All the better U.S. Open courses have ghosts, and Inverness, in Toledo, Ohio, where the clan will gather next week to decide the national championship, has one of the best ghosts of all.
Harry Vardon, the incomparable English professional who won six British Opens between 1896 and 1914, was 50 years old and 20 years past his prime when the U.S. Open came to Toledo in 1920. Nevertheless, he was still the most famous golfer in the world, and the fairways of Donald Ross' then relatively new Inverness course were lined with people who had come to see the great man play, probably for the last time in this country. They pulled for the homebred players—Leo Diegel, Walter Hagen, Jack Burke. Long Jim Barnes, and two young newcomers, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen—but they followed Vardon so they could tell their grandchildren about it.
However, as late as the second nine of the final round, it seemed as though the aging Vardon was going to pull off one of the most memorable victories in the history of the game. He had played 65 holes in three under par, and through 11 holes of the final day he had shown the same sort of stylish, controlled golf with which he had first astonished Americans in 1900. He stood on the 12th tee, five strokes ahead of the field.
It was then that fate, the only variable that Vardon couldn't control that August afternoon, stepped in, and what might have been a remarkable triumph became a memorable defeat.
June 10, 1979
At his best, Vardon was in a class by himself. For three years, from 1898 to 1900, there was Harry Vardon and then there was everyone else. He set the standard by which golfers were measured, and his graceful, effortless and novel upright swing became the model of the day. He wasn't the first to use an overlapping grip, but he popularized it, and even now the "Vardon" grip is universally considered "correct." Before Vardon came along, golfers held their clubs in the manner of baseball bats and swung them in the flat, loose "St. Andrews" style.
Born in 1870 on Jersey, one of England's Channel Islands, Vardon might have become a gardener like his father had not some gentlemen golfers laid out a course on the common land of Grouville, the village where he lived. Harry and his brothers first caddied for the gentlemen, then learned to play, using homemade clubs and white marbles. When a younger brother, Tom, who had left home to become a professional, won a golf prize of 12 pounds 10 shillings, Harry decided to become a professional, too. With Tom's help he got a job at a nine-hole course in Yorkshire and left Jersey in 1890 to begin a new life.
Vardon made his mark in 1896 when he beat J. H. Taylor, winner of the 1894 and '95 British Opens, in a 36-hole match at Ganton in Yorkshire. A month or two later Vardon won his first Open at Muir-field, and in 1898 and '99 he won again. Of his play at that period Vardon wrote, "I know that in those times, whenever I was within reach of the green with any club—brassie, cleek or anything else—I saw only the flag and thought only of the flag.... I knew that I could put the ball within a yard or two of any place that I wished. And so the game was especially easy for me."
It was at this stage of Vardon's unassailability, the period of which the Scottish professional Andrew Kirkaldy said, "He would break the heart of an iron ox," that Vardon made the first of his three trips to the U.S. He played 88 matches, usually of 36 holes and usually against the best ball of two or three of the better local players. Of the 88 he won 73. He showed thousands of American golfers, who at that period were enthusiastic but largely untutored, how the game could be played.
But the 1900 tour seems to have brought an end to Vardon's dominance. By his own admission he was never quite the same again after that exhausting year. In 1903 he developed tuberculosis, and though he won the British Open that year, he then had to spend several months in a sanitorium in Norfolk.
Vardon remained at the pinnacle of the game for many years, but from 1900 until the end of World War I, he shared the heights with two contemporaries, J. H. Taylor and James Braid. Known as the Triumvirate, among them they won 16 of the 22 British Opens played between 1894 and 1920.
"They were enormous rivals but I never heard of any kind of dispute among them," says Pat Ward-Thomas, golf correspondent for The Guardian. "They loved golf and served it as few people do any more. Vintage types."
Ward-Thomas never met Vardon, who died in 1937, but he was acquainted with Taylor, who lived into his 90s. "Taylor said that Vardon was the best player he'd ever seen," he says. "His rhythm, his tempo never varied, and nothing upset him."
In 1913 Vardon, accompanied by big Ted Ray, a fellow Channel Islander, toured the U.S. again. Vardon was 43, Ray was 36, and though they were as different in their playing styles as it was possible to be, they were eminently compatible and not nearly so dour as they appear in old photographs. For instance, when they arrived in New York, Vardon had a painfully swollen thumb that he acquired in a pillow fight on board ship.
Vardon and Ray traveled 30,000 miles that year, played 41 matches and lost one. In a stunning upset, they also lost the U.S. Open in a three-way playoff at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., to a young American amateur, Francis Ouimet. The two Englishmen finished their last rounds early and sat in the clubhouse waiting to see if anyone would catch them. When word arrived that young Ouimet had a chance to tie, they went outside to watch his last four holes, of which Vardon said later, "...one of the finest exhibitions of courageous golf which I have ever witnessed."
By 1920 the Triumvirate had become the Old Guard of British golf, but Vardon was still a name to be reckoned with. His swing was as stylish and rhythmic as ever and his game from tee to green almost as accurate as it ever was. But age and ill health had produced one of the worst cases of the yips in the history of the game. His approach putts were unaffected; it was only "those wretched two or three feet ones" that caused him trouble. He was capable of hitting a two-foot putt one foot off line, or of taking a divot several inches behind a three-footer. Such horrors were preceded by a muscle twitch in his right arm that observers said could be seen with the naked eye.
Nevertheless, the promise of the presence of Vardon and Ray at Inverness for the Open gave the occasion a special intensity. Again the pair was touring the U.S. and again they were winning most of their matches—68 out of 94.
In 1920 the Open format called for two days of 18-hole qualifying rounds, then four championship rounds, played over two days, 36 holes each day. After the first two rounds, Jock Hutchison, a transplanted Scot who was the professional at the Glen View Club, led with 145, followed by Diegel and Barnes at 146 and Vardon, Ray and Hagen at 147. To the mild amazement of everyone who had seen him play in 1900 or 1913, Vardon was every bit as good as he had been then, tee to green. Even his putting woes seemed to have abated. After three rounds, Vardon was alone in the lead at 218, with Diegel and Hutchison at 219 and the long-hitting Ray at 220.
As the last round got under way on the second day, the sun was warm and the wind was slight. Vardon wore a wilted Panama straw on his graying head, a rumpled linen jacket in spite of the heat, and knickerbockers. He played the first four holes in par, birdied the long 5th hole, took a bogey on the 8th, but saved par on the 9th with a recovery from behind a tree. The recovery was a glorious brassie shot that started for a bunker on the left of the fairway, then broke toward the pin, ending up a few yards short of the green. He made the turn in 36.
After a par on the 10th and a birdie 3 on the 11th, Vardon came to the 12th tee holding a five-stroke lead and the heart of the gallery.
"Any golfer who was fortunate enough to follow Harry Vardon in his first 11 holes' play in the final round at Inverness knows what perfect style is," wrote John G. Anderson in The American Golfer. "Not the slicing or pulling of forced strokes, but the straight line to the hole with the amount of strength controlled."
Standing on the tee of the 522-yard 12th, however, Vardon found himself faced with the need for more strength than he possessed. A blustery wind had suddenly risen from the north and was blowing directly into the tee. The gale caught his tee shot and held it, leaving him much too far away to reach the green with his second shot. He laid up short of the brook in front of the green but was unable to get his third shot onto the small green. He ended with a six.
Utter weariness overtook Vardon. The traveling, the exhibitions, the six rounds of the championship and his 50 years began to exact their toll. At the 13th he missed a two-foot putt for par. At the 14th he three-putted. At 15 and 16 he three-putted again. Seventeen was the hole that crushed him. Hit into the wind, his tee shot fell short.
"I was very tired," he said afterward. "When I came to my ball I knew I had a hard shot to carry the brook, about 200 yards away, and reach the green. But I had wasted so many shots on my bad putting that I did not believe I could waste any more. I knew my only chance to get home was to put my body into the swing, something I never like to do. But here it was necessary. I failed to time the swing of my club and the sway of my body properly, and while I got a fair stroke, it was not quite good enough. It just caught the brook on the carry and I knew then, even as the ball left the club head, that my bid for the championship had failed."
Grantland Rice claimed that as Vardon watched that second shot on 17 he aged 10 years. For 29 holes of the final day Vardon was three under par. For the last seven holes he was seven over. From then on it was just a matter of waiting for Ray, Diegel and Hutchison, who were still on the course. Ray was first in with 295 to Vardon's 296. Diegel needed a birdie at 18 to tie Ray but missed a 25-foot putt. Hutchison also needed a birdie at 18 to tie, but when his long putt stayed out, Ray won. Vardon, Diegel, Hutchison and Burke tied for second.
Vardon finished out the exhibition tour and in November went back to the South Herts Golf Club at Totteridge, near London, where he had worked since 1903 and where he remained until his death in 1937. His letterhead read, "Golf Club and Ball Maker. Golf Clubs of Persimmon, Dogwood & Beech. All Orders Given Best Attention."
Laurie Auchterlonie, whose father, Willie, was British Open champion in 1893 and who himself is honorary professional to the Royal and Ancient, says Vardon stayed at South Herts because once when he was very ill, five doctors, all members of the club, had kept a round-the-clock vigil at his bedside. He is buried in Totteridge Parish churchyard, just down the road from the South Herts clubhouse, and his grave, even today, is always tended.
"Everyone loved him," says Auchterlonie. "He was the best professional we ever had."