“W. Lawson Little, Jr. was the greatest match player in the history of golf.” — Charles Price, Journalist
In the long history of golf, there have been just a few instances of sustained brilliance. Three are immediately obvious: Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam, Ben Hogan’s magical 1953 campaign, Tiger Wood’s holding title to the four major championships in a 12 month period. Although it is rarely remembered, Lawson Little’s double ‘Little Slam’ should definitely be in the same discussion.
In 1934 and 1935, Little (above: On the left, shaking hands with runnerup Gene Sarazen) became the first golfer to sweep the British and American Amateur Championships in back to back years, the double “Little Slam”. This phenomenal run consisted of 32 consecutive match play wins in America and abroad over a two year period.
After four notable amateur victories in California and Colorado during 1928-1933, Little was selected to the 1934 Walker Cup team and won his singles match. He then entered the 1934 British Amateur at Prestwick and the 24-year old defeated James Wallace, 14 and 13, a record that still stands. Little shot an unofficial 66 in the morning, five better than the course record and then went on to birdie 3 out of the first five holes in the afternoon to win the Championship. In his first 23 holes, Little had a dozen 3s on his card. Later that year, he continued his fine play and won the US Amateur on The Country Club in Brookline, where the field was the largest in history at that time.
In 1935, at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, Little won his second consecutive British Amateur Championship. He concluded the double ‘Little Slam’ by winning his second consecutive US Amateur at The Country Club in Cleveland Ohio, where he was 19 strokes under par for 156 holes, and he did not score higher than a 5 on any hole.
“ Lawson Little shot the finest golf today that I’ve ever seen in an amateur Championship, he has everything…he looks to be in a class all by himself.” by Bobby Jones – Cleveland Plain Dealer Saturday 14, 1935
In 1935, Little was awarded the James E. Sullivan award as the best amateur athlete in the United States. He remains the only golfer to receive it other than Jones, in 1930. Including his six National Titles, it was the Sullivan Award he treasured most because it represents integrity, character and sportsmanship.
In 1936, he turned professional and promptly won the 1936 Canadian Open by shooting a tournament record 271. But the PGA of America had a rule back then, which said you had to have worked in a golf shop for five years in order to qualify to play on the PGA tour, thus Little could not play the P.G.A tour.
Accordingly, from 1936 through 1939, Little joined Spalding’s “Keystones of Golf” to tour the country with Bobby Jones, Horton Smith and Jimmy Thompson and teach the game of golf to the common man. This was the most grueling exhibition /clinic tour in the history of golf. Including infrequent tournament appearances, Little recorded traveling more than 300,000 miles, walked more than 4,000 miles and averaged 240 rounds of golf per year. During this time, he also won the Shawnee Open and the San Francisco Match Play.
A club maker who designed his own putter and invented different clubs including the sand wedge, Little would carry as many as 26 clubs in his bag, which caused the United States Golf Association to introduce Rule #4 – the 14 club limit rule in 1938.
In 1940, Lawson Little won the United States Open Championship. After 18- holes, he and Gene Sarazen were tied at 287. In the 18-hole playoff, Little defeated Sarazen 70-73. Ed ‘Porky’ Oliver also shot 287 but was disqualified for starting the final round early. Despite pleadings from Little to allow Oliver to join the playoff, the USGA held to their decision. Later that same year, in the final round of the 1940 Los Angeles Open, Little came from 5 shots back in a driving rain storm to shoot a 65 to win the tournament. This round was described by sport writers as the greatest round ever played.
As the WWII commenced, Little helped to raised money for the Red Cross — he also joined the War Bond exhibition tour. In 1942, he entered the United States Navy and did not play for the remainder of the War. Post WWII, he won the St. Petersburg Open in 1948, defeating Ben Hogan and Bobby Locke with 7 birdies and an eagle in the final round.
As his health declined (bursitis in his shoulder and 3 heart attacks), his tournament appearances were limited. He enjoyed his family and weekly golf games with his friends at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Lawson Little passed in 1968, appropriately he lived his final 21 years in Pebble Beach, a stretch of land as beautiful, unique and dramatic as the man himself.
Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones discussing Lawson Little, Jr.: “There in my opinion,” remarked Walter Hagen, as he pointed to Lawson Little, “goes one of the great all-time champions of golf…I’ll give you the real slant on Little. He can concentrate on every shot all day long”
“That’s the big point,” Bobby Jones cut in. “I used to think I was a hard worker through a tournament and you were, too, but Lawson is the hardest worker I ever saw.” – Quotes from a Grantland Rice Article – circa. 1935