and most charismatic players, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, entered their prime in time to take advantage of both conditions.
The world's best players now vie in 72-hole tournaments for prize money that can exceed $500,000 for a victory at one of the four major championships (now the U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship, and the Masters); some other events greatly exceed that amount. Every two years in the Ryder Cup competition, a team of American professionals plays against Europe's best players. A made-for-television event, the Skins Game, is a popular version of an old golf gambling game in which selected professionals compete for money that has exceeded $300,000. Women (under the aegis of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association, founded 1946) and seniors have their own professional tours. The women also contested their own U.S.-Europe team event, the Solheim Cup, for the first time in 1990.