Alex Smith: Golfer Won 2 Early U.S. Opens

golfer Alex Smith swinging a club

Alex Smith was one of a trio of famous golfing brothers from Scotland who made their names as pros in America. In the early 1900s, Smith compiled one of the most-impressive U.S. Open records, including winning that major championship twice. He had other big wins, and also became famous as an instructor: Three of his pupils later joined the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Date of birth: January 28, 1874

Place of birth: Dundee, Scotland

Date and place of death: April 21, 1930, in Baltimore, Maryland

Also known as: In his lifetime, it was not unusual to see him called Alec Smith or Aleck Smith in newspaper and magazine articles. "Alec" and "Aleck," along with Alex, were both common nicknames for Alexanders at the time.

His Biggest Wins

All of Smith's biggest tournament wins (and even his lesser wins) happened prior to the 1916 founding of the PGA of America:
  • 1903 Western Open
  • 1905 Metropolitan Open
  • 1906 U.S. Open
  • 1906 Western Open
  • 1909 Metropolitan Open
  • 1910 U.S. Open
  • 1910 Metropolitan Open
  • 1913 Metropolitan Open
Smith also won "scores" (as one of the newspapers put it after his death) of other tournaments. The following list of victories is well short of complete:
  • 1901 Southern California Open
  • 1904 Nassau Country Club Tournament
  • 1904 Southern California Open
  • 1905 Southern California Open
  • 1906 Van Cortlandt Open
  • 1906 Columbia Country Club Tournament
  • 1906 Eastern Pro Golfers Championship
  • 1907 Florida Championship
  • 1911 Southern Pro Championship
  • 1912 Belleaire Professional

Two U.S. Open Titles and Major Championship Finishes

Playing in the first two decades of the tournament's history, Alex Smith compiled a sterling record in the U.S. Open. From 1898 through 1921, Smith played the tournament 18 times. He won it twice, was runner-up three times, finished third three times, had 10 Top 5 finishes, and in 17 out of 18 starts finished in the Top 25. (The one year he didn't, Smith withdrew.)

Smith first played in the 1898 U.S. Open and finished second to Fred Herd, his fellow pro at Chicago's Washington Park Club. He was seventh in 1899 when his brother Willie Smith won.

Alex got the first of his two wins in the 1906 U.S. Open, seven strokes ahead of the runner-up, his brother Willie. At age 32, Alex shared the first-round lead, then led outright after each successive round. His winning score of 295 was the first sub-300 score in any 72-hole U.S. Open. It was also one stroke better than Jack White's winning score in the 1904 British Open, establishing the lowest score to that point in either of those national opens.

Alex's victory in 1906 also ended Willie Anderson's three-year U.S. Open winning streak. Anderson had won the tournament in 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905, two of those years beating runner-up Alex Smith. In the 1901 U.S. Open, Anderson beat Smith in an 18-hole playoff, 85 to 86. And in the 1905 U.S. Open, Smith finished two strokes behind Anderson.

So by the time of Smith's first win in 1906, he already three second-place finishes in the U.S. Open. He was also fourth behind Anderson in 1903.

Smith did not play the tournament in 1907, then had back-to-back third-place showings in 1908 and 1909. In the 1910 U.S. Open, he claimed victory No. 2. But to claim that victory, he had to win a playoff that included another one of his brothers.

Smith's final round in 1910 included a hole-out from a deep sand bunker about 50 yards short of the green on the seventh hole, a shot that was pretty famous in its time. Remember, the invention of the sand wedge was still about two decades away. In 1918, that stroke was the subject of a syndicated newspaper feature titled "Remarkable Golf Shots by Experts."

Smith was two strokes off the lead when the final round began, but scored 73 to tie Johnny McDermott and his brother Macdonald Smith at 298. In the 18-hole playoff, Alex Smith won with a score of 71 to McDermott's 75 and Macdonald Smith's 77.

Alex Smith tied for third again in the 1912 U.S. Open, but played only a handful of times after that (in part because the golf scene was interrupted by World War I). In his final appearance at the 1921 U.S. Open, Smith, nearing 50 years old, tied for fifth place with Bobby Jones.

At the time of Smith's final appearance in 1921, he had eight Top 3 finishes in the U.S. Open. That was the tournament record, later tied by Jones and Ben Hogan, and not broken until Jack Nicklaus achieved his ninth Top 3 finish.

Smith's 10 Top 5 finishes is second-best in U.S. Open history behind Nicklaus and Anderson. His 17 Top 25 finishes was the tournament record at the time of his last in 1921, and still ranks in the tournament's Top 10 today.

Although Smith did play some tournament golf in his native Scotland before leaving for America, he played the British Open only twice. His best showing was tied for 16th in 1925. He played the PGA Championship just once, going out in the Round of 16 at the inaugural PGA in 1916.

More About Alex Smith

During his lifetime and for at least a decade after, Alex Smith was unanimously considered one of the most-important golfers on the American golf scene — one of the pioneers of American professional golf. His stature can be illustrated by considering the first-ever golf Hall of Fame class: In 1940, the PGA of America created a Hall of Fame and inducted 10 golfers as the first class. Smith, 10 years after his death, was one of those 10.

Another way to illustrate Smith's stature on the American pro golf scene: From 1930-57, the PGA of America awarded the Alexander Smith Memorial Trophy to the medalist in the 36-hole stroke play qualifying that preceded the match play portion of the PGA Championship. The trophy was only retired when the PGA Championship switched to stroke play beginning in 1958.

Alex Smith was one of five Smith brothers born in Scotland and raised in Carnoustie, all of whom moved to the United States to work as golf professionals. Three of them became famous tournament winners. Like Alex, Willie Smith won the U.S. Open. Macdonald Smith is probably the best-known today — younger, he played tournaments just before and for years after the founding of the PGA. Macdonald's 25 wins still puts him on the list of golfers with the most PGA Tour wins.

Unlike Alex and Willie, though, Macdonald never won a major. Alex and Willie were the second pair of brothers (after Willie Park Sr. and Mungo Park) to both win majors. Each of the three recorded wins in the Western Open: Alex in 1903 and 1906; Willie in 1899; Macdonald in 1912, 1925 and 1933.

"Miss 'em quick!" — Alex Smith
Alex Smith, like his brothers, got into golf after the family moved to Carnoustie, Scotland, near the famous links. Alex became an apprentice in the shop of famous clubmaker Robert Simpson. He worked there nine years, the last five as the shop foreman.

By the 1890s, golf courses were starting to pop up all over the United States. American clubs looked to Scotland and England for pros, and the Smith brothers responded to advertisements to secure jobs in America.

Alex Smith had a job lined up at Washington Park Club in Chicago. But in 1897, before leaving Scotland, he lowered the course record on the Carnoustie links to 74. He also got married before leaving Scotland. His wife, Jessie, had the maiden name of ... Maiden. She was the sister of golf professionals James Maiden and Stewart Maiden, both of whom eventually wound up in Atlanta, where they played big roles in the early development of Bobby Jones and Alexa Stirling. Although the Maiden brothers were much better-known as instructors rather than tournament players, it was not uncommon during Alex's tournament years for newspaper articles to mention not just one or more of his brothers as his competitors, but also one or both of his brothers-in-law.

Smith sailed to America in 1898, joining Fred Herd on the Washington Park Club staff. The 1898 U.S. Open was played in Chicago, and Herd and Smith finished 1-2.

Beginning in 1900, Smith began accompanying Washington Park members on winter trips to California. He was runner-up that year to Willie Anderson in a tournament. But in 1901 Alex won what the newspapers called "the Open Championship of Southern California" by beating brother Willie in a playoff. He won that title again in 1904 (another brother, George, was runner-up) and 1905.

By that time Smith had switched clubs, moving east from Chicago to become the pro at Nassau Country Club on Long Island in New York. He won the Western Open — second only to the U.S. Open in prestige at the time — in 1903, and was runner-up to nemesis Anderson in the 1904 Western Open. And by mid-1905, Smith had recorded his third runner-up finish in the U.S. Open.

But he also won the very first playing of the Metropolitan Open in 1905. And Smith did it by beating Anderson in an 18-hole playoff, 74 to 76.

The year 1906 was his best. He won the Western Open and shortly thereafter the U.S. Open. And he finished second at the Metropolitan Open that year, nipped by George Low's 294. Smith had at least three other wins in significant pro tournaments in 1906, too, including the Eastern Pro Championship.

In 1908 the club membership at Nassau CC honored Smith at a dinner prior to his departure to take over the pro position at Wykagyl Club in New Rochelle, New York. The president of Nassau CC said in a speech at the dinner, "Alexander Smith is one of the best fellows that ever trod the links, and he has always been one of the best representatives of professional golf in the world." A year later, the New York Times reported that "there is little doubt that Smith is the best-paid professional golfer in the United States" at Wykagyl.

Smith continued winning tournaments, big and small, including the 1910 U.S. Open and three more Metropolitan titles (last in 1913). But he was also developing a reputation as one of the best teachers of the game. And three of his pupils went on to careers that eventually landed them in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Jerry Travers was a four-time U.S. Amateur champ and, as an amateur, winner of the 1915 U.S. Open. Glenna Collett became the greatest American woman golfer before World War II, winning the U.S. Women's Amateur six times. And Marion Hollins won the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1921 and later developed golf clubs in California.

After Wykagyl, Smith worked at Shenecossett in Connecticut and Metacomet in Rhode Island. In 1924 the Times reported that Smith, "one of the best-known golfers in the world," had been appointed head pro for the brand-new Miami Biltmore Country Club.

At time of this death in 1930 at age 58, he was pro at Westchester in Rye, New York. Gene Sarazen attended the funeral, Travers and Gil Nicholls were among the pallbearers.

Famous sportswriter O.B. Keeler, after Smith's death, wrote in his newspaper column that Smith's teaching style was "a curious model of terseness and emphasis. His conversation was as rugged as his personality, which was one never to be forgotten."

Smith was a fast player, Keeler wrote, who didn't believe in hanging over the ball before playing a stroke. Smith helped popularize (and might have originated) the putting advice, "miss 'em quick," and often told students who lingered over the ball before putting that "the hole is getting smaller all the time."

Keeler remembered that Smith, when playing, did not give away in his temperament whether he was having a good round or bad — he was a cheerful player. On bad days, Keeler wrote, "Alex would not waste good profanity or temper. ... He would plug along comfortably and cheerily, confident that another day would come."

The Times' obituary called Smith, "One of the country's pioneer professionals, a great player himself and a maker of champions, possessed of abundant ready wit. Alex was known from coast to coast."

Alex Smith is a member of the PGA of America Hall of Fame and the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame.

He authored one instructional book: Lessons in Golf (affiliate link) was published in 1907.

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