All the better U.S. Open courses have ghosts, and Inverness, in Toledo, Ohio, where the clan will gather next week to decide the national championship, has one of the best ghosts of all.
Harry Vardon, the incomparable English professional who won six British Opens between 1896 and 1914, was 50 years old and 20 years past his prime when the U.S. Open came to Toledo in 1920. Nevertheless, he was still the most famous golfer in the world, and the fairways of Donald Ross' then relatively new Inverness course were lined with people who had come to see the great man play, probably for the last time in this country. They pulled for the homebred players—Leo Diegel, Walter Hagen, Jack Burke. Long Jim Barnes, and two young newcomers, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen—but they followed Vardon so they could tell their grandchildren about it.
However, as late as the second nine of the final round, it seemed as though the aging Vardon was going to pull off one of the most memorable victories in the history of the game. He had played 65 holes in three under par, and through 11 holes of the final day he had shown the same sort of stylish, controlled golf with which he had first astonished Americans in 1900. He stood on the 12th tee, five strokes ahead of the field.
It was then that fate, the only variable that Vardon couldn't control that August afternoon, stepped in, and what might have been a remarkable triumph became a memorable defeat.
At his best, Vardon was in a class by himself. For three years, from 1898 to 1900, there was Harry Vardon and then there was everyone else. He set the standard by which golfers were measured, and his graceful, effortless and novel upright swing became the model of the day. He wasn't the first to use an overlapping grip, but he popularized it, and even now the " Vardon" grip is universally considered "correct." Before Vardon came along, golfers held their clubs in the manner of baseball bats and swung them in the flat, loose "St. Andrews" style.
Born in 1870 on Jersey, one of England's Channel Islands, Vardon might have become a gardener like his father had not some gentlemen golfers laid out a course on the common land of Grouville, the village where he lived. Harry and his brothers first caddied for the gentlemen, then learned to play, using homemade clubs and white marbles. When a younger brother, Tom, who had left home to become a professional, won a golf prize of 12 pounds 10 shillings, Harry decided to become a professional, too. With Tom's help he got a job at a nine-hole course in Yorkshire and left Jersey in 1890 to begin a new life.
Vardon made his mark in 1896 when he beat J. H. Taylor, winner of the 1894 and '95 British Opens, in a 36-hole match at Ganton in Yorkshire. A month or two later Vardon won his first Open at Muir-field, and in 1898 and '99 he won again. Of his play at that period Vardon wrote, "I know that in those times, whenever I was within reach of the green with any club—brassie, cleek or anything else—I saw only the flag and thought only of the flag.... I knew that I could put the ball within a yard or two of any place that I wished. And so the game was especially easy for me."
It was at this stage of Vardon's unassailability, the period of which the Scottish professional Andrew Kirkaldy said, "He would break the heart of an iron ox," that Vardon made the first of his three trips to the U.S. He played 88 matches, usually of 36 holes and usually against the best ball of two or three of the better local players. Of the 88 he won 73. He showed thousands of American golfers, who at that period were enthusiastic but largely untutored, how the game could be played.
But the 1900 tour seems to have brought an end to Vardon's dominance. By his own admission he was never quite the same again after that exhausting year. In 1903 he developed tuberculosis, and though he won the British Open that year, he then had to spend several months in a sanitorium in Norfolk.
Vardon remained at the pinnacle of the game for many years, but from 1900 until the end of World War I, he shared the heights with two contemporaries, J. H. Taylor and James Braid. Known as the Triumvirate, among them they won 16 of the 22 British Opens played between 1894 and 1920.