Mystery shrouds Edgar’s life and legacy

J. Douglas Edgar (left) revered Harry Vardon, who said Edgar would be "the greatest of us all."

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J. Douglas Edgar arrived at Hamilton Golf and Country Club for the 1919 Canadian Open fresh off of forgettable performances at the U.S. Open and Western Open. He spent most of his practice time that week in Hamilton pubs, enjoying stouts and stiffer drinks. He returned to Druid Hills Golf Club in Atlanta with a 16-shot victory over a field that included Bobby Jones and Long Jim Barnes, a four-time major champion. It remains the largest margin of victory ever in a major professional tournament.

When asked about Edgar’sperformance, Harry Vardon said, “I believe this is a man who will one day be the greatest of us all.” Ironically, when Edgar was growing up in the working-class English town of Newcastle, Vardon had been his idol.

At this point, it would be fair to ask: Who in the world was J. Douglas Edgar? Author and longtime golf writer Steve Eubanks posed that very question when Edgar’s name was raised in a conversation with Atlanta sports columnist Furman Bisher. That led Eubanks to bring Edgar’s story to modern-day golf fans.

Eubanks tells this true story primarily through the eyes of Comer Howell, the scion of a prominent Atlanta family. Howell is a 20-year-old cub reporter for his family’s newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution, a paper he seems destined one day to run. But in 1921, he was still trying to step out from under the shadow of his father, Clark Howell.

On the way home from work late one August night, Comer and two colleagues find a man sprawled in the street and immediately suspect he has been hit by a car. The man is Edgar, who died that night from his injuries at age 36, and the hit-and-run story quickly becomes accepted as fact. But Howell questions the cause of death. He comes to learn that Edgar was a carouser with financial woes and a fondness for women other than his wife, and Howell suspects that the latter trait might have played a role in Edgar’s death. Howell is determined to learn the truth.

“Comer found something compelling in the story of a man who, through nothing more than force of will, reached the zenith of his chosen profession,” Eubanks writes.

J. Douglas Edgar was a relatively undistinguished golf pro until he stumbled upon “The Movement,” a much more tightly coiled swing than was popular in his era. He soon won the 1914 French Open, defeating Vardon by six strokes.

“It really looks as if a star of the first magnitude had suddenly appeared in the person of Edgar,” Bernard Darwin wrote.

But Edgar tested the patience of the membership at Northumberland Golf Club once too often, and soon he was on his way to America, landing at Druid Hills. He had an erratic playing career, but he became a sought-after teacher, tutoring Jones, three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Alexa Stirling and Tommy Armour, who referred to his mentor as a “genius.”

Edgar’s uniquely compact swing, borne of a bad hip, became a precursor to the modern swing, though the man himself remains a mystery to the millions of golfers who try daily to mimic his magic move. Hopefully Eubanks’ book will rectify that fact.

This story works on several levels. Even readers with only a passing interest in the game will become caught up in the mystery of Edgar’s death – still unsolved, though the likely perpetrator ultimately is identified. And Eubanks’ telling of the story is done with care and style that reflects extensive research.

Eubanks no doubt took some liberties in recounting conversations between some of the main characters, but this is an understandable narrative device that furthers the story while paying respect to this real-life drama.

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