Ed. note: This look back at the 1920 U.S. Open – during the week that the 120th edition had been scheduled at Winged Foot – is the first in a series of remembrances of memorable years in tournament history.
The word “galling” is defined in my Shorter Oxford English dictionary (On Historical Principles, 1972 ed.) as meaning “chafing, irritating, harassing.” That could mean something like “it was a bit galling for me to get to the railway station and discover that the train I wanted to catch had left early.” Or it could mean, “it was a bit galling for me to get a B- in my exams when I was predicted an A+.”
Ask Scotsman Paul Lawrie what galling means to him and he would probably smile ruefully and say it aptly described his feelings after he had won the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie, not far from where he lived. Though his was the first victory in the Open by a Scot since Sandy Lyle in 1985 it came to be remembered as the one that the Frenchman Jean van de Velde threw away by his antics on the 72nd hole.
Or ask Jack Fleck, a little-known American pro who ran two public golf courses for a living, what it meant to him to win the 1955 US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. His reward was to be overlooked for doing so because it became known as the Open Ben Hogan should have won for what would have been his fifth national championship. Instead, Fleck, who had already played four of the best rounds of his life, added a fifth in the playoff, outscoring the great man by three strokes.
Or ask Billy Casper, who won the 1966 US Open also at Olympic Club. That Open event is forever remembered as the scene of a remarkable collapse on the inward nine holes of the fourth round by Arnold Palmer. Palmer had led by seven strokes ahead of Casper with nine holes remaining. “At Olympic he (Casper) had used 117 putts and had no three-putts,” Bob Sommers, the historian, wrote in his history of the US Open. “Without question, he was the best putter in the game. Despite his wonderful golf, however – four of his five rounds were in the 60s – the 1966 (US) Open will always be remembered less for his winning than for Palmer’s losing.”
Perhaps the 1970 Open at St Andrews was falling even for as great a player as Jack Nicklaus. Doug Sanders had a 3-foot putt to win on the 72nd green but pushed it and lost to Nicklaus in a playoff the next day. To this day there are those who remember that Open not as Nicklaus’ second triumph in the game’s oldest major championship, but as the one that Sanders, the peacock of the fairways, lost.
And so, for our next exhibit of an event that could be described as galling for one person, we traveled to the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, a course designed by Donald Ross, for the 1920 US Open. Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two British titans of golf were at the end of another 22-match, six-week tour of America, which had fortified their bank balances even if it had diminished their physical strength.
Vardon was considered to be the world’s best player and had won the US Open in 1900 as well as the Opens of 1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911 and 1914, a record that stands unmatched to this day. “His hands were large enough to have belonged to a man twice his size,” Charlie Price, the golf writer, observed in an essay in 1960. “While gripping a club, his fingers looked like a bunch of sausages wrapped around a baton. With them – for Vardon’s power emanated almost totally from his hands – he performed feats of golf seldom seen before or since.”
Jerry Travers, a noted US amateur of that time, said: “If you run across one man who is making the game so easy a child could play it, whose form is the last word in poetry and who, from 108 to 220 yards, is putting a full shot closer to the hole than most others can put a mashie, your quest for Vardon will be over.”
Physically more imposing than the slight Vardon, Ray was an exceptional golfer too, though perhaps not in Vardon’s class. In 1913, Robert Tyre Jones, the great Bobby, watched Vardon and Ray play an exhibition match at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia. “Ray’s tremendous driving impressed me more than Vardon’s beautiful smooth style though I couldn’t get away from the fact that Harry was scoring more consistently,” Jones wrote later.
Such was Vardon’s ballstriking and accuracy. It is fair to say his dominance over his rivals would have been even more pronounced if his putting had come anywhere close to matching the rest of his game. To say he was frail on the greens was an understatement. He often carried two putters. In the second round of the 1900 US Open he missed a putt of less than 2 feet, then missed the next one. (He also had an air shot.) He still won though, beating JH Taylor, his friend and fellow member of The Great Triumvirate by two strokes. At the time of the 1920 US Open, Gene Sarazen said: “Vardon was the most atrocious putter I have ever seen. He didn’t three-putt. He four-putted.”
The event at Toledo in August 1920 was not to be like earlier Opens in which Vardon and Ray had competed. Vardon was 50 now, “grayer and shaggier at the mustache,” as Herb Wind wrote in The Story of American Golf, and Ray was 43. “At Toledo … we were less awed by their reputations than we had been in 1913, when we had practically conceded them the title,” Wind wrote. “In 1920 we looked to (Walter) Hagen and (Jim) Barnes to make up for their fiasco in the British Open and (Jock) Hutchison, (Chick) Evans and (Bobby) Jones could be counted on a second tide.”
At one point, Jones thinned a pitch shot into a bunker. “Mr. Vardon have you ever seen a worse shot?” the blushing amateur asked his playing partner. “No,” said Vardon, who was never known to use three or four words when one or two would suffice.
Jones was 18 at the time, precociously talented, and one can imagine his excitement when he was drawn to play with Vardon. Even though he would go on to win four US Opens, in 1920 he had the gushing awkwardness of a teenager and tournament organisers had to take him to one side and tell him “to mind his p’s and q’s when playing with the great man.” At one point, Jones thinned a pitch shot into a bunker. “Mr Vardon have you ever seen a worse shot?” the blushing amateur asked his playing partner. “No,” said Vardon, who was never known to use three or four words when one or two would suffice.
Rightly or wrongly they say that the Masters is always won on the last nine holes on a Sunday afternoon. This US Open, if not others, was won on the afternoon of the final round. Up until then, much had gone as expected. Playing the sort of accurate and error-free golf that had been his hallmark all his life, Vardon was leading by one stroke from Hutchison, the Scottish-born pro who had emigrated to the US, and Leo Diegel, and by two ahead of Ray. Walter Hagen was not far back but not close enough to pose a threat.
Vardon, aged 50, was in prime position to win his second US Open and would say later: “If I’d been able to accomplish this feat I think it would have been the outstanding performance of my golfing life.” His stamina was remarkable. In this he was helped by a fitness programme he had adhered to since recovering from tuberculosis years earlier. He was on a diet, allowed one whisky and only four pipes each day. Most days he would play two rounds, thus walking in the region of 12 miles.
When he reached the 12th tee in his last round he had widened his lead to four strokes. “The crowds were flocking to him now, thrilling in his easy grace as he played one flawless shot after another and awed by his stamina,” Sommers wrote. “Over the last three days he had played 99 holes – 36 in qualifying and 63 in the championship proper – in just 11-over par. He was a marvel but his stamina was about to face a severe test.”
Suddenly, the wind got up, racing in from Lake Erie and blowing sand from the bunkers. Unable to reach the 12th green, a par-5, in three strokes, Vardon dropped one at that hole. On the 13th, he missed a putt not much longer than the length of the shaft of his putter and then three-putted each of the next three holes. Despite this, he stood on the 17th tee calculating he needed two 4s to win.
Hitting his second shot into a brook in front of the 17th green caused him to run up a 6, his seventh dropped stroke in his past seven holes. He parred the 18th for a 78 and a four-round total of 296. It would turn out to be too many, for behind him, his countryman Ray was inspired. He had birdied three holes by the time he reached the seventh and, using his inordinate power to drive across a dogleg and over a scrubby ravine, birdied that hole as well.
By the time Ray got to the 17th, he was level with Vardon at 6-over par. A 5 on that hole was one less than Vardon had taken minutes before and a par on the 18th gave him a 72-hole total of 295. Only Hutchison and Diegel could catch him now.
Diegel would drop strokes on the 14th, two more on the 15th and 16th and could only tie with Vardon. Hutchison, who had been 3-over par after his first nine holes of that fateful day, dropped a stroke on the 14th, saw a short putt race around the rim of the hole on the 15th, nearly chipped in on the 17th, and watched as another putt missed the hole on the last. His total, like Vardon’s and Diegel’s, was 296.
So it was that Ted Ray became the 1920 US Open champion. It was of little account that at 43 he was the oldest man to win the championship. Instead, that performance by Ray, one of two exceptional golfers who came from Jersey, in the Channel Islands between England and France, was overshadowed by Vardon’s, the other.
How galling for Ray.
Top: Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the Siwanoy Country Club in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., July 1920. Ray and Vardon were making their first tour of the United States since 1913. (Courtesy USGA Museum)
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