Arthur Havers' victory at Royal Troon in 1923
In 1923, the year The Open moved to Troon for the first time, the average height of a British male was 5ft 8in (1.73m). At 6ft 2in, therefore, Arthur Havers stood out in the crowd.
It was not his height that attracted the attention in the build-up to , however, but Havers’s sublime quality of golf, honed since he was a youngster at Royal Norwich Golf Club, where his father was employed as a steward.
Harry Vardon, winner of the Claret Jug on six occasions and one of the game’s all-time greats, was one of those who predicted high-level success for his fellow Englishman, a player 28 years his junior. Vardon got a close-up view of Havers in an exhibition match at Royal Norwich in 1921 and was convinced that the young man, who went around in 68, to his own 77, had the game to beat anybody.
“Havers combines a perfect style with immense hitting power,” stated a report in American Golfer magazine. “In Vardon’s opinion Havers will win the crown of the golfing world within the next three years.”
In the 1920s, they did not come much bigger or better than the flamboyant Walter Hagen, who arrived at Troon as the defending champion following his victory the previous year at Royal St George’s, in Kent. Ultimately Hagen came close, but in the end it was Havers who triumphed over the American by a single stroke.
Havers was the club professional at Coombe Hill at the time and the Surrey club is rightly proud of its former winners of The Open. Impressively, they have had four of them – Sandy Herd (1902), Havers (1923), Henry Cotton (1934, 1937, 1948) and Dick Burton (1939). The club’s website describes Havers as, “a man with a lunging swing, a four-knuckle left-hand grip, a corresponding right hand and a prodigious talent.” Others who observed him in his prime saw a player who could drive the ball great distances, and shape and fashion shots at will.
It was such talent that was brought to bear in 1923. Nine years earlier, at just 16, Havers established his pedigree by qualifying for The Open from an entry of more than 200 players. That same year, he set the course record at Royal Norwich. Had the First World War not intervened (he spent three years in the Royal Air Force), who knows what he might have achieved in the interim.
At Troon, Havers was consistency personified. He opened with three rounds of 73 and went into the final round leading Joe Kirkwood, of Australia, by one and Hagen by two. He then closed with a 76 that included a champion’s flourish at the very end. After finding a greenside bunker with his approach shot, the Englishman holed out from the sand for a superb birdie and the clubhouse lead on 295.
Kirkwood, playing behind, made great strides until he reached the 14th, at which point his challenge collapsed. He took five strokes there, six at the 15th, and seven at the 16th. To compound his errors, he then missed a putt “no longer than an office ruler” at the 18th, and finished the championship just three strokes off the lead.
Hagen, though, was made of sterner stuff. As the Daily Telegraph reported: “For a fighter, plucky and courageous, give me Hagen, who struggled manfully with his back to the wall against tremendous odds.”
When he arrived at the 72nd hole, the defending Champion needed a birdie three to force a play-off - and almost achieved the feat. Like Havers before him, Hagen found a bunker just in front of the clubhouse windows with his second shot. His third, with the flag removed “in typical Hagen style”, missed the hole by inches.
What nobody could have predicted was that this was to be the last time the Claret Jug would be in British hands for another ten years. Between 1924 - when Hagen made amends for Troon, with victory at Royal Liverpool – and 1934, when Cotton won the first of his three Opens, American golfers were victorious for ten years in succession.
Havers was never to challenge as strongly again and had to settle on his victory at Troon as his one and only Major Championship. His win, and the manner in which he achieved it at the 72nd hole, was to live long in the memory of the 20,000 or so spectators who followed the action in 1923. Curiously, he was the last British player to win at Troon in the eight occasions in which The Open has been held on the Ayrshire links. The last six have been won by Americans. Could that be about to change? Only time will tell.