By Dick Brown
We were reminded by Mark Frost’s wonderful book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, that Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, England’s preeminent golfers in the early 1900s, came to Baltusrol to play an exhibition match only days before the first qualifying round for the 1913 U.S. Open. Although the match is covered in Baltusrol’s history book, the Baltusrol News set out to dig deeper, curious if we could find more information in newspaper clippings, at libraries, and in Baltusrol’s own archives room. Frost’s book contains a brief account of the match, but we learned much more elsewhere, particularly at the Newark Public Library and in Baltusrol’s own collections.
As explained by Frost, most professional golfers of that day supported themselves by working as club professionals—but also by playing exhibition matches. It was a tough way to earn a living. The lesser professionals would sometimes pass a hat following a match, the collection being split between the winner and loser at some pre-determined ratio. $150 (roughly $2,600 today) was a good fee for a top-ranking professional to earn for playing a 36-hole match. While on tour, these pros played day after day for weeks. For example, Vardon and Ray arrived in New York from England in early August, traveled to the west coast and back, and played something on the order of 53 matches before the first qualifying round for the U.S. Open on September 16. On this particular trip, they were bankrolled by Lord Northcliffe, a British newspaper magnate with a dual purpose: to make money for his newspapers by hiring golf writer Bernard Darwin to cover the matches, and to guarantee a win for England at the U.S. Open.
The match at Baltusrol was played on Saturday, September 13. There is no question it was one of the premier golf events of the season, because the English duo had won five British Opens between them and were the favorites going into the U.S. Open the following week.
The fact that the match was to be played at Baltusrol added to the event’s luster. Baltusrol’s “Old Course” was highly regarded in 1913, having evolved from the crude nine-hole layout built in 1895 to a true championship test. Four major championships (a U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, and two U.S. Women’s Amateurs) had been played on the course by 1913, and Baltusrol’s second U.S. Open was scheduled for 1915. Old photos attest to narrow fairways, ferocious bunkering and a number of tough uphill holes. Eight of the putting surfaces on the Old Course were good enough to be incorporated by A.W. Tillinghast in the present Upper and Lower courses.
We don’t know how or why, aside from the quality of its golf course, Baltusrol was asked to host the event. However, the matter was formally introduced to Baltusrol’s Board at its May 12 meeting, and the minutes record the details of the match: “the question of holding an international 4-ball match between Harry Vardon and Edward Ray for a prize of $175 each, against George Low, or some other professional, and a partner to be chosen, to be held at Baltusrol on Saturday, September 13, was approved, and the Green Committee was authorized to post subscription lists for a total of $450.”
We have not been able to determine if the “home team” was also paid from the $450 pot. One assumes that spectators were charged, but we do not know this for certain.
Baltusrol initially signed up Johnnie McDermott and Jerome Travers to oppose Vardon and Ray. McDermott was the reigning U.S. Open champion and Travers had won both the 1912 and 1913 U.S. Amateur. However, a week before the match, and after winning a tournament at Shawnee, McDermott made some very intemperate remarks that were insulting to the English. Ted Ray said afterwards that he would never again play golf with McDermott if it were not absolutely necessary. Baltusrol then sent word to McDermott that, in the words of the Newark newspaper, “his services would not be required.” George Low, the Baltusrol Professional, was substituted. The USGA then made it known to Travers that it would be inappropriate for an amateur to appear in an event of such magnitude, especially in a field of professionals, and he withdrew. Alex Smith, the professional at Wykagyl and also known as Jerry Travers’ teacher, was then pressed into service. Smith had won two U.S. Opens and also was considered a favorite for the 1913 U.S. Open. While Vardon and Ray were two of the world’s best players, Baltusrol had provided them with reasonably stout opposition.
The Baltusrol exhibition was one of the great sporting events of the 1913 season in the New York area. However, it certainly was only one of many widely reported sports stories in the press. There was a crucial series between the Newark Indians, who were the league leaders in spite of a recent slump, and the Montreal Royals in the International Baseball League, and the upcoming college football season was building interest, too. In golf, a match between Princeton and Penn was reported on with some detail. Also in the papers were stories about an invitational tournament at the National Club, which drew many of the leading players of the day, and in which Bernard Darwin played. Incidentally, one C.F. Shallcross of Baltusrol was the qualifying medalist in that event, which then turned to match play and was won by someone else.
On September 12, the English duo played the last of many exhibition matches at Brookline, the site of the U.S. Open the following week, winning $150 each. They then took the night train to New York City and made their way out to Baltusrol in the morning, where the reporters on hand were astonished at the size of the crowd which greeted them at the first tee. The estimates were that 2,000 people were on hand in the morning, and as many as 5,000 more showed up during the afternoon. The attendance rivaled that at the U.S. Amateur Championship held two weeks earlier at Garden City Golf Club.
Lest the Baltusrol match was to foreshadow what would take place at Brookline in a few days’ time, the Englishmen won with ease. They won the first hole, cruised to a 5-up margin after the morning 18, and eventually won 7 and 6 over the Baltusrol team. While they made scattered bogies, they totaled 12 birdies between them. Pro-forma medal scores kept by reporters were a total of 142 for Ray and 146 for Vardon, who three-putted often on the final nine. However, as the reporters remarked in their respective stories, no one cared much about the home team’s loss, but all were excited by the play, and particularly the tee shots, of the Englishmen.
Both Vardon and Ray were very long, far longer than Smith and Low. Ray, in particular, caught the crowd’s attention with some enormous shots. He drove the green at the 285-yard No. 12 twice, and birdied it each time. He reached the 550-yard par-5 No. 16 in two shots in both the morning and afternoon rounds (the players finished all 36 holes even though their official match had ended). The No. 16 tee of the Old Course is now the front tee of the 18 Lower, and the old No. 16 green is now the Lower Third green. One wonders how many of today’s members, using fiberglass-shafted metal drivers and Pro V1 balls, could reach the Third Lower green from the No. 18 tee in two shots? Ray hit a spectacular drive on hole No. 10 (the tee can still be found in the woods behind the Upper third green). The shot carried over the pond left of the present Fourth Upper fairway (still visible today) toward the present 16 Lower green. On the Old Course, this green was completely encircled by water, and Ray’s drive landed in the moat after carrying 320 yards. The ball came to rest in two inches of water, but an undeterred Ray climbed into the hazard, knocked the ball onto the green and made the birdie putt.
The gallery had a wonderful day and the press wrote enthusiastic reviews of the proceedings. The American Golfer, a leading publication of the day, carried a detailed report of the match, remarking on the fast play and noting that each contestant picked up his ball when his partner had holed out for the win, expressing the hope that American amateurs would emulate this good practice. The only troubling note was that Harry Vardon’s yips reappeared during the final nine of the afternoon round. Vardon had suffered nerve damage in his left hand as a result of a bout with tuberculosis, and the yips were the consequence for the rest of his career. Over the years he learned how to contain the affliction, but it reappeared from time to time, and to have to deal with the yips a few days before the U.S. Open was inopportune.
Vardon and Ray stayed at Baltusrol that evening for dinner, presumably with a few members, but Vardon excused himself from the table early to practice his putting on the carpet of his hotel room until after midnight.
He and Ray were up before dawn to catch a morning train to Boston. What ensued that week was one of the most famous U.S. Open Championships ever contested. As we all know, 19-year-old Francis Ouimet won in a playoff against Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Vardon was second and won $300; Ray finished third, pocketing $150.