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Hertfordshire groundsman who won the U.S. Open

PUBLISHED: 11:40 10 April 2018

A fresh-faced Horace Rawlins after winning at the 1895 US Open

A fresh-faced Horace Rawlins after winning at the 1895 US Open

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As St Albans’ Centurion Club prepares to welcome many of the best golfers in the world for the European Tour GolfSixes tournament in May, a club down the road can proudly claim its own place in the sport’s long history

What does a popular golf course in Hertfordshire have in common with the first winner of the world-renowned US Open? Quite a lot actually, as Horace Rawlins – who triumphed in the inaugural tournament in 1895 – was also groundsman and tutor at the newly-formed Mid Herts Golf Club.

The story of the talented but modest Rawlins is one well-known on the classic heathland golf course in Wheathampstead but is far less well known elsewhere, even in wider golfing circles.

At 21 he wrote his name into golfing history books in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Taking up a post to teach the booming sport in America, Isle of Wight-born Rawlins joined Scotsman Willie Davis in the US at the Newport Golf Club on the blue-blooded Rhode Island in early 1895. Here he had been tartly instructed to ‘teach golf, tend greens and stay out of the way’.

While Rawlins was never one for creating a fuss – his son Robert and grandson Michael were not even aware he was a key figure in the annals of the sport – he certainly made waves at the time, by triumphing in the competition that would become one of the four Grand Slam golf tournaments alongside the Masters, the PGA Championship and the British Open.

The first US Open was played on October 4, 1895, on a nine-hole course at the Newport Country Club. It was a 36-hole competition and was played over the course of a single day. Using the new solid moulded rubber ball called a gutta-percha (‘gutties’) and handmade hickory-shafted wooden clubs – the early professionals were as prized for their club making skills as their golfing ones – as well as commercially made drop-forged iron clubs, 10 professionals and one amateur entered the contest.

At the end of the day’s play, the young Rawlins, who arrived in the US to ‘stay out of the way’, had pipped Willie Dunn by two shots and picked up $150 cash winnings out of a prize fund of $335 for his victory, plus a $50 gold medal (seen pinned to his chest in his portrait), while his club received the Open Championship Cup trophy, which was presented by the United States Golf Association. Rather meanly, the cost of the medal was deducted from his winnings – a far cry from last year’s winner of the current 72-hole championship, the American Brooks Koepka, who shared a pot of more than £50m between the top finishers.

The Washington Post the next day splashed with the headline: ‘A mere lad beats all the cracks on the Newport Links’, adding Rawlins’ win was a ‘grand surprise... Rawlins of English birth is a mere lad, who was scarcely considered as a probable winner.’

The Hertfordshire hero returned to England in the aftermath of his victory to play a match with James Braid who went on to land the Open five times. Braid, a Scottish professional and a member of the ‘Great Triumvirate’ of the late Victorian and Edwardian days of the sport alongside Harry Vardon and John Henry Taylor, also has strong links with Mid Herts Golf Club – as a renowned course architect he was engaged to design the modern-day course.

The influential Golf Illustrated noted in April, 1896 that ‘A match was played over links as a memento of the Open Championship of America of 1895. Braid won fairly comfortably.’

Back in the US, Rawlins was runner-up that same year when the Open Championship was played at Shinnecock Hills, New York – the venue of this year’s prestigious event. He competed a further 13 times, although he was unable to repeat his early successes, his best subsequent finish being eighth in 1897.

In the 1903 contest, however, he had a valid excuse – he was shot at. The Evening World newspaper on June 25 reported Rawlins was fired at while walking on the Bathusrol links course where he was due to compete in the US Open the following day. It was understood it was a case of mistaken identity after a pair of burglars on the run mistook him for an officer of the law. Rawlins was unhurt, although one can only imagine what the event did for his eve-of-tournament preparations.

Rawlins was an elegant player by all accounts. The Times of London praised him at his peak for having ‘a well-balanced game, strong in all its elements. He is a good heady player with a happy faculty of not getting discouraged when in difficulties. Then he goes at his work with an ease and fearlessness that is most interesting. Characteristics of his play put him ahead of his older and more experienced competitors.’

Rawlins moved back to England in 1913 to attend to his sick mother. His golf career ended when she died a year later and as the clouds of war gathered over Europe.

A modest man to the last, many years later his grandson was shocked to find the gold medal from that triumphant day in 1895 in a box of his effects that had lain unopened for many years.

Last year, as part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, Mid Herts Golf Club proudly honoured one of its own - the first winner of the US Open and its original groundsman and professional – by erecting a life-size bronze statue of the great man in front of their clubhouse.

But perhaps the final word should go to Rawlins, who was quoted in American Golf Magazine in 1900: ‘You have to strive to play the ball on the green in such a way he will be able to lay his ball dead on the next stroke and then hole it. When you can do this you will be entitled to consider yourself a golfer.’

More than a century later – as all Herts golfers know – that sage advice still stands.

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