August 8, 1921 a few minutes before midnight
Newspapering was a young man's game. At least that was what Comer Howell told himself. With a tall, lean physique, a chiseled jaw and perfectly slicked hair, he bore a remarkable resemblance to California's latest moving picture sensation, an Italian named Rudolph Valentino. But Comer was no Latin lover and certainly no play actor. With his chin high and a watch chain dangling from his vest pocket just so, Comer looked like what he was: one of the Northsiders, the proper Atlantans who lived in the large neoclassical, Tudor-Jacobean or colonial revival homes along the wooded northern hills of the South's fastest-growing city.
He opened the door and waited on the running board of his Type 59 Cadillac while his passengers plopped into their seats. Lloyd Wilhoit, the city editor at the Atlanta Constitution, got in first. Paul Warwick, a senior reporter, sat in the front. Conversation was light. They were too tired and the night was too hot for chitchat.
That all changed as they rolled through the 500 block of West Peachtree Street.
Wilhoit saw it first.
"Comer, stop the car! A man in the road!" he shouted.
Comer hit the brakes, and the car wobbled to a stop. A motionless body lay facedown near the curb. They climbed from the Cadillac slowly, haltingly. Comer couldn't look away from the blood. The figure appeared so unnatural, like a mime or an actor in makeup. When Comer finally moved, he slipped, only then realizing the blood had enveloped his feet. Comer leaped onto the sidewalk, his breath shallow. He sprinted to the nearest house, opened the screen and banged on the door.
"Please, help!" he yelled. "We need an ambulance! A man has been hit by a car!"
Then he heard a crash like one of the windows being blown out. What on earth? Running out front, Comer saw a young man, not much older than himself, dressed in bedclothes and leaning over the body. He glanced to his right and saw that rather than come to the door, the man had jumped out the front window, leaving the screen in a mangled heap near the curb.
This man fell to his knees in the sticky black pool. He wrapped his arms around the bleeding fellow, who struggled to whisper a few last words and then died in the lap of his friend.
"Who is he?" Wilhoit asked after a few moments had passed.
"Edgar," the man said.
"Douglas Edgar," the man said in a decidedly British accent. "James Douglas Edgar."
"Why do I know that name?" Warwick asked, staring at the body.
The man in bloody bedclothes looked up, cocked his head and said, "'Cos he's the greatest golfer in the world."
The statement was far from hyperbole. In the small but vibrant universe of golf, J. Douglas Edgar was generally acknowledged as one of the finest players in the game, mentioned as a favorite in almost every tournament he entered. Harry Vardon, the greatest golfer in the world at the turn of the 20th century and the only man in history to win six British Opens, said of Edgar, "This is a man who will one day be the greatest of us all." Tommy Armour, winner of the British Open, U.S. Open and PGA Championship, said, "He was undoubtedly the greatest of them all, and taught me the most."
As late as 1947, noted journalist Ray Haywood wrote in Golfing magazine, "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." It was true: The greatest amateur golfer in history, Bobby Jones, while struggling through his formative years as a teenager, learned from Edgar and, in fact, came out of the only slump he experienced in his career after spending countless hours with Edgar.
In the decades following his death, Edgar was considered the father of the modern golf swing, a savant who was the first to employ many of the principles considered to be fundamental in later years. In describing his swing and the types of shots he played, Bernard Darwin, O.B. Keeler and Grantland Rice used words like unique, unusual, and not seen before. Ninety years later the motions Edgar prescribed can be found in almost every golf instruction book in print, and his swing is now the model for most professionals.
Yet like a photo left out in the sun, memories of J. Douglas Edgar have faded. By the early 1950s he was more of an afterthought, marked mainly by a passing "Oh, remember Douglas Edgar?" By the turn of the 21st century, even officials at the USGA, the PGA Tour and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews said, "Who?" when asked about Edgar.
But despite his slip into obscurity, one unassailable fact solidifies Edgar's claim on history. In 1919 he won the Canadian Open by 16 shots, meaning that 90 years after his death Edgar still holds the record for the largest margin of victory in a topflight event, the longest-standing record in American professional golf.
Despite his exhaustion, sleep found Comer Howell in reluctant fits. Watching a man die had that effect, or so he assumed. He'd been awake for hours, but by the time he rolled out of bed, a baking sun had already turned the morning dew into wafts of rising vapor. He picked up the late-morning edition of the Constitution and read a front-page story on Edgar. One of the last paragraphs made him break out in a sweat.
The driver of the automobile that struck the dead man has not been found. Persons living in the vicinity where the accident occurred stated that they thought they had heard a dull crash and groans, and one person stated that he had seen a car dash down Fifth Street. No accurate description of the car could be obtained and the police at once began a search for the death car and its driver.
Death car! Comer prayed there was more evidence of a traffic accident than what he had witnessed at the scene, that what he read was more than a fantastic theory based on speculation that he himself had injected into the dialogue. He still did not know why he had yelled "a man has been struck by a car," but now he felt compelled to help unravel the mystery.