Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The God of golf: Vardon tames the majesty of Muirfield

By Chris Murphy, CNN
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
Harry Vardon still holds the record for the most British Open triumphs, securing six between 1896 and 1914. He is also credited with sparking an explosion of interest in the game in the United States after embarking on three playing tours in the early 20th century. Harry Vardon still holds the record for the most British Open triumphs, securing six between 1896 and 1914. He is also credited with sparking an explosion of interest in the game in the United States after embarking on three playing tours in the early 20th century.
HIDE CAPTION
The majesty of Muirfield
The majesty of Muirfield
The majesty of Muirfield
The majesty of Muirfield
The majesty of Muirfield
The majesty of Muirfield
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Harry Vardon has won six British Open titles, more than anyone else in history
  • Vardon was golf's first worldwide superstar after his popular playing tours of America
  • Jersey-native won his first Open title at Muirfield, the scene for the 2014 installment
  • Peter Thompson, who won five Open titles, calls him "the God of golf"

(CNN) -- It was in the majestic surroundings of Muirfield that the original gold-plated superstar of golf secured his first major title.

The small town of Gullane to the east of Edinburgh that is all set to welcome the modern titans of the game for the 142nd staging of the British Open played host to a true pioneer back in 1896.

Harry Vardon won a total of six British Open titles, a record that still stands, but his achievements in the game stretch far beyond his haul of majors, which was lifted to seven by his 1900 U.S. Open triumph.

Not only was he credited with sparking an explosion of interest in the game during his tours of America at the turn of the 20th Century but he also devised the grip- -- "the overlapping grip" or the "Vardon overlap" -- that 90 percent of golfers still deploy.

It is little wonder he is spoken of in such glowing terms by Australian Peter Thompson, who alongside American legend Tom Watson, is just one British Open triumph behind Vardon's half-dozen successes.

Is Rose ready for the British Open?

"He was the God of golf," Thompson told CNN's Living Golf show. "To aspire to such a position was sacrilege -- it was way out of my league.

"It wasn't until I passed five that I thought, 'Well, it's possible to equal the great man' but I didn't do it, regrettably.

Gary Player: Why I love horses
Tiny island boasts golf legacy
Historic venue welcomes top golfers
New golf course at St. Andrews

"It must have been inspirational to watch him swing. He had the power of a winning champion. Had someone won seven or even six Opens we wouldn't have had Vardon as a God.

"It is perfect it is in stone and concrete that he should be the man who won six. It hasn't happened before and it isn't likely to happen for many years.

"I don't think anyone will reach six because the competition there is today makes it more difficult. There are at least 25 players that have a chance of winning any major tournament."

Read: Single-sex clubs? Not just for golfers

Vardon's prowess on the golf course is indisputable.

His entry in the Hall of Fame quotes famed golf writer Bernard Darwin as saying: "I do not think anyone who saw him play in his prime will disagree as to this, that a greater genius is inconceivable."

But his legacy stretches far beyond the beauty of the links courses upon which he flourished, securing his first three championships before the turn of the century.

He became the game's first international superstar when he traveled to the United States in 1900, playing 80 exhibition matches around the country, his tour culminating in that U.S. Open triumph.

Thousands flocked to see him in action, with many scurrying back to their own courses to try and replicate what they had just seen.

"There is absolutely no doubt that that the great boom of golf in America was started by Harry Vardon," said David Crawford, former head greenkeeper at Royal Jersey, where Vardon learnt the game.

"The number of people who flooded to see his exhibition matches, the fact that he was asked back again and again prove that.

"He brought golf into the mainstream for everyone to play and I think that was probably his greatest achievement.

"And of course he'll be forever immortalized because of his most famous grip, there's no getting away from it."

Read: The next King of Scotland

Vardon was born into a working class family in Jersey, a British outpost off the coast of Normandy in France, and honed his game when the island got its first golf course in 1878.

Both Harry and his younger brother started out as caddies and invested hours on practicing their swings, despite their father's disapproval of the game.

Harry's career blossomed when he left Jersey for the English mainland, where his dedication to his craft and insistence on wearing knickerbockers made him stand out from the crowd.

His victory at Muirfield in 1896 announced his prowess to the world and irked the man he beat -- two-time Open champion Willie Park Junior.

"Park was so upset he challenged Vardon to a home and away match for £100," Crawford explained.

"It was a year before they came to play it and Vardon was two shots up after the first tie at North Berwick where around 10,000 people came to watch.

"In the second match Vardon annihilated Park, who went on to become an architect because he knew he wasn't going to win anything with Vardon around.

"Vardon was extremely accurate, a straight driver with an immaculate short game. It has been said his putting stroke wasn't that great but I don't believe you could win all those tournaments with a weak putting stroke.

"He had the complete all round game at the height of his powers."

Read: PGA Tour ends anchored putter ban opposition

"There's no doubt that the great boom of golf in America was started by Harry Vardon. He brought golf into the mainstream and I think that was probably his greatest achievement
David Crawford, former head greenkeeper at Royal Jersey Golf Club

Vardon went on to claim three more Open titles before he was struck down by tuberculosis, spending long spells in sanatoriums until 1910.

Yet despite his faltering health, and general lack of fitness, he still came back to win the Open twice more -- in 1911 and 1914.

According to another graduate of the Jersey links, former Ryder Cup star Tommy Horton, Vardon's success is made all the more remarkable given his physical frailties.

"He was never very fit, and when you think about 1914 when he won his last Open, they took him out of hospital two or three weeks before the Championship, because he had tuberculosis," he said.

"Vardon was never a very fit man and he had only a few weeks practice, fresh out of hospital and went out and won the Open Championship. That to me is incredible."

Vardon eventually died in 1937 at the age of 66.

While illness hampered his career in large parts, it may have also helped prolong it.

"It's not very common knowledge, but Harry Vardon was planning to go to promote the equipment he sponsored, or the sponsors promoted for him, in America," Horton added.

"He was going for two or three months as he'd done before -- they liked him in America -- but he fell sick, and because of that he didn't travel on the Titanic."

Read: Muirfield puts in the extra mile

Vardon's haul of six Open titles is unlikely to be matched any time soon, but had it not been for The Great War, it could have been more.

"He lost six years out of his professional life," Crawford added. "Goodness knows how many Opens Vardon could have won."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
It's a big dilemma: Be with your wife for the birth of your first child, or stay at work and try to earn $11 million. For Billy Horschel, it's a no-brainer.
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
She's just 19 but Hyo Joo Kim is already showing she's ready for the big time after recording the lowest ever round at a major championship.
updated 1:06 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Masters champion Bubba Watson says winning the $10 million FedEx Cup jackpot would bring forward his retirement from the game.
updated 7:31 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 15: A view of the 14th green during the third round of The Evian Championship at the Evian Resort Golf Club on September 15, 2013 in Evian-les-Bains, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
The world's top women golfers will be chasing a $3.25 million prize purse at one of the most stunning courses on the LPGA Tour.
updated 8:19 AM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
Tom Watson selects Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson as his wildcard picks for the Ryder Cup contest with Europe.
updated 9:52 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Ian Poulter kept Europe clinging on in their Ryder Cup battle with the United States in Chicago.
Ian Poulter, who has constantly haunted the U.S. in Ryder Cup golf, is back after being chosen as a wildcard by European captain Paul McGinley.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Tiger Woods has split with his longtime coach Sean Foley after not winning a major during their four-year tenure.
updated 7:05 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
Success just keeps on coming for Rory McIlroy, but the world No. 1 is already targeting more titles following his second PGA Championship win.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Fri August 8, 2014
From Seve's "spine-shivering" moment to Jack Nicklaus' "perfect explosion," David Cannon has captured many of golf's defining images.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
They came home as casualties of war -- physically shattered and mentally broken. But golf is proving to be an unlikely salvation for U.S. veterans.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
You are the one hitting the shots, but the man standing over your shoulder could hold the key to your golfing destiny.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
PINEHURST, NC - JUNE 10: Rory McIlroy (R) of Northern Ireland talks with his dad Gerry McIlroy (L) during a practice round prior to the start of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Course No. 2 on June 10, 2014 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
He has been there for all three of his son's major wins, but the latest triumph may well have been the sweetest yet for Rory McIlroy's father.
ADVERTISEMENT