Years ago, I developed a term for those individuals who embody the many good things that golf is all about. I call them “great golf guys.” And that description not only speaks to their playing skills – be they male or female – but also their passion for the game, their sportsmanship, their willingness to give back and the ways they treat people, from caddies to Fortune 500 CEOs.
After meeting Jack Vardaman in the early 2000s, I quickly determined he was one of those great golf guys. And I relished all the times we were able to interact after that. On the phone or through e-mails. At some of his favorite clubs, like Pine Valley and Seminole. Or during meals of hog snapper and pompano at his beloved Reef Grill, located just down the road from Seminole and run by his dear friend Ross Matheson. So, I was understandably distressed when I learned last week that Jack had passed. He was 80 years old.
Born and raised in Alabama, Vardaman was the son of golfers, and his childhood home abutted a course in the town of Anniston. He was winning tournaments as a teenager and competed on the golf team at Washington & Lee University. Quite understandably, he began to neglect his game when he went off to Harvard Law School and then to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. After that, Jack joined the powerful Washington D.C. firm of Williams & Connolly, where he became a senior partner, specializing in environmental and product liability litigation. Tall and bespectacled, he was the very epitome of a Southern gentleman. But his success in the legal profession demonstrated that he could also be tough and exacting.
Though his passion for golf never dimmed, he was not able to play tournaments very often while building a career and raising four children with his wife, Marianne. But he found ways to compete more often when he hit his 50s and quickly established himself as one of the top senior amateurs in the country. He won the Senior Club Championship at Pine Valley as well as the senior division of two of the game’s most esteemed elite invitationals, the Crump Cup and the Coleman Invitational. He also qualified for six U.S. Senior Amateurs and four U.S. Senior Opens.
“I love to compete,” Vardaman once told me. “I love playing when you have to put the ball in the hole and see how you fare against guys who are trying as hard to win as you are.”
But playing well is only part of Jack’s story. “He liked talking golf equipment, the golf swing and the great players in the game,” said Shinnecock Hills head professional Jack Druga, who got to know Vardaman while working winters at Seminole. “He loved hitting balls, and he loved the caddies and the golf professionals. He always wanted to know what we were doing, and how we were doing.”
The late Sam Snead was a dear friend and frequent playing partner. So was former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle. But Vardaman got just as excited about the games he played with Matheson, and trophies from some of their more epic battles – the Pineapple Cup, the Barracuda Cup – hang from the walls of the Reef.
Vardaman also cared about the greater game of golf, serving for several years as general counsel at the USGA. In addition, he was a member of the Executive Committee there and vice chairman of the all-important Implements and Ball Committee. In later years, he led The First Tee in D.C. as its chairman.
Most recently, Vardaman held the role of co-chairman of the 2021 Walker Cup, which is scheduled to take place next spring at Seminole. And when I think of how much I will miss him, I also consider just how much he will miss being a part of that event, which represents everything he loved about the game.
Surely, the club and the USGA will find some way to honor him during those matches.
It is just what a great golf guy deserves.