It was the legendary Scotsman, Andrew Kirkaldy, who first saw the greatness in John Henry Taylor. After losing a challenge match to Taylor in 1891, Kirkaldy went back to St. Andrews and predicted that the young Englishman who just defeated him would win many Open Championships. “You’ll see more of Taylor,” he said. “And then you’ll know why he beat me, and why he will beat all the best of the day.”
Kirkaldy proved to be right, of course. Three years after defeating Kirkaldy, he became the first professional from England to win the Open. Taylor captured five British Opens, joining Harry Vardon and James Braid to form the Great Triumvirate. Taylor’s accuracy was legendary. At Sandwich, where he won his first Open by five strokes in 1894, he would have the directional posts removed from the blind holes out of fear that his drives would hit them and carom into bunkers. The following year, he won by four strokes over Sandy Herd at St. Andrews, with Kirkaldy six shots further back in third place.
"To try to play golf really well is far from being a joke, and lightheartedness of endeavor is a sure sign of eventual failure."
“The mon’s a machine,” Kirkaldy said. “He can dae naething wrang.” Vardon and amateur Harold Hilton came along to dominate the Open from 1896-99, but Taylor returned to form in 1900 at St. Andrews. Pulling away from the field after every round, he won by eight strokes over Vardon, with Braid 13 back in third place. Later in the year, he finished second to Vardon in the U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club.
Taylor won the British Open twice more, both times in convincing manner, in 1909 over Braid at Deal and in 1913 over Ted Ray at Hoylake. The latter tied Taylor with Braid and Vardon with five Open victories and was considered his most satisfying win since it came in horrendous conditions. In heavy wind and rain, Taylor pulled his cap down over his eyes, stuck out his chin, and anchored his large boots to the ground to maximize control over his compact swing. Nineteen years after his first Open victory, Taylor shot 304 to win by eight strokes over Ray, the defending champion.
Taylor took the game seriously, and once wrote: “To try to play golf really well is far from being a joke, and lightheartedness of endeavor is a sure sign of eventual failure.” Bernard Darwin, who was a close friend, recalled that nobody, not even Bobby Jones, suffered more over championships than Taylor did. “Like Bobby,” said Darwin, “(Taylor) had great control and might appear outwardly cool, but the flames leaped up from within.”
J.H. Taylor initially pursued a military career but was turned down due to poor eyesight and flat feet.
Taylor was competitive for many years, finishing fourth at the age of 53 in the 1924 British Open at Hoylake. Most of his later life was dedicated to writing books, making clubs, designing courses and forming the British PGA, the Artisan Golfers Association and the Public Golf Courses Association. As a young boy, he left school early to caddy and work as a gardener’s assistant, a mason’s laborer and a greenkeeper. But he educated himself by reading Dickens and Boswell and was able to author Golf, My Life’s Work, without a ghostwriter. He took great pride in having grown up an Englishman, on the links of Westward Ho! rather than the links of St. Andrews or East Lothian in Scotland.
Taylor’s final years were spent in his native village of Northam overlooking Westward Ho!, enjoying the view he called “the finest in Christendom.” His death in 1963 just short of his 92nd birthday marked the passing of the last of the great golfers from the 19th century.