Matchless Lawson Little: King of the “Little Slam”
When an athlete is described as “bull-necked and barrel-chested,” you could get the idea that he was a boxer or wrestler. You might be sure of it if his nickname is “Cannonball,” and he is renowned for his temper and general talent for being surly and unpleasant. He’s the perfect candidate for a weigh-in and a stare-down at his opponent.
It might be that Lawson Little could have excelled in the ring as well at a highly muscular 5’9,” but no, he was a golfer, a golfer that brought some of that intimidation to the course, and one of the greatest amateurs to ever play the game – ever. That includes Bobby Jones, which is saying a lot. Little’s profile from the World Golf Hall of Fame suggests that his unique stretch of brilliance rivaled the Bobby Jones “Grand Slam” or Ben Hogan’s off the charts performances of 1953.
Lawson Little was born in Newport, Rhode Island, but spent part of his youth in San Francisco, where his father was a high level military officer. The roots of his interest in golf are unclear, but in those days, amateur golf was the big thing, and amateur golfers were the rock stars. Little must have been a bright guy, graduating from Stanford in ’34 and leaving knee-deep in awards. Soon after, he accomplished his historic “stretch.”
By winning amateur events considered majors at the time, by prolific scores, Little managed what was then two “Little Slams.” To the modern golfer, that means winning the U.S. and British Amateur, two years in a row, ’34 and ’35. More specifically than being considered one of the greatest amateurs ever, he was and is considered by many to be all-time greatest match player in the history of the game. Journalist Charles Price said it in so many words at the time, and he is rarely contradicted in the modern age. Price called Little’s personal aura “brooding intensity,” and reading various reports of his manner on the course suggests that the man had death ray eyes and diabolical concentration.
Little was once a household name, which is no longer the case. But, he did leave a legacy within the rules of present-day golf, as supervised by the USGA. He carried up to thirty clubs in his bag at one time, and in addition to being a long hitter, he had a superior short game, carrying up to seven wedges through the round. Now, of course, the maximum is fourteen.
During Little’s stretch, he won thirty two consecutive matches at one point, over many of the world’s best competitors. He routinely shot dizzying scores, and was often up by twelve at lunchtime. And here’s the kicker, at least according to Jack Burke, Jr. – “He never practiced. Little either had it that week, or he didn’t. But when he did have it, it was lights out.” His mental game has been ascribed to being an officer’s child, and spectators have used the words “merciless” and “ruthless.” Another item of note seemed to interest fans of the time. Little played his driver far off his right foot, and employed a severe hook. I know what I’d get if I tried that, but his drives were apparently a thing of beauty.
In the end, Little did turn pro, but didn’t live up to expectations, despite winning the U.S. Open over Sarazen, the ’36 Canadian Open and five other tournaments. The majors were cancelled during wartime, and it is said that Little got bored, putting his energies into the stock market instead. Regardless, tough-guy Lawson Little was one of the great amateurs when being an amateur was what really counted.