U.S. Open 2019: Who the heck is Willie Anderson?

Yes, Brooks Koepka says, the name has come up over the last 12 months: Willie Anderson.

And Koepka this week will surely hear it more frequently, especially if he is in the running to win a third consecutive U.S. Open.

Anderson is the only man to accomplish that feat.

Curtis Strange? He probably heard Anderson’s name a time or three in 1990, after winning back-to-back U.S. Opens in ’88 and ’89.

So who was Anderson?

He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1975 and their description of him begins as follows:

“Willie Anderson’s place in U.S. Open history belongs on the same pantheon as Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. He was the first to win four U.S. Open Championships and the only golfer in history to win three in succession. The sad part of Anderson’s biography is that he died at the age of 31. Since his death in 1910, only five golfers – including Hogan (1950, 1951) and Curtis Strange (1988, 1989) – have won two consecutive U.S. Opens, and only Hogan has come close to winning four out of five years, as Anderson did in 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905.”

There is a lot to unpack there, not least the fact Koepka has now matched Hogan and Strange with consecutive U.S. Open wins, in 2017 at Erin Hills and 2018 at Shinnecock Hills.

What is the bottom line on Anderson?

“He was a really good player,” Baltusrol Golf Club historian Stuart Wolffe said, via the New York Post.

A Scottish immigrant, Anderson also carried himself in a way Koepka might recognise, described by historians as a player with “effortless power” and a “rhythmical” putting stroke.

Ah, but even more Koepka-esque: Anderson had “an unflappable demeanour”.

“You couldn’t tell whether he was winning or losing by looking at him,” said Fred McLeod, the 1908 U.S. Open champion.

“To think of nothing but golf while engaged in playing golf,” Anderson said, “is the secret to success.”

His singular approach worked.

Anderson, who died in 1910, was one of the top players of his time, winning four Western Opens — perceived as a major in the early 1900s — to go along with his four U.S. Opens.

He won the 1901 U.S. Open at Myopia Hunt Club, near Boston, in the first 18-hole play-off in the event’s young history. After a fifth-place finish in 1902, he won the 1903 U.S. Open played at Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey, again in a play-off.

No play-off was necessary in 1904, when Anderson finished five shots clear of the competition at Glen View in Chicago. He completed his three-peat the next year, again at Myopia Hunt Club, rallying from a five-shot deficit in the final round for a two-stroke victory in 1905.

The U.S. Open, perceived at the time as something shy of the U.S. Amateur, was noteworthy.

“It was an open tournament to amateurs and pros and featured a lot of really good players,” Wolffe, the Baltusrol historian said. “Anderson was one of the best.”


“How good was Willie Anderson?” wrote Robert Sommers in the USGA Golf Journal (via the World Golf Hall of Fame). “Those who played against him and watched the great players of later years said he was as good as anyone who ever played.”

So – as Koepka tees it up this week at Pebble Beach, trying to become the second man to win three straight U.S. Opens – now you know who Willie Anderson was.

What no one knows is exactly what caused Anderson’s death, four years after his last U.S. Open triumph in his early 30s.

Some reports say he had epilepsy, which might have contributed. Maybe it was a brain tumour, others speculated, or hardening of the arteries. Some whispered that he drank himself to death.

Whatever the reason, his early death left fellow competitors to muse about what might have been.

Alex Smith, a fellow Scotsman who finished second to Anderson in two U.S. Opens, believed that “most likely, had he lived longer, Willie would’ve set a record for (U.S.) Open championships that would never be beaten.”