I say this without any reservations whatsoever: It is impossible to outplay an opponent you can't outthink.
—LAWSON LITTLE JR.
He was born at Fort Adams in Newport, R.I., and young Lawson hit his first golf ball when he was seven years old at Fort Monroe in Virginia. At 12 he took his first lesson from a pro in Tianjin, China, on an army course that was plowed through an ancient graveyard.
Lawson Little Sr. was a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and after his son was born in 1910, the elder Little brought the family along to every post to which he was assigned. The seeds he planted in Virginia and China bloomed when the family moved to the Presidio, in San Francisco, where Lawson Jr.'s golf improved explosively. He grew up to be 5'9" and burly, his 200 pounds so solidly packed that folks started calling him Cannonball. His game struck people first with its power. He struck people first with his dark, brooding demeanor. With his longish, wavy hair, he looked at all times like an angry senator. The constant traveling that he did as a boy made the younger Little taciturn on his best days and positively prickly on his worst, of which there were considerably more.
In 1929 the U.S. Amateur came to Pebble Beach. In one of the most startling upsets in the history of that tournament, Johnny Goodman defeated Bobby Jones 1 up. Goodman and Little were scheduled to play that afternoon, and Little was overheard saying to Goodman around the putting green that he wished Goodman "had left Jones for me." This offense against etiquette—worse because it was directed at Jones, who at this point, most golf fans assumed, could walk the back nine at Pebble along the surface of the Pacific—horrified the people who heard it, and the people they told, and the people that those people told. It followed Little almost his entire life; in 1943 he told a writer for the Ottawa Citizen that he "knew and deeply deplored his unpopularity," which Little traced back to his cocky comment to Goodman 14 years earlier.
By 1930 Little had enrolled at Stanford, and he was making big noise in the world of match play. He became a devoted acolyte of Ernest Jones, the British-born swing coach who eventually conducted his clinics at an office on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in Manhattan and became known as the Pro from Fifth Avenue. Jones himself was a study. Self-taught and a perennial champion of the local caddie tournaments outside London, Jones eventually became the assistant pro at Chiselhurst Golf Club. Part of his duties required him to give lessons, and Jones devoured every book on the subject he could find. He soon discovered that one book invariably contradicted the next, and the one after that was likely to contradict the previous two. Jones decided to develop his own teaching method, preferably one as simple as possible.
He was still working on it when he enlisted in the Sportsman's Battalion in World War I. He lost a leg in France. During his convalescence Jones read the works of Da Vinci and Galileo, and he developed a system of teaching the golf swing that depended on their work with the movements of pendulums. He had found the simple system he'd been looking for, one that depended on feel, and not on building a swing step by step. Upon his return to England he refined his system, financing his teaching by hustling golfers willing to give a few strokes to a wounded veteran missing a leg. (Playing one-legged, Jones once shot a 64, which convinced him that basing his system on feel and balance was the right way to go.) Jones's emphasis on a golfer's own instincts for what felt right in his swing was perfect for a loner like Lawson Little, and by 1934 Little was the best match player in the world.
His game had matured even further, despite the fact that Little hardly ever practiced. He had developed a touch around the greens to match his power off the tees. Little occasionally carried 26 clubs in his bag, including seven wedges. (When the USGA adopted the 14-club limit in 1938, it did so largely in response to Little's ever-expanding arsenal.) Between 1934 and '35 Little achieved a feat long forgotten by history, but one that was a considerable sensation at the time. He won what was called the Little Slam—winning the U.S. and British Amateurs in consecutive years. This meant he had to win 31 consecutive matches. In 1934, at the British Amateur, the first of these four championships, Little crushed a Scot named James Wallace 14 and 13. In the last one, the '35 U.S. Amateur in Cleveland, Little's fractious personality got in the way. He refused to pose with Walter Emery, his opponent in the final, which frosted Emery considerably. After they finished the morning round even, Emery told a waiter to "bring Mr. Little an aspirin." Little eventually won the championship by eagling the 16th hole with, as Time put it, "two prodigious wood shots."
Little turned pro and immediately signed a number of lucrative endorsement contracts. He never completed the required apprenticeship, so he never became a member of the PGA of America. Nevertheless, he barnstormed the country and won eight professional tournaments, including that 1940 U.S. Open. Little's pro career never matched his amateur record, though, a fact that some people attributed to the easy endorsement money that Little raked in when he turned pro. One of his first sponsors was Wright & Ditson, a sporting-goods company that traced its roots to George Wright, the shortstop of the original Cincinnati Red Stockings. Wright & Ditson eventually sold out to A.G. Spalding's sporting-goods empire, but the company name stayed on its golf equipment, especially the Lawson Little autographed clubs, with the painted metal shafts that looked like fiberglass. One day, shortly after World War II, my father bought a set of the clubs.
Golf went out of our family life all at once. One day, I don't remember when, my father simply stopped playing. He was home on Saturdays, walking the dog and puttering in the yard. There was no clanging of the clubs in the breezeway, no sweaty, clear bottles of Miller High Life. It was as if some minor pattern in the rhythm of our suburban lives had gone missing, but the general beat went on and on.