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Sudden Death

Golf’s Oldest Unbroken Record And The Murder Mystery Surrounding It

By Steve Eubanks   •   June 4, 2019

It remains the oldest unbroken record in professional golf – 100 years and counting – set by a gregarious man whose fate was a mystery that flummoxed the golf world for decades.

A century ago, 1919, in the Canadian Open (RBC was only 18 years old at the time and many years away from sponsoring anything), an Englishman who had immigrated to Atlanta not long after the Armistice ended the war to end all wars, set a record for the largest margin of victory in what was then termed a “major” golf event. J. Douglas Edgar, formerly of Northumberland Golf Club in Newcastle-on-Tyne and hailing since 1918 from Druid Hills Country Club in Georgia’s capital city, trounced the field at Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Ontario by 16 shots. Among the three players who shared second place was another Atlantan, 16-year-old Bobby Jones. Second place was the highest Jones had finished in a national championship at that time. And 16 shots was his largest margin of defeat for the rest of his competitive career.

It wasn’t just any tournament, either. World War I had decimated most of Europe. No opens were being played in Great Britain or France. So, Canada stepped in and filled the void by putting together one of the best fields of any tournament of the year. In addition to Jones, reigning U.S. Amateur champion Chick Evans was there, as was former U.S. Amateur champion W.C. Fownes (a future USGA president whose father, H.C. Fownes, founded Oakmont Country Club). They were joined by a group of professionals that included “Long” Jim Barnes, fresh off a victory at the Western Open, Wilfred Reid, holder of 20 course records at the time, Leo Diegel, and Edgar, a relative unknown in North America who had won the 1914 French Open just before the outbreak of hostilities.

The Edgars were Geordies, a fierce, independent lot from the northeastern edge of England, within sight of Hadrian’s Wall. The region was known for its coal, and while the etymological origins of the nickname (which was used as a pejorative south of the Midlands) was unclear, there was an assumption that it was connected to the Geordie brand of lantern used in the coal mines.

Young Doug, like many of his Geordie counterparts, carried a noticeable chip on his shoulder. He took up golf early, not because his family had money, but because they didn’t. As he would write in 1920, “It was while I was just a boy that a gentleman asked me why I didn’t take up golf. I told him I wanted to do something else with my life besides hit a little ball around. He teed up a ball and told me to have a try at it. I missed it seven times and then I decided to prove to myself that I could learn this game.”

J. Douglas Edgar

At Hamilton, Edgar didn’t show up until moments before his opening tee time. As Jones would later recall, “We never saw him until the day of the tournament. Willie Ogg became somewhat concerned and traveled back to the house where we were staying to see about Edgar’s well-being. When Edgar finally came out to the course, as I recall, his preparation was to hit six shots from the practice tee. Then he came away saying, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready.’ He had that sort of moody game. When he was ‘right’ he was unbeatable.

“He used to characterize it by saying, ‘When my hands feel thin, I’m ready to play.’ By this, I suppose he meant that he had the feel of the clubs. And when he did, he could make the ball talk. He loved to play draws and fades.

“There was one particular hole at Hamilton with the fairway bordered on the right side by a fence. Over the fence was out of bounds. Edgar would play his shot out over the fence with a draw that brought it back into the fairway. The crowds loved it.”

Hamilton wasn’t a monster – it measured 6,350 yards in 1919 – but it was one of the toughest tests in North America and the Canadians were right proud to show it off. By 1919 the Canadian Open lagged behind the major tournaments of the United States in terms of size and prestige, a fact that rankled many Canadians. Golf in Canada had mirrored the game in the States, with Royal Montreal Golf Club ratifying its charter as North America’s first course in 1873. Hamilton opened in 1894. Canadian courses were just as challenging as those in the United States (although even the Canadians admitted that the new course in California called Pebble Beach was untouchable in terms of locale and layout). But as far as the locals were concerned, there was no reason the Canadian Open could not be as grand a major championship as the U.S. Open.

If setting a historic benchmark was any help, the 1919 event certainly moved the Canadian Open in that direction. Edgar showed up with his hands “feeling thin.” His driver, which he had crafted himself, was ahead of its time, with an oversized head and whippy shaft. At 17 ounces, the clubhead looked like a giant stone on the end of a hickory stick. Canadians were curious about the club at first, but forgot about it when they saw him play.

“He has no inherent weakness,” The American Golfer wrote of Edgar. He shot 72 in the opening round and trailed the young Mr. Jones by a single shot. His 71 in the second round gave him a six-shot lead on Jones and Barnes.

The whistling began in the third round – I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles and The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise were his favorites. He shot 69, a course record that he would shatter later that same day when he closed the tournament with a 66, a mark that would stand for a decade. A headline in the next issue of Canadian Golfer magazine read: “Records Run Riot: Open Championship of Canada is won by J. Douglas Edgar in the Most Sensational golf ever seen in the Dominion.”

Edgar’s score of 278 was a record for a major event, one that would hold up for 17 years until broken by Byron Nelson, who played with far more advanced equipment. His record margin of victory ahead of Jones, Barnes and defending Canadian Open champion Karl Keffer (who had won the last staging before the war in 1914) only got better with age.

As of 2019, 100 years later, the record hasn’t been broken, though according to PGA Tour records it has been equaled by three players: Joe Kirkwood Sr. (1924 Corpus Christi Open), Sam Snead (1936 West Virginia Closed Pro) and Bobby Locke (1948 Chicago Victory National Championship). Tiger Woods came close to matching it with a 15-shot victory at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. But even Tiger never beat Edgar’s record.

In 1947, Ray Haywood wrote: “As a shotmaker, Edgar had no equal, yesterday or today. He played tricks with the ball. The natives still speak in hushed voices of that final round 66 at Hamilton. … Numerous players, both American and foreign, appear to have legitimate claim on the title of greatest. They include Walter Travis, Sandy Herd, Gene Sarazen, Long Jim Barnes, Tommy Armour, Chick Evans, Jerry Travers, Johnny McDermott, Francis Ouimet, Lawson Little and Samuel Jackson Snead.

“In each decade, some man is regarded as the superior of his contemporaries. With passage of time, this eminence is dimmed by the performance of younger men. Once Allan Robertson was the greatest. Then came Young Tom Morris, Vardon, Jones and Nelson, to skip lightly over the years. Each was, or is as the case may be, a great golfer. Even now, the greatest player of the coming decade is registered in some high school. When he reaches maturity, he too will have his disciples.

“However, until it is time to use the unknown as a comparative yardstick, Douglas Edgar must be considered the world’s greatest golfer.”

Alexa Stirling, an Edgar pupil and America’s greatest female golfer in the early 20th century

Haywood wasn’t some crank. Bernard Darwin, the pre-eminent golf writer of the period, wrote, “I watched a good deal of Edgar’s play and never wish to see anything more consistently brilliant.” And Harry Vardon, who, along with Ted Ray, played a lot of golf with and lost a good deal of money to Edgar, said, “This is a man who will one day be the greatest of us all.”

Tommy Armour, who, along with Jones and Alexa Stirling, the greatest female golfer in the world in the early 20th century, learned from Edgar, said, “he was undoubtedly the greatest of them all and taught me the most.”

Edgar won the Canadian Open again in 1920, defeating his pupil, Armour, in a playoff. That same year, Edgar won the Southern Open and finished runner-up to Jock Hutchison in the PGA Championship.

But like a photo left out in the sun, memories of J. Douglas Edgar have faded. During the eras of Jones, Hagen, Nelson and Sarazen, references to Edgar were everywhere. By the early Arnold Palmer era, he was a footnote, the answer to a trivia question. By 1980, he was all but gone. In the early 2000s, officials at the R&A and PGA Tour all said, “Who?” when asked about Edgar, even though the tour prints his name in the records section of its media guide every year.

So, what happened? How did a man regularly mentioned in the same breath with Vardon and Ray vanish from the collective knowledge of the game?

It was a steamy August night in 1921 when Comer Howell, a young newspaper reporter and wealthy son of one of Atlanta’s pre-eminent tycoons, climbed behind the wheel of his Type 59 Cadillac after a long night closing the next morning’s issue of The Atlanta Constitution. Howell was driving a couple of his colleagues home – city editor Lloyd Wilhoit and a senior reporter named Paul Warwick.

As the car chugged through the 500 block of West Peachtree Street, Wilhoit grabbed Howell’s arm and yelled, “Comer, stop the car! A man in the road!”

The three men piled out of the car to find a motionless figure facedown near a curb, legs splayed, the head at an odd angle. He wore cuffed trousers and a white shirt that had darkened in a growing pool of blood.

Howell flagged down a passing streetcar. The man lying in the road was still breathing. Someone banged on enough doors to find a telephone and called for medical assistance and the police.

It didn’t matter. When Detective J.W. Lowe (pronounced Lao) arrived, he knew immediately that it wouldn’t have mattered if the ambulance was around the corner. Douglas Edgar, who was living in a boarding house on West Peachtree Street with his assistant pro, Tommy Wilson, had bled out in spectacular fashion. An artery had obviously burst. Lowe had once investigated a brawl where the victim had been struck in the neck with the sharp edge of a shovel. The initial blood spurt in that one had been nearly 20 feet and by the time the heart gave way, there was a washtub of blood around the body.

Because Edgar landed in a gutter, much of his blood had flowed down a drain. That allowed Lowe a moment to see a tear in the man’s trousers along the inner thigh. A quick look and Lowe had his answer: Mr. Edgar’s femoral artery had been punctured.

The question was: with what? At first, reports were that Edgar had been killed in a hit and run, a crazed driver. In fact, the lead story in the next day’s midmorning edition of The Atlanta Constitution read: “J. Douglas Edgar, golf professional at Druid Hills Golf Club and one of the best-known golfers in the world, was struck by an unidentified automobile at the corner of Fifth and West Peachtree streets late Monday night and died.”

… there were no broken bones, no bruises, none of the catastrophic trauma found when a fast-moving one-ton vehicle collided with a 170-pound man.

The evidence for the hit-and-run theory was a neighbor who said she heard a powerful motorcar screeching away “at a rapid rate of speed,” and the fact that Atlantans had car accidents on the brain. August was Traffic Safety Awareness month, and so far in 1921, 38 Atlanta souls had been killed in traffic-related incidents, the fifth-highest death toll among cities of 100,000 or more. The problems continued to multiply as the Ford Motor Co. churned out Model Ts from a factory on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. George Hanson had also built a Hanson Six plant in the city, calling Atlanta, “The logical automobile center of the Great Southeast.”

With close to 25,000 automobiles in Atlanta, it surprised no one that the death toll continued to rise. The car itself was just a few years old. Motor vehicle dexterity was still a generation away. Most roads in Georgia hadn’t been upgraded from the horse-and-buggy days and many Atlantans had been hit by cars that they had seen. They simply underestimated the closing speed of a Model T.

Lowe wasn’t buying it. The wound was too precise, too clean. Yes, Edgar’s hat had been found several yards away in a bush and one of his shoes was missing. But there were no broken bones, no bruises, none of the catastrophic trauma found when a fast-moving one-ton vehicle collided with a 170-pound man.

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But the hit-and-run theory took on a life of its own. Soon Atlanta was divided into two camps: those who wanted car safety ordinances (and monetary concessions for the city from Henry Ford), and those who were interested in the truth.

Detective Lowe fell in the latter category.

It didn’t take long to learn that Edgar enjoyed himself. Despite the country’s Constitutionally amended prohibition on alcohol, a man with appetites could find almost anything, even in the heart of the Bible belt. God-fearing Atlanta Baptists almost never admitted that the drink had infected their town, even though 20 percent of all moonshine produced in America came out of the Appalachian foothills just an hour north.

Edgar was certainly not the only Atlantan to violate the sumptuary laws. Nor was he the only man to make an illegal wager. He once bet two months’ salary on himself to win a match, which he did, in fact, win. But it wasn’t the booze or the gambling that led to Edgar’s downfall. According to every source Lowe could find, he was the happiest reveler you would ever meet.

The problem was women.

Edgar with a fan

A handsome and world-renowned golfer, always polished and pressed, with a touring cap, a perfect tie, and a rakish grin never lacked for attention. Then there was the accent – lower-class at home in Britain but exotic and exciting in the American South. Edgar wrote in tones that sent his female students over the edge as well.

“Golf is truly a Goddess and must be wooed accordingly, with due meekness and humility, but at the same time with boldness and determination,” he wrote in 1920. “Truly, there is something inexplicable about this Goddess whose devotees she alternately fills with ecstasy and despair.”

The coroner made no determination as to the cause of the puncture wound that killed Edgar. The case remained open, and remains so 98 years later.

But Lowe knew. Edgar had angered the wrong man – a jealous husband. When the famous golfer returned from a hiatus in England, riding in Atlanta like Caesar through the gates of Rome, it was too much. Atlantans loved their sportsmen and there was a lot of communal pride in the accomplishments of the locals. Edgar was from Newcastle, but Atlantans treated him as one of their own. He was one of the greatest golfers on the planet, admired by men and loved by women. Too loved.

Lowe knew that Edgar had returned to the boarding house at 11:30 from a bridge game he had attended. The detective figured a group – three, maybe four men – ambushed him and stabbed him in the groin area, the perfect execution for a man enjoying the wife of another. The car the neighbor heard peeling away was not a hit-and-run vehicle. It was a getaway car.

Mr. Howell and the men from the newspaper were mere moments behind. Had they arrived at Fifth at West Peachtree five minutes earlier they would have witnessed the whole thing, or perhaps stopped it.

Now that he had the how and the why, all Lowe had left to determine was the who. On that front, he had a good theory.

Just how deeply entwined William Abbey was in the Asian underworld of the 1920s remains unknown. What is known is that the Nikko Inn he owned and operated at the intersection of Forsyth Street and Carnegie Way in Atlanta was, in addition to a restaurant and boarding house, an occasional casino, speakeasy and bordello, one of several spots in Atlanta where Asian men could place a wager and get a sweet vegetable and fruit chu-hi cocktail during Prohibition.

Abbey’s birth name was unknown. He was Japanese. No one seemed to care, at least until the evening of Oct. 25, 1924. That is when a local 17-year-old boy named Dillard Moore and six of his buddies went into the Nikko Inn for dinner. The details of what transpired remain murky. Some speculation was that Moore and his friends intended to skip out on a bill. Other stories were that a shouting match ensued. What is undisputed, however, is the fact that Abbey, age 32 at the time, fired several rounds from a Type-4 Nambu semi-automatic pistol. One of those rounds hit Moore in the chest and killed him.

Also undisputed: Abbey fled the scene but was quickly apprehended and held without bond for murder.

The following day, Oct. 26, 1924, The Atlanta Constitution printed a shocking revelation. “Detective R.J. Hunt announced that the police intend to revive the sensational and mysterious killing of J. Douglas Edgar, popular Druid Hills golf professional on West Peachtree Street several years ago, to see if Abbey can be connected with the old slaying. Mr. Edgar was found dying in the street in front of his home. Many wild rumors were current at the time linking Mr. Edgar and Abbey, who conducted a flower shop at Druid Hills club.”

That connection had been right there for anyone with eyes to see: a beautiful Japanese woman in her mid-20s, petite, carefully trimming the flowers provided to the club by her husband. Like him, her real name was unknown. She went by Dorothy Abbey.

To the amazement of most of residents in Atlanta, William Abbey was acquitted of murdering the Moore boy. In the spring of 1925, Abbey sold the Nikko Inn and moved to Miami. Once a quarter for the next five years, Atlanta detective J.W. Lowe would phone the Miami Police Department where he requested an informal update on Abbey. Then, in the early spring of 1930, Abbey died suddenly at the age of 37. The cause of death was unknown.

After Abbey’s death, Lowe put Edgar’s file away and never touched it again. It remains classified as an “Unsolved Death” to this day.

Top Image: Ted Ray, J. Douglas Edgar, five-time Australian Open champion Ivo Whitton and Harry Vardon