US Open golf: Incredible story of North Berwick’s Willie Anderson

Rawlins in front of Willie Anderson, his arm around Alex Smith. Picture: Ralph W. Miller Golf Library/AAFLA
Rawlins in front of Willie Anderson, his arm around Alex Smith. Picture: Ralph W. Miller Golf Library/AAFLA

ASK most people to name the four players that share the record of most wins (four) in the US Open and they probably wouldn’t take long to come up with three of them – Bobby Jones (1923-26-29-30), Ben Hogan (1948-50-51-53) and, of course, Jack Nicklaus (1962-67-72-80). The fourth one would likely be more difficult for the majority to identify – even though he happens to be a Scot.

Willie Anderson, who was born in North Berwick and cut his golfing teeth in the East Lothian town before becoming a pioneer in the sport as he moved to America, first won the event in 1901 then lifted the title three years in a row from 1903 - the only player in US Open history to achieve that feat.

According to Alex Smith, a fellow Scot who finished runner-up in two of those events, Anderson would have set a record that would have been outwith the reach of Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus if he hadn’t died at the age of 31 from what was described as “an overindulgent lifestyle”.

Born in 1879, Anderson became hooked on golf at an early age. He was a licensed caddie on North Berwick’s West Links at the age of 11 and clearly preferred to be carrying a set of golf clubs than have his nose buried in books. At one point, he was suspended by the caddie master for two weeks after being reported for caddying during school hours.

His father, Thomas, was a greenkeeper, learning his trade as an assistant on the West Links, where he later returned as head greenkeeper following spells at Kilspindie and the Braid Hills in Edinburgh. Initially at least, he wasn’t followed on to the fairways by Anderson Jnr. After leaving school, he served an apprenticeship as a clubmaker with Alex Aitken in Edinburgh. He excelled in that trade, with Horace Hutchinson, a two-time Amateur champion around that time, considering Anderson to be one of the best clubmakers in Scotland.

He was also pretty useful with one in his hand, though it wasn’t until after he travelled to America for the first time - in 1896 to take up the professional’s post at Misquamicut Golf Club on Rhode Island - that he made his tournament debut.

In his first US Open, over 36 holes at Chicago Golf Club, he finished runner-up to Englishman Joe Lloyd in 1897. Four years later, Anderson went one better, beating the aforementioned Smith in the event’s first 18-hole play-off after the two Scots had tied over 72 holes at Myopia Hunt Club near Boston.

He also claimed the title in a play-off in 1903, this time beating Davie Brown, a slater by trade from Musselburgh, at Baltusrol, one of the ten clubs where Anderson had spells as the professional in just 14 years, the others including St Augustine in Florida, where the World Golf Hall of Fame (Anderson was made a member in 1975) is now located.

Anderson retained his title at Glen View in Chicago, where he won by five shots, before returning to Myopia Hunt Club in 1905 to complete his historic hat-trick. He received $200 and a gold medal while custody of the cup was given to his club. Since Anderson’s death in 1910, only five golfers, including Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89), have won two consecutive Opens and only Hogan has come close to winning four out of five years.

In his profile on the World Golf Hall of Fame website, Anderson is described as “a sturdy man with muscular shoulders, brawny forearms and exceptionally large hands”. It adds that “he played with a flat, full-sweeping action that was characteristic of the Scots and known as the ‘St Andrews swing’”.

Anderson was renowned for his accuracy. Indeed, it is claimed that Gene Sarazen was once practicing bunker shots when another pro casually asked him if Anderson could have escaped out of those bunkers as well as he was doing. “Get out of them?” replied Sarazen. “He was never in them!”

He was also the type that let his game do the talking. “You couldn’t tell whether he was winning or losing by looking at him,” said fellow North Berwick man Fred McLeod, the 1908 US Open champion.

Along with McLeod, Anderson has been remembered in his home town as part of a plaque heritage trail around North Berwick. Unveiled by Catriona Matthew, the 2009 Women’s British Open champion, two years ago, they honour more than 40 golfing pioneers, of whom none surely deserve pride of place more than the man who won four US Opens.

“How good was Willie Anderson?” wrote Robert Sommers, the legendary American golf writer, in the USGA Golf Journal. “Those who played against him and watched the great players of later years said he was as good as anyone who ever played.”