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.”
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.”
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?