Watching Tom Watson finish out at his final British Open on Friday got me thinking about the only man to have won more Open Championships. That would be Harry Vardon, who captured his sixth Open title in June 1914 just prior to the onset of the Great War. (Three others are tied with Watson with five titles.) Vardon is less well-known today than Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, much like tennis star Tony Wilding is less well-known than Bill Tilden and René Lacoste, but he deserves a better place in our consciousness. I suspect the reason men like these don’t get the credit they deserve is that the world they inhabited was swept away by the cataclysm of the Great War. Figures like Tilden, Lacoste, Jones, and Babe Ruth captured the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties and became superstars on a level unimaginable before the war. From the perspective of, say, 1924, everything that happened prior to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand must have seemed remote.
Vardon was a poor kid, a gardener’s son, from the island of Jersey. He, James Braid, and John Henry Taylor comprised the Great Triumvirate that ruled golf in the Victorian and Edwardian eras when the game was still centered in the British Isles. Braid and Taylor are two of the men tied with Tom Watson. All of their Open victories, like Vardon’s, came prior to the Great War. (Australian Peter Thomson is the fourth of the golfers with five Open titles, his victories coming in the 1950s and 60s.)
Signs of change were in the air. The twenty year old American Francis Ouimet famously defeated Vardon in a playoff at the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was a stunning and very public defeat. Still, Vardon rebounded. When he won at Prestwick in 1914, Ouimet finished well off the leaderboard in 56th place. In June 1914, the very month he won that sixth Open, Vardon was confident enough to pen an article for Everybody’s Magazine titled “What’s Wrong with American Golf?”
When Franz Ferdinand was killed at Sarajevo one week later Europe went on enjoying its golden summer. They played the French Open over the first week of July as if nothing had happened. Vardon finished in second in that tournament. The guns of August inevitably came and when they did the center of golf shifted to the United States. The subtitle of a March 1915 New York Times article captured the moment: “War puts the Game Back in Great Britain—Look to America.” They would not play the British or French Open again until 1920. Vardon and others kept busy, even playing in charity events at the front in Flanders in July 1917.
The Great War crippled British golf, at least for a time. Americans won eleven of the next fourteen Open Championships. The British rebounded during the Depression until the Second World War brought on another golf moratorium. By the late 1940s and early 1950s the transfer was complete. Americans Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and Same Snead were the golf world’s new Trio.
(images courtesy of the George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections: