When you think of famous multiple winners of The Open Championship the likes of Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros will no doubt effortlessly roll off the tongue.
All are valiant victors of the oldest major in golf.
Yet only pure fanatics are likely to be familiar with Harry Vardon, golf’s first international superstar, who to this day remains the most successful Open champion in history. Between 1896 and 1914 Vardon clutched the Claret Jug a record six times, and would finish runner-up on a further three occasions. In fact, in 22 appearances he registered a staggering 19 top ten standings in the iconic tournament.
The Early Years
Born in 1870 in Grouville, Jersey, Vardon taught himself how to play golf in his youth. He caddied as a teen, then aged 20 he followed his older brother Tom across the Channel to England to pursue a career in golf. He became a greenkeeper at Studley Royal Golf Club in Yorkshire, then turned professional at Bury Golf Club.
A meticulously designed practice programme soon paid dividends - in the process, he conjured up the famous ‘Vardon Grip’ - resulting in improved performances and an enhanced reputation. Soon enough he started to contend in golf’s major tournaments, which brings us onto The Open...
The Open King
During his career Vardon won a plethora of tournaments, both in Britain and America, however it’s the six Open victories that inevitably stand-out.
In his first Open appearance Vardon finished T23 in 1893. In his subsequent 15 displays he carded 15 successive top ten finishes, winning in 1896 at the fourth attempt, courtesy of a 36-hole play-off success over defending champion J.H Taylor at Muirfield. He grabbed two more victories before the century was out (1898 and 1899), then whipped up a six-stroke triumph in 1903.
But Vardon, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the year of his fourth success, would have to wait eight years for his fifth Open. During this time of recovery his overall tournament and practice time was restricted, yet he still managed five top-five Open finishes. There’s no doubting that if he was fully fit he would have added to his collection. His final two wins came in his 40s, in 1911, then for the record sixth time in 1914, in the last tournament before WW1.
The Great Triumvirate
From the back end of the 19th century through the early years of the 20th century, three players dominated the golfing spectrum: Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid, who were known as the 'Great Triumvirate'. The British trio propelled the game of golf to new heights, as they accumulated a whopping 16 Open Championships between them - 1894 though to 1914 - a record six of which were won by Vardon.
However, Taylor and Braid weren’t Vardon’s only rivals. In 1889, Vardon accepted a match-play challenge from Willie Park Jnr. The clash arose after Vardon beat Willie at the previous Open in 1898, something that irked the latter. The duo would go head-to-head over 72 holes, across two golf courses, with each player selecting a home course.
The British press billed the encounter as the ‘greatest golf competition of all time’ but unfortunately for Willie, he flopped. Vardon held a two-shot lead after 36 holes at Wilie’s course North Berwick, then cruised to victory on home soil at Ganton - he was eleven up with ten holes to play - and in the process collected the cool £200 prize.
The International Icon
Vardon didn’t just thrive at The Open but over in North America too. As such, he can lay claim to being golf's first international superstar. Vardon toured North America at the dawn of the 20th Century, and came first in his debut showing in 1900 - he would play just short of 100 matches on the tour, and lost only twice to the same opponent: Bernard (Ben) Nicholls - before he returned in 1913 to claim second in the US Open after losing a play-off, then in his third and final showing he finished tied for second - 1920, aged 50.
Vardon's participation in exhibition matches - paid for by wealthy businessman - helped drive interest in North America, as did a surprise defeat to a young American amateur called Francis Ouimet (20-years-old) at the 1913 US Open at Brookline, which is still regarded as one of golf’s biggest upsets. But while he may not have come out on top on this occasion, Vardon’s loss actually helped popularise the sport in America.
The Vardon Grip And Wider Influence
Not only is Vardon The Open’s most successful player but he also left a lasting imprint upon the game in the form of the Vardon Grip: an overlapping technical grip whereby the little finger of a player’s right-hand overlaps the index finger of the left hand (or vice-versa for left-handers). However, it’s commonly mistaken that Vardon invented this technique, instead this honour instead goes to Scottish amateur Johnny Laidlay, although there’s no question as to who popularised it.
In terms of his style of play, in contrast to many golfers of his generation Vardon would strike the ball high in the air, which enhanced the accuracy of his shots.
“Vardon was possessed with a talent and method so singular he was considered a shot-making machine in the improvisational era of hickory and gutta percha,” stated the World Golf Hall Of Fame upon his inducted in 1974.
As for his attire, Vardon was the first golfer to sport ‘knickers’ - baggy-kneed trousers - which he made popular in his era, while he was also coated in a dress shirt, stockings, and a jacket.
Vardon’s influence spread further afield through instructional books, including The Gist of Golf in 1922, which is now regarded as a classic. He designed multiple golf courses, and today his name can be found on silverware - the Vardon Trophy - which is awarded each year to the player with the lowest stroke average on both the PGA and European tours.