Teacher’s Comments: Terrific read.
Even the most ardent golf fan will perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the name J. Douglas Edgar. Dying way too young, and under mysterious circumstances, before taking his proper place on golf’s stage, Edgar nonetheless may lay claim to the title “Father of the Modern Golf Swing.”
The life, times and death of J. Douglas Edgar are the focus of Steve Eubanks’ To Win and Die In Dixie: The Birth of the Modern Golf Swing and The Mysterious Death of Its Creator. It’s an informative and highly entertaing read that’s part biography, part murder mystery and part social history.
J. Douglas Edgar (1884 – 1921) was a struggling English golf pro with a competitive fire and a bad hip. The hip problem made it difficult for J. Douglas to execute the upper and lower body twisting, gyrating swing that was common to the era of Vardon, Taylor and Braid. But through constant experimentation, Edgar found that if he kept that bad hip and lower body steady, and turned just his upper body, he could produce long, straight, high, beautiful shots. And the modern golf swing was born.
The new swing was thought unusual—strange—but it very quickly made him stand out among his peers; and in the eyes of some, he had no peers. In 1947, some 25 years after Edgar’s death, Golfing magazine writer Ray Haywood wrote “Douglas Edgar, a name known only to the older golfers, was the world’s greatest golfer—amateur or professional—bar none…. Edgar can’t be compared shot for shot with [Byron] Nelson. His time was much earlier—fortunately, perhaps, for Nelson. He can be compared with [Bobby] Jones, however. Jones was Edgar’s pupil.”
In 1919, Edgar won the Canadian Open by a record 16 shots. Ninety years later, that margin of victory still stands as the largest ever in a premier event.
J. Douglas also found that the swing could be taught—and the pupils who had made no progress with previous swing theories made rapid progress under his, which he called “The Movement.” The principles of his swing are identical to the swing taught by nearly every golf pro today in the world.
Following the first World War, Edgar left his native England to seek his fortune in America. He was employed at Atlanta’s Druid Hills golf course, where his teachings influenced Perry Adair, Bob Jones and Alexa Sterling (Alexa was the other side of Bobby Jones’ coin—perhaps the greatest female amateur of all time).
And then, in 1921, J. Douglas Edgar was found dead on an Atlanta street, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. The man who found him was Comer Howell, a Georgia Scion, son of the owner of the Atlanta Constitution, and a budding reporter.
To Win and Die in Dixie actually starts with the discovery of J. Douglas Edgar’s death, and then weaves its way back and forth through his life, all the while keeping one foot in 1921 and Comer Howell’s investigation into his demise. Author Eubanks does a terrific job of maintaining the tension of a murder mystery with biography and social history.
It’s that last—social history—that really makes the book stand out. Like most of my favorite biographies/histories, Eubanks takes a single focus—the life and death of Edgar—and uses it to illuminate an entire era. Through Edgar and Comer, the reader learns much about both England, and the Atlanta of the time. It’s a fascinating trip through social classes, race relations and of course, golf.