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 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 older of two brothers) to a local doctor, who in turn cared for him and made him a house servant until age 17. He won his first British Open eight years later.
Henry William “Harry” Vardon was born in Grouville, Jersey, in 1870 to a dirt-poor farm family, but no one could have ever guessed that by the time he died in 1931, he would be a millionaire and one of the most talented and respected golfers in the world.
At age 17, his tenure as a house servant ended, and he moved to England to be near his brother Tom. He found work as a greenskeeper at a local golf course in Yorkshire. 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 26. He had to overcome a four-shot deficit in the final round to tie John Henry Taylor, then defeated him in an 18-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, but 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 10-foot putt, which forced an 18-hole playoff the next day on the Brookline Country Club Golf Course near Boston, Mass. The golf world was astounded when Ouimet, a 20-year-old caddie (and son of a poor immigrant family) shot a 72 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 native Ted Ray in another 18-hole playoff.
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 skills. During his lifetime he won 62 tournaments worldwide, and he still holds the consecutive wins record at 14.
He is best known, however, for popularizing the Vardon grip, which is used today by over 80 percent of all golfers worldwide. It is a simple but effective method of gripping the club by interlocking your pinky finger of the top hand on the club with the middle and forefinger of the bottom hand on the club to give you a tight and stable grip at address to the ball.
Vardon died in 1937 at the age of 66 in Totteridge, England, and soon after his death, the PGA of America created the Vardon Trophy, which is awarded to a PGA player on an annual basis 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 named for him, 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 13th best golfer to ever play the game.
• There is evidence that Vardon contemplated sailing on the Titanic, which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank on April 15, 1912, with a loss of more than 1,500 lives, but little to back up the notion that he was booked and missed the boat only because of a long bout with tuberculosis in 1911.
• Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet’s caddie, moved to California in 1937 and became a multimillionaire. He joined the management team of Van Etta motors, which bought and built the largest Lincoln-Mercury dealership in America. He later owned two dealerships of his own.