George Duncan: Open Champion, Fastest Major Golfer Ever?

Golfer George Duncan poses on a golf course
George Duncan was a Scottish golfer who won tournaments from the 1900-aughts into the late 1920s. Those wins included the British Open as well as the French, Belgian and Irish opens. He was deeply involved in the earliest years of the Ryder Cup (including the development of the competition) and was playing captain in Great Britain's first Ryder Cup win. Duncan was famous for being a very fast player.

Date of birth: September 16, 1883

Place of birth: Methlick, Scotland

Date and place of death: January 15, 1964, in Leeds, England

His Open Championship Victory and Other Major Finishes

George Duncan first played in the Open Championship in 1903, and last in 1937. In-between, he won once and posted 11 Top 10 finishes.

His victory was in the 1920 British Open. Duncan played poorly the first two rounds, posting 80 in both. He trailed leader Abe Mitchell by 13 strokes. Unhappy with his play off the tee, Duncan bought a new driver, one that was on display in an exhibition tent on the course. He put that new driver into play.

Duncan shot 71 in the third round, while Mitchell skied to an 84. A 13-stroke difference between the two — gone. Duncan shot 72 in the final round and won by three strokes over runner-up Sandy Herd. That 71 in Round 3 was tied for low round of the tournament, and his 72 in Round 4 was the lowest score in the final round.

And that 13-stroke deficit remains today the biggest 36-hole deficit overcome by the eventual champion in Open Championship history.

Duncan was fifth in his 1921 title defense, then nearly staged another remarkable comeback victory at the 1922 British Open. Duncan was tied for 10th place, six strokes off Jock Hutchison's lead, following a third-round 81 in 1922. Then he went out in the final round and shot 69. It wasn't just the lowest round by three strokes in the entire tournament, it was also the lowest final round score in any Open Championship for the entire decade of the 1920s.

But it wasn't enough: Duncan tied for second, one stroke behind winner Walter Hagen. The costly blow for Duncan occurred on his last hole, when a chip shot up a slope ran back down to his feet. That spot off the 18th green at Royal St. George's Golf Club has been known as "Duncan's Hollow" ever since.

Duncan missed the cut his first three tries at the Open, scoring as high as 94 in the first round in 1904. But in the 1906 Open, Duncan recorded his first Top 10, placing eighth at Muirfield. The next year, he was seventh. In the 1910 British Open at St. Andrews, Duncan was third. He didn't finish outside of the Top 10 again until 1925.

Duncan was in position to win that 1910 Open until an 83 in the final round. He led after the first and third rounds, and his 71 in Round 3 tied for low score of the tournament.

In the 1911 British Open, Duncan was the leader after the halfway mark following a 71 in Round 2 that tied for lowest score of the tournament. He finished eighth. He was fourth in 1912.

After his near-miss in 1922, Duncan posted a pair of tied-sixth finishes in the following two years, which were the last of his Top 10s. He last made the cut in 1931, at age 47. During his best years (1910-24), Duncan missed six Opens. He skipped the tournament in 1913, and World War I cost him five other opportunities (1915-19).

What about the other major championships? Duncan never played in the U.S. PGA Championship or The Masters. He made four starts in the U.S. Open, tying for eighth in the 1921 U.S. Open, and finishing solo sixth in the 1922 U.S. Open.

More About George Duncan

How fast did George Duncan play golf? Great Triumvirate legend James Braid once said of Duncan, "I cannot make him out — he plays so fast the he looks as if he doesn't care, but I suppose it must be his way. He's the most extraordinary golfer I have ever seen."

Duncan's autobiography was titled Golf At the Gallop (affiliate links used for books mentioned in this article), and "galloping" is a good word to describe the quickness with which he moved around a golf course — and played shots.

Even in his own time, when golf was generally played much quicker than it is today, Duncan was renowned (or infamous) for how fast he played. He tended to size up his next stroke as he walked forward from the last one, so that by the time he reached his ball he had club in hand and could step right over the ball and swing away. There was never a practice swing — Duncan said he wasn't certain practice swings should even be allowed under the rules.

The New York Times obituary of Duncan included this:

"One writer characterized his method as the 'polo style' of golf, hitting the ball almost on the run. 'He putts as he thinks — lightning fast,' the writer said. 'A brisk step up to where the ball lies on the green, a quick glance toward the hole and an even quicker stroke. In effect, his putting is the same as the shooting of the old frontiersmen — from the hip.'"
That fast play might have been intended, at least in part, to keep at bay any thoughts that could get in the way of Duncan's golfing genius. In a chapter on the mental game in the 1961 book titled Golf Begins at 45, the authors say they asked Duncan what he thought about when playing golf. "Nothing," Duncan replied.

But outside of his rounds, Duncan was famous for how much thought he put into his swing and swing mechanics. He was a tinkerer. Other golfers called him the "pro's pro," and sought advice. In his own time, "few men who played golf for a living had the grasp of the mechanics of the game that Mr. Duncan possessed," the New York Times wrote.

The "pro's pro" description of Duncan might have been popularized by Sandy Herd's 1923 book, My Golfing Life. In it, Herd, 1902 British Open champ and runner-up to Duncan in 1920, wrote, "More perhaps than any of us, Duncan is the professional's pro. You will often see the young school of professionals flock out to follow him around at a big meeting. They know he can show them golf at its best."

"There is only one George Duncan," Herd once said, "I know not the like of him among us all."

Golfer George Duncan swings a club

In his 1924 book Common Sense Golf Tips, Gene Sarazen called Duncan "one of the most brilliant golfers of all-time." But Duncan was also mercurial, both in temperament and in play. Sarazen added that Duncan "can reach the dizzy heights when on one of his putting streaks, but he never knows when he is about to fall into a three-putt streak."

It was probably during one of those three-putt streaks that Duncan uttered a phrase that is among the most-famous quotes in golf. It is something many a recreational golfer has tossed at a slow-playing friend, without realizing its origins: "If you are going to miss 'em, miss 'em quick," often shortened today to just, "miss 'em quick."

Duncan grew up in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of a policeman. He was an avid footballer who turned down a pro contract with Aberdeen FC. Instead, he first apprenticed to a carpenter, then, only 17 years old, turned pro as a golfer in 1900.

Duncan had several tournament wins in the first decade of the 20th century. But his breakout tournament was the 1910 News of the World Match Play (aka the British Professional Match Play), where he beat two-thirds of the Great Triumvirate — James Braid and then J.H. Taylor — before falling to James Sherlock in the championship match.

He won the Belgian Open in 1912, first of his national titles. One of Duncan's biggest early wins was in 1913 when be beat Braid 3 and 2, on Braid's home course, in the championship match of the News of the Wold Match Play. (He was runner-up again in 1919, losing the title match to Abe Mitchell.)

He followed that match play win with his first French Open title in 1913.

Duncan kept winning, although he lost many opportunities when the British tournament scene ceased for five years due to World War I. After the war, Duncan claimed the 1919 St. Andrews Victory Tournament (tied with Abe Mitchell), arguably the biggest of the year given that The Open did not take place that year. Then, in 1920, Duncan's crowning achievement, his British Open win.

Duncan won three other big titles in 1920, and several more after. Those included the Irish Open and French Open titles in 1927. He won five national opens in all.

Duncan rarely played tournaments in America, other than a handful of appearances in the U.S. Open. His PGA Tour record shows only 12 tournaments played, but he finished in the Top 10 in eight out of those 12 PGA Tour starts. In 1922, in his three starts in PGA Tour events, Duncan was sixth in the U.S. Open, won the Western New York PGA Open (his only win in America) and was fifth in the Southern Golf Association Open.

The Ryder Cup officially began in 1927, but Duncan was involved in a couple USA vs. Great Britain precursors. In a 1921 competition at Gleneagles, Duncan beat Jock Hutchison in singles. In a 1926 precursor at Wentworth Club, Duncan and Abe Mitchell won a foursomes match against Jim Barnes/Walter Hagen, 9 and 8; and Duncan beat Hagen in singles, 6 and 5.

Duncan was among those who suggested to wealthy golf fanatic Samuel Ryder that Ryder sponsor a regular competition between teams from America and Britain. In 1927, Ryder's trophy, the Ryder Cup, was ready, and Ryder underwrote the travel expenses for Team GB&I to head to the United States.

That 1927 Ryder Cup was the first of three times Duncan played in the tournament. It was an easy win for Team USA, but Duncan — with a 1-up victory over Joe Turnesa — was Britain's only singles winner.

At the 1929 Ryder Cup, Duncan had the distinction of being the first winning British captain. But he was player-captain, and Duncan's contribution to the win was a whopping 10-and-8 singles victory over the USA's player-captain, Walter Hagen.

Duncan played only in foursomes at the 1931 Ryder Cup, and Hagen took at least a little revenge: Hagen and partner Denny Shute beat Duncan and partner Arthur Havers, 10 and 9.

Duncan also represented Scotland 12 times — first in 1903, last in 1937 — in the England-Scotland Professional Match.

"Together with Abe Mitchell," Peter Alliss once wrote, "George Duncan was the best British player of the era that linked the Great Triumvirate with the Age of (Henry) Cotton. But Duncan won the Open Championship, Mitchell didn't."

Among the golf clubs where Duncan served as professional were Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire; Rhos-on-Sea in North Wales; Caernarvonshire Golf Club in Conwy, Wales; Hangar Hill Club in London; and Wentworth Club near London. In 1934 he became the first head pro at Mere Golf Club (today the Mere Resort & Spa) in Knutsford, Cheshire, England, and remained there for the rest of his working days. Today, the resort's executive boardroom is named the George Duncan Suite.

In addition to his book Golf at the Gallop, Duncan co-authored, with Bernard Darwin, the 1921 book Present-Day Golf. He also wrote a chapter on the push shot in the 1915 instructional Success At Golf: Hints for the Player of Moderate Ability. His first book was a very early example of golf instruction for women, Golf for Women, published in 1914.

George's brother Alex Duncan was also a golf professional, and was an assistant to George at Hanger Hill. Alex emigrated to America in 1910 and was pro at several important U.S. clubs. He was at Philadelphia Cricket Club in the 1910s, at Chicago Golf Club, 1916-1919, and back at Philadelphia CC, 1925-46.

Duncan's Biggest Tournament Wins

  • 1906 Leeds Cup
  • 1908 London Professional Foursomes Tournament (partnered by Charles Mayo)
  • 1908 Manchester Tournament
  • 1909 North Berwick Tournament
  • 1912 Sphere and Tatler Foursomes Tournament (partnered by James Sherlock)
  • 1912 Belgian Open
  • 1913 News of the World Match Play
  • 1913 French Open
  • 1914 Bishop's Stortford Tournament
  • 1914 Port Seton Professional Tournament
  • 1919 Killermont Tournament
  • 1919 St. Andrews Victory Tournament (tie with Abe Mitchell, no playoff)
  • 1920 British Open*
  • 1920 Roehampton Invitation Tournament
  • 1920 Daily Mail Tournament
  • 1920 Glasgow Herald Tournament
  • 1922 Daily Mail Tournament
  • 1922 Western New York PGA Open*
  • 1923 Tooting Bec Cup
  • 1924 Glasgow Herald Tournament
  • 1927 Irish Open
  • 1927 French Open
  • 1929 Frinton Invitation Tournament
(*counted today as an official PGA Tour win)

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