World Golf Hall of Fame Profile: Harold Hilton
Harold Hilton's place in golf history was literally etched in stone at Apawamis Country Club in Rye, N.Y. Playing the 37th hole of the 1911 U.S. Amateur final against Fred Herreshoff, Hilton hit a spoon (3-wood) that was headed into a rock bed right of the first green. As if guided by the hands of fate, the ball ricocheted onto the putting surface, stunning Herreshoff, who half-topped his approach shot and made bogey. With three British Amateur and two British Open victories to his credit, Hilton two-putted for par and at age 42 became the first foreign-born player to win the U.S. Amateur. At Apawamis, they still call it Hilton's Rock.
The shock waves sent off by Hilton's victory were far-reaching. Herbert Warren Wind described it as "the most discussed single shot ever played in an American tournament." In The Story of American Golf, Wind wrote, "Americans were not at all pleased over the idea that a foreigner had carried one of our championship cups out of the country, and that men who had never cared about golf before now wanted to know the real inside story." Wind used the press as a touchstone, noting that a New York newspaper which identified the Englishman as "Horace H. Hilton" in a story prior to the Amateur had gotten Hilton's first name right when he won the event.
In Great Britain, Hilton had been famous since well before the turn of the century. In 1892, he won the first Open Championship played over 72 holes. Few amateurs were in the field, and Hilton wasn't sure about traveling from his home at Hoylake to Muirfield, Scotland, until the week of the event. With only one practice round to draw on, Hilton was seven strokes back at the halfway point. He shot 72-74 over the final 36 holes to shoot 305 and win by three strokes. One of the players he defeated was Royal Liverpool clubmate John Ball, who in 1890 had become the first amateur to win the Open Championship.
Five years later, the Open was played at Hoylake for the first time. Hilton and Ball were among the favorites, but the field of 86 golfers included the "Great Triumverate" of Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor. The tournament came down to the final hole. Hilton had posted 314 and was in the clubhouse, playing billiards, awaiting the outcome. When word came that Braid was playing the 18th, Hilton went out to watch. Braid's cleek shot nearly went in the hole, but the Scotsman missed his birdie putt, and Hilton had won his second Open.
Hilton was a wild swinger, who regripped the club at the top of his backswing. Although standing only 5-feet 5-inches, he was a powerful, if unconventional, shotmaker. After losing to him in the 1913 Amateur at St. Andrews, Robert Harris once wrote of Hilton: "His cap used to fall from his head at the end of a full swing, as if jerked off, but this did not indicate that his swing was not pure if apparently unduly forceful. He was a small man of powerful physique; it was exhilarating to watch his perky walk between shots. His assiduity was his greatness."
After retiring from competitive golf, Hilton became a writer of popular books on golf and was editor of several golf magazines. In 1923, just as Bob Jones and Walter Hagen were coming on the scene, he addressed the impending takeover by the American golfer. What Hilton failed to point out was his victory at Apawamis served as their motivation. It helped shape the course of American golf history.