photo courtesy The Open Championship
Harry Vardon was one of the true pioneers of professional golf. Playing in the infacy of the professional era of golf, Vardon amassed what is easily one of the greatest legacies in the game. His beginnings were inauspicious, born on the fairly isolated Channel Island of Jersey to a French mother and English father. He didn’t play the game until his early teens, when he began caddying along with his older brother Tom. They both picked up the game quickly and despite their lack of parental support, their game developed on their local course. By the age of 20, Harry followed his younger brother to England to continue to work on their game, with Harry becoming greenkeeper at Studley Royal Golf Club in Ripon. His brother soon turned professional, becoming a respectable professional who would often compete with Harry throughout their careers. It was the elder Harry Vardon, however, who would go on to achieve more than any other golfer at the time.
By 1891, Vardon was the club professional at Bury Golf Club and began competing in professional tournaments. Vardon was a trendsetter from the beginning, when he became known for adopting knickerbockers as his playing attire. In doing so, Vardon was the first known professional to use the short pants that soon became synonymous with golfers of the era. In 1893, Vardon competed in his first Open Championship, finishing T23, before 2 consecutive top-10 finishes in 1894 and 1895. It was in 1896 that the 26 year old Vardon claimed his first Open Championship title, defeating J.H. Taylor in a 36 hole playoff. The title would be the first of 6 Open Championship victories, still the most by any golfer. Vardon followed his 1896 win with victories in 1898, 1899, 1903 (with brother Tom finishing runner-up), and then after a long battle with tuberculosis Vardon would win again in 1911 and 1914 when on the wrong side of 40. Vardon would also win the U.S. Open in 1900, and finish runner up in 1913 and 1920. In the 1920 U.S. Open, Vardon had actually been leading the tournament at the age of 50 until losing it on the final 7 holes.
In all, Vardon amassed over 49 professional wins during his life. Vardon also helped popularize the game of golf to a higher status in both Britain and the US. He also took part in the competition between Team USA and Team Great Britain at Gleneagles in 1921, an event that is the direct forerunner of the popular Ryder Cup. The opponents for that day featured American greats Jock Hutchinson and Walter Hagen, the first American citizen and American-born British Open winners, respectively. Still, it was Vardon and Team Britain who triumphed that day, earning Vardon yet another victory to add to his impressive career.
photo courtesy the Open Championship
The Vardon Grip and Other Innovations
Aside from his innovations to golf fashion, Vardon changd the way golf was played thanks to his unique interlocking grip, now known as the "Vardon grip". Today, the grip is used by the majority of professional golfers. To emulate the VArdon grip, place the pinky finger of the right hand over the index finger of the left hand, while the thumb of the right hand rests under the palm of the left hand (for right-handed golfers). The grip allows for both strength and finesse. In addition, Vardon became known for his vigorous practice routine that led to Vardon’s complete game. He was respected as the greatest shotmaker of his time, even as technology altered both clubs and balls during his professional career. He believed his key was his relaxed nature. According to the World Golf Hall of Fame, Vardon stated that “Relaxation, added to a few necessary fundamental principles, is the basis of this great game.”
Vardon at 1910 US Open. Getty Images
Today, Vardon’s legacy is enshrined in two major awards on both the PGA and European Tours: the Vardon Trophy and the Harry Vardon Trophy. The Vardon Trophy is awarded by the PGA of America to the PGA Tour’s lowest average scorer for the season. Winners have included Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. The Harry Vardon Trophy was first awarded to the player with the lowest scoring average over a season in British golf, before being awarded to the money leader on the European Tour. Past winners include Jon Rahm, Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Seve Ballesteros, and Peter Oosterhuis. Both awards honor Vardon’s legacy as one of the greatest professional golfers in the history of the sport.
The European Tour's Harry Vardon Trophy. photo courtesy Thomas Lyte.