Golfer Willie Anderson, First 4-Time U.S. Open Champ

Golfer Willie Anderson
Born in Scotland, Willie Anderson became the first golf star in the United States. From the late 1800s until his untimely death in 1910, Anderson won big tournaments and set new records. He was the first golfer to win the U.S. Open four times, and remains the only golfer who has won it three consecutive years. Anderson also was the first golfer to finish below 300 in a 72-hole pro tournament.

Full name: William Law Anderson

Date of birth: October 21, 1879

Place of birth: North Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland

Date and place of death: October 25, 1910 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

List of Anderson's Wins

  • 1899 Southern California Open
  • 1900 Coronado (Calif.) Tournament
  • 1900 Pacific Coast Open Championship
  • 1901 U.S. Open
  • 1902 Western Open
  • 1903 U.S. Open
  • 1904 U.S. Open
  • 1904 Western Open
  • 1905 U.S. Open
  • 1908 Western Open
  • 1909 Portola Tournament (Calif.)
  • 1909 Western Open
  • (This list is incomplete.)

Anderson's U.S. Open Record: 4 Wins, 3 in a Row

Willie Anderson still shares an all-time golf record today: He is one of four golfers who won the U.S. four times (Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus being the others). Anderson was obviously the first to do it, winning all four within a five-year span in the first decade of the 20th century.

And Anderson remains the only golfer to win the U.S. Open three consecutive years. These are his victories in the tournament:

  • 1901 U.S. Open: Anderson and frequent rival Alex Smith finished 72 holes tied at 331, which is the highest winning score in U.S. Open history. Anderson trailed by three at the halfway mark and by one following the third round. Smith had a short putt to win on the final hole, but missed, leading to an 18-hole playoff — the very first playoff in tournament history. Anderson won by a single stroke, 85 to 86, making up a five-stroke deficit with five holes to play.

  • 1903 U.S. Open: Another U.S. Open win, another tournament first for Anderson: He became the first wire-to-wire winner in U.S. Open history. But just barely: He was tied after the final round with Davey Brown. In the 18-hole playoff, Anderson won by two strokes, 82 to 84. He thus became the tournament's first two-time winner.

  • 1904 U.S. Open: And this year, Anderson became the tournament's first three-time champion. Anderson trailed by two entering the final round, but then carded a tournament-record 72. He finished at 303 (another scoring record for its time) and won by five over runner-up Gil Nicholls.

  • 1905 U.S. Open: Not only did Anderson become the first four-time champion here, but he won the U.S. Open for a third consecutive time, something nobody else has ever done. It was between Anderson and Alex Smith again, with Anderson trailing by one entering the final round. But he shot 77 to Smith's 80 to win by two strokes.

Anderson played the U.S. Open 14 times from 1897 through 1910, finished out of the Top 10 only twice, and never lower than 15th. He was runner-up to Joe Lloyd in his first appearance at the 1897 U.S. Open, just the third time the tournament was played. He was also third in 1898. Anderson had seven Top 5 finishes, including in 1899 (fifth), 1902 (tied fifth), 1906 (fifth), 1908 (fourth) and 1909 (tied fourth).

More About Willie Anderson

Willie Anderson won four U.S. Open titles, and won another four championships in the Western Open, the second-biggest golf tournament in America during Anderson's time. He won tournaments playing the gutta-percha golf ball (including his first U.S. Open victory), and kept winning after the rubber-core ball arrived in 1902. He frequently played carrying only eight golf clubs in his bag.

And although a Scotsman by birth, many golf fans and golf writers of his time — as well as Anderson himself — came to think of him as an American golfer. He was the first major golf star in the United States.

The World Golf Hall of Fame described Anderson this way:

"Anderson was a sturdy man with muscular shoulders, brawny forearms and exceptionally large hands. He played with a flat, full-sweeping action that was characteristic of the Scots and known as the 'St. Andrews swing.' Despite what many considered to be swing flaws, Anderson was consistently accurate."
In a 1906 issue, Golfers Magazine described Anderson as "ever a student of the game, and ready at all times to experiment with new clubs." The magazine reported that Anderson "Several years ago ... adopted the interlocking grip, but with the thumbs over, not down, the shaft. During the Fox Hills tournament he tried the 49-inch driver, but after the first day went back to the shorter clubs. ... (He used) a three-quarter swing to improve his direction, and won the Open and Western championships. ... His putting, too, is a strong feature of his game. He has a delicated touch, and plays for the hole with the greatest confidence."

As Golfers Magazine noted, Anderson was an early practitioner of the interlocking grip, which was not used by many top golfers of his era. In the 1955 book A History of Golf, the Royal and Ancient Game (affiliate link), author Robert Browning writes about Francis Ouimet's play in the 1914 British Amateur, and notes that Ouimet, who copied the interlocking grip from Anderson, was one of the few top players using that grip even by then.

Personally, Anderson was a modest man, rarely heard to brag about his game or his accomplishments. He was often described as "dour" but was very popular with his fellow pros and with fans. He just held his emotions in check during the game. Another U.S. Open winner, Fred McLeod, once said of Anderson, "You couldn't tell whether he was winning or losing by looking at him."

Anderson grew up around and on the famous North Berwick links in Scotland. His father, Thomas Anderson, was greenskeeper there, and Willie began caddying on the West Links at age 11. He also spent some time in his early teens as an apprentice clubmaker at nearby Gullane.

In 1895, when Anderson was 15, American sporting goods retailer Frank Slazenger (whose name is still used as an equipment brand today) traveled to Scotland on a recruiting trip: He wanted Scottish golfers to head to America to help popularize the game.

The following year, age 16, Willie, his brother Tom, and their father Thomas sailed across the Atlantic, departing from Glasgow on board the S.S. Pomeranian. They went through Ellis Island and one year later Willie, age 17, entered the 1897 U.S. Open and finished second to Joe Lloyd. At the time, Willie Anderson was working as the first head pro at Misquamicut Club (also known as Watch Hill) in Rhode Island, one of many clubs he would work at in his short life.

Years later the New York Tribune reported that "at various times Anderson was connected with the Watch Hill Golf Club, Lakewood Golf Club, Baltusrol Golf Club, Oconomowoc Golf Club (Wisconsin), Pittsfield Country Club, Apawamis Club, Onwentsia Club, St. Louis Field Club, St. Augustine Golf Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club."

And they missed at least a couple clubs Anderson was affiliated with: he wintered some years at Miami Golf Club. And in 1900, he was working as an instructor at Oakland Golf Club in California, and his first tournament wins were out West.

"To think of nothing but golf while engaged in playing golf is the secret to success." — Willie Anderson
After making a name for himself by winning the 1901 U.S. Open, Anderson became a major star the next year with his win in the 1902 Western Open. Anderson won that tournament with a score of 299, the first man to break 300. As the New York Tribune later put it, Anderson "made devotees of the game the world over gasp when with a solid gutty ball ... he won the (Western Open) with a hitherto unheard-of total of 299."

Anderson eventually piled up four wins in the Western Open, too, winning again in 1904, 1908 and 1909. His name was put on golf clubs to help move merchandise. For example, in 1906 the Worthington Manufacturing Company of Elyria, Ohio, was advertising Anderson Clubs, a driver and a brassie, priced at $2.50 each.

In December 1909, short notices appeared in newspapers around the country noting that Anderson had left St. Louis Country Club, intending to go back to the U.K. and play tournaments in Europe the following year. But he didn't. Instead, Anderson headed east and went to work as the pro at Philadelphia Cricket Club.

On October 23, 1910, Anderson took part in an exhibition match at Oakmont Country Club. It was clear, newspaper accounts of the time reported, that Anderson was not feeling well. Just two days later, he was dead.

Some newspapers reported cause of death as hardening of the arteries, others heart failure. The New York Tribune reported that the "hero of a thousand hard-fought golf matches has been conquered by the grim reaper" and said the cause of death was "heart failure from hardening of the arteries."

"Although only 31 years of age," the newspaper reported, "Anderson had been troubled with a weak heart for a long time, and two winters ago came near losing his life at St. Augustine."

Anderson was survived by a wife and one child. At the time of Willie's death his father Thomas was professional at Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey, and his brother Tom was pro at Inwood Country Club in New York.

When the PGA of America formed its first hall of fame in 1940, Anderson was in the very first class of inductees. And when the World Golf Hall of Fame formed in the 1970s, Anderson was part of its second class of inductees in 1975.

Golfer Willie Anderson circa 1905

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