In the long history of golf there have been three instances of sustained brilliance. Two are immediately obvious-Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam and Ben Hogan’s magical 1953 campaign. Although it is rarely remembered, Lawson Little may have topped them both.
In 1934 and 1935 Little became the first golfer to sweep the British and American Amateur Championships in consecutive years, two “Little Slams” as the pundits of the day referred to them. During his phenomenal run, Little won 32 consecutive matches on both sides of the Atlantic with an overpowering game built on booming drives and brooding intensity.
It is a testament to Little’s awesome dominance that he followed with a professional career that included seven victories and a U.S. Open title, and it was considered a failure. Wrote Charles Price, “Lawson Little was the greatest match player in the history of golf.”
"The man who doesn't plan out every shot to the very top of his capacity for thought can't attain championship form."
Born in Newport, R. I., in 1910 and raised in Northern California, Little burst onto the scene at Pebble Beach in the 1929 U.S. Amateur when he defeated Johnny Goodman the day after Goodman had electrified the golf world by beating the unbeatable Bobby Jones. Five years later, at the British Amateur at Prestwick, the 24-year-old with the senatorial mane of dark, wavy hair realized that potential.
He barely broke a sweat in winning his seven consecutive matches, and in the final he gave Scot James Wallace a spanking of legendary proportions. Little shot an unofficial 66 in the morning, five better than the course record, and was 12 up by lunchtime. In the afternoon he birdied three of the first five holes and put Wallace out of his misery, 14 and 13. In the 23 holes Little had a dozen 3s on his card.
Nicknamed “Cannonball” and often described as “bullnecked and barrel-chested,” the 200-pound Little generated tremendous power despite standing only 5’9″. He liked to play the ball far back off his right leg and hit an exaggerated hook. At the 1934 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club, Little again overpowered the field, taking six 18-hole matches and a pair at 36 holes including the final in which Spec Goldman succumbed, 8 and 7. Harold Hilton and Bobby Jones were (and are) the only other golfers to hold the British and American amateur titles simultaneously.
Bernard Darwin called Lawson Little’s 14-and-13 victory in the 1934 Amateur Championship, “one of the most terrific exhibitions in all golfing history.”
For all his strength, Little had an expert short game. He used a variety of clubs from around the green, and in fact often carried as many as seven wedges among his 26 clubs, an excess which in 1938 prompted the USGA to institute the 14-club limit.
As Little’s reputation as a merciless competitor continued to mushroom, so did the estimation that he was a surly and unlikable champion. Having grown up the son of a colonel in the Army Medical Corps, bouncing from base to base across the United States and China, Little was admittedly withdrawn, but he attributed his on-course demeanor to an unparalleled concentration.
“The man who doesn’t plan out every shot to the very top of his capacity for thought can’t attain championship form,” he said. Little also believed, “Winners hit their bad shots best.”
In the spring of 1935, Little went to St. Anne’s to defend his British Amateur title, and he was lucky not to lose his first match. Despite a shaky 80 he stole the match on the 18th green, and from there he took the title without incident. Little’s inexorable march into the record books was completed at the Cleveland Country Club.
Little turned pro shortly thereafter, and his mediocre record was often attributed to a lack of desire that came from being among the first pros with significant endorsement money. When he defeated Gene Sarazen in a playoff to win the 1940 U.S. Open, it was a reminder of what his talents once were. With the advent of World War II, Little lost direction as the major championships were cancelled and he became more interested in the stock market than in competitive golf. “He never practiced,” said Jack Burke Jr. “Little either had it that week or he didn’t. But when he did have it, it was lights out.”