Museum Moment: Lawson Little and the Sullivan Award

Sep 16, 2010

Far Hills, N.J. – This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Amateur Athletic Union’s Sullivan Award, presented annually to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. A salute to the AAU’s founder and past president, James E. Sullivan, the award recognizes the qualities of leadership, character, sportsmanship and the ideals of amateurism. The AAU notes that it goes beyond achievements in sports and honors those who have shown strong moral character. Since it was first presented in 1930 to Robert T. Jones Jr., the Sullivan Award has been given to only one other golfer, Lawson Little Jr., who captured both the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur in consecutive years (1934, 1935) in what was known as the “Little Slam.” As USGA staff writer David Shefter discovered in 2008 when Little’s family donated his Sullivan Award to the USGA Museum, this was the award Little held in the highest esteem. This year is the 75th anniversary of the completion of the “Little Slam” and of Little’s Sullivan Award honor.

By David Shefter, USGA

Of all the pieces of silver W. Lawson Little Jr. collected over his brilliant golf career, the one trophy he cherished the most was not directly earned on the course.

Little won six national championships, including back-to-back U.S. and British Amateur crowns in 1934 and 1935 to win what has been called “The Little Slam.” Little also won the 1936 Canadian Open and the 1940 U.S. Open. However, it was the 1935 Sullivan Award that he treasured more than any.

Given annually to the outstanding American amateur athlete, the Sullivan has been called the “Oscar” of sports awards. The award, named for the founder and past president of the Amateur Athletic Union, honors not only excellence on the field, but sportsmanship, integrity, leadership and high ideals of amateurism off it. Little beat out reigning Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody, fellow golf champion Glenna Collett Vare, track star Percy Beard, swimming standout Jack Medica, pole vaulter Keith Brown, sprint marvel Eulace Peacock, national tennis champion Helen Jacobs and record swimmer Lenore Kight Wingard in a vote by 600 tribunal leaders within the AAU.

Bob Jones was the first recipient of the Sullivan Award in 1930, and in the ensuing years such luminaries as Carl Lewis, “Doc” Blanchard, Bill Bradley, Wilma Rudolph, Mark Spitz, Bill Walton, Bruce Jenner, Greg Louganis, Michelle Kwan and Tim Tebow, who received the honor for 2007, have won it. Little remains the last golfer to win the award, something that was not lost on his four children.

“In the mid-1950s, I was probably 8 or 9 and my [three sisters] were a little older, and around that time, my dad got us together and told us what [the Sullivan Award] meant to him,” said Lawson Little III, his only son. “To him, it meant integrity, character and sportsmanship. As he gave us this little talk, he said, ‘I’ve won six national titles, but this is what I treasure the most because you don’t win it; you are honored by what you did and who you are.’ ”

Little III and his sisters saw the trophy every day. Since their father’s death in 1968 from a heart condition, they have passed it along to each other. But on April 25, the family donated the Sullivan Award to the USGA Museum and the new Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, which will formally open on June 3.

Ron Read, the USGA director for regional affairs in the West Region, organized a special ceremony at Almaden Country Club in San Jose, Calif., where Little III formally presented the Sullivan to USGA President Jim Vernon. A contingent of USGA “family members” – local committee people – also were at the ceremony, which featured an emotional speech from Little III. Monica Lynne Gangi, a regional affairs committee member from Monte Sereno, Calif., was instrumental in getting Almaden C.C. to serve as the site for the ceremony.

Vernon said it has become the highlight of his presidency, which formally began in February.
“Before this it was my short little speech at the Amateur Dinner at the Masters,” said Vernon, who, like Little Jr., is a Stanford University graduate. “That was something I will never forget. It was a thrill for me to be there to accept that award.”

Soon the Sullivan Award trophy will be permanently displayed in the USGA Museum with the medal Jones received for being the first Sullivan recipient (it wasn't a trophy in 1930).

“Dad has always had the ultimate respect for the USGA as the guardian of the game,” said Little III. “Even though this is not a trophy that the USGA created or gave out, it’s something that he thought symbolized the same principles of the USGA of integrity and sportsmanship. For that reason, dad and mom always wanted it to eventually end up at the USGA.”

Little III’s sister Linda, who lives in Florida, plans to attend the June 3 grand opening of the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History.

“The Sullivan Award has only been won by two golfers, and now we have both of those awards,” said Vernon. “In one case it’s a medallion and in the other it’s a really neat trophy. The achievement itself is remarkable. The fact that we have both of the awards in the [USGA] Museum is pretty significant.

“We get so caught up in the Heisman Trophy and other awards in higher-profile sports and you lose track of the Sullivan Award and the kind of people who have won it over the years. He was awarded it not just for something he did, but for the way he conducted himself.”

When great American amateur players are discussed, the names of Jones and Tiger Woods often come up. Jones is remembered for winning the “Grand Slam” in 1930 and capturing nine overall USGA titles, while Woods won six consecutive USGA amateur titles – three U.S. Juniors (1991-93) and three U.S. Amateurs (1994-96), a feat never before accomplished.

W. Lawson Little Jr. belongs in that discussion as well. The fact that he flourished after Jones might have something to do with his omission. But in 1934 and 1935, he won 32 consecutive matches – 31 coming in the U.S. and British Amateurs and one in singles at the 1934 Walker Cup Match. No other player has ever won both the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur in consecutive years.

Jones’ lone British Amateur win came in 1930 when he took the “Slam.” Little’s 14-and-13 triumph over Jack Wallace in the ‘34 British Amateur final at Prestwick remains the largest margin of victory in a championship match in the event’s 123-year history. Later that summer, Little pasted David Goldman, 8 and 7, in the U.S. Amateur final at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

The following year, Little defended his British Amateur title at Royal Lytham and St. Annes with a 1-up triumph over Bill Tweddell, and then beat Walter Emery, 4 and 2, at The Country Club in Cleveland, Ohio, for the U.S. Amateur title.

In his 31 consecutive match-play victories at those two championships, only three went the full distance and just one was extended beyond 18 holes.

“He has everything,” Jones once remarked about Little’s play. “He looks to be in a class by himself.”

In a Grantland Rice piece in 1935, the famous sportswriter sat down with Jones and Walter Hagen, two of the greatest champions of that era. Upon seeing Little, Hagen said, “There in my opinion goes one of the all-time great champions of golf. I’ll give you the real slant on Little. He can concentrate on every shot all day long.”

Said Jones: “That’s the big point. I used to think I was a hard worker through a tournament and you were too, Hagen. But Lawson is the hardest worker I ever saw.”

Little chose not to defend his titles in 1936. Instead he turned pro and promptly won the ‘36 Canadian Open, shooting a tournament-record 271. But because the PGA of America had a rule at the time that players had to work five years in a shop before joining the PGA Tour, Little could not officially compete in tour events until 1940. So he accepted $10,000 from Spalding to tour the country with Jones, Horton Smith and Jimmy Thompson, giving clinics to people who otherwise could not afford to play the game. In those days, that was a huge sum of money, considering Little’s first-place check for winning the ‘40 U.S. Open was just $1,000 and the total purse was $6,000.

After his touring duties ended, Little joined the PGA Tour in 1940. That year he won the Los Angeles Open by shooting a final-round 65 in a driving rain storm. Later that summer, he beat Gene Sarazen in a playoff for the U.S. Open title at Canterbury Country Club in Cleveland. The playoff might have had a third participant, but Ed “Porky” Oliver was disqualified along with five other players for starting the final round too early because they saw a storm coming and wanted to finish. Despite pleas from Little to allow Oliver in the playoff, the USGA remained steadfast in its decision.

After the Open, some newspaper reporters lobbied for Little to play Oliver in a match. Despite having nothing to gain and everything to lose, Little showed his sportsmanship by agreeing to play Oliver. He wound up beating his fellow pro.

Beginnings

Little was born in Newport, R.I., on June 23, 1910, but he moved around a lot as a child because his father was a colonel in the Army Medical Corps. He also spent part of his childhood in China and the Philippines, but his parents eventually settle in San Francisco, where Little came under the tutelage of Larry Brazil at The Presidio. Nicknamed “Cannonball” and often described as “bullnecked and barrel-chested,” the 200-pound Little generated tremendous power despite standing only 5 feet, 9 inches. In 1929, he beat Johnny Goodman in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach just a day after Goodman stunned reigning champion Jones in the first round.

For all his strength, Little had an expert short game. He used a variety of clubs around the green, and in fact often carried as many as seven wedges among his 26 clubs, a preponderance which in 1938 prompted the USGA to institute the 14-club limit.

At Stanford University, Little was no better than No. 3 man on the golf team. Nevertheless, he made his mark in key amateur competitions. He was named to the 1934 Walker Cup team that competed at St. Andrews and it was that trip which enabled him to compete in the British Amateur. In the ‘34 final before 6,000 mostly Scottish spectators at historic Prestwick, Little posted a course-record 66 in the morning, with the usual match-play concessions, and was 12 up at the lunch break. Of the 23 holes played, Little had a dozen 3s on his card.

At the 1935 U.S. Amateur, Little was the equivalent of 19 under par over 156 holes and never scored higher than a 5 on any hole.

Some equated Little’s brilliant course management and mental fortitude to that of the great Ben Hogan. One sportswriter of the time said Little examined a course as if it were a stormy sea to be chartered. Little often told reporters, “It’s impossible to outplay an opponent you can’t out-think.”

A series of heart ailments forced Little from the game in the early 1950s, but his legacy in the game had long been established by then.

Little III briefly tried to follow in his dad’s footsteps, qualifying for the 1970 Los Angeles Open as an amateur and then trying the mini-tour circuit with – pardon the pun – little success.

“I scratched the itch in the early ‘70s,” said Little III. “I discovered that championship golf is not inheritable.”

Twelve years after his death, Little Jr. was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Wrote sportswriter Charles Price about his amateur career, “Lawson Little was the greatest match player in the history of golf.”

David Shefter is a staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.

Given annually to the outstanding American amateur athlete, the Sullivan has been called the “Oscar” of sports awards. The award, named for the founder and past president of the Amateur Athletic Union, honors not only excellence on the field, but sportsmanship, integrity, leadership and high ideals of amateurism off it. (USGA Museum)