Some names in golf ring out like a pealing bell no matter how much dust has gathered on their shoulders: Old Tom Morris, the Keeper of the Green at St Andrews, who played in the first 36 Opens and won four of them; Young Tom, his gifted son, who won four Opens in succession (1868-1870, 1872, with the Open not played in 1871) before dying at age 24 of a broken heart, or so it is said; Harry Vardon, who invented the eponymous grip, James Braid and JH Taylor, the three men who were known as the Great Triumvirate, who won 16 of the 21 Opens between 1894 and 1914.
But have you heard of Willie Anderson? Probably not. Yet in the eyes of his peers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anderson was as good as any of them. A Scot who had travelled to the U.S. as a teenager, he won four United States Opens (1901 and 1903-1905), the only golfer in history to win three consecutively. In fact, only six golfers since Anderson have won two in succession. Not only that, in the US Opens between 1897 and 1910 Anderson also finished second once, third once, fourth twice and fifth on three occasions. He also won the Western Open four times and in those days that event was considered a major championship.
By normal standards you would think Anderson’s achievements would be lauded to the skies. Somehow, though, Anderson’s fame never approached that of some of his peers. He was Willie Who then and he is Willy Who now. He even said it himself. “Nobody knows me,” he was prone to say when he was feeling doleful. “Nobody knows me.”
This surprising fact provides a link to the modern day, to Brooks Koepka, who likes to say that he, too, is unappreciated even though he won the US Open at Erin Hills in 2017 and Shinnecock Hills in 2018, as well as the PGA Championship in 2018 and 2019. At Pebble Beach this week, Koepka has a chance of doing the same thing Anderson did more than 100 years ago, making it three US Opens in a row, what the British with their love of cricket (and American hockey fans) would call a hat trick.
Anderson was born in North Berwick, Scotland, on 21 October 1879, one of five children. North Berwick is a pretty seaside town about 20 miles northeast of Edinburgh with a wonderfully sporty golf course that runs right up to the seashore. Aged 11, he got a caddie’s licence and by 14 he was apprenticed to a clubmaker in Gullane, a village nearby. In 1896, he emigrated to the US, arriving in New York on 23 March in what the historian and author Bill Fields described as “the snowiest month the city has ever seen.” It must have been some Atlantic crossing. Fields tells us that 21 of the 97 passengers on the SS Pomeranian died during the cold, two-week voyage.
In leaving the country of his birth Anderson was following a well-trodden path. Any number of Scots went to teach and play the game in various parts of the world, the US, South America, South Africa. They were like Christian missionaries except that the religion they spread was golf. Charles Price, the golf essayist, wrote that Scotland “… has produced more professionals, semi professionals, pseudo professionals and quasi professionals than Vienna has fiddle players.”
The last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th were the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Hers was an extraordinary chapter in any country’s history never mind Britain’s. It was a time, so it is said, when the sun never set on some part of the British Empire, meaning if it was daylight in one part of the empire it was nighttime somewhere else. It is said that huge parts of the world atlas were coloured red to signify Britain. It was, in short, an extraordinary, prosperous and successful time for Britain, and the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London was the apotheosis of prosperity.
As a new century approached, however, it became clear that once mighty Britain was on the wane. On the other hand, the US, a much younger and now far more vigorous country, was opening up. It would not be long before the Model-T Ford appeared, whereas Britain would soon morph into the Edwardian era, a time of frippery and folderol, of flappers and parasols. Seldom has the advice “go west young man” been so appropriate.
Though admired by his fellow professionals, Willie Anderson, like Brooks Koepka, did not enjoy the kind of warmth of public acclaim that his golf should have earned him.
Once he had safely landed in New York, Anderson took up a job as head professional at the Misquamicut Club in Rhode Island, where he laid out first a nine-hole course and then an 18-holer. He didn’t stay long at Misquamicut. Indeed he didn’t stay anywhere very long. “… He went on to hold head professional positions at a number of top American clubs, among them Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey, Apawamis, in Westchester County, New York, Onwentsia outside Chicago, the St Louis Country Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club,” author and Global Golf Post senior writer John Steinbreder wrote in his history of the Misquamicut Club. “It was common for professionals in those days to change jobs frequently and Anderson toiled at ten different retreats over a fourteen-year stretch of time.” It was his playing golf that is most celebrated but he was also well regarded as a teacher and clubmaker.
ln 1901 he won his first US Open, held at the Myopia Hunt Club, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, beating Alex Smith in the first playoff in the championship’s history. The course measured 6,130 yards. Anderson was five strokes behind Smith on the 14th tee but a sparkling burst of five 4s got him home by one stroke. He was using a gutta percha ball at this time though his next three victories in this championship would come with a rubber-cored ball.
Contemporaneous reports described the new US Open champion as standing 5 feet 7 inches and weighing about 140 pounds, a well-built young man, smooth shaven and good humoured, but somewhat taciturn – a sturdy man with muscular shoulders, brawny forearms and exceptionally large hands. He had an interlocking grip and a flat swing that was known as the “St Andrews swing,” swivelled his hips on his backswing and his left arm was bent.
He was also deadly accurate. Gene Sarazen was once practising bunker shots when Bill Robinson, a former professional, asked if Willie Anderson could have gotten out of the bunkers as well as Sarazen. “Get out of them?” Sarazen said. “He was never in them.”
If Anderson’s play caught the eye at Myopia, so did his social conscience. He did not like the fact that while the amateurs would eat in the club’s dining room, the professionals were relegated to lunch in the club’s kitchen. “Nae, nae, we’re nae goin’ t’ eat in the kitchen,” he said, viciously swinging a club he happened to be holding and gouging a divot out of the club’s lawn. A compromise was reached. The pros were able to eat in a tent specially erected by the home club.
Starting in 1903 Anderson went on to play a run of golf that was exceptional even by today’s standards. He won the 1903 US Open at Baltusrol, where the knowledge he had gained from his time as professional there helped him, the 1904 US Open by five strokes at Glen View Club near Chicago, and the 1905 US Open back at Myopia. For each of his victories Anderson was rewarded with $200, a gold medal and the right to display the trophy at his home club.
Of Anderson’s four Open victories the last may have been the most satisfying. He was five strokes behind Alex Smith at halfway, gained four strokes in the third round and was one behind with 18 holes left to play. Smith’s last round was an 80, Anderson’s a 77.
At this time, and for a few more years, according to Charles Price in an essay for the 1980 U.S. Open programme headlined “The Mystery of Willie Anderson,” Anderson carried only eight clubs – a driver, a brassie, a cleek, mid-iron, a heavy-centred mashie, a large mashie-niblick, a pitching iron and a putting cleek. Today’s equivalents of these clubs would be a driver, 2-wood, 1-iron, 3-iron, a metal 5-wood, an 8-iron with a large blade, a 9-iron and a highly lofted blade putter. His favourite, Price said, was the driver.
Now we come back to similarities with Koepka. Though admired by his fellow professionals, Anderson, like Koepka, did not enjoy the kind of warmth of public acclaim that his golf should have earned him. “Even after he had won four U.S. Opens, he became self-conscious and embarrassed by anything said or written about him in public,” Price wrote in his essay.
“Conversely, while in his cups, he could get morose. ‘They don’t know me, they don’t know me’ he often said to Tom Mercer, a much older man from Scotland who also emigrated here to become a professional and found himself a sort of uncle-confessor to young Willie.”
”There was this about Willie,” Mercer said in The American Golfer magazine years ago. “If he didn’t like a person, he couldn’t pretend that he did. He was not what you call a glad-hander. He went the route with the rest and probably his convivial habits had much to do with undermining his health and hastening his end.”
A history of the Apawamis Club says this of Anderson. “A popular figure with pros and amateurs alike, Anderson was a quiet, somewhat dour man. Strongly built, he combined with his great mastery of shots a high order of concentration and a spirit that refused defeat. Freddy McLeod, winner of the 1908 U.S. Open, and Sandy Armour, old friends, both said of Anderson: ‘He was never beaten until the last shot was in the cup.’ ”
“Anderson did not have a lot of time to savour his triumphs,” Steinbreder noted. “He died five years after his last one.” In October 1910 Anderson had given a series of exhibition matches in the Pittsburgh area that exhausted him. After the last he nearly collapsed. He died two weeks later, aged 31, at home in Philadelphia.
According to his death certificate, Anderson died of a “hardening of the arteries.” This is sometimes known as arteriosclerosis though as few men of his age died of that illness at that time, it is thought more likely that he died of acute alcoholism or that he drank himself to death. Others, including Fields, believe the cause was epilepsy.
Whatever the cause of his expiration, Anderson left a marker for the generations to follow, a record Koepka will attempt to match on the links at Pebble Beach.
In this undated grouping of early U.S. Open champions surrounded by caddies, four-time winner Willie Anderson is centered in the photograph, seated behind 1895 inaugural winner Horace Rawlins, and with his arm around 1906 winner Alex Smith. Courtesy USGA Archives.
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