USGA Acquires Sullivan Award From
Family Of Champ Lawson Little Jr.
May 1, 2008
By David Shefter, USGA
Far Hills, N.J. - Of all the pieces of silver W. Lawson Little
Jr. collected over his brilliant golf career, the one trophy he
cherished the most was not directly earned on the course.
Little won six national championships, including back-to-back
U.S. and British Amateur crowns in 1934 and '35 to win what
has been called "The Little Slam" (as well as the 1940
U.S. Open). However, it was the 1935 Sullivan Award that he
treasured more than any.
|W. Lawson Little Jr. is the only golfer
to win both the U.S. and British Amateur titles in
back-to-back years. (USGA Photo Archives)|
Given annually to the outstanding American amateur athlete,
the Sullivan has been known to some as the "Oscar" of
sports awards. The award, named for the founder and past
president of the Amateur Athletic Union, not only stands for
excellence on the field, but sportsmanship, integrity, leadership
and high ideals of amateurism off it. Little beat out reigning
Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody, fellow golf champion Glenna
Collett Vare, track star Percy Beard, swimming standout Jack
Medica, pole vaulter Keith Brown, sprint marvel Eulace Peacock,
national tennis champion Helen Jacobs and record swimmer Lenore
Kight Wingard in a vote by 600 tribunal leaders within the
Bob Jones was the first recipient of the Sullivan Award in
1930, and in the ensuing years such luminaries as Carl Lewis,
"Doc" Blanchard, Bill Bradley, Wilma Rudolph, Mark
Spitz, Bill Walton, Bruce Jenner, Greg Louganis, Michelle Kwan
and Tim Tebow, who received the honor for 2007, have won it.
Little remains the last golfer to win the award, something that
was not lost on his four children.
"In the mid-1950s, I was probably 8 or 9 and my [three
sisters] were a little older . and around that time, my dad got
us together and told us what [the Sullivan Award] meant to
him," said Lawson Little III, his only son. "To him, it
meant integrity, character and sportsmanship. As he gave us this
little talk, he said, 'I've won six national titles, but
this is what I treasure the most because you don't win it;
you are honored by what you did and who you are.' "
Little III and his sisters saw the trophy every day. Since
their father's death in 1968 from a heart condition, they
have passed it along to each other. But on April 25, the Sullivan
Award was donated to the USGA Museum and new Arnold Palmer Center
for Golf History, which will formally reopen on June 3.
Ron Read, the USGA director for regional affairs in the West
Region, organized a special ceremony at Almaden Country Club in
San Jose, Calif., where Little III formally presented the
Sullivan to USGA President Jim Vernon. A contingent of USGA
"family members" - local committee people - also were
at the ceremony that featured an emotional speech from Little
III. Monica Lynne Gangi, a regional affairs committee member from
Monte Severeno, Calif., was instrumental in getting Almaden C.C.
to serve as the site for the ceremony.
Vernon said it has become the highlight of his presidency,
which formally began in February.
"Before this it was my short little speech at the Amateur
Dinner at the Masters," said Vernon, who like Little Jr. is
a Stanford University graduate. "That was something I will
never forget. It was a thrill for me to be there to accept that
Soon the Sullivan Award trophy will be permanently displayed
in the USGA Museum with the medal Jones received for being the
first Sullivan recipient (it wasn't a trophy in 1930).
"Dad has always had the ultimate respect for the USGA as
the guardian of the game," said Little III. "Even
though this is not a trophy that the USGA created or gave out,
it's something that he thought symbolized the same principles
of the USGA of integrity and sportsmanship. For that reason, dad
and mom always wanted it to eventually end up at the
Little III's sister Linda, who lives in Florida, plans to
attend the June 3 grand opening of the Arnold Palmer Center for
|When Bob Jones won the inaugural Sullivan
Award in 1930, it was just a medallion. (USGA Photo
"The Sullivan Award has only been won by two golfers .
and now we have both of those awards," said Vernon. "In
one case it's a medallion and in the other it's a really
neat trophy. The achievement itself is remarkable. The fact that
we have both of the awards in the [USGA] Museum is pretty
"We get so caught up in the Heisman Trophy and other
awards in higher-profile sports and you lose track of the
Sullivan Award and the kind of people who have won it over the
years. He was awarded it not just for something he did, but for
the way he conducted himself."
When great American amateur players are discussed, the names
of Jones and Tiger Woods often come up. Jones is remembered for
winning the "Grand Slam" in 1930 and capturing nine
overall USGA titles, while Woods won six consecutive USGA amateur
titles - three U.S. Juniors (1991-93) and three U.S. Amateurs
(1994-96), a feat never before accomplished.
W. Lawson Little Jr. belongs in that discussion as well. The
fact that he flourished after Jones might have something to do
with it. But from 1934-35, he won 32 consecutive matches - 31
coming in the U.S. and British Amateur and one in singles at the
1934 Walker Cup Match. No player to this date has ever won both
the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur in consecutive years.
Jones' lone British Amateur win came in 1930 when he took
the "Slam." Little's 14-and-13 triumph over Jack
Wallace in the '34 British Amateur final at Prestwick remains
the largest margin of victory in a championship match in the
event's 123-year history. Later that summer, Little pasted
David Goldman, 8 and 7, in the U.S. Amateur final at The Country
Club in Brookline, Mass.
The following year, Little defended his British Amateur title
at Royal Lytham and St. Annes with a 1-up triumph over Bill
Tweddell, and then beat Walter Emery, 4 and 2, at The Country
Club in Cleveland, Ohio, for the U.S. Amateur title.
In his 31 consecutive match-play victories at those two
championships, only three went the full distance and just one was
extended beyond 18 holes.
"He has everything," Jones once remarked about
Little's play. "He looks to be in a class by
In a Grantland Rice piece in 1935, the famous sportswriter sat
down with Jones and Walter Hagen, two of the greatest champions
of that era. Upon seeing Little, Hagen said, "There in my
opinion goes one of the all-time great champions of golf.
I'll give you the real slant on Little. He can concentrate on
every shot all day long."
Said Jones: "That's the big point. I used to think I
was a hard worker through a tournament and you were too Hagen.
But Lawson is the hardest worker I ever saw."
Little chose not to defend his titles in 1936. Instead he
turned pro and promptly won the '36 Canadian Open by shooting
a tournament-record 271. But because the PGA of America had a
rule at the time that said a player had to work five years in a
shop before joining the PGA Tour, Little could not officially
compete in tour events until 1940. So he accepted $10,000 from
Spalding to tour the country with Jones, Horton Smith and Jimmy
Thompson. They gave clinics to people who otherwise could not
afford to play the game. In those days, that was an exorbitant
amount of money considering his first-place check for winning the
'40 U.S. Open was just $1,000 and the total purse was
After his touring duties ended, Little eventually joined the
PGA Tour in 1940. That year he won the Los Angeles Open by
shooting a final-round 65 in a driving rain storm. Later that
summer, he beat Gene Sarazen in a playoff for the U.S. Open title
at Canterbury Country Club in Cleveland. The playoff should have
had a third participant, but Ed "Porky" Oliver, along
with five other players, were disqualified for starting the final
round too early because they saw a storm coming and wanted to
finish. Despite pleading from Little to allow Oliver in the
playoff, the USGA maintained steadfast to its decision.
After the Open, some newspaper reporters wrote that they
wanted Little to play Oliver in a match. Despite having nothing
to gain and everything to lose, Little showed the sportsman and
gentleman he was by agreeing to play Oliver. He wound up beating
his fellow pro.
Little was born in Newport, R.I., on June 23, 1910, but he
moved around a lot as a child because his father was a colonel in
the Army Medical Corps. He also spent part of his childhood in
China and the Philippines, but his parents eventually settle in
San Francisco, where Little came under the tutelage of Larry
Brazil at The Presidio. Nicknamed "Cannonball" and
often described as "bullnecked and barrel-chested," the
200-pound Little generated tremendous power despite standing only
5 feet, 9 inches. In 1929, he beat Johnny Goodman at the U.S.
Amateur in Pebble Beach just a day after Goodman stunned reigning
champion Jones in the first round.
For all his strength, Little had an expert short game. He used
a variety of clubs from around the green, and in fact often
carried as many as seven wedges among his 26 clubs, an excess
which in 1938 prompted the USGA to institute the 14-club
At Stanford University, Little was no better than No. 3 man on
the golf team. Nevertheless, Little made his mark in key amateur
competitions. He was named to the '34 Walker Cup team that
competed at St. Andrews and it was that trip which enabled him to
compete in the British Amateur. In the '34 final before 6,000
mostly Scottish spectators at historic Prestwick, he posted a
course-record 66 in the morning, with the usual match-play
concessions, and was 12 up at the lunch break. Of the 23 holes
played, Little had a dozen 3s on his card.
At the 1935 U.S. Amateur, Little was the equivalent of 19
under par over 156 holes and never scored higher than a 5 on any
Some equated Little's brilliant course management and
mental fortitude to that of the great Ben Hogan. One sportswriter
of the time said Little examined a course as if it were a stormy
sea to be chartered. Little often told reporters, "It's
impossible to outplay an opponent you can't
A series of heart ailments forced Little from the game in the
early 1950s, but his legacy in the game had long been established
Little III briefly tried to follow in his dad's footsteps,
qualifying for the 1970 Los Angeles Open as an amateur and then
trying the mini-tour circuit with - pardon the pun - little
"I scratched the itch in the early '70s," said
Little III. "I discovered that championship golf is not
Twelve years after his death, Little Jr. was inducted into the
World Golf Hall of Fame.
Wrote sportswriter Charles Price about his amateur career,
"Lawson Little was the greatest match player in the history
David Shefter is a staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him
with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.