From the Golf Journal Archives - Sudden Death

Aug 06, 2011

No one could explain how J. Douglas Edgar won by record-breaking margins, wrote a visionary instruction book – or died.

By Ian Cruickshank

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)

The night of August 8, 1921, started out no different than any other. But as J. Douglas Edgar arrived home late that night, he met a tragic, and fatal, fate. It is certain that he collapsed to the ground and bled profusely, but if he cried for help, his pleas went unheard or unheeded. He died at the scene.

Druid Hills, the Atlanta club where Edgar was the professional, immediately posted a $500 reward for any information leading to the arrest of Edgar’s killer, but no clues were ever discovered. To this day, three quarters of a century later, the person(s) responsible for Edgar’s death, and the details surrounding that night, remain a mystery. What is clear is that on the night, golf lost one of its most colorful and amazing characters.

In the years that have passed since Edgar’s death, his contributions to the game have been buried – unfairly so – deep in golf’s archives. For J. Douglas Edgar was more that a brilliant player. He helped pioneer the development of the modern swing, created golfing slang that is still used today and set a winning margin in championship play that even Tiger Woods will have trouble touching.

To get a sense of Edgar’s rightful place in golf history, all you need to do is check the quotes of the legends who knew him. Harry Vardon once said of Edgar: “This is the man who will one day be the greatest of us all.” In 1960 Tommy Armour wrote an article for Golf Magazine in which he praised Edgar as the father of the modern-day golf swing. “He is one of the many great players I took lessons from,” Armour said, “but he was undoubtedly the greatest of them all and taught me the most.” Bob Jones considered Edgar the man responsible for inventing the inside-out swing and felt that if Edgar’s life hadn’t been cut short, he would have continued to develop innovative golfing ideas.

John Douglas Edgar was born on September 30, 1884, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a coal-fueled, industrial city located in the northeast corner of England. Edgar came from a modest background and left school early for a career as a caddie, eventually working his way up to the post of professional at Northumberland Golf Club. Like the rest of his education, Edgar’s golf game was mostly self-taught and right from the beginning he was unique. Edgar often spoke about being able “to talk to the ball” and loved the sensation of working it any way he wanted. To sharpen his iron play, Edgar invented a drill at the racetrack that adjoined the golf course. There he’d hook and slice his long irons around the turns of the track and with his short irons pitch the ball over and under the rails.

Not a lot is known about Edgar’s days in England, but what’s available comes from the writings of M.R. Phillipson, a member at Northumberland and the man who helped publish Edgar’s golf writings. Phillipson described Edgar as rather stout, small and heavily put together, and of his friend’s temperament he said, “Edgar was a very pleasing companion. Always more apt to be laughing and joking and seldom dour. Edgar played golf with a smile and a jest and lived his life in the same way.”

Off the course, Edgar’s passion was his family, especially his young son whom he nicknamed Burglar. When the family would go on after-dinner walks and forget to bring along the front door key, young Burglar was expected to crawl through the window and pass out the key.

Edgar’s wife supported her husband’s career, but even she could only take so much of his obsession with finding the perfect swing. According to Phillipson, “One day Doug told me he suddenly thought of some movement in the middle of the night, so he jumped out of bed, seized a poker and tried out a new swing. Result was an angry voice from his wife, ‘Get back to bed, you fool.’ ”

Edgar continually tinkered and experimented with new ideas and club members were in awe of his ball-striking skills. Phillipson wrote of Edgar’s game, “Douglas was never exceptionally long but exasperatingly steady when playing well and never played a loose shot. His iron play was his strongest feature, and he liked to hit a low flight ball in his punch shot, with a great deal of backspin. I should say complete control of the ball was perhaps the key to his game.”

Edgar was a late bloomer when it came to tournament play, and it wasn’t until he was nearly 30 that he started making an impact on the larger events. In 1914 he won the French Open, leading the tournament from start to finish. The French was then an important title and previously had been won by players such as Arnaud Massy and five-time British Open champions James Braid and J.H. Taylor. In that same year Edgar also won the Northumberland and Durham Professional title in the north of England.

But by the end of August, golf was over for Edgar. When Britain and Germany went to war, he joined the army and spent most of the next four years in the trenches of France. When he left the service in 1918, like dozens of other Scottish and English golf professionals, he decided that it was time to try life in the New World. He gathered up his family and moved to Atlanta, taking up the job of head professional at Druid Hills.

Despite the long layoff, Edgar showed glimpses of his golfing genius. When the PGA Championship, then a match-play event, was held at Flossmoor Country Club in Illinois in 1920, Edgar fought his way to the finals against Jock Hutchison before a lazy three-putt on the 34th hole cost him his first major title.

The top golf writers of the time certainly noticed the English expatriate. In a column for Vanity Fair, Grantland Rice said of Edgar, “He is a golfer who is fitted in every way, except temperament, for championship laurels.” Joe Williams of The World-Telegram Sun, a New York daily, described Edgar as medium-sized and slender. “He was rather an odd one; jubilant and morose by turns. When the mood was on him, he could tear apart any golf course that was ever built.”

Williams’ description of Edgar differs from Phillipson’s portrait, which suggests that Edgar’s war experiences may have altered the golfer.

Where Edgar really shone, though, was in Canada, especially at the 1919 Canadian Open. Going into the championship, the favorite was “Big” Jim Barnes, a transplanted Cornishman playing out of Sunset Country Club in St. Louis. Barnes, who was famous for his length off the tee, had won the inaugural PGA Championship in 1916 and later in his career would go on to beat Walter Hagen by nine strokes to take the U.S. Open of 1921. The week before coming to Canada, Barnes captured the Western Open title.

The other player the press was keying on was Jones, who was being dubbed “the boy wonder from Atlanta.” Jones was just 17 years old at the time of the tournament and it would be his first and only trip to the Canadian Open.

That year’s championship was held at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club, a Harry Colt-designed course located about 40 miles west of Toronto. The Hamilton layout featured elevated tees and greens, uneven lies and particularly penal bunkers. In a radio broadcast in 1943, Jones spoke about the tournament and recalled that he and Barnes had arrived about a week before the championship to get some practice in at the course. According to Jones, Edgar never left his hotel room until the afternoon before the Open and then only to hit three or four iron shots. Edgar explained to Jones that his hands felt thin, a mystical sensation that let him know that he was in possession of his “A” game and no further practice was needed. The “thin hands” expression soon became a standard phrase in the golfing lexicon.

The tournament was a 72-hole, two-day event and during Tuesday morning’s opening round, the wind howled. The only golfer to successfully quell the gale-force winds was Jones, who shot a 1-under-par 71 to take the tournament lead. By the afternoon, though, the momentum had shifted to Edgar, who finished the day with a 143, placing him four strokes ahead of the field. Wednesday morning dawned bright and still and Edgar revealed just how thin his hands really felt. He shot a 69 to pad his lead to nine, which compelled Canadian Golfer Magazine to write, “There was an ominous rumour that he would not be able to keep up his wonderful winning gait. But starting the final round full of confidence the brilliant Britisher soon put a quietus on all such silly chatter.”

Instead of sitting on his lead and playing it safe, Edgar pushed the edges of the golfing envelope and at one point during the final round had a run of 3-4-2-3-3. He scorched the front nine with a 32 and added a 34 on the back for a 66 and total of 278, an astounding 16 strokes ahead of second-place finishers Jones, Barnes and Canadian Karl Keffer. The King Kong-sized winning margin is still a record for an Open championship and his total of 278 wasn’t bettered in a national competition until 1948, when Ben Hogan shot 276 to win the U.S. Open at Riviera. Edgar’s two rounds in the 60s on the same day was another competitive record.

Describing Edgar as “that strange and fascinating Englishman,” Jones went on to say, “What a round that 66 was. I watched most of it, and Douglas was simply playing tricks with the ball, bending it out of bounds to make it come in with a great run towards the green on a dogleg hole.”

Edgar returned again to Canada in 1920 to defend his title, this time at the Rivermead Golf Club in Ottawa. His hands weren’t quite as thin as the summer before, but he had enough to tie for first with Canadian Charlie Murray and Tommy Armour, who at the time was still an amateur and living in Edinburgh.

The playoff was a full 18 holes and Armour forged an early lead, but he squandered his advantage at the 17th when he hooked two drives out of bounds. Playing steady golf, Edgar won the championship by a stroke to collect a prize of $300.

It’s not quite clear when Armour and Edgar first met. One newspaper clipping suggests it was at Pinehurst and another says it was Canada. Wherever it was, there was an instant connection and camaraderie. Armour obviously respected Edgar’s golfing knowledge and appreciated his eccentricities. Another link may have been their battle experiences. When World War I broke out, Armour enlisted in the Royal Scots Regiment as a machine gunner, later shifting to the newly formed British Army Tanks Corps. His courage was quickly recognized and he was decorated for heroism, earned a battlefield commission and rose to the rank of major. Part of the Armour legend is that the Scot once strangled an enemy tank commander with his bare hands.

His war, though, came to an abrupt end during the Battle of Ypres when his tank was slammed by heavy shelling and sprayed with a dose of poisonous mustard gas. Armour was blinded by the gas and his shoulder was peppered with shards of shrapnel. He eventually recovered the sight in his right eye.

As part of his therapy, Armour threw himself into golf, and he claimed that his days with Edgar were responsible for his later success. It’s worth remembering that Armour’s record included wins in the U.S. and British Opens, a PGA Championship and the title of best iron player in the game. Armour was also considered the finest teacher of his generation.

IN JULY 1921, the Royal Canadian Golf Association expected Edgar to journey north and attempt to become the first player ever to win its Open three times in a row. However, Edgar never showed up for the tournament and the RCGA later found out from golfer Macdonald Smith that Edgar had decided to move back to Britain earlier that year. He played in that summer’s British Open at St. Andrews and then returned to Atlanta to finish out his contract at Druid Hills.

The news took a more disturbing turn a few weeks later when the Atlanta police reported Edgar’s unsolved death. The details were murky but all of them dramatic, and the newspapers reported more than one theory surrounding Edgar’s demise.

By one account, Edgar was hit by a drunk driver who failed to stop after the accident. A second version claims that Edgar died from a deep cut on his inner left thigh and that he was probably a victim of a mugging.

The headline in one Atlanta newspaper reported in part, “Cut on Edgar’s Leg Mystifies Doctor,” but the story noted testimony in an inquest of several witnesses, all of whom supported the hit-and-run theory. The opening two paragraphs in another story, this one published on Aug. 14, 1921, stated, “That Douglas Edgar, Druid Hills golf professional, southern and Canadian Open champion and known throughout the country as one of the world’s best professional golfers, who was found dying early Tuesday morning in front of his home on West Peachtree Street, met his death as the result of foul play, and not by an accident, was the theory made public Saturday night by Detective Chief Lamar Poole, who is directing the investigation into Mr. Edgar’s death.

“We have combed the city thoroughly,” Chief Poole stated Saturday night, “and we have been unable to find any automobile which could inflict a wound similar to that which caused the death of Mr. Edgar. He must have been killed by someone with whom he had had some difficulty.” Although the story presented the possibility of evidence leading to a scuffle near the location where Edgar died, it also discussed the wounds on his body – injuries that mystified investigators.

“The only wounds found on Mr. Edgar were a cut about an inch long, about three inches above the left knee, which severed the femoral artery, and a few minor bruises about the legs and hips...” the newspaper stated. “Mr. Edgar was last seen alive Monday night about 11:30 o’clock by L.L. Shivers, with whom he had dined and played bridge until about 11 o’clock. Mr. Shivers then took Mr. Edgar to within 200 feet of his home, leaving him to cross West Peachtree street, and enter his boarding house. That was the last time Mr. Shivers saw Mr. Edgar alive, and it was the last time any known person saw him. It was some time after 12 o’clock Tuesday morning when Mr. Edgar was found lying in a pool of blood on West Peachtree street. Surely it did not take him thirty minutes or more to simply walk across West Peachtree street.”

The day before, the Atlanta police said it was “not at all certain Mr. Edgar met his death in front of a speeding motor car.”

In another twist, Tommy Wilson, Edgar’s assistant at Druid Hills, claimed that he had found Edgar moments before his death and that his friend had died in his arms.

An extra layer of sadness was added to the story a few months later when Edgar’s close friend, Louis Tellier, committed suicide. Tellier, a native of France, was the professional at prestigious Brae Burn Club in Boston and earlier in the fall had won the Massachusetts Open, According to Mrs. Tellier, her husband never came to terms with Edgar’s death, often imagining that Doug was still with him and carried on animated conversations with his departed friend. On his 35th birthday, the depressed Tellier hung himself from a beam in a summer house at Brae Burn.

The deaths of Edgar and Tellier shocked the close-knit golfing community. The only thread of consolation was that in the year before his death, Edgar had committed his golf theories to paper and produced a book, The Gate to Golf. It was a slim volume, just 61 pages of text and photographs, but it was full of photographs of Edgar explaining his teachings.

The book emphasized Edgar’s belief on left-side dominance. “Left eye, left side, left hand,” said Edgar of the importance of hitting the ball from inside out. “The manner in which the clubhead meets the ball is the essential part of the golf swing,” wrote Edgar. “It is in the two or three feet immediately before and after impact where the real business takes place; it is there that the master stroke is made and the duffer’s shot marred, and it is to this part of the swing that I am referring when I speak of the movement.” Once the golfer learned the movement, “It has the exhilarating effect of champagne without the after-effects,” promised Edgar.

Edgar was also an early proponent of the power of positive thinking. “It is up to you not to allow the ball to intimidate and beat you, nor allow its personality to overpower you,” said Edgar. “The ball is only an incident that lies in the way of the swing. Eliminate it, disregard it altogether if you can.”

His book is occasionally tinged with mysticism. “Golf is truly a goddess and must be wooed accordingly, with due meakness and humility, but at the same time with boldness and determination,” he said.

But what really shines through in The Gate to Golf is Edgar’s devotion to the game and his sense of responsibility for spreading the gospel. It is truly unfortunate that he did not live long enough to see his prophecy through.

Edgar was emerging as a renowned champion on both sides of the Atlantic when he died in 1921. (USGA Museum)

After World War I Edgar tried his fortunes in the U.S., becoming an example both on the course and off (here subscribing to a Boy Scouts Drive). (USGA Museum)

Edgar finished in a tie for 21st in the 1919 U.S. Open at Brae Burn. (USGA Museum)