Harry Vardon was possessed with a talent and method so singular he was considered a shotmaking machine in the improvisational era of hickory and gutta percha. The winner of the British Open a record six times, he was golf’s first superstar.
Vardon was a true original. On his own, he developed the Vardon Grip, in which the little finger of the right hand is rested on top of the index finger of the left hand, the grip used by 90 percent of good players today. Wrote Bernard Darwin of Vardon, “I do not think anyone who saw him play in his prime will disagree as to this, that a greater genius is inconceivable.”
Vardon was born May 9, 1870, in Grouville, Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. The son of a gardener, he was one of six boys and two girls. When the town went about building a golf course, the children built their own, and Vardon taught himself the effortless, upright swing that would serve him the rest of his life.
"Relaxation, added to a few necessary fundamental principles, is the basis of this great game."
Still, as a child he played very few actual rounds of golf, never had a lesson and at age 13 became an apprentice gardener. He played in a few tournaments into his late teens and didn’t decide to make it a career until he saw that his younger brother, Tom, had turned professional and was doing well in tournaments. But Vardon was made for golf. Although only 5-feet 9-inches and 155 pounds, he had enormous hands that melted perfectly around the club. He also possessed a sweet, peaceful temperament.
Most of all, Vardon had a swing that repeated monotonously. His swing was more upright and his ball flight higher than his contemporaries, giving Vardon’s approach shots the advantage of greater carry and softer landing. He took only the thinnest of divots.
Vardon played in knickers (the first professional to do so), fancy-topped stockings, a hard collar and tie and tightly buttoned jacket, but still there was a wonderful freedom to his movement. He allowed his left arm to bend as he reached the top of the backswing, and there was a lack of muscular stress or tension at any part of the swing. “Relaxation,” he said, “added to a few necessary fundamental principles, is the basis of this great game.”
Vardon won the British Open in 1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911 and, at the age of 44, 1914. He was second on four other occasions.
Harry Vardon spent eight months at Mundesley Sanatorium battling tuberculosis following the 1903 Open Championship.
Golf was never again so easy for Vardon. He felt that fashioning shots to American turf conditions got him into some bad habits, and the wound rubber Haskell ball that came into fashion reduced his shotmaking advantage over the field. Finally, after winning the British Open again in 1903, Vardon was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It forced him out of competition and into sanitariums for long spells until 1910.
Heeled but enfeebled, Vardon validated his true greatness after the age of 40, winning the British Open again in 1911 and 1914. The previous year, Vardon had been beaten in a three-way playoff for the U.S. Open at Brookline by Francis Ouimet. In 1920, at the age of 50, he led the U.S. Open by four strokes with only seven holes to play, before bad weather and a shaky putter left him tied for second.
Vardon died March 20, 1937, in London. On both the European and U.S. PGA tours, the Vardon Trophy is awarded annually to the professional with the lowest stroke average.