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.
Edgar’s wife and two children were back in England, so they wouldn’t be of any help. Instead, Comer pored over the evidence and spoke to those involved in the investigation. He stumbled upon one disconcerting tidbit. It had come from a streetcar motorman named Irvin Fisher, who had been piloting the outbound West Peachtree streetcar. Between 11:40 and midnight he had seen three men standing on the corner of West Peachtree and Fifth. “They didn’t look to be waiting for a streetcar since they were on the wrong side of the road,” the motorman said. What, then, would they have been doing there? Comer wondered.
He kept that item in mind when he went to visit George Noble Jr., the physician who had signed Edgar’s death certificate. “There were no broken bones and very few abrasions,” Dr. Noble said. “He had a bruise on one ankle and a scrape on his right hand, but nothing severe. The cause of death was a small wound, about half an inch wide and three inches deep that penetrated his left thigh approximately six inches above the knee.” Whatever caused the incision “was thrust at an upward angle into the femoral artery with some force.”
Comer walked outside to get some air. Peachtree Street bustled. He watched the parade of Model T’s rumbling down the road and tried to imagine what would happen if someone were struck by one. The bumper would catch the victim at knee height, no doubt breaking many bones. Then what? A man struck by a car would likely be knocked down or tossed on the hood, leaving cuts, scrapes, bruises and more broken bones, not to mention torn clothing. Edgar did not have any of those things. Comer wasn’t a doctor, a coroner or a detective, but one thing seemed to be clear: Despite consensus to the contrary, it appeared highly unlikely that Douglas Edgar was killed by a car.
He was flat broke the day he first used what he would call the Movement. The discovery came on the High Gosforth Park Race Course in Newcastle, England. Doug tried to hit a few mashies — one curving to the left and the other to the right. His chronically ailing hip gave him fits, so he didn’t take full swings. In fact, he didn’t move his hips on the backswing at all. Distance wasn’t a concern. He only wanted to catch the ball solidly on the clubface without collapsing in pain. On a lark he decided to take an even more 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 aching hip on the backswing.
The moment the ball clicked, Doug knew the shot was solid. What he didn’t know until a second later was just how remarkably well he had hit it. Not only did the ball fly exactly as he had intended, it also went farther than any shot he had hit in a year. It had to be a fluke. He felt as if he’d taken the club halfway back, the length he might swing if he were hitting a modest pitch with a niblick. Certainly the shaft had come nowhere close to parallel with the ground. And the arms! His triceps had been locked to his rib cage as if he’d had a rope tied around his chest. He dropped another ball on the turf and tried the same swing, restricting the hip turn on the backswing and keeping his upper arms in close contact with his torso. With a dramatic whip through the hitting zone, Doug hit another shot that soared as far and straight as any he had ever struck.
Could this be? Could it be this simple?
Doug tried the shorter, tighter swing again, and again, and again. Each swing produced a better shot than the one before, and with each shot he learned something new. The restricted hip turn was not a detriment: It was the catalyst, the Rosetta stone that finally decoded the golf swing for him. By keeping his hips still on the backswing, he realized that he could coil his upper body around a steady base like drawing the string of a bow.
While he knew he was on to something, he could never have imagined that the simple principles he discovered would become the cornerstone of golf instruction for the next 90 years. All Doug knew was that he could now manipulate shots at will, curving the ball in whatever way he wanted.
On March 25, 1919, Douglas Edgar departed from Liverpool bound for New York City on the steamship Scotian. He would ply his trade in America as a self-described “golf expert.” Luckily, employment came easily. Country clubs were springing up like summer weeds in the U.S., and there weren’t enough quality pros to fill all the jobs. Upon arriving, Edgar struck a deal with Druid Hills Golf Club outside Atlanta and hopped the first train for Georgia.
He put his game on display early in his tenure at Druid Hills. On April 26, three weeks after taking his first steps on U.S. soil, Edgar teamed with Perry Adair, George Adair’s son and one of the Dixie Whiz Kids, in a foursomes match against Bob Jones and Willie Ogg. Ogg, of North Berwick, Scotland, had been one of the best players in the world during the reign of Old Tom Morris and his son Tommy. The match went down to the wire with Jones and Ogg winning, 1 up, when Bob sank a putt on the final green. It was one of the few times Jones would beat Edgar that year or the year after. The matches between Jones and Edgar were private and plentiful. Years later Jones would say, “We played 36 holes together every Monday at East Lake. He was a marvelous teacher.”
Jones remains the greatest amateur golfer in history. His Grand Slam has never been matched, and his impact on the game never equaled. Almost lost to history is the fact that during a critical stage in his golfing life, Jones “learned through observation” from one of the greatest golfers of the age: J. Douglas Edgar.
Howard Beckett, the golf professional from the Capital City Club at Brookhaven, came to visit Comer. Beckett had been a friend of Edgar’s, someone who had partnered with him in many exhibitions and who had known him both as a peer and a comrade. To Comer’s surprise, Beckett marched in and stood in front of him like a man in search of a fight. “This was not an accident!” Beckett announced. “I don’t believe Edgar’s death was an accident.”
Comer sat silently. “At his best, I’d say he was the best golfer in the world,” Beckett continued. “He loved his drink — thought Prohibition was stupid and didn’t mind violating it. When he traveled, he always knew where to find a nip, even in towns he had never visited. He had a way about him. People took to him. He always got what he wanted.”
According to Beckett, old Doug loved the thrill of gambling too. “He would bet on himself with outrageous sums,” Beckett said. “I saw him wager two months’ salary on himself to win. And he did! When he was right, there was no stopping him. But there were times when the money he put at risk … well, it was a concern.”
Comer asked Beckett if he thought Edgar’s drinking and gambling might have had anything to do with his untimely demise.
“Oh, no,” Beckett said. “He was one of the happiest revelers a man could ever aspire to meet.”
“What then?” Comer asked.
Beckett cocked his head as if this were the oddest question in the world. “Why,” he said, “the women, of course.”
Edgar’s life in Atlanta had started innocently enough. He was expected to engage the women of the city as well as the men. It was part of his job as a golf ambassador and representative of Druid Hills. He had always been friendly with both genders and never saw harm in it. But with his wife and children an ocean away, it didn’t take long for him to succumb to the excitement of female companionship in a foreign country.
Edgar did his best to keep his indiscretions quiet — there was the honor of the ladies to be considered, after all — but like many straying men before and since, his cloak of invisibility soon failed and he found himself in over his head. The affection that pushed him to the brink was for a stunning dark-haired beauty, young and exotic, with a demure voice and skin like porcelain. He wasn’t sure what he felt about her, but the chemistry was unmistakable. She was exciting and dangerous, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her. She was also married. J. Douglas Edgar never knew what hit him.