The Scotland-born golfer Willie Anderson (1879–1910) was the first player to win golf's U.S. Open four times, and he remains the only player to win the championship three consecutive times. He notched a long series of other golf firsts, and as a golf professional and golf course designer he contributed significantly to the growth of the sport in the United States.
Nicknamed and generally known as Willie, golfer and golf-course designer William Law Anderson remains little known in comparison with those of mid-century giants of the game such as Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. He lived at a time when professional golfers were more curiosities than celebrities, and records of his activities tend to list his accomplishments rather than give a full sense of his personality. Yet Anderson's sheer dominance of the game in the first years of the 20th century suggests that he deserves a place in the pantheon of golf greats. Golf writer Robert Sommers, quoted in Scotland's Berwickshire News, noted that “those who played against him and watched the great players of later years said he was as good as anyone who ever played.”
Anderson grew up in North Berwick, Scotland, and his birthplace may have had a hand in his destiny. North Berwick has produced other important golfers, among them British Open champion Catriona Matthew. Anderson was born on October 21, 1879, and he grew up around golf: his father, Tom Anderson Sr., was a head greenkeeper at the local West Links course. Both his father and his younger brother, Tom Anderson Jr., would follow him to the United States and succeed in the golf world there.
Anderson's choice of career seemed set very early; he became a caddie at West Links at age 11, and he endured a two-week suspension from work after being caught caddying when he should have been in school. He eventually left school altogether in favor of an apprenticeship with a local clubmaker, and by his mid-teens he had a reputation as one of Scotland's best clubmakers.
In the spring of 1896, at age 17, Anderson boarded the S.S. Pomeranian, bound from Glasgow for New York City, possibly under the sponsorship of tennis and golf equipment manufacturing executive Frank Slazenger. The trip proved a disastrous one: an outbreak of typhus killed more than a quarter of the 97 people aboard, but Anderson survived. He arrived in New York on March 21, 1896, and promptly began working as a golf pro at the Misquamicut Golf Club in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. He designed a new back nine for the then nine-hole course in that elegant coastal town.
By 1897 Anderson had moved on to a golf pro position in Lakewood, New York. Until this point in his career, he had never played competitive golf, much less won a championship. He entered the 1897 U.S. Open in Chicago, the third time that tournament had been held, and finished second, losing to England's Joe Lloyd by one stroke in a dramatic finish that saw Lloyd score an eagle on the final hole. Anderson took home a prize of $100, and this showing put the unknown Scottish teenager on the map. At a time when purses were small even at the most prestigious U.S. golf tournaments, he was able to earn a living moving from club to club as a pro, playing exhibition matches, and laying out new courses as the game's popularity grew in America. Often Anderson broke course records as he visited new courses and played them. He worked as a pro at ten different clubs over 14 years.
In 1898 Anderson took a position at the new Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey. He finished third in the U.S. Open that year, dropping to fifth in 1899 and 11th in 1900. Despite the advances in golf-ball technology, he used old-fashioned golf balls with centers made from natural gutta percha latex. In 1901, he used gutta percha balls and won his first U.S. Open title, defeating Alex Smith by one stroke in a playoff round at the Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts. He soon switched to the modern ball, however, and the rest of his wins were accomplished using rubber-core balls. Still, he remains the only player to have won championships using both types of ball.
Anderson's father and younger brother, Tom Jr., arrived in the United States in 1900 and found their own place within the country's growing golf industry. Both became respected professionals, and Tom Anderson Sr. designed a new ninehole course at the Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey. In 1903 the elder Anderson and both sons played in the U.S. Open at the Baltusrol Club, a phenomenon that is unlikely to be repeated.
The years 1903–1905 marked the high point of Anderson's career. He won the 1903 U.S. championship in a playoff against slate roofer Davie Brown by two strokes—the closest any player would come to beating him at the Open in any of those three years. In the 1904 Open at Glen View Country Club in Chicago, he dominated the field with a U.S. Open record score of 303 and a tournament-record score of 72 in the last round. In 1905, Anderson traveled home to Scotland to enter the Open Championship at the fabled St. Andrews club. Although he was flummoxed by a new course design and failed to make the cut after two rounds, he redeemed himself with a third consecutive U.S. Open victory, this one at the Myopia club.
Two other golfers, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, have won the U.S. Open four times to date, but Anderson has maintained his record of winning three consecutive tournaments. Those were not his only tournament victories during those years, however. In 1902 in St. Louis he took the first of his four Western Open titles; the tournament at the time had a level of prestige comparable to that of the Masters today. He shot a then almost-unheard-of 69 in one round and set a record of 299 shots over 72 holes. Anderson won the Western Open again in 1904, 1908, and 1909. He won numerous smaller tournaments and exhibitions as well; his peak earning year was 1906, a year in which he won neither the U.S. Open nor the Western Open.
Contributing to Anderson's success in 1906 was his appointment as club pro at the Onwentsia Country Club in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he enjoyed a record-breaking salary. At a time when golf as a spectator sport was still a novelty in the United States, and when new clubs and courses were just beginning to spring up in major cities, Anderson trained countless golfers, laid out courses that still exist today, and became one of the game's first stars.
Anderson's character was steady and undemonstrative. “You couldn't tell whether he was winning or losing by looking at him,” his Scottish rival Fred McLeod was quoted as saying on the World Golf Hall of Fame website. Anderson believed that the key to playing golf well was to think of nothing else while playing. His golf attire, characteristically Scottish, consisted of a tartan cap pulled down over his head to cover his large ears, plaid pants, a tweed jacket, and a neckerchief instead of a tie.
A widely reported incident involving Anderson involved his effort to elevate the status of club pros, who at posh country clubs were forbidden from entering the members’ clubhouse. While he was at the Myopia club during the 1901 U.S. Open, he was instructed that he had to take meals in the kitchen with other club staff. “No, we're no goin’ tae eat in the kitchen,” was his response, as reported in Scotland's Glasgow Herald. A compromise was reached whereby Anderson and other pros ate in a tent of their own.
Anderson married an American woman named Agnes, and the couple had a daughter. The family settled in a small cottage on Wissahickon Avenue, Philadelphia, opposite what is now Chestnut Hill College, where Anderson accepted the position of head pro at the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1910. He continued to travel frequently between the United States and Scotland, once bringing his wife to meet those members of his family who had remained in Scotland.
After traveling to Pittsburgh for a professional-amateur exhibition, Anderson returned to his home in Philadelphia on October 24, 1910, and he died the following day. His sudden death remained the subject of controversy for many years. A 1929 issue of American Golfer published a profile of Anderson that suggested alcoholism as a cause, but few other reports from his lifetime indicated that he drank to excess. Although some reference sources listed heart disease as the cause of death, an investigation of Philadelphia city records by golf journalist Bill Fields indicated that Anderson died after an epileptic seizure.
Gold, Jeff, Golf's Forgotten Legends & Unforgettable Controversies, Morgan James, 2015.
Berwickshire News (Berwick upon Tweed, England), June 18, 2012.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), June 15, 2009, p. 15.
Antique Golf Clubs from Scotland, http://www.antiquegolfscotland.com/antiquegolf/ (July 14, 2016), “Willie Anderson.
Famous North Berwick Golfers, http://www.northberwick.org.uk/ (July 14, 2016), “William Law Anderson.”
Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, http://www.sshf.co.uk/ (July 14, 2016), “Willie Anderson.”
World Golf Hall of Fame, http://www.worldgolfhalloffame.org/ (July 14, 2016), “Willie Anderson.”❑