Was Harry the best?

September 26, 2013

Over the years, I have read many stories of future hall of famers who had to drop out of school at a young age to find work and help support their family. But this icon’s story goes a step further.

Harry not only came from a poor family in England’s Channel Islands, but also from a family that couldn’t support keeping him at home as a young boy. To make ends meet, Harry’s family “gave” him (the oldest of two brothers) to a local doctor, who in turn cared for him and made him a house servant until age seventeen (eight years later he won his first British Open).

Henry William “Harry” Vardon was born in Grouville, Jersey in 1870 to a dirt poor farm family, but no one could have guessed he would die in 1931, a millionaire and one of the most talented and respected golfers in the world. At age 17, his tenure as a house servant was at an end and he moved to England to be near his brother Tom and to find work as a greenskeeper in Yorkshire at a local golf course. During his off hours at the course, he taught himself the game of golf, often practicing long into the dusk hours to perfect the game he loved.

In 1896, he won his first of six British Open Championships, at the tender age of twenty-six. He had to overcome a four-shot deficit in the final round to tie John Henry Taylor, then defeated him in an eighteen hole playoff. In 1898 and 1899, he won back-to-back Open Championships and in the 1903 Open, he defeated his own brother, Tom, by six strokes to win for the fourth time. His last two wins were in 1911 and 1914. In 1900, he won his only U.S. Open Championship by defeating fellow Englishman John Henry Taylor by two strokes. His astounding loss (and second place finish) in the 1913 U.S. Open to amateur Francis Ouimet was immortalized in the 2005 Disney film, The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Going into the last hole of regulation play, Vardon missed a ten foot putt, which forced an eighteen hole play off the next day on the Brookline Country Club near Boston, Mass.  The golf world was astounded, when Ouimet, a twenty-year-old caddie (and son of a poor immigrant family) shot a seventy-two to beat Vardon by five strokes. In 1920 Vardon played in his last U.S. Open and again finished second, this time to his good friend and fellow Jersey countryman Ted Ray in another eighteen hole play off.

During the peak of his career, Vardon was known for his exceptional ball control off the tee and accuracy with his irons, to go along with deadly putting skill. During his life he won sixty-two tournaments worldwide and still holds the consecutive wins record at 14.

He is best known, however, for popularizing the Vardon grip, which is used today by over eighty percent of all golfers worldwide. It is a simple but effective method of gripping the club by interlocking your pinky finger (top hand on the club) with the middle and forefinger (bottom hand on the club) to give you a tight and stable grip at address to the ball.

Vardon died in 1937 at age 66 in Tottridge, England. Soon after his death, the PGA of America created the Vardon Trophy, awarded to a PGA player for the lowest adjusted scoring average.

19th hole trivia

• Harry Vardon was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

• Vardon popularized the grip, but amateur Scottish golf champion John Laidlay invented the grip and showed it to Vardon.

• Vardon’s nickname is Mr. Golf.

• Vardon wrote a golf instruction book called The Gist of Golf.

• In 2000, Golf Digest ranked Vardon the thirteenth best golfer to ever play the game.

Summer’s end

I’d like to thank my good friend and Beach Paper editor, Jen Ellingsworth and my good friend, Ron MacArthur, my mentor for the past 40 years. It was fun being part of The Cape Gazette family for my second year.

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