Harry Vardon – the one who taught us how to hold a club
The images we have today of Harry Vardon are taken from black-and-white photographs, or snippets of old film. More than seven decades after his death, he seems more myth than man. But Vardon was one of the most remarkable figures in golf history.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was the dominant player in the sport, and an ancestor of the great players who followed him, from Jones, to Hogan, to Nicklaus, to Woods. In an era when golf professionals did everything from making clubs, to building golf courses, to giving lessons, he was among the first to be celebrated primarily as a player.
Vardon was born on May 9, 1870 in Grouville on the Island of Jersey, in the English Channel, just off the coast of Normandy, France. One of eight children, he received his first exposure to golf when Royal Jersey Golf Club opened in his hometown in 1878. According to some accounts, Vardon and his siblings constructed a homemade course of their own near their home. It’s uncertain what sort of guidance he might have had while learning the game, but he had no formal instruction. Vardon put golf aside when he left school at age 12 to become an apprentice gardener, but after his apprenticeship was over he turned to golf for his living, following in the footsteps of his brother Tom, who left Jersey for England to become a golf professional.
In 1890, Vardon emigrated in England himself, where he became the greenkeeper/golf professional at Studley Royal Golf Club, a nine-hole course located in a private estate in Yorkshire. By the end of 1891 he had moved on to Bury Golf Club in Lancashire. Around this time, he perfected the grip that bears his name to this day, in which a righthanded golfer inserts the little finger of the right hand between the first two fingers of the left. The Vardon grip is the choice of the vast majority of expert players.
With this grip as a foundation, Vardon taught himself an upright swing that enabled him to hit a golf ball farther and higher than his contemporaries, allowing him to keep the ball in the air longer and control it more effectively. His swing became a model for golfers who came after him. Vardon had some physical advantages in that he had very large hands for a man his size, 5-9 and 155 pounds. But the key to his competitive success was his ability to repeat his swing under the pressure of tournament competition. When he began competing in tournaments in England his talent soon became apparent.
In 1893 Vardon made his first appearance in the Open Championship at the Prestwick Club in Scotland, the championship’s ancestral home. In 1896, Vardon moved on to Ganton Golf Club in East Yorkshire as the golf professional. That same year, he won his first Open Championship, defeating J.H. Taylor in a 36-hole playoff at Muirfield in Scotland. The two men would be rivals for the next two decades. Along with James Braid they dominated the Open Championship from the late 19th century until the outbreak of World War I, claiming 16 titles between them. The three were known collectively as the Great Triumvirate, but Vardon was considered first among equals, particularly after winning back-to-back Open titles in 1898 and ’99 at Prestwick and Royal St. George’s.
When he wasn’t playing in tournaments, Vardon traveled throughout the United Kingdom playing lucrative challenge matches. His most celebrated effort came in 1899 when he defeated Willie Park, Jr., a two-time Open champion himself, in a 72-hole, winner-take-all challenge in which the two players put up £100 each out of their own pockets.
In 1900, Vardon traveled to the United States at the behest of sporting goods entrepreneur Albert G. Spalding who at the time was introducing a new rubber golf ball with Vardon’s name on it. He spent most of that year playing exhibitions in the United States and Canada. He also won the 1900 U.S. Open, defeating his old rival Taylor by two strokes at the Chicago Golf Club. He returned home to finish second to Taylor at the Open Championship at St. Andrews, then spent the rest of the year in America.
By this time Vardon became a revered figure in Britain. He customarily appeared on the golf course in a tailored coat and tie, and plus-four knickers. He was known for his even temperament on the course, a trait that on more than one occasion enabled him to overcome his own mistakes and capitalize on an opponent’s misfortune. In 1902 Vardon took a job at South Herts Golf Club in Hertfordshire. He would stay there for the rest of his career, although he was first and foremost a playing professional. But after winning his fourth Open Championship at Prestwick in 1903, at age 33, Vardon was stricken with tuberculosis and spent eight months in a sanitarium.
He was never quite the same player afterward; his putting stroke in particular was affected. But he won his fifth Open, in 1911 at Royal St. George’s and finished second the next year before capturing his record sixth and last Open Championship in 1914 at Prestwick at age 44.
Vardon was also a central figure in one of the most significant events in the history of American golf. Competing in the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, Vardon tied for the championship with his fellow Jerseyman Ted Ray and American amateur Francis Ouimet. Ouimet’s victory in the subsequent 18-hole playoff was considered a huge upset and led to a surge in the game’s popularity in America. In 1920, Vardon still had enough game to tie for second at the U.S. Open that year at the age of 50.
Vardon was an influential figure off the golf course. While convalescing from tuberculosis he wrote and published his first book, The Complete Golfer. He went on to write several additional books in subsequent years and helped found the PGA in Britain in the early 20th century. He also helped select the first British Ryder Cup team in 1927 and designed a number of golf courses.
Vardon died on March 20, 1937 at age 66. When the World Golf Hall of Fame was established in 1974, Vardon was one of its 13 original inductees. Harry Vardon set a standard that few in golf’s long history have been able to match.Written by Rick Woelfel
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