Museum Moment: The Vardon Flyer Golf Ball Box

Oct 07, 2010

By Robert Alvarez, USGA

Englishman Harry Vardon captured his first and only U.S. Open Championship 110 years ago, claiming a one-stroke victory over contemporary rival J.H. Taylor at the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill. In addition to his U.S. championship in 1900, Vardon won the British Open Championship six times: in 1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911 and 1914. Vardon was the dominant force in the game for many years before Bob Jones’ rise to supremacy in both national and international competitions.

One of nine children of a gardener, Vardon came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1870 on the British island of Jersey, a Channel Island that lies between England and France. One could say that golf found young Harry, when in 1877 a group of English gentlemen was given permission to construct a golf course on the island’s common land. This became Royal Jersey Golf Club, where Vardon got his first taste of the game, as a caddie who was allowed to play the course from time to time.

The tiny island of Jersey produced a number of excellent late 19th- and early 20th-century champions. Ted Ray, like Vardon, hailed from Jersey and found success in both the United States and British Open championships. Vardon’s schoolmaster was the father of Aubrey Boomer, best known for winning the French Open in 1921, 1922, 1926, 1929 and 1931, and Percy Boomer, a highly regarded teaching professional. Lastly, Vardon’s younger brother, Tom, was a fine player and instructor.

Harry apprenticed as a gardener and in his spare time he would play golf, often in the evening. Tom Vardon had left Jersey and taken a position as an instructor, and he eventually convinced his older brother to join him on the mainland, where Harry blossomed as a professional and won his first British Open in 1896.

In 1903, Vardon would endure one of the most frustrating events of his life. He was stricken with tuberculosis, and had no choice other than to enter a sanatorium for treatment. Doctors took away Vardon’s favorite possessions – his pipe and his golf clubs, and prescribed a prolonged period of rest.

Noted golf writer Herbert Warren Wind described Vardon’s talents in a 1957 Sports Illustrated article. According to Wind, Vardon was the straightest player who ever lived. So accurate was the Englishman that when he first visited the United States in 1900, a mythological story claimed that Vardon never liked to play the same course twice in the same day; on his afternoon round he would have had to play out of the divot marks he had made that morning.

Vardon’s accuracy could partly be attributed to his ability to hit the golf ball on the upswing, as was common for players of the gutta-percha era. The successful player “swept” the ball off the ground and dropped it softly near his target.

Vardon won his early championships using the gutta-percha ball, and then successfully transitioned to the modern golf ball, one where an elastic material was wound around a solid rubber core. “The Stylist” as he was known, did not alter his swing, and was observed to just barely graze the surface upon impact, leaving little to no evidence of where he had struck his shot from.

Recognizing his appeal, Spalding Bros. approached Vardon with the idea of marketing a set of clubs modeled after those he used, and also to develop a gutta-percha golf ball bearing his name: the “Vardon Flyer.” In typical early 20th-century fashion, Spalding’s advertisements for the equipment featured a copy of a letter from Vardon endorsing their products.

In 1900, to promote the Vardon line of products, Spalding Bros. sponsored a tour of the United States in which Vardon played numerous exhibition matches at some of the country’s finest golf courses, taking on some of the best competition that America could muster.

While Vardon was extremely successful during his American tour, winning dozens of matches, including the U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club, the tour did little to bolster sales of the Vardon Flyer. Though Vardon may have preferred the gutta-percha golf ball, the golfing public did not, opting instead for the rubber core, or “Haskell” type of ball, which had hit the market two years before the Vardon Flyer.

The USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History displays an original Vardon Flyer golf ball and golf ball box, along with a number of clubs produced by Spalding that bear Vardon’s name. The Museum also has in its collection equipment used by Vardon in the epic 1913 U.S. Open Championship playoff against Ted Ray and upstart American Francis Ouimet, whose victory is detailed in the book and movie “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Robert Alvarez is the collections manager for the USGA Museum. Email him with questions or comments at RAlvarez@usga.org.

Recognizing his appeal, Spalding Bros. approached Vardon with the idea of marketing a set of clubs modeled after those he used, and also to develop a gutta-percha golf ball bearing his name: the “Vardon Flyer.” (USGA Museum)