Stories You Should Know: Harry Vardon

This is the 4th piece in the look at all the contenders for the Greatest Golfer of All Time. You can look at our case for Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones.

The Case For Harry Vardon

Born on May 9, 1870, in Grouville, Jersey, Channel Islands, Harry Vardon grew up in a poor family. His father was English, but his mother was French, which was also a burden for the youngster. Harry and his brother Tom became caddies in their teens, and both took up the game of golf. There desire to compete was held back by their financial circumstances and their father’s opposition to the activity. Tom, who was the younger brother by two years, made the first move, relocating to England to pursue a golfing career. Harry soon followed, he was 20 years old, he took a greens keeper job at Studley Royal Golf Club. He soon became the club pro at Bury Golf Club, and later at Ganton Golf Club in Yorkshire. By his early 20s he was an accomplished player, finishing tied for 23rd in his first (British) Open Championship at age 23. He would not finish out of the top ten in the next 15 Open Championships. 

Nobody has ever dominated a Major Championship the way Harry Vardon did the Open.

Between 1896 and the beginning of World War I  Harry not only won the Championship six times, a record that still stands, but he finished 2nd four times, and third twice. Battling John Henry Taylor, and James Baird, who both won the Open five times, he set standards in the sport that still stand. 

In 1898 Vardon defeated Willie Park, Jr. by one shot at Prestwick Golf Club, to capture his second Open Championship. Park was so upset about the loss that he challenged Vardon to a 72 Hole Match Play Game, each player put up 100 pounds, a winner take all. After intense negotiations the two agreed to meet. 36 holes at New Berwick Golf Club, and then the final 36 at Vardon’s home course in Ganton. The British Press went wild. Golf Week Magazine promoted the event and held the bet. More than 10,000 golf fans attended. Harry Vardon crushed Park, 11 up and collected his 200 Pounds. Harry Vardon was a golf celebrity.

Vardon won his third Open Championship in four years in 1899, and then finished second to J.H. Taylor in 1900. After the Open, Vardon and Taylor made their first trek to America. Vardon played over 90 matches, losing only two. He and Taylor competed in their first United States Open. At Chicago Golf Club, Vardon and Taylor dominated the field, Harry coming in first at 313, with Taylor two strokes behind at 315. The rest of the field was nowhere to be seen. Scotland’s David Bell was third at 322, two more Scottsmen were tied for third at 327, 14 strokes behind. No American was within 25 shots of Vardon.

J.H. Taylor

Vardon would not return to America again until 1913. This time he was again accompanied by J.H. Taylor and also Ted Ray. Ray had beaten Vardon by 4 strokes in the 1912 Open Championship and had finished 2nd to Taylor in 1913. Vardon was 43, Taylor, 42 and Ray, 36. In the most important tournament ever played on American soil, 20 year old American, an amateur, Francis Ouimet tied the great Vardon and Ray after 72 holes, and then beat them the next day in an 18 hole playoff. 

Harry Vardon with Francis Ouimet and Ted Ray at the 1912 Open Championships

Vardon went home to England, and in 1914 won the last Open Championship played before the Great War, beating Taylor by two at historic Prestwick. The event would not be held again until 1920, when Vardon was 50 years old. He finished tied for 14th, then tied for 23rd in 1921 and tied for 8th in 1922 at age 52. He also made one more trip to America in 1920 and played his third United States Open. He led at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio entering the final round, before being overtaken by his old rival, Ted Ray. Harry ended in a tie for second. In the field were Walter Hagen, and two 18 year old phenoms, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. The 50 year old Vardon finished ahead of all three.

What do we make of Vardon in his own time? Was he the best of them? He had three quality rivals. John H. Taylor, James  Braid, and Ted Ray won 12 Majors between them. Pretty amazing considering there were only two contested every year, and really only one that they could reasonably compete in. Vardon appears to be the best of the four. Not only did he lead his rivals in wins in the Majors, he tied Taylor in 2nd place finishes (6), and led all three in top fives (18). Vardon’s credentials over Taylor are not overwhelming, but he leads him 7-5 in Majors and 18-17 in top fives. Taylor led in top 10s, 25-24.

What about the stars that preceded him. Willie Park, Sr., Old Tom Morris, and Young Tom Morris? It’s pretty well established that Young Tom Morris was the best of the three. Young Tom played in The Open nine times between age 13 and his tragic death at 24. He had 4 wins, a 2nd, a 3rd, 4th and 9th place finish. His wins were by 3, 11, 12, and 3 strokes at a time when the Championship was only a 36 hole event. He revolutionized the game, but comparing him to Vardon he falls short. The game Young Tom dominated was very localized. In his time all the best golfers were from Scotland. The first non-Scot to win the Open was 15 years after Young Tom’s death. By the time Vardon came along the game had grown substantially.

Harry Vardon won 7 times in the two Majors that were available to him. Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus are the only ones to have matched that. 

Between the ages of 20 and 50, Harry Vardon played 26 Majors, he finished in the top two 13 times, top five 18 times and top ten 24 times. Nicklaus between the same ages participated in 30 U.S. Opens and 28 Open Championships. He finished top two 18 times, top five 20 times, and top ten 28 times. Vardon’s record is very comparable to “The Golden Bear”.

The final question is whether Harry Vardon really was the equal of today’s big stars. After all, when he won at Muirfield in 1896 he shot 316. Compare that to Nicklaus’ win on the same course in 1966, 282. Nicklaus was 34 strokes better. Both also played Opens at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Nicklaus won twice there (1970, 1978), using 283 shots in 1970 and 281 in 1977. Harry Vardon’s best finish at St. Andrews was 2nd in 1900. He shot 318. Vardon’s best score at the “Home of Golf” was 308 when he tied for 23rd in 1921. Tiger Woods also won at the Old Course twice, using 269 shots in 2000 and 274 in 2005. Bobby Jones and Sam Snead also won at St. Andrews, Jones shot 285 in 1929  and Snead 290 in 1946. 

These scores seem to indicate that golfers of today were much better than golfers in the past, but were they really? The last time the Open was at the Old Course, Zach Johnson won at 273. That’s 8 shots better than Jack Nicklaus’ winning score in 1977, 10 better than 1970. That’s 12 shots better than Jones in 1929 and 17 better than Snead in 1946. Johnson’s score was one better than Tiger Woods when he won by 5 strokes in 2005, and only 4 more than Woods when he won by 8 in 2000. Are Bobby and Sam and Jack and Tiger overrated too? 

This is what we think; golfers are better today than in the past. They keep getting better, but most of the improvement is due to outside influences. Quality of golf clubs and golf balls are a big factor. Maintenance on golf courses has improved dramatically. The only way we can compare players from different generations is how they did against the competition of their time, and how deep the fields were at that time. The fields in Harry Vardon’s time were not as deep as the fields in Tiger’s time and we will take that into account in our final evaluation, but golf exploded in popularity worldwide during Harry Vardon’s run as the dominant golfer. Between Vardon’s first Major Championship in 1896 and his last in 1914, players from France, Jersey, England, Scotland, and the United States won Major titles. That’s not nearly as diverse as it is today, but it wasn’t like it was before 1890 either. Vardon was an elite player.

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