From the Golf Journal Archives - The Little Slam

Sep 10, 2010

Fifty years ago Lawson Little won both the United States and British Amateur Championships and then won them both again the following year.

By Richard Miller

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1984 issue of Golf Journal.)

TO EXCEL IN MATCH PLAY requires a special strength of character and competitiveness, for match play ranks among the more nerve-wrenching exercises in sport. Each hole is its own small drama, demanding from a player that he be better than his opponent every day if he is to survive. The pressure can be draining.

Some players have thrived in this atmosphere to such an extent that they were nearly unbeatable. Lawson Little was among them. When he entered a match play competition, he was a forbidding and fearless golfer who wanted not merely to win but to dominate the match so completely that he would leave no doubt of who was the better player. For two years, in the middle 1930s, there was not a better amateur golfer anywhere in the world than W. Lawson Little, Jr.

In 1929, at the age of 19, he played in his first United States Amateur Championship, at Pebble Beach, on the Monterey Peninsula of California, the first time the Amateur was played west of the Mississippi River. Little won his first match, defeating Phillips Finlay, 1 up. The surprise of that first round, however, was supplied by Johnny Goodman, then a little-known player from Omaha, Neb., who eliminated Bob Jones, 1 up. It was a stunning upset. Jones had won four Amateurs, two British Opens, and, in June, had won his third United States Open. This was the first time since he was 14 that Jones failed to reach the third round in the Amateur.

Such are the vagaries of match play, when momentum may shift quickly from one player to another. In the afternoon round, Little beat Goodman, 2 and 1. Thus, for a time, Little was known as the man who beat the man who beat Bob Jones.

For more than a decade thereafter, Goodman and Little would make golf history. In 1937, Goodman won the Amateur, but he became most famous in 1933 when he won the U.S. Open. He remains the last amateur to win the Open. In 1940, Little, who had by then turned professional, also won the Open – but his reputation is based on his accomplishments as an amateur.

THIS YEAR is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of one of the great achievements in golf. In 1934 and 1935, Little won successive United States and British Amateur Championships. In all, he won 31 consecutive matches (32 if you count a Walker Cup match).

The magnitude of this achievement ranks among the highest in golf.

Little’s record is impressive; 25 of the 31 matches were played at 18 holes, where the slightest lapse of concentration could cause a loss. In all but one round, Little was scheduled to play two 18-hole matches or one 36-hole match each day, adding the ingredient of fatigue. Yet, only three times in the 31 matches did he have to go the full distance, and only once was he pushed to extra holes.

In winning the 1934 British Amateur, Little defeated Jimmy Wallace, 14 and 13, a record that still stands. In the 1935 U.S. Amateur, at The Country Club, in Cleveland, Ohio, he was 19 strokes under par for 156 holes, and he did not score higher than 5 on any hole.

In 1935, Little was awarded the James E. Sullivan award as the best amateur athlete in the United States. He remains the only golfer to receive it other than Jones, in 1930. Little was 25 at the time, and he was four academic quarters away from a social science degree from Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif.

TO LITTLE, championship golf was mostly mental combat. He ranked with Hogan as one of the best managers of his game. Painstakingly, he examined each course as if it were a stormy sea to be charted; he mapped out precisely where each shot must be made. Greens at par-3s received the closest examination. He seldom bogeyed par 3s. Little once remarked, “The man who doesn’t play out every shot to the very top of his capacity for thought can’t attain championship form. I say this without reservation whatsoever. It’s impossible to outplay an opponent you can’t out-think.”

Combative, mentally tough, self-reliant, and ruthless, Little conveyed the impression that he might have been born and bred on an Army parade ground. It was close; Little was born on June 23, 1910, at Fort Adams, R.I. Colonel Lawson Little, his father, was a surgeon, and he shared a love of golf with his wife, Evelyn Baldwin Ryall Little, and their son.

Young Lawson had a rootless childhood; his father was transferred repeatedly to military posts throughout the world, such as Manila, in the Philippine Islands, and Tientsin, China.

Indeed, the golf course in Tientsin had a macabre local rule; the ball could be lifted without penalty from an open grave. The course at the Army post cut through a Manchu cemetery, in which the burial custom demanded that coffins be left on the ground so that the departed would gradually sink into the soil, a process that took more than a decade.

When Little was 12, his father was transferred to the Vancouver Barracks, in the state of Washington. It was there that Little’s ruthless, aggressive, and tenacious style of play developed. His golfing companion was a boy four years older than young Lawson; the companion was larger, stronger, and able to hit the ball farther, and he often goaded and taunted young Little, who was forced to go all out to keep up.

After three years, Little caught up with his older friend as a player, but the scars and torment never healed. Later, he advised boys to put all their strength into every shot. “When they become good enough to enter tournaments,” he said, “they can cut down on their power for greater accuracy and still get distance.”

In 1927, Colonel Little was transferred for the final time, to the Presidio, in San Francisco. In 1928 and 1930, Little won the Northern California Amateur. In 1930, also, he entered Stanford University, but, like Tom Watson many years later, he failed to distinguish himself in intercollegiate golf, seldom playing higher than third on the Stanford golf team.

It wasn’t until 1933 that Little made it past the second round in the Amateur. That year, he defeated Maurice McCarthy, a member of the 1932 United States Walker Cup Team, 2 and 1, and Little also beat Ross Sommerville, the defending champion, 2 and 1. In the quarterfinals, Little lost to George Dunlap, 4 and 3. It was the last match that Little would lose in amateur competition.

On the strength of his play in the 1933 Amateur, Little was selected for the 1934 Walker Cup Team that would play the British and Irish side on the Old Course, in St. Andrews, Scotland. During the week of practice, Little’s play improved steadily. He drove long and straight, and putted beautifully. He seemed tapped for destiny.

Francis Ouimet, the team captain, decided to lead off the foursomes matches with Little and Johnny Goodman. They defeated Roger Wethered and Cyril Tolley, 8 and 6. As the Number 2 man in singles play, Little beat Tolley, 6 and 5. Tolley was 14 years older than Little and vastly more experienced. The United States won, 9-2.

THE FOLLOWING WEEK, the British Amateur was played over the Prestwick Golf Club. In the cold, windy first round, Little eliminated R.W. Ripley, 3 and 1. Little did not have to go the distance until his semifinal match, when he defeated Leslie Garnett on the 19th hole.

Jimmy Wallace was Little’s opponent in the final. Wallace, a fine golfer from Troon, had all of western Scotland rooting for him. Well they should have; en route to the final match, he defeated five Walker Cup players, including Americans Chandler Egan and George Dunlap, and Britons Tolley, Eric Fiddian, and Jack McLean. Could Wallace become the first Scot to win the British Amateur since J.L.C. Jenkins, in 1914?

More than 6,000 Scots swarmed over Prestwick that Saturday morning to cheer their countryman. Their cheers were like blowing reveille in a graveyard. Little was awesome. Bernard Darwin wrote of Little’s play in The Times of London: “It’s certain that such golf has never been seen in an amateur championship before, and I very much doubt whether such golf has ever, been seen anywhere or ever will be seen as long as the world shall stand.”

Little won, 14 and 13, a record margin. He didn’t lose a hole. In the morning round, he set an unofficial course record of 65 (match-play scores are not considered official, often involving conceded shots). Through 23 holes, Little was 10 under 4s.

In September, 185 amateurs converged on The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass. It was the largest Amateur field to that time, and it was the first time an all-match play championship was played. There was no stroke-play qualifying.

Little continued his spectacular play, and he was not forced the distance in any of his matches. He defeated Willie Turnesa in the fifth round, 3 and 2, and, in the final, he defeated David Goldman, of Texas, 8 and 7. Little did not three-putt in the final.

LITTLE APPEARED uneasy at the beginning of the 1935 British Amateur, at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, in western England. In the first round he shot 80, but T.H. Parker, his opponent, played worse, and Little finally won, 1 up, on the 18th. He settled down, however, and his golf was so overpowering that until the final, not one of his opponents was able to take him to the 18th green.

In that final match, Little met Dr. William Tweddell, who had won the 1927 British Amateur and was as tenacious a player as Little. Little won the first three holes, and after that, the match was really on. Little retained his three-hole lead after the first 18 holes, but Tweddell won the first two holes in the afternoon to move within one hole. With three holes to play, Little was 2 up. They halved the 16th, but Little lost a stroke at the 17th to go back to 1 up. It looked like Little would bogey the 18th when he pushed his drive and his ball settled into a half-buried lie.

Little then played a club he had never used in competition – a half-soled, 23-ounce 9-iron. His shot barely cleared a greenside bunker, stopping 40 feet from the flagstick. Little got down in two putts, and when Tweddell failed to hole a 16-foot putt for a birdie, Little won, 1 up. Little became the only American to win successive British Amateurs – a distinction he still holds – and he was the first player to do this since Harold Hilton, in 1900 and 1901. Yet, Little was in a brooding mood. Privately, he told his friend Dan Topping that “I’m going back to Chicago to have Tommy Armour help me control my drives.”

After Armour’s lessons, Little launched himself on a pre-U.S. Amateur regimen of jogging three miles each morning and playing from 27 to 36 holes daily. Little, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, looked like “an Andalusian yearling bull,” according to one reporter, and he also had the stamina of an elk.

The 1935 Amateur began September 9 at The Country Club, near Cleveland, and a record field of 201 was on hand.

IN THE FIRST ROUND, Little faced Rufus King, who, at 14, had won the Grand American Handicap trap-shooting championship. King was 3 up after five holes. Little squared matters by the 10th hole and won, 3 and 1. Little did not have to play past the 15th hole until the semifinals. He won one match, 6 and 4, and another, 6 and 5.

Little met Johnny Goodman in the 36-hole semifinals. Both played fine golf. Little was 2 up in the forenoon 18, but Goodman scored 32 over the first nine of the afternoon. That wonderful burst won him only two holes; Little shot 34. Calling on a seemingly inexhaustible reserve, Little then scored four birdies in the next six holes to win, 4 and 3.

The final match was even more dramatic. Little met Walter Emery, a law student from the University of Oklahoma. Emery won the first three holes, and Little did not square the match until the 18th of the morning round. As the final 18 holes began, Little played more deliberately, carefully mapping out each shot. He was 3 up with eight to play. Emery then won two holes, only to lose two to Little. On the 16th, a 520-yard par-5, Little went for the green in two. From 235 yards, he faded a brassie shot, and the ball stopped 16 feet right of the flagstick.

Emery, a fighter, had played his second shot short, but laid a magnificent pitch shot a foot and a half from the hole. But the man who could play matches so well then struck his last shot in a national Amateur; he holed his putt for an eagle to win, 4 and 2, and pull off a second
Little Slam.

Bob Jones, who had witnessed the match, said, “Lawson Little shot the finest golf today that I’ve ever seen in an amateur championship.”

IN 1936, Lawson Little turned professional and married Dorothy Hurd, of Chicago. Over the next three years, Little won the Canadian Open, Shawnee Open, and the San Francisco Match Play.

In 1940, the United States Open was played at the Canterbury Golf Club, near Cleveland. Stormy weather frequently interrupted play. In fact, six players were disqualified for beginning their final rounds ahead of schedule to avoid a storm.

Little played well, however, in the wind and rain, finishing at 287, one under par. Gene Sarazen, then 38 years old and sporting his familiar plus-fours, played the final nine in 34 to tie Little. In the 18-hole playoff, Little defeated Sarazen, 70 to 73, Little had then won six national championships – the Open, two British and two American Amateurs, and the Canadian Open.

Little would go on to win the Los Angeles Open, Texas Open, Inverness Four-Ball, and the St. Petersburg Open.

On February 1, 1968, Little died of a heart condition. Appropriately, he lived during his final 15 years in Pebble Beach, a stretch of land as unique, rugged, and dramatic as the man himself.

Lawson Little was a powerful player who was convinced that you must out-think an opponent if you are to have any hope of outplaying him. (USGA Museum)

Little’s strength was combined successfully with an aggressive style that earned him successive British and United States Amateur Championships in 1934 and 1935. (USGA Museum)