Harold Hilton: British Open and Amateur Champ

Harold Hilton circa 1914 swings a club

English golfer Harold Hilton's competitive career stretched from the 1880s into the 1920s. As the winner of two British Opens, four British Amateurs and one U.S. Amateur, he was among the top handful of pre-World War I British golfers. He remains to this day the only British golfer win both the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur titles in the same year.

Full name: Harold Horsfall Hilton

Date of birth: January 12, 1869

Place of birth: West Kirby, Merseyside, England

Date and place of death: May 5, 1942, in Westcote, Gloucestershire, England

Also known as: H.H. Hilton or Harold H. Hilton in print during his lifetime. His nickname was Hal.

His Biggest Wins

  • 1892 British Open
  • 1897 British Open
  • 1897 Irish Amateur Open
  • 1900 British Amateur
  • 1900 Irish Amateur Open
  • 1901 British Amateur
  • 1901 Irish Amateur Open
  • 1902 Irish Amateur Open
  • 1911 British Amateur
  • 1911 U.S. Amateur
  • 1913 British Amateur
  • 1914 Golf Illustrated Gold Vase

Hilton In The Open Championship: 2 Wins

Harold Hilton never turned professional, and he was the second amateur golfer to win The Open Championship. He first played The Open in 1892, and last played in 1914. (Although he continued playing in some amateur tournaments once British golf resumed following World War I, he never turned to The Open.)

These were his two victories:

  • 1892 British Open: This was the first Open Championship played over 72 holes (all previous had been 36 holes); the first played over two days (all previous had been one day); and the first one played on the Muirfield links in Scotland. And it's a tournament Hilton almost didn't play. Deciding at the last minute, he hopped a train from his English home to the Scottish links only the day before.

    Hilton was seven shots off the lead after 36 holes. John Ball — the first amateur winner of The Open, and Hilton's Royal Liverpool clubmate — was the leader following the third round. But on that second day, Hilton had scores of 72 and 74, very good scores for the era. In fact, the 72 was the low round of the tournament, and the 74 was the low score of the final round. Hilton wound up winning by three strokes over Ball, Sandy Herd, and the defending champ, Hugh Kirkaldy.

  • 1897 British Open: Hilton had the pleasure of winning this one on his home links, Royal Liverpool. He trailed James Braid by one stroke after 36 holes. But he fell three off Braid's pace with an 82 in the third round.

    Playing well ahead of Braid in the final round, Hilton carded a 75 that turned out to be the best score of that round. During the long wait to see if Braid could catch him, Hilton spent the time playing billiards in the clubhouse. When Braid reached the final hole needing a 3 to tie, Hilton went out to watch and saw Braid nearly hit the flagstick with his approach. But Braid's ball, just barely missing the flagstick, rolled well past the cup, and he missed the putt. Hilton was the champ by one stroke.

Winning the British and U.S. Amateurs

While Hilton was winning the biggest open titles in the 1890s, it took until the first decade of the 1900s before he claimed the biggest amateur tournaments. But he eventually won the British Amateur four times, plus the U.S. Amateur once. In fact, he won them both in 1911, the first golfer to do so. And to this day, Hilton remains the only British golfer to win the U.S. and British amateur championships in the same year.

His U.S. Amateur title was in 1911, one of just two times he played that tournament (he was knocked out in the Round of 32 in his title defense in 1912). Hilton first earned medalist honors with a two-round total of 150.

In the third round of match play, he defeated Jerry Travers (at that time a 2-time U.S. Amateur winner, Travers eventually won the tournament four times and also won the 1915 U.S. Open), 3 and 1. And in the championship match, Hilton, then 42 years old, defeated the 23-year-old Fred Herreshoff on the 37th hole.

Hilton was 6-up in that title match with 13 holes to play, but Herreshoff fought back to even match on 34th hole. Still all square after the 36th hole, the two golfers continued into extra holes.

On the 37th hole, Hilton sliced his approach shot and it appeared his chances might be over. But his golf ball struck an outcropping of rocks short and right of the green and caromed right back onto the putting surface. Perhaps unnerved by Hilton's luck, Herreshoff topped his second shot and wound up bogeying the hole. Hilton 2-putted to win the hole and the 1911 U.S. Amateur trophy. The famous golf writer Herbert Warren Wind once called Hilton's lucky bounce, "the most discussed single shot ever played in an American tournament."

There was not another European winner of the U.S. Amateur until 2005, and not another English winner until 2013.

These are Hilton's four victories in the British Amateur:

  • 1900: def. James Robb, 8 and 7, in championship match (Robb was 1897 runner-up and 1906 winner).
  • 1901: beat Johnny Laidlay 3 and 2 in third round, Harry Colt 5 and 4 in quarterfinals, Horace Hutchinson 2 and 1 in semifinals, then John Low 1-up in championship match.
  • 1911: def. Edward Lassen, 4 and 3 in championship match (Lassen was 1908 winner).
  • 1913: def. Robert Harris, 6 and 5 in championship match (Harris won in 1925).
Those wins came after Hilton had already been the runner-up three times in the 1890s: He lost in the championship match in 1891 (on second extra hole to Laidlay); in 1892 (3 and 1 to John Ball); and in 1896 (8 and 7 to Freddie Tait). He had also reached the quarterfinals in 1894 and 1899. And he reached the quarterfinals in 1902 and 1904, the semifinals in 1910, and the quarterfinals again in 1922 when he was 53 years old.

Hilton first played in the British Amateur in 1887, and last played 40 years later, at age 58 in 1927.

portrait of Harold Hilton circa 1913

More About Harold Hilton

The strength of Harold Hilton's game was accuracy. Which is surprising when you hear descriptions of the ferocity of his golf swing.

His playing style was described in one of Peter Alliss' books like this: "Fairly short, at 5 feet 7 inches*, Hilton swung fast and furiously, coming up on his toes in the impact area, and often losing the cap he habitually wore. Despite this violence Hilton was an extremely accurate player, especially to the flag with woods." (*Other sources, including the World Golf Hall of Fame, put Hilton's height at 5-foot-5.) The cap might have flown, but the cigarette he almost always had in his mouth stayed in place.

The editors of a 1975 Ecyclopedia of Golf wrote that Hilton "looked like a schoolboy having a really good smack at the ball," citing his "explosively fast swing." But, they wrote, he "also had an extremely good touch with the putter."

The golf writer Bernard Darwin once described Hilton swinging "with almost frenetic abandon."

Hilton was low amateur in The Open Championship five times. Of course, that number includes the two years he won. In addition, he was low amateur in 1898 (5th), 1901 (4th) and 1911 (3rd). He had eight Top 10 finishes total in The Open; in addition to those already mentioned, Hilton tied eighth in 1891 and 1893, and tied sixth in 1902.

Despite all his achievements, it is arguable that Hilton was on the second-best player at his club. As mentioned earlier, Hilton and John Ball were both Royal Liverpool members. Ball was the first amateur victor in The Open, and holds the record with eight wins in The Amateur Championship.

But Hilton's 1911 year, after several years in which his game had fallen off a bit, was certainly one of the best of the era. It included his U.S.-British double in the amateur championships, plus the third-place finish in The Open.

Hilton was also a four-time winner of the Irish Amateur, taking that title in 1897, 1900, 1901 and 1902. His last significant tournament victory was in the 1914 Golf Illustrated Gold Vase. Hilton played only because 1913 U.S. Open winner Francis Ouimet was in the field, and Hilton got himself paired with the new, young American star. And then Hilton beat Ouimet and everyone else.

Hilton designed some golf courses, the best-known of which today is Ferndown Club north of Bournemouth, England.

Hilton was also renown in his time as a golf writer and editor. He was the first editor of the UK magazine Golf Monthly. And from 1913 until his death in 1942, Hilton was the editor of Golf Illustrated magazine.

He also authored several books (affiliate links used for book titles, commissions earned): My Golfing Reminiscences was published in 1907; The Royal & Ancient Game of Golf appeared in 1912; and Modern Golf came out in 1913. He was also a contributor to Concerning Golf by John Low (1903) and Great Golfers: Their Methods at a Glance in 1904.

A book about Hilton came out in 1992, a biography by John Garcia titled Harold Hilton: His Golfing Life and Times.

Hilton was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1995 he was an honoree of Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament.

The Harold Hilton Tournament is still played today at Royal Liverpool. Hilton was later a member at Ashford Manor Golf Club, in Middlesex, England, and the club today includes the Harold Hilton Bar.

(Book titles are affiliate links; commissions earned)
Alliss, Peter. The Who's Who of Golf, 1983, Orbis Publishing.
Associated Press. "Harold H. Hilton, noted golfer, dies," New York Times, March 7, 1942, https://www.nytimes.com/1942/05/07/archives/harold-h-hilton-noted-golfer-dies-englishman-once-won-u-s-amateur.html.
DePasquale, Brian. "Matthew Fitzpatrick Wins 2013 U.S. Amateur Championship," USGA, Aug. 17, 2013, https://www.usga.org/articles/2013/08/matthew-fitzpatrick-wins-2013-us-amateur-championship-21474859343.html.
The R&A. Royal and Ancient Championship Records 1860-1980, Peter Ryde editor, 1981, Royal and Ancient Golf Club St. Andrews.
Smith, Craig. "Molinari Uses Birdie Binge to Become First Italian to Win U.S. Amateur," USGA, Aug. 28, 2005, https://www.usga.org/articles/championship-archives/us-amateur/2005.html.
Steel, Donald, and Ryde, Peter. The Encyclopedia of Golf, 1975, The Viking Press.
TheOpen.com. "1892 / Muirfield," R&A, https://www.theopen.com/previous-opens/32nd-open-muirfield-1892
TheOpen.com. "1897 / Royal Liverpool," R&A, https://www.theopen.com/previous-opens/37th-open-royal-liverpool-1897
United States Golf Association. Official USGA Record Book, 1895-1990, Triumph Books, 1992.
World Golf Hall of Fame. Members, "Harold Hilton," https://worldgolfhalloffame.org/harold-hilton/.

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