Harold Hilton

16th November 2017

Harold Hilton was born on 12th January 1869 in West Kirby, near Liverpool in England’s North West.

Following in the footsteps of his father he joined the nearby Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake when he was 8 years old. The Club, which received its patronage in 1871, is the one he was associated with all of his life and where his collection of medals are still proudly displayed to this day.

Harold Hilton (Photo: Royal Liverpool Golf Club)

It was fellow Hoylake junior member Willie More that helped him most in his formative years, encouraging him to watch better players and practice as much as he possibly could. He was of course fortunate that Johnny Ball, 8 years older than him and arguably Britain’s greatest ever amateur, was a fellow member of Royal Liverpool and clearly someone to aspire to and learn from.

Harold Hilton was one of the very best players for the 25 years between 1890 and 1915. Freddie Tait was the only player of this era he rarely got the better of. Whilst Hilton did beat Tait in stroke play he never beat him in a match play game and this drew a lot of comment at the time. Tait to a lesser degree had the same problem with Ball in match play.

His outstanding golfing achievement was winning both the 1911 Amateur Championship and the U.S. Amateur Championship. He was the first player to complete this double and he did so at the age of 42. Until Matthew Fitzpatrick won in 2013 Hilton had been the last Englishman to win the U.S. Amateur.

The 1911 U.S. Amateur has gone down in history for two reasons; firstly the manner of the victory and secondly the impact it had on the growth of the game in the United States.

Harold Hilton at Apawamis CC (Photo: The Ron Watts Collection)

The 1911 U.S. Amateur took place at Apawamis Country Club in Rye, New York State. Hilton won the stroke play by two shots (76+74=150) leading 32 qualifiers into the match play stage. He then reached the 36 hole Final where he faced Brooklyn-born Fred Herreshoff (24). At lunch Hilton led 4Up and he quickly extended this to 6Up early in the afternoon round. Herreshoff fought back bravely and managed to draw level after 34-holes. The American had chances to win on both of the final two holes but putts just missed for him as Hilton struggled for halves.

Playing their 37th hole (the par 4 1st), with both players having driven into the fairway, Hilton sliced his 3-wood approach. What happened next remains uncertain. The ball either hit the rocky outcrop to the right of the green (in those days surrounded by trees and rough) or benefitted from a kind bounce on the slope before it. Either way from looking dead off the club face it ended up in the middle of the green 20 feet from the hole. In shock Herreshoff – no doubt thinking he had one hand on the trophy just moments earlier – topped his own approach short and then proceeded to take three more to get down. Despite his experience Hilton nervously two-putted for par, in the end having to hole a 3 footer to secure the Havemeyer Trophy.

Herbert Warren Wind described the ‘rock shot’ many years later in his The Story of American Golf (1948) as “the most discussed single shot ever played in an American tournament.” He went on to explain why it had motivated the next generation of U.S. golfers so much: “Americans were not at all pleased over the idea that a foreigner had carried one of our championship cups out of the country, and that men who had never cared about golf before now wanted to know the real inside story.”


Hilton’s Rock on the 1st Hole of Apawamis CC in 2015
(Photos: Dave Donelson, Westchester Magazine)

In total Harold Hilton won four Amateur Championships:-
1900 – at Royal St. George’s GC v. James Robb SCO (8&7)
1901 – at St. Andrews v. John L. Low SCO (1 Up)
1911 – at Prestwick v. Edward Lassen ENG (4&3)
1913 – at St. Andrews v. Robert Harris SCO (6&5)

It was perhaps no coincidence that his success in the Amateur started in 1900, the first year that both Tait (who had been killed that February in the Second Boer War) and Ball (who was still serving in South Africa) were both absent.

Hilton also lost three Amateur Finals; in 1891 to John Laidlay (19th hole), 1892 to Johnny Ball (3&2) and 1896 to Freddie Tait (8&7).

He achieved an impressive Won 95, Lost 29 (76.6%) overall Amateur Championship record. Between 1887 and 1927, he appropriately started and finished at Royal Liverpool, he played more Championships (33) and matches (124) than anyone else has in history. World War I deprived him of 5 Amateurs between 1916-1919 too.

Harold Hilton also won the Open Championship in 1892 (Muirfield, 305 – 66 entrants) and 1897 (Royal Liverpool, 314 – 86 entrants). The 1892 Open was the first played over 72 holes.

Just Johnny Ball (the first to do so in 1890), Bobby Jones (1926, 1927 & 1930) and Hilton have achieved this feat as amateurs. All three were members of Royal Liverpool GC.

It is in some respects surprising that Hilton won both of his Opens before he had secured an Amateur Championship but he was a renowned stroke player. In total he played in 20 Open’s between 1891 and 1914.

It’s worth noting that Hilton also finished tied third in the 1911 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s with Sandy Herd, one shot behind Harry Vardon, who won the subsequent play-off, and Arnaud Massy. What a hat trick of wins that would have been !


Harold Hilton’s Medals at Royal Liverpool GC (Photo: GolfBible)

It is easy to forget that many equipment changes took place around the the turn of the century. Hilton dealt reasonably well with the transition, coping better than many of his peers with new clubs such as the Driver and the rubber-cored Haskell ball which replaced the old gutta-percha one. Interestingly of the seven Majors Hilton won the first four saw him use the more exacting gutty whilst the final three were with the easier rubber-core ball.

He also won the St. George’s Challenge Cup in 1893 and 1894, a major amateur competition back in the day.

He won the Irish Open Amateur Championship three years in a row and in some style too. In 1900 he beat S.H. Fry 11&9 at Newcastle, in 1901 P. Dowie 6&5 at Dollymount and in 1902 W.H. Hamilton 5&4 at Portrush.

In October 1910 Hilton (41) played Miss Cecil Leitch (19), a future women’s champion golfer, in a two day 72 hole exhibition match at Walton Heath and Sunningdale. Hilton had publically said he or for that matter any other first class male golfer could give 9 shots to an equivalent women over 18 holes. The Ladies’ Field magazine wanting to see if he could deliver on his word arranged the match and the publicity drew large crowds to the famous courses. Helped by the 18 shots she received Leitch ended up winning 2&1 but Hilton had largely made his point particularly as had been 2 Up after the first day’s play at Walton Heath.

Hilton’s last major win came in 1914 when he won the Golf Illustrated Gold Vase at Sunningdale with a 151 total. As one of the organisers of this event he paired himself with Francis Ouimet, the reigning U.S. Open champion, and proceeded to comprehensively out play him over the 36 holes.

Hilton’s swing was ungainly and notable for the fact he started by moving onto his toes before then very noticeably re-gripping the club at the point of transition. He almost always played whilst smoking too although it is said he limited himself to 50 cigarettes a day. However, like all the greats he practiced hard and honed his style. As he said himself “(I) served a long apprenticeship in the art of learning how to control the club in the upward swing.”

As Robert Harris, the runner-up in the 1913 Amateur, said: “His cap used to fall off his head at the end of full swings, as if jerked off, but this did not indicate if the swing was pure if unduly forceful. He was a small man with a powerful physique; it was exhilarating to watch his perky walk between shots. His assiduity was his greatness.”

Harold Hilton’s Swing (Photo: ingolfwetrust.com)

Hilton also spent a lot of time thinking about the mental side of the game. He believed it was “possible to develop the habit of concentration” and believed “that the majority of good match players are inclined to be very silent men” and tend to be those that play the game “without allowing any outside influence to affect them in any way whatever.”

Hilton was also a member of West Lancashire Golf Club and was this club’s first paid Secretary in the early 1900’s. He was also Secretary of Ashford Manor Golf Club later in his life.

In 1912 he played a leading role in designing the highly regarded Old Course at Ferndown Golf Club in Dorset. The 16th hole is still named ‘Hilton’s’ in memory of his involvement with the Club.

He turned his hand to writing about the sport as he came to the end of his playing career. As well as a frequent contributor he was the first editor of Golf Monthly magazine (from 1911) before taking on the same role at Golf Illustrated, then a weekly paper (from 1913).

He wrote three books My Golfing Reminiscences (1907), The Royal and Ancient Game of Golf (with Garden C. Smith, 1912) and Modern Golf (1913). The fact that he wrote his autobiography in 1907 is probably down to opportunity but also reveals that at 38 he probably thought his best playing days were behind him. It was in 1903 that he also started to suffer with rheumatism and sciatica. His confidence in his own game was such that he chose not to even enter The Open in 1906, 1907 (at Hoylake), 1908 or 1910. History of course shows how wrong he was to nearly retire from competitive golf.

‘Hoylake’ – the chain smoking Harold Hilton depicted by ‘Spy’ (Sir Leslie Ward)

Hilton died aged 73 on 5th May 1942 at his home in Westcote, near Stow on the Wold in Gloucestershire. He had a heart attack but had been suffering with Parkinson’s Disease for some time prior to this.

Harold Hilton was admitted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the game.

In 1992 John L.B. Garcia wrote Harold Hilton His Golfing Life and Times. It was published in a limited edition of 750 copies by Grant Books.

Royal Liverpool Golf Club inaugurated the Harold Hilton Medal for amateur golfers over the age of 30 in 1997 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of their member’s famous home Open Championship victory. It is played in early June annually.

The Harold Hilton Medal (Photo: Royal Liverpool Golf Club)

Whilst small in stature, he was just 5 foot 6 inches tall, Harold Hilton is unquestionably one of the giants in the history of British golf.

It is amazing that Royal Liverpool produced first Johnny Ball and then just a short while afterwards Harold Hilton, two of the leading players of the time and looking back a 100 years later two of the biggest names in the history of amateur golf.


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

John Ball Jr

24th December 2014

On the anniversary of his birthday I thought I would research the career of arguably Britain’s greatest ever amateur golfer.  Indeed many commentators place him only behind the legendary Bobby Jones on the world’s greatest list.

John (‘Johnny’) Ball was born in Hoylake on the Wirral, England on 24th December 1861.

John Ball 1

John Ball

John Ball’s father, John Senior, owned the Royal Hotel at Hoylake.  The hotel became the club house for the Liverpool GC (the Royal was conferred in 1871) when it was first established in 1869.  Living adjacent to the famous links (and old race course) John soon took up the game and quickly became proficient.

He grew to know Royal Liverpool like the back of his hand. He proved it in 1907 when he took a bet that he could go round the course in a dense fog in under 90 shots, without losing a ball and taking no longer than two and a quarter hours. Playing with a single painted black ball he scored 81 well within the allotted time.

He had a natural talent and the most envied swing of the time, despite what Bernard Darwin described as a “curious right-handed grip”.  Darwin, the famous Times Golf Correspondent, who saw all of the old greats play in person, thought very highly of Ball, saying “The beauty of any particular player’s style must, like his exact placing in the golfing firmament, be a matter of individual feeling, and I can only say that I have derived greater aesthetic and emotional pleasure from watching Mr. Ball than from any other spectacle in any game”.


John Ball Competing In The 1912 Amateur Championship (Photo: Royal North Devon G.C.)

In 1878, aged 16, he came to national prominence when he finished fifth in the Open Championship held at Prestwick GC.  The Open, largely aimed at professional golfers, had been inaugurated by Prestwick GC in 1860.

In 1885 his home club, Royal Liverpool, held an informal Open Amateur ‘Grand Tournament’, which was played during their Spring Meeting.  This match play competition attracted 44 leading players “from recognised clubs” of the time, including Ball (23) who had gained entry through some Committee shenanigans (having received a £1 payment for his Open place in 1878 and whose amateur stays was therefore questionable at the time).  In the middle of the competition the stroke play Club Gold Medal was contested.  Ball won this with a course record 77.  The following morning he played Horace Hutchinson in a titanic semi-final match in the resumed Grand Tournament, losing on the 18th 2 Down.  Later that day Allan Macfie beat a spent Horace Hutchinson 7&6 in the final.  The event proved to be the success the Club had hoped for and as planned a proposal was put to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (R&A) for a formal Amateur Championship to be established thereafter.  The suggestion was accepted and the first Amateur Championship was staged at St. Andrews in 1886, albeit the 1885 Hoylake Tournament was subsequently recognised in 1922.

John Ball went on to win 8 Amateur Championships in total – 1888, ’90, ’92, ’94, ’99, 1907, ’10, and ’12.  His wins came at Prestwick (2), Hoylake (3), Sandwich (1), St. Andrews (1) and Westward Ho ! (1).  His final Amateur victory in 1912 came when he was 50 years old.  The gap of 24 years between his first and last victories is clearly a record that will never be broken.  He was also runner-up twice, in 1887 and 1895.  Playing his last Amateur in 1921 at Hoylake, aged 60, he reached the last 16 from a starting field of 223.  His Amateur win record of W99-L22 (81.8%) is unparalleled.

When one considers Ball was playing in The Open in 1878 (8 years before the first Amateur) and that he also missed the 1900, ’01 and ’02 Championships due to military commitments (see below) one can only hazard a guess at how many Amateurs he may have won if events had unfolded in a more favourable manner.


John Ball’s Medals at Royal Liverpool GC (Photo: GolfBible) 

Ball also won the Open Championship in September 1890 at Prestwick GC – only the second time he had played since his 1878 debut.  He was the first Englishman and the first amateur to win the Championship.  He was also the first to hold both the Amateur and Open Championships – a feat matched by Bobby Jones in 1930 on his way to the Grand Slam.  Fellow Royal Liverpool member Harold Hilton is the third and only other amateur to win The Open.  He was runner-up in the 1892 Open at Muirfield, when he let a lead slip to his friend Hilton.

The importance afforded to the Amateur over The Open in these early years is clear when one considers that Ball played in every Amateur between 1885 and 1921, save for his three war years, but was sporadic in his Open entries.

Unsurprisingly given his match play record he was a stubborn and determined competitor who would fight to the very end.  Darwin once noted that Ball had “a strong vein of hostility and if he wanted a player’s blood, he would fight his way through a tournament with the sole object of getting him”.

In 1908 he created a record by winning every one of the Royal Liverpool G.C.’s scratch medals.

John Ball 2

John Ball’s ‘Vanity Fair’ picture

After his 6th Amateur win in 1907 at St. Andrews he was made an honorary member of the R&A.

He served for the Cheshire Yeomanry in the Second Boer War (October 1899 – May 1902) in South Africa.  During this period he played next to no golf and missed three Amateur Championships.  Indeed one of his fiercest competitors, Scotland’s Freddie Tait, was killed in the same conflict.  His later competitive years would also have been impacted by World War I (1915-19) when he served in the Home Forces and most competitions were cancelled.

Ball was a quiet, retiring, introverted character who said very little to anyone.  It is next to impossible to find any written words or quotes from the great man.  He was very modest preferring to let his golf do the talking for him.  This approach created a certain mythology around him which remains to this day.  The quality of his game meant that he was the first player to consistently go for nearly every flag, whereas his peers simply played for the green.  This led to many memorable, heroic shots in his matches which spectators would talk about for days afterwards.  It also helped nullify his main weakness which was his putting.

He was a traditionalist who fought against the introduction of the lofted iron.  He described the niblick (a modern 8-iron), which he refused to carry, as “just another bloody spade” and felt it de-skilled the game he loved.  He believed players should simply adjust the lie of their existing mid-iron clubs with their grip when height was required on an approach shot.

He retired a ‘legend in his own lifetime’ to his farm in Holywell, Flintshire in nearby North Wales where he eventually died on 2nd December 1940, just shy of his 79th birthday.

John Ball 3

John Ball’s World Gall Hall of Fame Plaque

He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977.

John Ball is a true great of the game who undoubtedly helped spread the popularity of the sport in Great Britain and Ireland in the early 20th Century.  He is clearly someone whose legacy should not be allowed to fade away and who should be remembered by us all.


Copyright © 2014-2020, Mark Eley. All rights reserved.