July 8, 2009

Harry Vardon - A Man Whose Style And Whose Records Still Stand

He was the Tiger Woods of his day, and when he teed it up -- whether it was in the UK or here in the US, he would draw crowds that more often than not numbered in the tens of thousands. He was the greatest of the Great Triumvirate of James Braid and John Henry Taylor - a group that so thoroughly dominated golf that their accomplishments have never been equaled. His effect on the game is still felt today -- most golfers emulate his swing and his grip without ever thinking of where it came from -- but nonetheless in so doing they are paying silent tribute to one of the great pioneers of the game. He was Harry Vardon, a man the likes of which the game has not seen since he left the course after his final round.

Born in 1870 in Jersey, a small island off the coast of England, Vardon was not a child born into great means who took up the game of golf as an idle avocation. In fact, Harry Vardon never played any real golf until he was a teenager, when as a gardner he received his first golf lesson, instead, he played a game where rough-hewn handmade clubs were used to hit a marble ball around a course measuring about 50 yards.

By the age of 20, having taken up the full game on the regulation courses of the day, Vardon was a good player, and like most young talented players, he was curious as to his abilities, so he entered a tournament -- which he won. Vardon then played in another tournament in Scotland -- this time against more skilled and more serious players -- and there, he came in second. It was shortly after that that he turned professional.

Vardon, The Innovator for All-Time

That said, it's fair to conclude that it was Vardon who invented the modern game of golf as we know and play it today. Vardon changed the way golfers looked at nearly...everything.

In the beginning, Harry was not a golfing prodigy, instead, he was largely a self-taught golfer who honed his skill through hard work and dogged dedication. It was during that time of discovery and practice that Vardon perfected his incredible accuracy and control of the golf ball, setting a standard that surpassed any that had played the game before him. While he did not invent it, Vardon perfected an overlapping club-gripping method now known as the "Vardon Grip" -- something that is still the most popular style of holding the club. Nearly all serious golfers -- Jack Nicklaus being a major exception -- use that grip, and more likely than not, if you have played the game for much time, you do as well.

In his time, golfers of all levels would strike their balls with great velocity but with low trajectories, which caused them to sacrifice control in favor of distance. Elements of that style of play are still needed, of course, especially on courses in Scotland where running the ball under the wind is a preferable strategy. Using it exclusively, however, is one dimensional and limiting.

Vardon learned to swing the club such that his golf ball would fly high in the air, and land with a nearly vertical angle so that it would come to a stop quickly, thus offering him the ability to precisely place his shots close to the pin. In his time, this was revolutionary and afforded a great competitive advantage in any match or tournament.

To accomplish this, Vardon played his swing in a different plane than his contemporaries, used a different stance, and also placed his ball at different areas in that stance in order to accomplish his goal of smart precision. All considered, it is probably Harry Vardon that began to perfect the idea of "target golf" -- and by doing so changed the game forever. Hardly a successful golfer -- amateur or pro -- since Vardon has not learned these techniques.

(pictured: the modern Vardon grip, left; at right, a closeup of Vardon's own grip method.)

See Harry Vardon's Swing in Stop-Animation

In 1896, with his sharpened skills, Vardon beat the aforementioned J. H. Taylor in a tournament, settling for all time his quality as a player. Later that same year won the first of his Open Championships -- a record that still stands to this day. Vardon was the first Englishman to hoist the Claret Jug, signalling the arrival of the English as a force to be reckoned with in tournament golf -- which had been thus far utterly dominated by Scots.

"Don't play too much golf. Two rounds a day is plenty." -- Harry Vardon

At one point, Vardon won fourteen tournaments in a row, a record which still stands, and he won seven majors -- including six Opens and a US Open in 1900, which he won after crossing the Atlantic by steamship -- the only viable transoceanic transportation available at the time.

In his tour of America in 1900, his status as golf's first international celebrity was cemented by the crowds often numbering in the tens of thousands who turned out to see him play - often by spectators who were seeing a golf course for the first time in their lives. When Vardon played at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, the New York Stock Exchange shut down for the day. Over fifty percent of the time, when he set foot on a course for the first time, sight unseen he would shatter the scoring record. He played 88 exhibition matches in that tour, losing only once to Alex Findlay in Miami, Florida.

A Curious Spectator At a Vardon Exhibition Sets The Stage For An Eventual Shift In Golf History

It was during that tour of America in 1900 that Vardon unknowingly changed the course of golf history not only in the United States but also in the world. In Boston, Vardon was hired to conduct an exhibition in the sporting goods department at the Jordan, Marsh & Company, a tony downtown department store.

Not being on a golf course or practice tee, Vardon hit ball after ball into a net, displaying his golfing talents for all comers -- including one Frances Ouimet, a young boy whose fascination with Vardon's trademark "Vardon Flyer" golf balls drew him magnetically to the store to see his idol in person.

It nearly didn't happen. Ouimet first asked his father to take him to the event, but was turned down by the class conscious Canadian immigrant who felt the store above his station. Ouimet's mother saw the desperate desire in her son's eyes and took him instead, and there, for the first time, Frances Ouimet beheld the sight of Harry Vardon.

Seeing Vardon's endlessly repeating and flawless swing gave Ouimet a lesson he would never forget -- and it crystallized his desire to be a great golfer. From then on, when he was not in school, doing chores or caddying at the Country Club across the street from his Brookline, Massachusetts home, Francis would be perfecting his own golf swing in a makeshift course near his house. Eventually, the young man's game budded into a highly proficient and extremely competitive one that saw him win several important regional tournaments.

In 1913, the pair would cross paths again, this time in the US Open that was to be played at Ouimet's "home" course, The Country Club in Brookline. Ouimet was by no means a member at the Country Club, he was employed as a caddy at the golf course, part of which passed by his front porch.

There, golf history for all time was made when the upstart 20 year old amateur would duel Vardon and Ted Ray in a 18 hole playoff duel that Ouimet won by overcoming his nerves and his opponents to win - igniting an exploding interest in golf in America in the process. Also notable about the 1913 US Open was another player who in his first US Open gamely battled but eventually fell by the wayside of the Oumiet/Ray/Vardon charge - Walter Hagen, a man who would eventually set a number of records of his own and also change the course of the game in his career.

(pictured: Vardon, Frances Ouimet and Ted Ray shortly after the 1913 US Open.)

Overcoming Consumption, And A Career Shortened By Damaged Nerves

After winning the Open Championship again in 1903, Vardon was stricken with tuberculosis, a then incurable disease with few treatments in the time before the discovery and implementation of antibiotic medications. It forced him out of competition and into Mundesley Sanatorium in Norfolk for long spells until 1910. Sick as he was, Vardon never dispelled the notion of playing golf, nor did he give up on winning major tournaments. In fact, the sanatorium was located aside Mundesley Golf Club's nine-hole course, which Vardon had helped to design in 1901. There, in 1904, Vardon played a non-competitive leisure round of golf, and scored the only hole-in-one in his career -- a feat that no doubt cheered Vardon greatly, renewing his spirits in the process.

Vardon would go on to validate his true greatness after he left Mundesley. At the age of 40, he would win the British Open again in 1911 and 1914, barely lose to the aforementioned Ouimet in perhaps the greatest US Open duel in 1913, and nearly won the US Open in 1920 at Inverness when he led the tournament by four strokes with seven holes remaining. Unfortunately, as a result of his illness (which was never cured) Vardon's putting ability was betrayed by quaking hands, and he ended up losing to his friend and fellow Jerseyman Ted Ray by two strokes.

Vardon's Place In History

Most golf historians agree that were it not for Vardon's tragic illness that he would have won many more majors and undoubtedly spent much more time in America -- offering him the opportunity to not only win Open Championships, but also US Open championships as well. It is also notable that Vardon's chances to add to his total were eclipsed by World War I, which shut down tournament golf not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the United States as well. All considered, it's fair to say that Vardon "only" having seven major titles is extremely misleading.

Harry Vardon passed away in 1937 and was laid to rest at St Andrews Church, Totteridge, Hertfordshire, England, where a wreath is laid every year by the members of the South Hertsford Golf Club when they play for the ‘Harry Vardon Trophy’. Additionally, his legend also still lives on not only with his still-standing records and golfing style, but also with the Vardon Trophy, which is awarded annually to the PGA Tour player with with lowest stroke average per round.


  1. This is really great stuff. It's easy to forget the early champions of the game. Thanks !!

  2. Love Vardon. Thanks for giving him his due.


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