Mark Wagner wins Coyne Prize for essay on Native American pro golfer

January 19, 2024
By: Rebecca Cross

Historian Mark Wagner has been in love with the game of golf since he was a child. He has been writing about the game since 1985. Now, he has been awarded second place of the Coyne Prize, which seeks to encourage, promote, and advance the careers of both new and established voices in the game of golf.

His prize-winning work is one of the chapters of his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Native Links: The Surprising History of Our First People in Golf, from Back Nine Press. The chapter tells the story of Frank Dufina (1884-1972), a Chippewa, who was one of the first Native American professional golfers. Dufina started playing at the Wawashkamo Golf Club on Mackinac Island, Michigan, when he was 14 and has been recognized as the “Longest Working Golf Professional in History” by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America.

Wagner sees the Coyne Prize as a welcome recognition that this story needs to be told. “I’m thrilled by the support.” He will be flown down to Virginia to play on the Creighton Farms course and receive grant money to fund work related to the book.

Wagner has a long history with Worcester State University. He started teaching in the Intensive English Language Institute in 2008, and he was the founder and director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement for more than ten years until his retirement in 2022. He now teaches a seminar in the First Year Seminar as an adjunct professor.

He has been playing golf since childhood. He wasn’t born into a rich family, he says, but his father was best friends with a golfer, and his family took a two-week vacation every year, which gave him a chance to play in the Adirondacks. “My father was a terrible golfer,” he says, laughing. “I was never good,” he admits. “But we loved every minute of it, being out in nature, learning how to swing, looking for balls in water, sandpits. Only recently, I’ve gotten a little bit better.”

He conceived of this book project in 2022 after visiting several Native-owned golf courses in New England. “This is a story celebrating Native history in a unique way,” he says. “I feel very lucky and privileged to be able to do it.”

Wagner has now written and published a number of articles about Native American figures in golf history. He is the first to admit that writing about Native history while not Native himself can be fraught. “A lot of Native historians are doing work that is critically important to telling the story of how the tribes were mistreated,” he said. “My project is more recreational and at the same time celebratory.”

The reception he has received from tribal councils has been “welcoming but cautious.” Before he tells their stories, he meets with the councils to present his story idea and get their perspective on it. The Indigenous news site Indian Country Today (ICT) is publishing the work as chapters.

Wagner’s book will also feature a chapter on Oscar Bunn (1875-1918), a pioneer in golf. Bunn, a Shinnecock/Montauk native, helped build Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in New York and a course in Buenos Aires and taught golf in the Adirondacks and Florida. Only two known photographs of Bunn exist, from which Wagner helped facilitate the creation of a portrait of Bunn by David Bunn Martine (a relative of Oscar’s) that will be displayed at the United States Golf Association Museum and Library.

Wagner’s book is due to be published later this year by Back Nine Press.

Top image: Mark Wagner at Cochiti Golf Course. Photo courtesy of Mark Wagner.

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