The Little-Known Englishman Who Invented the Modern Golf Swing

The Little-Known Englishman Who Invented the Modern Golf Swing

By John Coyne

To Win and Die In Dixie is available on Amazon and at other fine booksellers.

I HAD NEVER HEARD OF DOUG EDGAR and I have been following golf all my life. I’m not the only one who never heard of him.

John Feinstein, sportswriter and commentator, wrote, “An English professional [James Douglas Edgar] of whom a great majority of British golfers have never heard was a player who might have been the greatest of the twenties, greater than Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.”

What?

But I know it was Doug Edgar who gave me the golf swing I have. Yes, and Doug Edgar gave you the swing you have. None of us have heard of him or know that he created the golf swing that was first called the “Edgar Movement.”

The story is told in  Steve Eubanks’ To Win and Die in Dixie: the Birth of the Modern Golf Swing and the Mysterious Death of Its Creator.

It is a biography of J. Douglas Edgar, telling his story from being the first pro at Northumberland Country Club in England, to his mysterious and tragic death after midnight on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia.

It is the story of the man who invented the modern swing, coached the great Bobby Jones, and Alexa Stirling, the finest female player of her day.

It is the story of a player Tommy Armour said was “the greatest of them all, and taught me the most.”

It is also the story of a golfer who could drink you under the table and pick up any woman in the bar. And that, not his innovative golf swing, led to his death in America.

In his book, author and journalist Steve Eubanks tells how Edgar was born in 1884, a poor kid in the northeastern edge of England, and discovered golf when he was a precocious thirteen-year-old watching players at the Northumberland Golf Club.

Eubanks writes, “It never occurred to him that he would ever be any good. He had from birth a bad right hip and the game did not come easy. Standing close to him, you could hear his joints pop whenever he bent over to take his ball out of the hole. He felt pangs with every backswing, and the rotation of the backswing was like propping his right leg against a grinding wheel.”

Nevertheless, by the age of fifteen, working as a caddie at Northumberland, golf had become his obsession, and to him, even with the pain of looping double, working at the country club was a better life than life on his family farm.

In the spring of 1904, the club members at Northumberland hired eighteen-year-old Doug as their first home pro, assuring him, Eubanks writes, of second-class citizenship in England, and giving Doug the chance to play golf for the rest of his life.

“He saw the game,” Eubanks writes, “as his way to stay off the farm and out of the mines. A chance to achieve glory and riches.”

By eighteen, he already had a reputation, not for golf, but for being charming, charismatic and a bit mischievous. Members liked him, and he was especially popular with the women at the club and in town. The only place where he wasn’t successful was with his golf game. While he was a great instructor, he wasn’t much of a player.

At the time, the most famous golf pro in England was Harry Vardon (you’ve heard of the Vardon grip), who like Doug was a poor kid who came out of the caddie ranks to become, by 1903, the most important player in England.

Vardon revolutionized golf by changing the mechanics of the game. Prior to him, players gripped the club with all ten fingers, often splitting their hands apart as if holding an ax.

Through experimentation, Vardon realized that moving his thumbs down the shaft, gripping the club more in his fingers than his palms, and overlapping the pinky finger of the right hand with the index finger of the left, his big hands could work as a single unit, and he could generate a tremendous amount of clubhead speed with a light grip pressure. The “Vardon grip” changed the game forever.

What changed Edgar? And how did he, like Vardon, change the game of golf forever?

What changed Doug Edgar’s life was marriage and a child. He came to realize he couldn’t drift along as a home pro, not without improving his game. And he focused on how to outplay the great Open champion, Harry Vardon. And he did.

Even Vardon agreed, saying of Doug Edgar at the peak of their careers, “This is a man who will one day be the greatest of us all.”

While both Vardon and Edgar were alike as poor kids, that’s where the similarities ended. Vardon was big and strong; Edgar was short and physically handicapped. Vardon’s forearms were the size of Doug’s calves. His shoulders as wide as a doorway.

Watching Vardon play in a match at the Northumberland course, Edgar was left in awe. He would never be as big and strong as Vardon. He could not overpower the Northumberland course with 200-yard drives in the age of hickory. If he was going to be the best golfer in the world, there had to be another way for Doug Edgar. And there was.

It was not until 1910 that he discovered “The Movement” while hitting mashies around a gate, hitting one curving to the left, landing the other to the right. His hip was giving him trouble, so he didn’t take full swings. In fact, he didn’t move his hips on the backswing. Distance wasn’t an issue. He only wanted to catch the ball solidly on the clubface without collapsing in pain.

On a lark, Edgar decided to take an abbreviated swing, locking his upper arms against the muscles in his chest. He wanted to see how well he could hit it without turning his ailing hip on the backswing at all.

The moment the club clicked, Doug knew it was solid. What he didn’t know until a second later was just how remarkably he had hit it. Not only did the ball fly exactly as he had intended, it went farther than any shot he’d hit in a year.

Doug tried the shorter, tighter swing again, and again, and again.

The restricted hip turn was not a detriment: it was the catalyst, the Rosetta stone that had finally decoded the golf swing for him.

A bad hip led to the birth of the modern golf swing, a swing so out of place in its day that the nicest thing people called it was “unusual.”

Today it is the swing seen on every tournament driving range in the world, the swing that has been taught by every top-shelf pro since World War II. It has been called “the coil” and “the X factor,” the “swing connection” and the one-plane swing. Doug called it “The Movement.”

“The Movement,” as Steve Eubanks writes in his book To Win and Die in Dixie: The Birth of the Modern Golf Swing and the Mysterious Death of Its Creator, “was actually an elimination of movement from the conventional swing. By cutting down on the hip turn and restricting the length the club traveled on the backswing, he was able to store energy like a wound catapult; energy that would be unleashed at the moment, as he put it, ‘when the clubhead meets the ball.’

“To help restrict the hips, he widened his stance a few inches beyond shoulder width, well beyond normal for the day, and splayed his left boot counterclockwise. Such simple adjustments caused the ball to spring off the club with jarring velocity.”

The rest is history. Golf history.

 John Coyne became a caddie at Midlothian Country Club near Chicago when he was 10 and caddie master at the age of 17.  Learn about his golf novels at JohnCoyneBooks.com.


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