The Man (Likely) on Top of the Ryder Cup

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Since its inaugural playing in 1927, the semi-annual Ryder Cup has become one of the most watched, loved, and hotly contested events in golf. Every second September, half of the golfing populace, more or less, is happy to watch their native or favored side hoist the champagne-soaked trophy, while the other half winces in disappointment.  

Atop the trophy, there is a tiny, six-inch figure, addressing a ball, clad in plus-fours, a tweed jacket, and a flat-cap; far fewer are aware, however, if we are to adhere to one school of prominent thought, that this figure might be one of the most interesting and tragically forgotten characters in early twentieth-century golf. A figure sometimes cited as the best player not to have won the Open Championship. A forefather, if you will, to many subsequent European Ryder Cup heroes whose careers were similarly haunted by their failure to capture a major championship, namely, Torrance, Montgomery, Westwood, Donald, and Poulter. 


That golfer crowing the trophy is perhaps Abe Mitchell, who rose from lowly origins to become the most popular and respected British golfer of the generation following that venerable golden-one of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, with whom he toured America.

Mitchell was born in Sussex, the illegitimate son of Mary Mitchell. Roger Porter notes that “children like Abe who were born to unmarried mothers in the local workhouse, began life on the lowest rung of the Victorian social ladder. To avoid the scandal, Abe Mitchell was passed off as one of seven ‘siblings’ and raised by his grandparents, George and Sophia – a familiar practice in those days of large families and one that aided ‘fallen’ daughters to marry.”

In a stroke of life-altering fortune, soon after being put under the care of his grand-parents, the Tunbridge Wells and Ashdown Forest GC built a new layout right adjacent to the family home, near the village of Forest Row, outside of Sussex, in the thick woods. Naturally, along with his “siblings”, who were in fact his uncles, Abe began caddying at the club, contributing his earnings to a family fund to keep things afloat in the early, difficult years. Humble, quiet, and hard-working, he quickly became popular amongst the older employees and members, from whom he would eventually learn the practice of greens-keeping, the business aspect of the sport, and, of course and most importantly, how to swing and play. 

Ashdown Forest GC, where Mitchell fell in love with golf (courtesy: Top100 golf courses)

And learn to play Abe quickly did.

At home, however, with his uncles who also played and whom he was regularly beating, despite his relatively small stature and brittle frame, he was shunned and derided; golf and the golf club thus became his refuge, a safe space. In fact, it was reportedly during a fit of jealous anger, following a round, when one of the uncles divulged to Abe the truth about his lineage and that his mother, who’d remarried into a family of means and lived less than a kilometer away, had borne him out-of-wedlock. 

In fact, pondering the “what-ifs” of Abe’s career, Roger Porter concludes that “if the Jesuits were correct in their belief that the character of a man could be moulded in the first seven years of his life, Abe’s insecurity most
likely stemmed from the unwanted status of his childhood.”

Writing in 1920, in an article entitled “Great Golfers and How They Play”, Anthony Spalding claimed that “the rise and progress of Abe Mitchell is one of the most interesting romances in golf. As an amateur, the astonishing length and power of his hitting made a most profound impression at Hoylake, where he made his first public appearance, and since he became a professional he has shown that a life undistracted by other occupations than golf improves a man’s game.” 

During his period of success, like most greats of the sport, Mitchell was eulogized as a prodigious driver of the ball, a skill that he achieved despite an extremely unorthodox, largely home-grown method. Spalding notes that Mitchell took a leisurely backswing with only a minimal turn of the hips, struck the ball flat-footedly, and eschewed a long through-swing, in favor of an abrupt, punchy motion. 

“One of Mitchell’s cherished beliefs is that the correct movements of the shoulders – not only on the way up but during the downward swing – makes or mars the swing. {…} A player often goes off his driving, he (Mitchell) says, because he has lost his balance. {…} He holds that the body should be poised firmly, but not heavily, on the feet for our long shots in order not to interfere with the speed of our club-head.” 

In fact, some years ago now, I first became aware of Abe through Steve Elkington’s and Mike Maves’ brief Youtube videos in which they explore some of the more unique and now all but forgotten methods of the early practitioners of the sport. What specifically attracted the pair to his writings about the golf swing, as detailed in his three published volumes, Essentials of Golf, Length on the Links, and Down to Scratch, was his concept of “muscle winding”, wherein, at address, he wound the inside of his feet and simultaneously torqued his weight and his grip towards the target so as to load against the tension on the backswing and in turn achieve an elastic effect on the downswing. 

Unlike many golfers of the time, who favored refining the more delicate and intricate aspects of the game, Abe’s primary focus, from youth until he turned professional, was on power. As an amateur, success came quickly, the most noteworthy of which was a runner-up finish at the 1912 Amateur Championship at Royal North Devon, where he lost to eight-time champion John Ball, of Hoylake, in 38 holes after missing a four-footer for victory on the 36th hole. The final, however, in the eyes of some, was marred by the raucous behavior of Abe’s supporters, most of whom were artisans from the nearby Northam Burrows Golf Club or workmen for the local shipyard. Ball’s fellow Hoylake member Harold Hilton admonished the behavior of Abe’s supporters, claiming that was “unfortunately undeniable that feeling was openly shown; but this was in every way due to a coterie of Mitchell’s supporters who introduced a spirit of class animosity, and who, moreover, introduced it in so disorderly and unpleasant a manner as eventually to bring the matter into the police courts.” 

Abe in 1927 at Royal Montreal, Dixie (courtesy: Ian Murray/Golf Canada)

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that class difference, or resentment, came to the fore during Abe’s amateur career; moreover, his standing as an amateur golfer, due to his association as an employee of Ashdown Forest, was often a matter of contention, as well. Responding to criticism put forth by Harold Hilton, whom Abe had beaten to win the Golden Vase at Sunningdale in 1910, Golf Illustrated defended his status: “From my own knowledge, Mr Mitchell is far less of a professional than some of those that criticise him. He plays less golf, associates less with professional players, and makes less out of the game.” 

Initially, again in 1910, a year in which he also made the semi-final of the Amateur Championship at Hoylake, Horace Hutchinson nominated him for selection to the English Amateur team. His inclusion in the matches against Scotland caused a few conservative eyebrows to be raised, for, as Roger Porter notes, “Abe’s selection was heralded, with just a hint of patronisation, as ‘the advent of the working man of the ancient and honourable calling of gardener’. {…} The two teams comprised the veritable cream of the world’s gentlemen golfers plus Abe Mitchell.” 

Of course, Mitchell, unfazed and undeterred by the company and venue, performed admirably once again, beating Sir. Guy Campbell 7&5, which helped the English team win their first fixture in six years against their northern neighbors. In their post-mortem of the fixture, in addition to praising his power, Golf Illustrated concluded that “there can be no doubt whatever that he has a great, possibly very great, future before him.”

Golf Illustrated concluded that “there can be no doubt whatever that he has a great, possibly very great, future before him.”

Lastly, at the 1913 Amateur at St Andrews, Abe was treated poorly and was cold-shouldered by the Scots who “firmly believed that English artisans should be classed as professionals, as were their own,” according to Porter. Unfortunately, whether due to the harsh reception or his unfamiliarity with the Old Course, Abe, the favorite, flamed out of the championship; yet he did then capture his second Golden Vase at Walton Heath and finally turned professional at the end of the season, finding employment at Sonning Golf Club, in Berkshire. 

This new vocation unfortunately meant that Abe had to forgo a planned trip to the Americas in company of Ted Ray and Harry Vardon, which was to include an appearance in that most famous of U.S. Opens won by Francis Ouimet.

The call-to-arms then interrupted the initial few years of Abe’s professional career, as he served in the Royal Artillery in France. Luckily, Abe escaped the war unwounded, and upon returning to the links, normal service resumed there, too. He won the 1919 PGA Match Play and, most crucially, that year’s News of the World tournament, or “Victory Open”, played upon the Old Course in late June. Similar to Ben Hogan’s victory at the 1942 Hale America Open, a strong case can be made for “The Victory Open” to be counted as a major championship win, for it served as a direct substitute to the Open Championship which was not played that year, and featured a similar strength of field, purse, and gallery. Ted Ray, the event’s 36-hole leader, faltered on the second day and, after 72 holes, Mitchell finished in a tie with his good friend George Duncan; on the following day, however, both Mitchell and Duncan had been contracted to play in a lucrative match against James Braid and Harry Vardon on the Old Course, meaning that an official playoff could not be played between the pair, who agreed to split the purse of 87 pounds. Although they lost the match, Abe’s 77 bettered Duncan’s 79, and Abe thus took home the gold medal. 

The Open Championship officially returned the following year. Upon arrival at Royal Cinque Ports, Abe’s game was at its peak, having already won three professional events that season, including the McVitie and Price Tournament. Expectations were high for Abe, and he began with a 73 and 74, which put him 6 shots clear of the field. Yet, unlike at St Andrews the year prior, it would prove to be George Duncan’s moment in the sun on the south coast of England. 

Abe at Cinque Ports in 1920 (courtesy: Mirrorpix via Getty)

Roger Porter relates that “Abe arrived early and stood by the first tee in cold, drizzly weather for a few hours. When told that Duncan needed a four on the last hole of his third round for a 69, Abe’s inner demons surfaced and the six shot lead that he held over the field melted as snow before the summer’s sun. 

Abe three putted the first green on the way to an 84 that included a 7 and an 8. His fourth round of 76 was good enough only for another fourth place finish. The thirteen strokes that Duncan made up on the leader still ranks as the biggest catch-up in Open history”

Abe’s longtime friend and playing partner, George Duncan, of Metlick, Scotland (courtesy: getty)

In an article entitled “The Golfer’s Progress”, which was published a year later following the 1921 US Open, where, due to illness caused by poor teeth, Abe picked up his ball and surrendered following a poor start, Henry Leach diagnosed that “it seems to some minds not improbable that he will fail to do justice to his obviously remarkable abilities until he and others have forgotten that according to his skills he might come out first in such an event, and no longer be the favourite. For the time being he does not carry responsibility at all well. It has always been a weak part of his temperament, and it has been very much emphasized in the last two Open Championships.” 

Unfortunately and somewhat surprisingly perhaps, the 1920 Open would prove to be his only legitimate shot at winning the Claret Jug until 1933, when he entered the final round at the Old Course with a share of the lead. However, Abe inexplicably hit his opening drive into the Swilcan Burn and stumbled to a final round of 79 and a tie for 7th place

In the meantime, though, he continued to have professional success, on both sides of the Atlantic. Of particular interest to Canadian Golfers, Mitchell and George Duncan made two successful tours of the Americas, which included numerous stops in Canada on both occasions. 

The North Foreland Club, as seen today (courtesy: yourgolftravel)

Initially, in company of George Duncan and others, Abe had hoped to sail the Atlantic in 1920; however, his new employers, the board of the recently opened North Foreland Club, in Kent, were hesitant to let him leave for such an extended period of time, especially for their inaugural summer on their new site. The following year, while still employed by the club, where he would remain until 1925, the R&A and USGA struck an exchange agreement, wherein the best British pros would attend that year’s US Open at Columbia and, in turn, that the Americans would send their own delegation to St Andrews. 

“After that famous team of British golfers, Vardon and Ray, completed their tour of golf courses in the United States and Canada last year,” remarked The Globe, a Toronto-based newspaper, “the feeling was expressed in various golfing quarters that no other pair of golfing stars could come to America and meet with equal amount of success in booking exhibition matches. That theory, however, has been disproved by the manner in which golf clubs across the country are clamoring for opportunities to play host to the two 1921 invaders – Abe Mitchell and George Duncan.” 

Although they were less successful in stroke play than Ted Ray and Harry Vardon had been on their tour of the Americas the year prior, Mitchell, whose health was unsteady throughout his sojourn, did manage to capture the 1,000 Guineas Tournament at Gleneagles, beating Joe Kirkwood 7 & 6 in the final. In team matches, however, the pair proved daunting. 

They remained in North America until mid-october, traveling as far west as Winnipeg and visiting a number of smaller, isolated communities such as Shawinigan, Quebec, where they were greeted by the home-support as megastars. At Grand Mere, the pair faced Charlie Murray, of the Royal Montreal, and Dave Cuthbert, Grand Mere’s professional, whom they handedly bested. They made a clean sweep of their matches in Canada, a feat announced in bold lettering by The Canadian Golfer, and, upon sailing home, their record in matches read 51 wins, 17 defeats, and 5 draws.

Such was the poor state of Abe’s teeth that he had them all pulled prior to their next much anticipated tour of the Americas the following year. Once again, in matches, they were hard to beat, ending victorious in 40 of their 50. However, his performance at the US Open at Skokie, like the year prior when he’d picked up his ball after a poor start, was slightly underwhelming, as he ended in a tie for 17th. 

Charlie Murray, one of Canada’s most successful professionals ever, seen here warming up prior to a match against Walter Travis in 1917 at Grand Mere

Another notable incident occurred on October 1st, at the Southern Open in Nashville, when Mitchell and Leo Diegel finished the 72 hole event in a tie; the next day, the pair opted for a 36 hole playoff, from which a victor likewise failed to emerge. After an additional 3 holes, Mitchell finally claimed the title. However, on October 3rd, H.F. Smith, the president of the Southern Golf Association, deemed the playoff illegal, since it had been organized between the pair without official sanction, and therefore ordered that Mitchell’s victory be nullified and the purse split – 1200$ each. 

Still, Americans took to Abe and Abe took to Americans and to America, so much so, in fact, that when his contract with the North Foreland Club ended in 1925, he announced his intention to emigrate to the new world. Porter notes that “his opinions were heard by seedsman Samuel Ryder, who in 1923 had sponsored an event at the Verulam Golf Club, St Albans, where Abe Mitchell, ‘a shy courteous man,’ had been trying to supplement his income. The two men became friends, resulting in a three-year contract for Mitchell to act as Ryder’s personal tutor at the unheard of salary of £500 per year, plus £250 to cover his tournament expenses.”

By then, the cross-contamination of professionals from the old and new world had, unsurprisingly, instilled a desire for a match between Americans and Brits, the first prospect for which had come together in 1921 at Gleneagles. This first attempt, however, proved an unmitigated and under-attended disaster, as “the hotel was yet to be completed so the Americans were billeted in waterless railway carriages parked in the Auchterarder sidings. The event was a commercial flop but a personal success for Abe who halved with Hagen in the singles, then, partnered by Duncan, halved with Hagen and Jock Hutchinson in the foursomes, the result being a comfortable win for Great Britain & Ireland.” 

Yet, the foundation for the cup had been laid and Samuel Ryder, it turns out, was just the man to bring it to full fruition. Prior to qualifying for the 1926 Open at Sunningdale, where a number of Americans were scheduled to compete, Ryder offered to donate a trophy and financially back the venture which was to be played at nearby Wentworth just after the qualifying rounds; a general strike leading up to the event, however, would greatly harm the strength of the American side, who, as a result, were forced to select a side of expats. Still, Walter Hagen was able to play, and the Americans were thoroughly beaten, 13 points to 1, by the Brits. Abe, whose friendship with Samuel Ryder was still strong, was very much the star of the British team, beating “Long Jim” Barnes, the 1925 Open Champion, 8&7 and then Hagen and Barnes 9&7 while partnered with his old friend George Duncan. 

England’s Abe Mitchell (l) and George Duncan (r) line up alongside their opponents, Walter Hagen (second l) and Jim Barnes (second r), before the start of the match (Courtesy: PA Images via Getty Images)

Following the match, whose stature had been somewhat diminished due to the poor-hand foisted upon the Americans, Hagen and Mitchell, then coined as the world’s two best match play players, partook in a 72 hole exhibition at St George’s Hill, with a record purse of 500 pounds up for grabs. Mitchell jumped out to a 4up lead after 36 holes with a 10:30 am tee-time set for the next day; however, Hagen, who was never known to shy away from gamesmanship, nor one to turn down another round at the tavern, strolled up 30 minutes late to the tee-time, and, just as at Deal in 1920, it seemed as if, to quote Tom Petty, the waiting was in fact the hardest part for Abe, who squandered his lead and lost 2&1 despite a final round of 67. 

Hagen’s antics, however, went down poorly with the Brits, including J.H Taylor, a young Henry Cotton, and, of course, Sam Ryder, who’d footed a good deal of the prize money. Porter notes that Ryder was “so annoyed that he instructed Mappin & Webb to model a statuette on the lid of his trophy in the image of Abe Mitchell. Anyone holding the trophy aloft would be looking at either the wrinkled visage or the backside of Mitchell’s image. True to his word Sam donated the Ryder Cup to be contested at Worcester Country Club, Massachusetts in 1927.” 

Some have disputed this claim, of course, but I’m not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story. “I owe golf a great deal,” wrote Mitchell to Ryder a few years later, “what you have done, putting me on top of the cup, is more distinction than I could ever earn.”

Unfortunately, after having been selected to play in the inaugural British side in 1927 at Worcester Country Club near Boston, Mitchell suffered an acute bout of appendicitis, which left him unable to compete that year. Still, he would manage to play in the next three Ryder Cups, ending with a 4-2 record, including being undefeated in foursomes play. 

Upon retirement, Abe was selected captain of the PGA and lived in London for the rest of his days. 


1 thought on “The Man (Likely) on Top of the Ryder Cup

  1. BTC article topics are intriguing, refreshing and very interesting. The backstory for the figure on top of the Ryder Cup was incredible. Keep up the amazing work!

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