Gardner Vaulted To Amateur Golf Success

Aug 09, 2012

Two-Time U.S. Amateur Champion Was Olympic Hopeful In 1916

By Robert Alvarez and Michael Trostel

Watching the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, it’s hard not to be impressed by the athletic prowess of all the competitors, from the brilliant routines of the “Fierce Five” American women’s gymnastics team to the gold-medal history made by swimmer Michael Phelps. Golf will end a 112-year absence from the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but that doesn’t mean golfers haven’t tried to compete in the Olympics in other events over the past century. Probably the best-known example is Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who won gold medals in the hurdles and javelin and a silver medal in the high jump during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, before winning the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur and more than 40 professional golf events, including three U.S. Women’s Opens. But Zaharias wasn’t the only golfer to excel at track and field.

In 1916, another American athlete, Robert Abbe Gardner, set his sights on qualifying for the Olympic Games in Berlin. Gardner was a track standout at Yale, and during his senior year he established a pole vaulting record of 13 feet, 1 inch at the National Intercollegiate Championship. The record was set with a bamboo pole – metal and fiberglass would come much later.

Because of World War I, however, Gardner’s hopes of contending for a gold medal in Berlin were dashed. Though the Olympics were cancelled, Gardner could take solace knowing that he was already a two-time national champion in golf, having won the 1909 and 1915 U.S. Amateurs. Though Gardner would never participate in the Olympics, he would go on to finish runner-up in two more U.S. Amateurs (1916 and 1921) and play in four Walker Cup Matches (1922, 1923, 1924, 1926), serving as a playing captain in the last three.

Gardner was born on April 9, 1890, in Hinsdale, Ill., the youngest of Henry A. Gardner’s five children. Henry and his brother James had both played for the University of Chicago’s baseball team, while Robert’s other uncle, William, had been a member of Yale University’s baseball squad. In addition to his own success on the golf course, Robert’s brother Henry won the suburban golf championship of Chicago while his sister, Mrs. W. France Anderson, won the Women’s Western Amateur golf championship at St. Louis Country Club in 1908.

Known to family and friends as “Bobby,” Gardner attended LaGrange High School, where he took a keen interest in the pole vault, while also playing for the school’s golf team and participating in the glee club. At 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, Gardner had an athletic build. His high school talents carried over to his time at Andover (Mass.) Academy and later at Yale University, where he was a member of the track team for four years, serving as captain during his senior year, while also playing golf, racquets (an early version of squash) and singing with the Yale Glee Club.

Gardner was a relative unknown in the world of amateur golf, having first picked up a club at age 10, playing occasionally in high school. That all changed at the 1909 U.S. Amateur at the Chicago Golf Club, where Gardner tied for medalist honors with Chick Evans and Tom Sherman. He defeated past champions Walter Travis and H. Chandler Egan on the way to claiming his first national championship.

Like many other notable champions of this era, Gardner was a businessman first and a golfer second. After graduating from Yale in 1912, he took a position with the securities firm Mitchell Hutchins & Co. of Chicago. He developed a fine portfolio, conducting business on the golf course with his clients while keeping his swing in shape for future competitions. Gardner won the Chicago Open in 1914 and then set his sights on the 1915 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit.

Gardner faced Max Marston in an epic 37-hole semifinal match. Three down with five holes to play, Gardner took advantage of his opponent’s mistakes and capitalized on birdie opportunities to win the match in extra holes. Gardner’s final opponent was John G. Anderson, who would later become editor of The American Golfer magazine. Gardner trailed by one hole after the morning round, but surged in the afternoon to claim a 5-and-4 victory, joining an elite group of players who had won multiple major championships. The Wright & Ditson putter used by Gardner to win the 1915 U.S. Amateur is part of the USGA Museum’s collection and is currently on display in a gallery honoring the champions of “Golf’s Golden Age.”

In 1920, Gardner was appointed to a USGA Rules Committee, which was scheduled to meet with members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews regarding Rules conformity. Following the Rules meetings, Gardner entered the British Amateur Championship and finished runner-up to 24-year-old Oxford University graduate Cyril Tolley, who had served in World War I as a member of the British Tank Corps, was captured in France and spent 13 months as a prisoner of war in Germany.

As a member of the first four USA Walker Cup teams, Gardner compiled a 6-2 record. Calling on his experience as a singer, Gardner even brought together teammates Francis Ouimet, Jess Sweetser, Jimmy Johnston and George Rotan to sing for the crowd after the 1923 presentation ceremony.

Robert Alvarez is the collections manager at the USGA Museum. E-mail him at Michael Trostel is the curator/historian at the USGA Museum. E-mail him at

The Wright & Ditson putter used by Robert A. Gardner to win the 1915 U.S. Amateur is part of the USGA Museum’s collections and is currently on display in a gallery honoring the champions of “Golf’s Golden Age.” (USGA Museum)

In addition to his accomplishments in golf, Gardner established a pole vaulting record of 13 feet, 1 inch at the National Intercollegiate Championship while a student at Yale. Had it not been for World War I forcing the cancellation of the Olympic Games, Gardner could have contended for a medal in track and field. (USGA Museum)

Gardner won two U.S. Amateur titles (1909 and 1915) and finished runner-up twice. He was also a member of four USA Walker Cup Teams and served as a playing captain three times. (USGA Museum)