Golfer Abe Mitchell: British Powerhouse, Ryder Cup Model

Portrait of golfer Abe Mitchell circa 1920
Abe Mitchell never won the British Open, but that was about the only thing missing from this English golfer's career. Mitchell arrived on the scene in the 1910s, and his career flourished in the 1920s and into the 1930s. In the generation after the "Great Triumvirate," Mitchell formed another "Big 3," of a sort, in British golf with George Duncan and Archie Compston. Great Triumvirate member J.H. Taylor once called Mitchell, "the finest player who never won an Open Championship."

Mitchell won more than two dozen other big titles, though (a number reduced by the World War I-caused cessation of pro golf tournaments just as Mitchell's winning ways were starting). He also was an important figure in the early history of the Ryder Cup, both literally, as a player, and figuratively, as the model for the little golfer on top of the Ryder Cup trophy.

Full name: Henry Abraham Mitchell

Date of birth: January 18, 1887

Place of birth: East Grinstead, Sussex, England

Date and place of death: June 11, 1947, in St. Albans, England

In the Majors

Abe Mitchell won more than two-dozen big professional tournaments, most of them in Great Britain and Ireland but also a couple in America. (His tournament victories are listed at the bottom of this article.) But he never won a major.

Mitchell entered the U.S. Open three times, withdrawing from two of them. But he tied for 17th place in 1922.

Mitchell made his debut in The Open Championship in 1911, and last played it in 1939. In-between, he made 17 other starts in The Open, 19 starts total. Eight of those starts resulted in Top 10 finishes, five of those in the Top 5. Mitchell never finished lower than 21st place in an Open that he completed.

His best finish was solo fourth in the 1920 British Open. That is the one that got away: Mitchell was the 36-hole leader, but skied to an 84 in the third round. His fourth-place finish despite that disastrous round shows how well he played in the other three.

Mitchell also tied for fourth in the 1914 British Open and 1929 British Open. He was solo fifth in 1925 and tied fifth in 1926. Mitchell's other Top 10 finishes in The Open came in 1923 (t8), 1932 (t10) and 1933 (t7).

Mitchell's Role in Early Ryder Cup History

In 1925, Abe Mitchell became the golf instructor of a wealthy seed merchant named Samuel Ryder. Mitchell tutored Ryder at Verulam Golf Club in St. Albans, near London. In 1926, when a squad of American golfers sailed for Britain to play in the British Open, a match against a team of British golfers was arranged at Wentworth Club. Ryder agreed to put up a trophy, but the trophy wasn't ready in time for the 1926 match.

That 1926 match is today considered an "unofficial" Ryder Cup beginning, a precursor to the competition's official start one year later (when Ryder's trophy was ready). Mitchell played in that 1926 competition, beating Jim Barnes, 8 and 7, in singles; and partnering with George Duncan for a foursomes win over Barnes and Walter Hagen. (Another international match considered a Ryder Cup precursor had been played in 1921, and in that one Mitchell halved his singles match with Hagen.)

A year later, when Ryder's trophy was ready, it came complete with the small figure of a golfer topping it off — a golfer whose design was based on Mitchell.

When teams for the inaugural, 1927 Ryder Cup were being formed, Abe Mitchell was named the player-captain for Team Great Britain. But just before the British squad was to sail to America, Mitchell fell ill, eventually requiring an appendectomy. He was replaced as captain by Ted Ray and Herb Jolly was added to the team in his place as a player. So Mitchell missed the very first, official, Ryder Cup.

But he did play in the second, third and fourth Ryder Cups. In the 1929 Ryder Cup, Mitchell, then 42 years old, teamed with Fred Robson in a foursomes win over Gene Sarazen and Ed Dudley. In singles, Mitchell lost to Leo Diegel, 9 and 8 (36 holes).

In the 1931 Ryder Cup, Mitchell/Robson again won in foursomes, this time over Diegel and Al Espinosa. But in singles Mitchell was beaten by Wiffy Cox, 3 and 1. In the 1933 Ryder Cup, Mitchell, now 46 years old, got another foursomes win to make his final record in foursomes a perfect 3-0. Mitchell and Arthur Havers defeated Olin Dutra and Denny Shute, 3 and 2. In singles, Mitchell finally got a win, beating Dutra by a 9-and-8 score.

Those two 9-and-8 singles matches Mitchell played, one a loss, one a win, are the second-largest margins-of-victory in the history of 36-hole matches at the Ryder Cup.

More About Abe Mitchell

Abe Mitchell was known for being a long hitter in his time. The editors of the 1976 Who's Who In Golf wrote that, "Mitchell had powerful hands and was a long hitter, though with a short, controlled swing."

Mitchell "was a long hitter, playing in the modern style with a slight fade," Peter Alliss wrote in the 1981 The Who's Who of Golf (affiliate links used for books mentioned in this article). "His swing would give spectators the immediate impression of massive power in wrists and forearms."

Mitchell, unlike the British golf stars who came before him, did not come to golf through club membership begat by familial wealth, or by apprenticing himself to a pro at a young age. Instead, he entered golf in a much-more modern way: by playing amateur tournaments and performing well-enough to think he could make it as a pro.

He worked as a gardener while playing amateur golf, and represented England in matches vs. Scotland in 1910, 1911 and 1912. According to Alliss' reference book, Mitchell was the first "artisan" golfer to play internationally for England. "Artisan" was a designation that meant a golfer could not afford to join a club, or, because of working-class origins, would not have been welcomed to a full membership by a club at that time in Britain.

In his first attempt at the British Amateur Championship in 1910, Mitchell reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion John Ball, 5 and 4. Ball was a legend, and that was his seventh win in The Amateur.

Mitchell reached the quarterfinals in 1911, then made the championship match in 1912. But Ball was again waiting for Mitchell, and again beat him, this time 1-up on the second extra hole (38th hole overall). It was Ball's record eighth and final Amateur Championship victory. Mitchell was 24 years old, Ball was 50.

Mitchell turned pro later in 1913, and in 1914 finished fourth in the last pre-war British Open. Few would have guessed at the time that Mitchell would never improve upon that finish.

Mitchell and the entire British golf scene emerged from the war years in 1919, when professional tournament golf resumed with the Victory Open at St. Andrews. There was no Open Championship in 1919, so the Victory Open was considered by many an Open in all but name. Mitchell and George Duncan tied and shared the championship.

Also in 1919, Mitchell won the first of his three titles in the News of the World Match Play (also called the British Match Play Championship), one of the biggest events outside of the Open Championship. And he did it by beating Duncan, 1-up, in the championship match.

Mitchell repeated as match play champ in 1920 with a finals victory over Josh Taylor, brother of J.H. Taylor. His third win in the tournament was in 1929.

Along the way, Mitchell embarked on a few exhibition tours in the United States, joined by Duncan. He won a few tournaments on those tours, too, including the 1922 Southern Open and the 1924 Miami Open. Among his other victories were the Glasgow Herald Tournament twice and the Roehampton Invitation three times, plus the Evening Standard Tournament and Daily Mail Tournament. He won five tournaments in 1929, including the Irish Open.

Mitchell's last significant tournament wins were in 1934, when he won three times at the age of 47.

Mitchell also worked as a club pro for much of his tournament career. He was pro at North Foreland Golf Club in Kent, England, from 1919-25. His arrangement with Samuel Ryder beginning in 1925 paid Mitchell as much as he earned annually at North Foreland, as well as Mitchell's tournament entry fees. He was probably the highest-paid pro golfer outside of the United States at that time. In 1936, Mitchell took over as pro at Verulam Golf Club in St. Albans, near London.

He wrote multiple books of golf instruction. The first, Essentials of Golf, published in 1927, is one of the British classics of early golf instruction, translated into many languages. Down to Scratch was published in 1933; and Length on the Links: A Book for Players in All Stages Revealing the Secrets of the Long Ball, was published in 1935 and compiled from articles by Mitchell first published in the London Sunday Dispatch. The latter two are scarcer and more expensive than the first one.

Mitchell was only 60 years old when he died in 1947.

List of Abe Mitchell's Biggest Wins

Mitchell had two wins on the U.S. PGA Tour, despite never being a regular player on that tour:
  • 1922 Southern Open (tied with Leo Diegel, no playoff)
  • 1924 Miami Open
Most of his wins were on the British PGA circuit:
  • 1919 St. Andrews Victory Open (tied with George Duncan, no playoff)
  • 1919 News of the World Match Play
  • 1920 McVitie & Price Tournament (tied with James Braid, no playoff)
  • 1920 News of the World Match Play
  • 1921 McVitie & Price Tournament
  • 1921 Glasgow Herald Tournament
  • 1922 Glasgow Herald Tournament
  • 1925 Daily Dispatch Northern Professional Championship
  • 1925 Evening Standard Tournament
  • 1926 Evening Standard Target Tournament
  • 1926 Roehampton Invitation
  • 1927 Roehampton Invitation
  • 1927 Daily Mail Tournament
  • 1928 Roehampton Invitation
  • 1928 Ryder Tournament (tied with Bill Davies, no playoff)
  • 1929 Leeds Cup
  • 1929 News of the World Match Play
  • 1929 Irish Open
  • 1929 Selsdon Park Tournament
  • 1932 Bristol Evening World Tournament
  • 1934 Dunlop-Southern Tournament
  • 1924 Addington Foursomes (partnered by Rex Hartley)
Before he turned pro, Mitchell's biggest wins as an amateur were in the Golf Illustrated Gold Vase tournaments of 1910 and 1913. His wins as a professional also included regional tournaments such as the 1920 Kent Professional tournament, plus the Hertfordshire Open Championships of 1927, 1929, 1932 and 1934.

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