When many of the world’s top golfers head to Whistling Straits, Wisconsin this month to compete for the Ryder Cup, a man – as he has done since the tournament’s first tournament – will be the focus.
But you’ve probably never heard of him – even though he’s featured on TV, newspapers, and magazines around the world. But 100 years ago he was one of the biggest names in British sport.
The Ryder Cup trophy – with Abe Mitchell
Indeed, so was his popularity that when he was lured into working for an ambitious and profound golf club in Kent, he ordered a salary that “eclipsed all football and cricket records”.
But if you say the name Abe Mitchell to many, it won’t mean anything.
Still, he’s the figure immortalized on the Ryder Cup trophy.
So how did a man whose legacy is about to be forgotten ended up winning one of the world’s most famous sports prizes? And how did one of the most powerful media magnates manage to convince him at one of Thanet’s most picturesque courses during his heyday?
Henry Abraham Mitchell, to give him his full name, was born in East Grinstead in 1887 just across the border between Kent and East Sussex. His family home was adjacent to what is now the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club, and it is there that he developed his love for the sport.
Abe Mitchell was one of the greatest golfers in the world
“He is known as the ‘greatest golfer who never won the Open,'” said Arthur King, director of North Foreland Golf Club in Broadstairs – where Mitchell worked at the height of his popularity.
“He played for England (against Scotland) as an amateur international player in 1910, 11 and 12 and finished second in the amateur championship that same year,” he added.
In 1913 he became a professional. His first attempt to win the Open in 1914 put him out of fourth place – he cashed in prize money of £ 8 and 15 shillings – which is just over £ 1,000 today. (Just for comparison, if you had finished fourth at the 2021 Sandwich Open, you would have taken home more than £ 680,000).
But as its star began to rise, the outbreak of World War I cast a long, dark shadow over the world.
Professional golf was suspended and Mitchell joined the Royal Artillery to serve in France.
Abe Mitchell on his wedding day with Dora in Tunbridge Wells, 1920
With peace restored in 1919, there were no more opportunities to play the normal qualifying rounds for The Open, and instead a Victory Open was held at St Andrews, Scotland, which was attended by 60 top professionals. Abe Mitchell emerged triumphant.
The event was sponsored by the Daily Mail – owned by Lord Northcliffe, an avid amateur golfer who owned coastal land next to his summer home in Broadstairs.
He had recently invested heavily in North Foreland Golf Club – and leased the land on which half of the current course is located to the club. He wanted to make sure that this course would be known nationwide.
While Abe Mitchell had planned to emigrate to the United States to compete there, Lord Northcliffe had other plans.
And so he bought the services of Britain’s most famous golfer for the princely sum of £ 1,300 in the first year – the equivalent of £ 67,000 today – not only to improve his game, but also to become a club professional in North Foreland.
Lord Northcliffe splashed the money to bring Abe Mitchell to his club
A report in the Glasgow Record at the time said that the fee “dwarfs any football or cricket record and is important to the rise of the golfer. – the golfer, I claim, would have it. “
“Winning Abe Mitchell was one of the main reasons people came to North Foreland,” said Arthur King. “It has established itself as one of the top clubs at the time.
“Abe would have been teaching if he hadn’t played tournaments elsewhere.”
It’s a bit like Rory McIlroy teaching you the basics of your swing.
He started his first laps in March 1920 and broke all previous course records.
A wooden driver named Abe Mitchell and North Foreland Golf Club
Just a few months later – when Deal hosted The Open at the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club – he was leading the field with six strokes after the first two rounds.
But his third started badly and he never recovered. The open alludes to him again.
However, he saw an off-course success – in November of that first year he married his mistress Dora in Tunbridge Wells.
His time at the club saw his popularity skyrocket – thanks in part to Lord Northcliffe, who oversaw his newspapers, which included the Daily Mirror with Mitchell, and his club connections.
After his five-year contract expired, Mitchell planned to pack his golf bag again and sail to the United States.
Abe Mitchell worked at the North Foreland Golf Club from 1920-1925
But he had caught the attention of Samuel Ryder – a businessman who wanted Mitchell to be his personal golf coach at his club.
So Mitchell parked his Atlantic ambitions once again and turned pro at the Verulam Club in St Albans for another sizeable salary package.
But it would prove to be a step that would secure his immortality.
Samuel Ryder had built a career in the less-than-glamorous world selling packets of seeds for a dime – undercutting his rivals. But he grew it into a large company with more than 100 employees.
His love for golf developed and he started sponsoring events.
North Foreland Golf Club in Kingsgate, Broadstairs
Not long after Mitchell’s arrival, he announced plans for a regular golf tournament where the UK’s best golfers compete against their counterparts in the US.
The Ryder Cup was launched in 1927 at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts – Samuel Ryder provided the trophy for the event from which it took its name.
On the lid of the trophy was the figure of a golfer – his golf instructor Abe Mitchell.
Mitchell himself was supposed to be the British team captain in that first clash, but suffered appendicitis the day before departure and again saw his plans to get to the US thwarted.
However, he returned and took part in the 1929, 1931 and 1933 tournaments of the biennial showdown.
North Foreland Golf Club is now one of the best in the county
In 1979 the event became a US-European event and today reaches a global television audience of 500 million in nearly 200 countries.
Abe Mitchell would never win the Open, but he had cemented his place in golf history.
He died in St Albans at the age of 60.
North Foreland Golf Club has several of its clubs on display in its clubhouse – and even enjoyed a rare visit to the trophy itself as part of its 100th anniversary celebrations in 2003.
Arthur King, co-author of a book detailing the club’s remarkable history, sums it up: “We used to have a huge picture of Abe Mitchell in the clubhouse and are still proud of our association with him and, of course, Lord Northcliffe.”
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