1912 team captain and elite athlete
Except for schooling and military service, Robert Gardner (Class of 1912) spent his entire life in the Chicago area, first in Hinsdale and later in Lake Forest. He was educated at Phillips Academy and then at Yale. He was a winner. As a senior at Phillips in 1908, he abandoned golf so that he could concentrate on pole vaulting and contribute to the victory over archrival Phillips Exeter Academy. The following year, as captain of the Yale freshman track team, he won the national intercollegiate pole vault championship and the usga Amateur Championship, played that year at the C. B. Macdonald-designed Chicago Golf Club.
To get to the final, he defeated Walter J. Travis, the former British and US amateur champion. In the final, he defeated two-time champion, Chandler Egan. Because he was a freshman, Gardner couldn’t play for the varsity golf team. Apparently the team didn’t need him because it won the intercollegiate championship a week after Gardner’s victory in the Amateur.
Gardner had stellar accomplishments in two sports throughout his Yale career. From 1910 through 1912, he was a member of the golf teams that extended Yale’s streak of national intercollegiate championships to eight in a row, captaining the team in his senior year. He was also captain of the track team and set a world record of 13 feet 1 inch in winning the intercollegiate pole vault championship at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on June 2, 1912. Alas, the record was broken one week later by Marc Wright, a Dartmouth student, at the Olympic Trials at Harvard Stadium, where Gardner was not competing.
Gardner returned to Chicago to join the management of a local coal company and confined his golf to major competitions. In 1915, he entered the Amateur Championship along with other Yale graduates John Reid, Jr., and Max Behr. The favorites were “Chick” Evans, “Jerry” Travers, and Francis Ouimet, but Gardner won the tournament resoundingly. In September 1915, Golf Illustrated marveled that “his drives of 250-280 yards made Gardner appear like a Brobdingnagion golfer among Lilliputians,” with “muscles of steel and nerves of iron.”
The following year, the newly-married Gardner defended his amateur championship at Merion. Playing with an infected right index finger he advanced to the final but lost to “Chick” Evans. Gardner had earlier defeated a fourteen-year-old boy named Bobby Jones from Atlanta, who was playing in his first national championship. This match attracted 8,000 spectators, and Jones would remember that defeat as one of the most important events of his unparalleled career.
In 1917 Gardner teamed up with “Chick” Evans to play Bobby Jones and his friend Perry Adair in a match to raise money for the war effort. They attracted the largest crowd ever to see a match in Chicago (2,500) and raised one-thousand dollars. A month later, 16,000 spectators turned out to see Gardner and Evans and their female partners play a match. Then Gardner enlisted and spent World War i in France as a lieutenant in the field artillery. Returning from the war, he joined the brokerage firm of Mitchell, Hutchins & Company of New York and Chicago. He remained with the firm for the rest of his life and was a general partner when he died thirty-seven years later in 1956.
Golf remained Gardner’s passion, and he remained one of America’s leading amateurs of his era. He reached the final of the British Amateur in 1920, the best showing an American had made in sixteen years, and reached the finals of the US Amateur in 1921, losing the title to Jesse Guilford. He was a member of the first US Walker Cup team in 1922 and served as the playing captain in 1923, 1924, and 1926. (After 1924 it became a biennial event.) Here, too, Gardner was a winner — the team of Great Britain and Ireland didn’t win until 1938! Late in life, he was a member of the 1949 US Senior golf team that defeated the British Senior team. And his sporting accomplishments were not limited to golf. In both 1916 and 1929, Gardner and Howard Linn won the national racquet pairs championship.