Who was Harry?
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 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 ever guessed he would die a millionaire in 1931 as 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 from the Jersey 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 playoff the next day on the Brookline Country Club Golf Course 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 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 skill. During his lifetime he won sixty-two tournaments worldwide and still holds the consecutive wins record at 14.
He is best known for the 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 the age of 66 in Tottridge, England. Soon after his death, the PGA of America created the Vardon Trophy which is awarded on an annual basis 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.
- There is evidence that Vardon contemplated sailing on the Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912 with a loss of more than 1,500 lives. But there's 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, Ouimet's caddie, moved to California in 1937 and became a multi-millionaire. 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.