Golfer Willie Smith: Scottish U.S. Open Champ Who Died in Mexico

portrait of golfer Willie Smith
Willie Smith was a Scotsman who moved to America and then to Mexico. One of a famous set of golfing brothers, he won a U.S. Open in the 19th century, and was runner-up in two others in the first decade of the 1900s. He also was the first champion of the Western Open, a club pro in the earliest days of golf in Mexico, and once survived an attack on his club by armed forces in the Mexican Revolution.

Full name: William Smith

Date of birth: October 8, 1876

Place of birth: Dundee, Scotland

Date and place of death: December 26, 1916 in Mexico City, Mexico

Willie Smith's Biggest Wins

  • 1899 Western Open
  • 1899 U.S. Open
  • 1901 California State Open
  • 1906 Open Championship of Mexico

His U.S. Open Victory, Playoff Loss, Other U.S. Opens

Willie Smith won one U.S. Open and was runner-up in two others, including a playoff loss. When brother Alex won the 1906 U.S. Open (he also won in 1910), the Smiths became the first — and so far only — brothers to both win U.S. Opens.

Willie's win was in the 1899 U.S. Open, one year after he arrived in America. Willie Smith was the first-round co-leader with Willie Anderson at 77. After the second round, Smith was one behind Anderson. Smith had a 79 in the third round, which produced a four-stroke lead. In the final round, Smith's 77 was one of the best rounds of the tournament. It was, for example, seven better than Anderson did that round. In the end, Smith won by 11 strokes at 315. That remained the largest margin of victory in U.S. Open history for more than 100 years, until Tiger Woods finally broke that record in the 2000 U.S. Open.

We've already mentioned that Alex Smith won in 1906. Who was the runner-up? His brother Willie. It was the first of two second-place finishes in the U.S. Open for Willie. In 1906, Willie was the co-leader after the first round, but after the third he was eight strokes behind his brother. Willie finished seven strokes behind Alex's 295, the first sub-300 score in U.S. Open history.

In the 1908 U.S. Open, Willie Smith carded a 77 in the first round, the only sub-80 score of that round. He was the 36-hole leader at 159, and after 54 holes held a one-stroke edge on second-place Fred McLeod.

In the final round, McLeod shot 77 to Smith's 78 (Smith was one of only two golfers in the field to break 80 in more than one round) to tie at 322. In the 18-hole playoff, Smith led by one after nine but fell apart on the back nine, shooting 45 to McLeod's 38. McLeod won the playoff by six shots, 77 to 83.

In all, Smith played the U.S. Open nine times. He finished in the Top 9 in all but one of them, in the Top 5 in seven out of the nine. He was also fifth in 1898 and 1900, third in 1901, fourth in 1902 and tied ninth in 1903. His only finish outside the Top 10 was a tie for 13th in 1905.

golfer Willie Smith striking a putt

More About Willie Smith

Willie Smith was the middle of three Smith brothers from Carnoustie, Scotland, who emigrated to America and made big impacts on American tournament golf. Alex, the oldest, won the U.S. Open twice, the Western Open twice and the Metropolitan Open four times, among other titles. Macdonald Smith, the youngest, won 25 times on the PGA Tour. (A fourth brother, George, also emigrated but was known as a golf instructor, not a tournament player.)

And Willie? He only has the distinction of winning a U.S. Open, winning the very first Western Open, winning the very first California State Open, becoming the first golf professional in Mexico, and winning the first PGA Tour-level golf tournament played in Mexico.

When he arrived in America from Carnoustie, Willie Smith took a position on the staff at Shinnecock Hills in 1898. While there, Smith scored 72 in a match, which broke the course record of the time. But the next year Smith headed west, to Chicago, where he became pro at Midlothian Country Club, and during his time based in the U.S., Chicago was the city with which he was strongly associated.

Almost as soon as he arrived in Chicago, Smith got his two biggest wins. The Western Open was founded in 1899 as the biggest tournament "out west," meaning outside of the Eastern United States where most of the fledgling American golf scene was based at the time.

That 1899 Western Open was played in Chicago and was only 36 holes. At the end of those 36 holes, Smith and Laurie Auchterlonie were tied at 156. Smith then beat Auchterlonie in the 18-hole playoff. Smith was runner-up to Willie Anderson in the 1902 Western Open. Both Alex Smith and Macdonald Smith later won the tournament, too.

The early history of the California State Open is an interesting case of the sparseness of early golf record-keeping. Virtually all sources credit Smith with winning a tournament in 1900 that is, today, recognized as the inaugural California Open. However, newspaper accounts from 1901 make clear that Smith first traveled to California in 1901, not 1900, and that the tournament he won was in 1901 on the Oakland Golf Club course (which had sand greens at the time). Smith shot 79-86, a 167 total that beat runner-up (and first U.S. Open winner) Horace Rawlins by seven strokes.

In 1904, Smith decided to change countries again. He traveled to Mexico City and became the head pro at Mexico City Country Club, a position he held until his death 12 years later.

In 1906, with Smith's name attached and with large financial inducements provided by backers, a tournament that was called the Open Championship of Mexico was played. It was the first pro golf tournament in Mexico history to draw a top-level field. The field was so good that even British superstars Harry Vardon and James Braid (two-thirds of the "Great Triumvirate") were there, as was Willie Anderson, the best golfer in America at the time. And Willie Smith beat them all with a score that was remarkably low for its time, 289 for 72 holes. Some newspaper accounts of the day heralded it as a world-record 72-hole score for any top-flight tournament.

Smith continued working in Mexico, but sometimes still traveled to play major tournaments. Those included the U.S. Opens in 1906 and 1908, mentioned above. He entered the Open Championship only twice (first in 1895, when he withdrew). The second of those was the 1910 British Open. Smith was the 36-hole leader but finished tied for fifth. His score of 71 in the second round was a competitive course record on The Old Course at St. Andrews at the time, one that he still shared at the time of his death in 1916.

During the 1914-15 period of the Mexican Revolution, Smith's brothers and friends in the U.S. went more than a year without hearing from him. But Smith continued working at the country club through the Revolution, even though the club, as a symbol of wealth, was sometimes the target of the belligerents. Once, troops of Revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata shelled and ransacked the club. Smith, who refused to leave, was found inside the clubhouse, but trapped under a fallen beam.

Smith was asked to design a new golf course and club, one that still exists today, the Club de Golf Chapultepec in Naucalpan, just outside Mexico City. He never completed it, dying in late 1916 at the age of 40. After Willie's death — which was from pneumonia, probably unrelated to any injuries he suffered in the attack on Mexico City Country Club — his brother Alex traveled to Mexico and completed the design of the new golf course.

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