For some years now it has been customary, and logical, to speak of Harry Vardon, Bob Jones and Ben Hogan as the three greatest golfers of all time. Everyone knows who Hogan and Jones are—Ben has accomplished his wonders within the past decade, and Bob's are still remembered vividly. But who was Harry Vardon? There he is, grouped along with Hogan and Jones as automatically as Nod is with Wynken and Blynken, Chance with Tinker and Evers, Marx with Hart and Schaffner, but, aside from the facts that he was an early English golfer who used the overlapping grip and was defeated by Francis Ouimet in the playoff for the 1913 Open title, Vardon is one vast vagueness for most present-day enthusiasts. Of course he shouldn't be. He is not placed alongside Hogan and Jones as a gesture of courtesy to our sensitive forefathers. Vardon belongs there.
The reason for this sudden awareness of Harry Vardon—beginning this month his name will be popping up with regularity all summer long—is that next week the 1957 National Open will be played at the Inverness Club in Toledo, where Vardon lost a memorable Open by a stroke in 1920, and, furthermore, that in September the National Amateur will be held on another course that always brings Vardon to mind, The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where the astonishing young Ouimet outplayed Vardon and Ted Ray in that historic playoff for the 1913 Open championship. Harry, it must be said, was a few shades past his peak on both these occasions. He was 43 at The Country Club, and he had turned 50 at Inverness. In this last instance, his age alone, you could say in truth, prevented him from winning. With nine holes to go, 2 over par for the tournament up to that point, he stood well in front of the field. Even a 41 on the in-nine would give him a total of 295, a stroke better than the lowest score on the board (turned in, incidentally, by Jack Burke Sr., the father of the present PGA champion). As Harry stood on the tee of the long 12th, or 66th, a terrific storm suddenly swept in off the lake. It was just too much for the old boy. In very much the same way that Ken Venturi lost stroke after stroke down the stretch in the 1956 Masters, Vardon didn't play any really bad shots, but he needed quite a lot of time to reach the greens and then he couldn't get down the short putts he needed to rescue his pars. He staggered in at length in 42, quite exhausted. His old compatriot, Ted Ray, eventually won the tournament, and Vardon tied for second with Burke, Diegel and Hutchison, a shot behind. Had Vardon managed to win at Inverness, it would have been an absolutely marvelous achievement, for he had carried off his first major championship, the British Open, a full quarter of a century earlier, back in 1896! Talk about holding your form over a period of years!
During the era in which Vardon flourished, our National Open was only beginning to gain its present luster and importance. The big one then was the British Open. Vardon won it in 1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911 and for the sixth and last time in 1914. ( J. H. Taylor and James Braid, Vardon's two illustrious contemporaries who, along with Harry, composed what was known as The Triumvirate, each won the British Open five times.) You will note that there is a gap of eight years, from 1903 to 1911, between Vardon's fourth and fifth victories. The explanation is unusually dramatic, and a lot more than that. In 1903, when he was the reigning champion, Vardon suddenly was stricken with tuberculosis. He entered a sanatorium in Mundesley-on-Sea in Norfolk, where the doctors immediately took his pipe and his clubs away from him and prescribed a fairly sedentary existence for many months. He was well enough to play in the 1904 British Open, though he was certainly not his old self. Despite several later recurrences of his illness he managed to play in each ensuing British Open and generally to maintain an active position at the forefront of his profession. Then, in 1911, at the advanced age of 41, regarded as almost a has-been, the old master effected that stirring comeback that saw him win two more British Opens (1911, 1914), barely fail to take two others (1912, 1913) and undertake on top of this an extensive American tour in which he was apparently hardy enough to play almost a match a day, digest American railroad food as he traveled continuously between matches and to all but carry off our Open in 1913. This was Harry's second visit to our country. He had made his first American tour in 1900, and that year he did win our Open.
Vardon's standing as one of golf's three greatest players rests partially on his splendid record on two continents, but only partially. It was how he played golf that gave the name Harry Vardon its especial ring and sent it sounding down the decades. To begin with, despite the fact that the implements he played with were primitive by modern standards, he was the straightest player who ever lived, no question about it. In one stretch, for example, he is reported to have played seven consecutive tournament rounds without once hitting the ball off the fairway. When he first visited our country at the turn of the century, his accuracy was so confounding that it nurtured the famous mythological story that Harry never liked to play the same course twice the same day: on his afternoon round he had to play out of the divot marks he had made that morning his first time around.
Vardon's own countrymen, though more advanced in golf at that time than we, were no less impressed by his singular ability to hit one shot after another right down the middle. The better to study how he did it, some pioneers of technique arranged to have him stand on a grid of white lines chalked on the tee of a hole which had been carefully selected for the experiment: a large, spreading tree stood menacingly on each side of the entrance to a very narrow fairway. At the tee Harry asked the scholars if they were ready. They were. He teed up a ball and sent it winging slap down the middle, bisecting the opening between the trees. He moved to one side and the scholars charted the position of his feet in reference to the point where he had teed the ball. Would he hit another now, they asked. Gladly. He stepped up and slapped another drive dead-straight down the slender fairway. And that is the way it continued without variation—Vardon casually splitting the trees and the fairway on drive after drive and pausing long enough between strokes to let the posse of scholars graph his footprints. Their investigation, interestingly enough, disclosed that Vardon's stance in relation to the ball varied a wee bit from shot to shot, and from this they made the very sensible deduction that golf was not an out-and-out cold science but, rather, something of an art.
Henry cotton, that latter-day British champion and insatiable student of golf, was, to be sure, too young to have assisted at this experiment or to have watched Vardon during his peak or near-peak years, but he did have several opportunities to observe Vardon when the old champion was well into his 50s. "One afternoon when my wife was taking a lesson from Harry," Cotton was saying recently, "I asked him if I could stay around and watch. He agreed on the grounds that I would not interrupt, which I didn't, of course. When the lesson was over, I asked him if he would hit a few shots for us. He took a very old niblick that had an absolutely smooth face, not a marking on it, and proceeded to hit a batch of balls to a green about 125 yards away. He hit the balls so squarely that the face of his club was almost solid white when he finished, just as if someone had daubed a paintbrush across it. All of the balls finished within two or three yards of the flag. When I congratulated Harry on his wonderful demonstration, he shrugged it off by saying, 'Oh, I remember when I could back myself to hit every one within a few feet of the pin.' "
Indeed, during his best years Vardon was as accurate with his brassie as most tournament players are with their short irons. He consistently hit full brassie shots within 15 feet of the pin or closer. This is no old golfer's tale: no one before or since has been in his class when it came to hitting a long wood to a green. There was a great deal of power in Vardon's swing—he was long as well as accurate—but this power was concealed by a seemingly effortless style, and all that a spectator was aware of was the way the ball soared toward the green in a high parabola and floated down so easily that it practically had no roll on it at all. Vardon contacted the ball, on all standard strokes, at the beginning of the upswing. He had molded his swing during the era when the golf ball was a solid glob of gutta-percha, and the "gutty" had to be hit for carry, to be swept away. He won his first championships playing the gutty, his last with the "modern" ball, where elastic stripping is wound tightly around a small rubber core and encased in a thin cover of gutta-percha. Men who watched Vardon play with both balls rarely hesitate when asked with which one he achieved the higher degree of skill. The gutty.
A man of medium size and moderate physique, Vardon had an enormous pair of hands. He was the first great gripper, although he was not, as he is frequently credited with being, the originator of the overlapping grip, the one we still adhere to today with only mild modifications. The true inventor of the overlapping grip—it supplanted the "palm grip" in which the two hands were separated about the way they are when you grab a baseball bat—appears to have been one Mr. J. E. Laidlay, a crack amateur who took that British championship in 1889 and 1891. This grip was gradually adopted by the up-and-coming professionals in the '90s. Taylor and Braid used it as well as Vardon. How it came to be referred to as the Vardon grip is one of those things that one can only guess at. Perhaps it was simply because Harry was using that grip when he won three championships in four years and completely captured the imagination of his contemporaries. Vardon himself never claimed to have originated it.
In any event, Harry, like few men, realized the full significance of the role a good, correct grip plays in the execution of the golf swing. (Only one other fundamental was ever faintly comparable in importance, he believed: keeping the head steady.) He arrived at his version of the overlapping grip after a year of constant experimentation. "I tried every conceivable means of holding the club," he related in one of his instruction books, "and the one I have described proved to be indisputably the best. It did not come naturally to me but it was well worth the trouble of acquiring. It seems to create just the right fusion between the hands and voluntarily induces each to do its proper work." There was no "master hand," as Vardon saw it. Each contributed equally.
Vardon's great grip was the heart of one of the truly great styles of all times—perhaps the most attractive swing between the coming of golf and the coming of Jones. Until the coming of Vardon, the old St. Andrews-type swing, flat, exaggeratedly wide and lengthy, consciously muscular, served with few exceptions as the basic model for young men who were out to govern the gutty. Vardon introduced a revolutionary style: the upright swing. He stood with his feet generously separated, the right foot toed out a bit, the left foot toed out markedly so that there would be nothing to impede the club head in coming through fast. His left arm bent at the elbow, he started the club back on a normally lateral course but, when his hands were hip-high, he would wheel his shoulders and his upper trunk into a brisk, full turn that gave his swing a pronounced and, for that day, unorthodox verticality. "To come down," Henry Cotton was explaining not long ago, "Harry simply straightened his left arm. With that one movement he was just where he wanted to be: in the perfect position to hit from the inside out." On his irons, Vardon took no turf, just brushing the grass with his club head as he swung through to a high finish. He was a master of the controlled left-to-right fade, which he played with more natural ease than the hundreds of aspiring golfers who sought to imitate him.