W. Lawson Little Jr

31st October 2019

William Lawson Little Jr. was born on 23rd June 1910 in Newport, Rhode Island, USA.

He is best known for his “Little Slam”, winning both the U.S. Amateur and Amateur Championships in 1934 and 1935. In these two years the Championships were both contested solely via match play.

He is the only player in history to have twice won both of these titles in the same year. Just three other players have achieved the ‘double’ in the same year – Harold Hilton (ENG) in 1911, Bobby Jones (USA) in 1930 and most recently Bob Dickson (USA) in 1967.

In achieving this feat he won an impressive 33 consecutive match play singles games in the two Amateur Championships and the Walker Cup¹.

Lawson Little Receives The 1934 Amateur Championship Trophy (Photo: Prestwick GC)

He started playing golf when he was 8 and was a student of English golf instructor Ernest Jones who emigrated to the New York area in the early 1920’s.

Little moved to San Francisco when his father, a colonel in the Army Medical Corps, was posted to California. He represented the Presidio G.C. in his adopted City throughout his career.

He first came to national prominence as a teenager in the late 1920’s. His 1928 and 1930 wins at the Northern Californian Amateur Championship helped but it was his part in the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach that really did the trick. After Johnny Goodman beat Bobby Jones in Round 1 in one of the greatest golfing upsets of all time it was Little who knocked the Omaha man off his pedestal in their afternoon Round 2 match.

Little graduated from Stanford University in Autumn 1935 having majored in Economics and was subsequently inducted into their Athletic Hall of Fame.

Lawson Little With The U.S. Amateur Championship Trophy in 1934 (Photo: Leslie Jones)

Little played in one Walker Cup match in May 1934 at The Old Course in St. Andrews. He won his foursomes with Johnny Goodman 8&6 against Roger Wethered and Cyril Tolley on Day 1 and then thrashed Tolley again 6&5 in the Saturday singles.

He was awarded the Amateur Athletic Union’s James E. Sullivan Award for the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States in 1935. This award, which is still handed out annually today, has only been given to a golfer twice, Bobby Jones also collecting it in its inaugural year of 1930. The Little family donated the trophy to the USGA Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey in 2008.

Little was well known for carrying as many as 26 clubs, including seven wedges, in his bag and as such was a major influence in the USGA introducing the 14-club limit in 1938.

He was nicknamed ‘cannonball’ reflecting the huge power he was able to generate from his modest 200lb, 5ft 9” frame. However, it was not just length that made him a leading player in the 1930’s and ’40s; he also had a superb short game, was a sound putter and was an intense competitor with a strong mind. He famously once said “It is impossible to outplay an opponent you cannot out think.”

Little turned professional in April 1936. At the time the U.S. PGA had a rule which meant that new pros had to serve a 5 year apprenticeship at a golf club before they could take up full membership so his playing opportunities, when he was 25-30 and in his prime, were limited.

Thankfully his stellar amateur career meant he was one of the first pros to receive significant commercial endorsements. The PGA’s rules also meant he could take up an invitation to join the Spalding “Keystones of Golf” exhibition tour alongside Bobby Jones, Horton Smith and Jimmy Thompson. In 1936-39 Little calculated that he travelled over 300,000 miles and played around 725 rounds of exhibition golf.

Lawson Little Wine Advertisment

The highlight of his pro career was his 1940 victory at the U.S. Open Championship when he overcame Gene Sarazen in an 18 hole play-off after both players had finished on 287 (-1).

He won a total of eight PGA Tour titles, including the Canadian Open (1936) and the Los Angeles Open (1940). Perhaps unfairly his professional career is considered a disappointment largely because of the high expectations that most people held for him at the time.

Between 1935 and 1957 Little played in 18 U.S. Masters finishing in the top 10 seven times. His best finish was a tied 3rd in 1939. He was the low amateur in 1935 when he finished 6th.

Little played in The Open in 1935, 1939, 1946 and 1948. On the back of his 1935 Amateur win he finished tied 4th, the low amateur, at Muirfield. His next best finish was 10th at St. Andrews in 1946.

Lawson and Dorothy Little With The U.S. Open Trophy in 1940 (Photo: The Golf Auction)

The onset of World War II, where Little served in the U.S. Navy and played numerous Red Cross exhibition games, obviously impacted his pro career. With many major championships cancelled it is said his interest in golf waned with investments in stocks and shares increasingly taking up more of his time.

With The Ryder Cup missing four matches between 1937 and 1947 one of the best match players of all time sadly never had an opportunity to make his mark in this contest.

Little married Dorothy Hurd in 1936 and the couple had four children, Linda, Sandra, Sonya and William Lawson III. Lawson Little III briefly played on the PGA Tour before becoming the club professional and then president of Quail Lodge & Golf Club in Carmel Valley for over 35 years. Like his father he died prematurely in June 2015, aged 67.

Lawson Little Jr was just 57 when he died of a heart attack on 1st February 1968 at his home alongside the first hole at Pebble Beach in California. He had started to drink heavily in the early 1950’s and this inevitably took it’s toll on his health in middle age.

He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1980 but despite this remains one of the least known and most under-appreciated golfers in the history of the game.

Lawson Little Mac Cartoon Celebrating His Amateur championship Wins (Photo: Pure Golf Auctions)

Note ¹ – 1934 and 1935 Match Play Championship Results

1934 Walker Cup Match – St. Andrews (2 games)
Foursomes W (with Johnny Goodman) 8&6 v. Roger Wethered & Cyril Tolley
Singles W  6&5 v. Cyril Tolley 

1934 Amateur Championship – Prestwick GC (8 games)
Rd1 W 3&1 v. RW Ripley (Banstead Downs) 
Rd2 W 5&3 v. FL Rankin (Sunningdale)
Rd3 W 3&2 v. EA McRuvie (Innerleven)
Rd4 W 3&2 v. LOM Munn (Royal Cinque Ports)
Rd5 W 4&3 v. GB Peters (Fereneze)
QF W 4&2 v. TA Bourn (Sunningdale)
SF W 20th Hole v. LG Garnett (Addington)
Final W 14&13 v. J Wallace (Troon Portland)

The American Walker Cup team were scheduled to sail home from Liverpool on the evening of the 1934 Amateur final. Thankfully The R&A arranged for the Final to start earlier and for the ship to sail at midnight so Lawson could compete and then travel south. As it happened Lawson’s play was so good – he made twelve 3’s in the 23 holes played – that they probably needn’t have worried.

1934 U.S. Amateur – The Country Club, Brookline (8 games)
Final W 8&7 v. David Goldman

1935 Amateur Championship – Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s (8 games)
Rd1 W 1 Hole v. TH Parker (Fairhaven)
Rd2 W 5&3 v. EM Smith (Royal St. George’s)
Rd3 W 4&3 v. JP Zacharias (Formby)
Rd4 W 2&1 v. HG McCallum (Troon)
Rd5 W 2 Holes v. JL Black (Rhos on Sea) 
QF W 6&4 v. GLQ Henriques (Cavendish) 
SF W 3&2 v. R Sweeny Jr (Prince’s)
Final W 1 Hole v. Dr. W Tweddell (Stourbridge) 

Lawson played poorly during most of this Championship but enjoyed good fortune with a friendly draw and timely poor play from his opponents. In Rd 1 he shot 80 so was lucky to progress against a local player who knew Lytham well. McCallum three putted two late holes to hand Little a win in Rd 4. In Rd 5 the American recorded an air shot in a bunker on the 16th and in his Semi-Final he shot 40 on the front nine. Little led the Final 3Up at lunch but having returned to his hotel in the break returned late and preceded to lose the first two holes of the afternoon 18. Tweddell achieved parity by the 12th but a win with par on the 15th proved enough for the American to hold on as both players parred in.  

1935 U.S. Amateur – The Country Club, Cleveland (8 games)
Final W 4&2 v. Walter Emery

Mark Eley.

Copyright © 2014-2019, Mark Eley. All rights reserved.

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