Remembering Vardon's Open Championship glory 120 years onJuly 11, 2018 History
More than a century on from Harry Vardon’s 1898 Open Championship victory, Michael Atkinson takes a look back at the life and career of one of golf's original superstars and Jersey’s most famous sportsman
Henry William ‘Harry’ Vardon, born in Jersey in 1870, went on to become one of the world’s most famous professional golfers, winning the Open Championship six times. That record, despite attempts from his compatriots James Braid and John Henry Taylor and more recently from Peter Thomson and Tom Watson, all with five wins, remains unsurpassed to this day. He shares the record for the most victories in a single major alongside one of the other great golfing legends, Jack Nicklaus, who achieved six victories in The Masters.
Vardon, together with James Braid and John Henry Taylor were known as the ‘Great Triumvirate’, dominating British and world golf in the late 19th and early 20th century. Between them, they won The Open Championship sixteen times within the 21 tournaments held between 1894 and 1914. In the remaining five tournaments, one or more finished runner-up. Their dominance of the game and the intensity of their rivalry worked to increase the public’s interest and following of golf at that time and left a lasting impact on the game.
Vardon was a self-taught golfer with a natural talent, nurtured by determination and a rigorous practice programme. He adopted a grip in which the little finger of the right hand is rested on top of the index finger of the left hand. It became known as the Vardon grip or ‘overlapping grip’ and is the dominant grip used by the majority of professional golfers to this day. That grip would be key to his success, as well as his relaxed and effortless swing. “Relaxation added to a few necessary fundamental principles, is the basis of this great game”, Vardon commented.
This relaxed, smooth and upright swing took him on a journey to become arguably one of the first international golf celebrities and certainly one of the most influential golfers of all time. His start in golf was a slow one, taking up the game only in his teenage years and becoming a caddie in Jersey. Jersey golfing compatriots included Ted Ray, who would go on to become a major champion as well, winning The Open Championship in 1912 (beating Vardon by four strokes) and the US Open in 1920. Vardon also played alongside his younger brother, Tom Vardon, who partly inspired Harry’s golf career. Tom moved first from Jersey to England to pursue a golfing career, taking up a club-making apprenticeship at Lytham St. Annes, before becoming the club professional at Ikley Golf Club and then Royal St. George’s in 1900. He competed alongside Harry in a number of Open Championships, with nine top-ten finishes at The Open during his playing career. Harry followed Tom across from Jersey to England in 1890, becoming a greenkeeper at Studley Royal Golf Club, before being appointed club professional at Bury Golf Club, followed by the club professional at Ganton Golf Club in Yorkshire, where he was appointed in 1896.
Vardon won his first Open Championship in 1896 at Muirfield, beating John Henry Taylor in a 36-hole play-off and preventing Taylor from achieving a third successive Open victory. Two years later, he won it again. The 2018 Open Championship will mark 120 years since Vardon’s second Open Championship victory, claimed at Prestwick in Scotland in 1898. He beat Willie Park Jnr, son of the famous Willie Park Snr, winner of the first Open Championship in 1860, by one stroke. Park, with a reputation as one of the finest putters in the game, missed a short putt which would have tied him with Vardon on the final hole and forced further play. Park, frustrated by his loss, offered Vardon a one-on-one challenge, described by the British press at the time as ‘the greatest golf encounter of all time’ – a 72-hole challenge match for £100 across North Berwick golf course and Ganton golf course. The match was sponsored by Golf Magazine and is said to have attracted over ten thousand spectators at the North Berwick part of the encounter. Vardon won the challenge comprehensively, delivering an 11 and 10 victory.
In 1900, Vardon toured the United States, playing well in excess of sixty exhibition matches. He went on to win the US Open that same year, cementing his reputation as a global golfing star. It is reported that the New York stock exchange closed down at one point during his US tour so that the brokers could watch him play.
He made a tour again to the US in 1913, a year in which he finished second in the US Open, an event immortalised in the 2005 film ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’. The film
charts the famous and celebrated victory of Francis Ouimet, the first amateur to win the US Open. Vardon, one of the favourites to win, eventually lost to Ouimet by several strokes in an 18-hole play-off, a result which both shocked and inspired the golfing world. Following his defeat, Vardon is quoted as congratulating Ouimet with the words “we should play again sometime”. They met a year later when Ouimet travelled across to the UK for the 1914 Open Championship – Vardon won, with Ouimet finishing a distant 26 strokes behind Vardon.
Vardon’s playing career and his ability to compete at the top end of the game lasted decades – he won The Open in 1911 and 1914 both after the age of 40 and in 1920, at the age of 50, he led the US Open by four strokes, before eventually finishing tied in second place. It was his final US Open appearance.
His career came to an end, in part as a result of contracting tuberculosis in 1903. Despite recovery and further victories over the next two decades, the illness left a permanent impact of his putting, due to nerve damage. Following the end of his playing career, Vardon went on to design golf courses and to write instructional books, several of which can still be purchased today.
Vardon remains ones of the greatest sportsmen of all time and over the years, acquired a number of nicknames. One such nickname was the ‘Jersey Greyhound’, a name coined by golfer Andrew Kirkaldy of St Andrews, an acknowledgement of Vardon’s ‘graceful elegance’ and tendency to hit further than his competitors. Those nicknames remain a tribute to Vardon, who died in 1937 at the age of 66. Further tributes can be found on the island where he grew up in the Jersey Museum where Vardon features and by way of a bronze statue at Royal Jersey Golf Club, where he had played as a youngster.
Golf writer Bernard Darwin once commented on Vardon, “I do not think anyone who saw him play in his prime will disagree as to this, that a greater genius is inconceivable”. High praise indeed for Jersey’s Harry Vardon, whose legend all these years later, still lives on.