Golfer Jean Gassiat: Early French Pro, Namesake of Famous Putter

portrait of golfer Jean Gassiat
Jean Gassiat (1883-1966) was born Louis Gassiat, but always known as Jean. He was an early French golfer in the same period as his more famous countryman Arnaud Massy. Gassiat is remembered as a early champion of the French Open, and for an eponymous putter he created whose blocky clubhead earned it the nickname, "the Grand Piano."

His Biggest Wins

  • 1912 French Open
  • 1912 French Closed Professional
  • 1919 French Closed Professional
  • 1927 French Closed Professional
  • 1929 French Closed Professional

In the Majors

Gassiat played in the British Open 14 times (first at the 1906 Open, last in the 1928 Open), making the cut all but once. Four of those years resulted in Top 20 finishes. His best showings were solo seventh in the 1922 British Open, and tied seventh in the 1912 Open.

In 1912, Gassiat was off the pace until a final-round 76 moved him into the Top 10. In 1922, Gassiat was in second place, one stroke off Jock Hutchison's lead, following 54 holes. But he shot 79 in the final round and finished six strokes back of the winner, Walter Hagen.

The Jean Gassiat Putter

portrait of Jean Gassiat putter, aka the Grand Piano

Some of his fellow golfers called it "the grand piano," while one golf writer referred to it as a "barbaric tool." It has come down to us as the the Grand Piano, or the Chantilly putter, or, more frequently, simply the Gassiat.

In the 1915 book The Happy Golfer (affiliate link) by Henry Leach, Gassiat's putter, which he showed off to the author, receieved a lengthy description: "It consists of a plain, flat rectangular piece of wood about four inches long, two inches wide, and three-quarters of an inch deep, and its two-inch nose is cut quite square, while for a couple of inches at the end of the shaft the grip is thickened to twice its usual size. It is weighted and balanced by large and small lead bullets in the sole."

Gassiat, the author continued, "fell in love with this putter completely. Some weeks later I saw him doing those marvels on the green as are only done when man and putter have become thoroughly joined together, and Gassiat has always to be taken seriously in this matter, for ... he is one of the most beautiful putters, with an instinct for holing."

Gassiat came up with the putter design around 1910. The Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat, who played golf at Gassiat's club in Chantilly, was the vice president of the French Golf Federation in the early 1900s and played a large role in marketing the putter across Europe. It was eventually manufactured in London and sold in Europe and even made it across the pond to the United States.

The English golfer James Sherlock was another pro who started using it, which helped popularize it with at least some recreational golfers. Today, extant versions of original Gassiat putters can fetch large prices in auctions. And some companies occasionally release at modern imitation of the club.

More About Jean Gassiat

Even in his own time, Jean Gassiat was probably best-known outside of France for the putter, although he was very respected as a golfer. there are many English-language references to him from the 1920s where the putter is the main thing used to identify him. For example, in Chick Evans' Golf Book of 1921, Evans introduces Gassiat as "known not only as a good player, but as an inventor of the large, wooden-headed putter."

Gassiat was born in Biarritz, France, and started in the game at the famous club there. He and other caddies practiced and played on a vacant lot near the club where they fashioned a rudimentary few holes and made their own clubs out of tree branches and found objects, using lost gutta percha balls they recovered from Biarritz.

Gassiat's crowning achievement as a golfer was winning the 1912 French Open, which happened five years after he was runner-up to Arnaud Massy in the 1907 French Open. Massy was the first French golfer to win his national open, Gassiat was the second.

In that 1912 win, Gassiat shot 68 in the third round, which included a 31 on the front nine — very low scores for the time and course records. Gassiat led Harry Vardon by three strokes with three holes to play, but on the last hole hit his drive out of bounds. On the green, Vardon had a 10-foot putt to tie, but missed, giving Gassiat the one-stroke win.

"(Gassiat) is quite the Frenchman in appearance," said American Golfer's report on the tournament, "and is tall and thin and about twenty-eight years old."

The France-United States Professional Match was a 1913 Ryder Cup-style (well before the Ryder Cup existed) team event that France won, 6-0. Teammates Gassiat, Massy, Eugene Lafitte and Louis Tellier were called the Four Musketeers. Gassiat and Lafitte won a foursomes match against Mike Brady/Alex Smith, then Gassiat won a singles match over Brady, 5 and 3.

Gassiat served in World War I in the years 1914-18. In 1919, he lost to Massy in the semifinals of the golf competition at the Inter-Allied Games (open to military personnel from World War I allies), 2-down (Massy won the gold medal).

Gassiat was runner-up in the 1919 Spanish Open. He won the 1927 French Closed in a 36-hole playoff, his third win in that tournament, and won the 1929 French Closed at his home course of the time, Chiberta. (The French Closed, as opposed to the Open, included only French professionals.)

Gassiat's first job as club professional was at Baden-Baden in Germany. But he returned to France to take on the pro job when Golf de Chantilly opened around 1909. In 1927, Gassiat left Chantilly to become the head pro at the Chiberta, France, course. After his fourth French Closed win there in 1929, Gassiat took that as an opportunity to go out on top and rarely competed after that.

He remained a golf instructor at Chiberta for several more decades before his retirement. He was 83 when he died in 1966. He is a member of the French PGA Hall of Fame. His brother, Claude Gassiat, was also a golf professional.

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