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Harold Hilton: The Brit behind American golf

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Golf history is full of amazing stories of pros and amateurs alike.

If you’re into golf, you probably already know the most common stories of great players and their most memorable moments. In the second half of the last century to today, most of the folklore is of the professional kind. Professional golfers have the press with them nearly everywhere they go, so we get to read more about them. But if we dig a little deeper, there are some really cool stories of lesser-known players, especially near the turn of last century when professionals weren’t the most admired golfers.

Here is one of the stories golf fans might not have hear before, which I’m sharing in honor of the  Open Championship at Muirfield this week.

Now, a majority of you that read the headline are probably asking who Harold Hilton was. I was asking myself that when I started excavating the data of past champions. So who was Harold Hilton?

Hilton was born in 1862 in West Kirby, England, and died in 1942, but those numbers obviously don’t tell the story. He is one of only three amateurs to win multiple Open titles, along with Bobby Jones and John Ball — some pretty hefty company to keep. Hilton won the first Open Championship in 1892 held at Muirfield with score of 305, 21-over. He repeated this feat again in 1897 at Royal Liverpool. In 1911, Hilton became the first Brit to win the British and U.S. Amateur titles in the same year.

The win in 1897 was spectacular. Hilton, who was only 5-feet, 5-inches tall, had posted a 314 and was in the clubhouse at Liverpool waiting for the outcome. But he wasn’t sitting doing nothing — he was playing pool, probably with some money on the games. When he heard that James Braid was coming to No. 18 needing birdie to tie, Hilton went out to watch. Braid struck a cleek (a type of club) and nearly holed out for eagle to win. After the shot was struck everyone was thinking, including Harold, that there would be playoff, but Braid missed his putt, giving the win to Hilton and a second win at the Open Championship and the prize of 30 pounds.

harold hilton swing

Above: Hilton’s swing was not something of beauty. Robert Harris once wrote this about Hilton’s swing:

“His cap used to fall of his head at the end of full swings, as if jerked off, but this did not indicate if the swing was pure if unduly forceful. He was a small man with a powerful physique; it was exhilarating to watch his perky walk between shots. His assiduity was his greatness.”

List of Tournaments Won by Harold Hilton

  • 1889 Royal Liverpool Summer Lubbock Gold Medal, Royal Liverpool Autumn Kennard Gold Medal, Royal Liverpool St. Andrew’s Gold Cross Medal, West Lancashire Golf Club Challenge Gold Medal, West Lancashire Golf Club Mayor’s Prize, West Lancashire Golf Club St. Andrew’s Challenge Gold Cross Medal
  • 1891 Royal Liverpool Spring Club Gold Medal, Royal Liverpool Summer Lubbock Gold Medal, Birkdale Golf Club Crowther Cup
  • 1892 The Open Championship (Muirfield)
  • 1893 St. George’s Challenge Cup
  • 1894 St. George’s Challenge Cup
  • 1897 The Open Championship (Royal Liverpool)
  • 1900 The Amateur (British Amateur) Championship, Irish Amateur
  • 1901 The Amateur (British Amateur) Championship, Irish Amateur
  • 1902 Irish Amateur
  • 1911 The Amateur Championship, U.S. Amateur Championship
  • 1913 The Amateur Championship

More than playing accomplishments, Harold went on to design one of the top-100 course in England, Ferndown Golf Club, which holds an Open Championship qualifier.

After retiring from competitive golf in 1913, he became a golf writer working with Golf Illustrated and Golf Monthly as their first editor, and wrote books on this great game. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978.

His win at the 1911 U.S. Amateur at Apawamis really set off American golf, with American players seething about losing their amateur title to a Brit and having him take the coveted trophy across the pond. It has been said that the win was one of the key factors in America becoming the golfing giant it is today.

So we all owe a bit of thanks to his fine play and the punch to the face to American golf. Without Hilton, golf might not have taken off as fast in the U.S.

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P. Matthew Moorhead has spent last 18 years working for General Motors. When not at work, he spends his time trying to improve his game with Eric Johnson of Oakmont CC and trying out all the new golf equipment, coaching youth soccer and spending time with his family. Through the early part of this decade he chased a dream of racing sportbikes around the Midwest to some minor success and spectacular crashes. He worked as an assistant pro for a few years and spent a summer in the 90s working as a putter rep for a now-defunct putter company and signed LPGA players to use the brand.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. David I

    Jul 17, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Nice article, fun read! Baird = James Braid <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Braid_(golfer)&quot;

  2. Arthur J

    Jul 17, 2013 at 7:36 am

    I doubt he was playing pool in an English clubhouse, ever, let alone in 1897.

    Try snooker.

    • Palmer Short

      Jul 17, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      The dictionary says snooker is pool played with 15 red balls and six various colored balls. So snooker is a variation of pool, just as billiards, or eight and nine ball or rotation.

  3. dakota jones

    Jul 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Awesome story, can’t imagine golf being anything different than it is today.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: The best drill in golf (throwing the club)

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If you are struggling with weight shift, clearing your hips, or have issues freeing up your golf swing, then what you want to do is start chucking that golf club. No joke! In this podcast, we will explain how to properly throw the golf club from a safe area and the results will be absolutely transformational.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Ways to Win: A New No. 1 – How Justin Thomas overcame a poor putting performance

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In the final tuneup before the PGA Championship in San Francisco, many of the world’s best teed it up at Memphis’ TPC Southwind in the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The final day showcased a stacked leaderboard and plenty of volatility, but in the end, it was Justin Thomas who came from four back to win for the third time this year. This was a quick bounceback after a letdown at The Memorial just a few weeks ago. Winning on the PGA Tour certainly takes stellar play and, typically, a little luck like Thomas’ pulled drive on 15 that skirted off a cart path, over a bridge and into prime position for a late birdie. Had that tee ball found the hazard instead, this article would likely be about Brooks Koepka and his late charge.

Golf is a game of misses and taking advantage of good breaks. That is not to take away from JT’s week of stellar ball striking. He finished the week first in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and second in Strokes Gained Approach. That’s no surprise for the new number one in the world. What is surprising is how poorly Thomas putted throughout the week. It is extremely rare for a PGA Tour winner to lose strokes to the field with the putter, but that is exactly what Thomas did.

In Ways to Win, it is rare that we highlight Short Game as a differentiating factor for winners. That is typically because to excel in the short game, one has to miss quite a few greens. When you miss greens, it’s hard to score. However, Justin Thomas was able to consistently get himself out of difficult situations, minimize damage, and turn bogeys into pars throughout his four rounds.

If you want to be an elite player, you can’t do it with your short game alone. It sure comes in handy on those off days, though. Just how good was Thomas’ short game? He finished fourth for the week in Strokes Gained Around the Green and got up and down inside 75 yards more than 80 percent of the time (including several clutch up and downs late on Sunday). His touch was particularly crucial, given that his putter wasn’t really cooperating.

Again, it is very rare for a PGA Tour winner to lose strokes with the flatstick. Typically the winner is the best putter out of the best ball strikers, but not so this week. Thomas only three-putted twice for the week. However, he lost strokes to the field from three out of nine distance buckets that we analyzed using V1 Game’s putting breakdown.

In four other buckets, he was almost “net zero” in strokes gained with the putter. He only gained strokes with the putter from inside six feet. Making short putts is certainly a big key to golfing success. That is why short misses are highlighted in V1 Game’s post-round analysis: missing short putts is a quick way to compound errors. Thomas is not an elite putter by any means, but he is typically solid in the clutch.

V1 Game makes it easy to keep track of personal bests and track progress in a tournament. Any stat that the PGA Tour gives can be recreated with V1 Game. Here are some quick stats for Thomas’ week using V1 Game’s Personal Bests feature:

Total Score: 267
Best Round: 65
Worst Round: 70
Longest Drive: 347 yds
Longest Holeout: 28 ft
Most consecutive holes without a bogey: 24
Scrambling Streak: 9 in a row
Holes without a 3 putt: 20
Most birdies in a round: 6

Thomas certainly played well when it mattered, resisting the urge to look at a scoreboard throughout the final round and focusing on the job at hand. His patience paid off with his 13th victory in a young career. Short game play is a fantastic equalizer and a great tool for any golfer’s bag. However, Thomas really separates himself with ball striking.

The best way to improve your short game is to miss fewer greens, like JT. For most amateurs, short game practice should focus on eliminating mistakes, such as “two-chips” when you do miss the green. Once you can consistently get on the green and have a putt to get up and down, focus should shift to the long game. Tee to Green play is where the game’s best separate themselves from the weekend warriors.

V1 Game can help you with each of these items.

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On Spec

On Spec: Talking Kirkland wedge, LPGA Tour, and teased irons from TaylorMade & Mizuno

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In this episode of On Spec, host Ryan talks about the recently discovered Kirkland Signature wedges on the USGA Conforming list, as well as what recently spotted TaylorMade and Mizuno irons may have in store
Also with the LPGA Tour back in action, Ryan also discussed why it is a good idea to check out how LPGA players gap their bags compared to players on the PGA Tour.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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