Bobby Jones and the 1923 U.S. Open

Golf is a game of “long-memory,” with a compelling history going back an incredible 500 years.  Yet for all the evolutionary changes in equipment, technique and course architecture, the essence of this game has remained the same.  Men and women compete against each other and an opponent which is nature itself – the course – in a game that pits self against self.  Many can play the game and shoot great scores, but when the pressure is on champions have a tenacious ability to control their gut-wrenching nerves, to not fear the moment, but seize it and make it theirs for all-time.

Two generations before the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, a 14-year old wunderkind from Georgia burst onto the national scene, bringing with him the weighty expectations of an adoring public.  For the next nine years, however, his road was far from easy, as he struggled with inner demons – a fierce temper and nagging doubt – that kept him from realizing the greatness born inside him.  Through many disappointments and close calls, he persevered; he chewed on adversity and became stronger for it.  1923 arrived, and he wondered if it would be any different.  Fate, he believed, determined who won tournaments and maybe fate was against him.  He was wrong, for on July 15th of that year at the Inwood Country Club in Long Island, New York, twenty-one year Bobby Jones won his first major championship. 

If anyone survives to testify to what they experienced that summer afternoon, they are the envy of those of us who love golf and its history.  Just as today’s youngsters have been fortunate to see Tiger Woods win championships, and those of my generation were fortunate to see Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, so were those of Jones’s generation, especially on this day.

Much had happened to Jones since his debut in the 1916 U.S. Amateur at Merion Golf and Cricket Club in Pennsylvania.  Walter Travis, the grand “Old Man” of golf who in the first decade of the 20th century had won U.S. and British Amateur championships while in his forties, had observed Jones at Merion.  He contended that young master Jones had all the necessary shots in his repertoire to be a great player, but would have to learn a good deal more about playing them if he was to reach his full potential.

Year by year, Jones did just that, honing his game and learning from his experiences.  He would earn victories in smaller tournaments, but by 1923 was still waiting to win a big one – one that would validate him as a great player.  Jones saw that year’s U.S. Open as a major crossroad in his career.  As he described it in his book Down the Fairway, “The whole heft of responsibility seems to have hit me at Inwood – the idea of being a great golfer (as people kept saying) who couldn’t win.”  Jones was a fatalist, believing that the outcome of a tournament was determined before the first shot was ever struck, and that the players were simply playing out roles already chosen for them.  With such a notion planted in his mind, he just went out and played as well as he could, ready to let the chips fall where they may.

One could argue that Jones, based on his previous finishes in the tournament, was destined to win a U.S. Open one day.  In his first attempt in 1920 (where he was paired with the great Harry Vardon in the early rounds), he finished 8th.  He improved to 5th in 1921, and was runner-up to Gene Sarazen in 1922 (where victory had been in his reach until he played the penultimate hole badly.)

In those days, the U.S. Open was played over two rounds of 36 holes each, and Jones opened the championship at Inwood with scores of  71, 73, trailing Jock Hutchison by two shots at the half way point.  Jones’s mediocre 76 after the third round was still good enough to put him three shots clear of Bobby Cruickshank, who shot a 78, and four ahead of Hutchinson, who had a disastrous 82.   Paired with defending champion Sarazen, Jones began his final round in an inauspicious way, taking a bogey 5 at the short 343-yard 1st.  He immediately righted himself, parring the next three holes, then nearly eagled the 519-yard 5th.  Settling for a tap-in birdie there, he parred the 6th, and turned his attention to the 7th hole, a narrow, difficult 223-yard three-par.  It proved to be a nemesis for Jones that day.  After making a double-bogey there in the third round, Jones came to it one last time and hooked his tee shot left of the green, with the ball hitting a spectator and coming to rest out of bounds.  He recovered bravely by hitting the green with his next shot and almost made the putt, but still recorded his second double-bogey of the day on the hole.  After this setback, he pulled himself together and parred the last two holes for an outward score of 39.  

The homeward nine began on a good note, as Jones drained a 25-footer for birdie at the short 295-yard 10th, after hitting his approach too hard.  On the 11th he was fortunate to make a 10-footer for par after looking up on his chip shot and leaving the ball well short of the hole.  Two pars followed and “then began a struggle which proved his worth as a golfer,” as a newspaper account of the day described it.   Jones found a bunker on his second shot to the 430-yard 13th, but played a great recovery and made the resulting 5-foot putt to save his par.   After a welcome birdie at the 497-yard 14th, he saved par again at the 173-yard 15th with another spectacular bunker shot to within 3 feet of the hole.  At this point, three pars on the remaining holes would have given him and even par 72 for the round, and secured him an easy victory, but the golfing gods had something else in mind for him.  Jones was a believer in fate, and fate, it seems, was ready for him.

At the 425-yard 16th Jones hit a terrible second shot, a big pull that sailed out of bounds into a parking lot.  It was a shocking mistake for a golfer of Jones’s caliber.  He saved his bogey, however, thanks to the fortuitous bounce his 4th shot took off a mound next to the green, which ricocheted his ball toward the hole.  Jones holed the resulting 6-foot putt, and headed to the next tee lucky to escape so lightly.  So much has been made of Jones’s poor finish that day, but people fail to appreciate the fortitude he showed to save himself from a real disaster after hitting it O.B. on the 70th hole of the championship. 

As is always the case, we remember the shots that stand out at the very end, when the pressure is on, paying little attention to the breaks early in the tournament that could have been the difference between victory and defeat.  We forget the 2-foot putt that was missed on the fifth hole of round one, or the hooked drive that the trees kicked out cleanly into the fairway on the eight hole of the third round, when it could just as easily have gone into the underbrush and led to a huge number.  Jones was trying to focus only on the task at hand, but perhaps the pressure was too much for him after his experience on the 16th, for he kept stumbling home.

Another bogey followed on the 17th, but his lead remained safe when Cruickshank, playing behind him, doubled the 16th after missing the green with his approach and three-putting after a poor chip.  Even with Cruickshank’s par to Jones’s bogey on 17, Jones still held a seemingly insurmountable three stroke lead going to the 72nd hole.  After a decent drive, Jones hooked his second shot left of the green, and then dubbed his pitch squarely into the bunker that lay between himself and the hole.  After blasting out and two-putting for an embarrassing 6, Jones was beside himself, telling his confidant and biographer O.B. Keeler that he had finished the round “like a yellow dog.”  

Cruickshank was still on the course, the only player with a chance to catch Jones.  His double-bogey on the 16th had pushed him to the wall, forcing him to birdie one of the last two holes to tie.  A par on the 17th made things clear.  For anyone else walking to the 18th tee that afternoon, such a challenge would have been do or die situation.  But for Cruickshank, who as a soldier in World War I had seen his brother blown to pieces a few feet from him, and who was later taken prisoner of war, this moment dealt only with playing a game.  Cruickshank had birdied the eighteen in the morning round, so he knew it could be done.  A good tee shot into a freshening wind found the middle of the fairway, but he was still a long way from the green.  He took a 1-iron and hit a career shot over the water guarding the front of the green, the ball flying on a line right at the hole and coming to rest 6 feet from it.  The normally fast playing Cruickshank took his time lining up the putt, and stroked it right into the heart of the cup.  Pulling the ball out almost before it fell into the bottom of the hole, he is reported to have said in his Scottish accent, “You’ll no get oot o’ there.” An excited crowd threw hats into the air in celebration of the other Bobby’s heroic finish.  

Jones was rendered inconsolable by his tortured finish.  Four strokes up with two to play, he finished 5, 6 to Cruickshank’s 4, 3, a stunning turn of events that forced an 18-hole playoff the next day to determine the champion.  What thoughts must have gone through the mind of Bobby Jones that night as he pondered a playoff?  Golf historian Hebert Warren Wind, in his classic work The Story of American Golf, claimed the double-bogey Jones took on the final hole epitomized his years of failed attempts to win a major championship.  As Wind described it, “There was always something wrong.  At one time it had been inexperience.  He had outgrown it.  Later it had been a wicked temper.  He had conquered it.  Sometimes it had been just plain bad luck.”  Who knew what it was at Inwood, but Jones still hadn’t been able to cross the threshold and find his way as a major champion. 

For Jones, the playoff offered a chance for redemption.  Recounting his feelings in Down the Fairway, Jones described Cruickshank’s birdie at the 72nd as “one of the greatest holes ever played in golf.  It was far and away the greatest for me.  It gave me a chance to get square with myself.”  Jones contended that had Cruickshank parred or bogeyed the last hole, “I’d never have felt I had won the championship.”  The play-off was an opportunity to prove himself as a true champion and test his courage and tanacity – to get square with himself.  

 As the two competitors teed off at two o’clock Sunday afternoon to decide the winner, Jones recalled that he “felt alright as we started, only sort of numb.”  It was a back and forth match all the way.  Cruckshank demonstrated his sportsmanship early on, when he raised his hand at the second hole to quiet the crowd as Jones prepared to stroke his three-foot putt for par.  Cruickshank was up by 2 shots after six holes, thanks to birdies at the third and fifth (and aided by a missed 18-inch putt by Jones at the 6th), but they ended up tied at the turn.  The seventh, which had posed such a problem for Jones the day before, was parred by him this time, after he reached the green with a brave 3-wood. Cruickshank bogeyed it, and added another bogey at the ninth.  It is interesting to note that Jones recalled feeling extreme tension when he stepped up to the tee shot on the 7th, proof that even champion golfers have trouble forgetting bad shots easily! 

On the back side, the strain began to show, as Jones bogeyed and Cruickshank double-bogeyed the short 295-yard 10th.  Jones jumped out to a two shot lead with a short birdie putt at the 108-yard 12th.  They split the 13th with par 4’s.  Cruickshank’s birdie on the par-5 14th cut the lead to one after a perplexed Jones three-putted from 50 feet for a par.  A Cruickshank bogey on the par-3 15th evened the match, when Jones took 5, flubbing a pitch shot after his tee shot ran through the green.  

Jones took the lead again on the 425-yard 16th, making a routine par while Cruickshank couldn’t get up and down from a greenside bunker.  On the 17th Jones hooked his tee shot into the left rough, while Cruickshank hit an even wilder shot, pulling it so far left that it ended up in the 16th fairway.  He hit a good recovery shot from there, but it ended up in a bunker.  Jones could not take advantage of his opponent’s misfortune, however, and followed Cruickshank into the same bunker.  Jones played out well short of the hole with his third, while Cruickshank hit a fantastic explosion to within two feet.  Jones missed his difficult uphill putt.  The pressure was getting to both players, as Cruickshank nearly missed his putt, jamming it into the back of the hole and nervously watching it rattle around before settling inside the cup.  So there they were, still tied after 89 holes.  As Jones recalled, “The strain had killed us off; anyway it had killed me.”  For a man who would lose as much as eighteen pounds during the course of a tournament due to nervous tension, this must have been excruciating for Jones, especially as his thoughts drifted back to the events of twenty-four hours earlier.

The 18th hole was a stout test for those days, a 425-yard par-4.  Cruickshank hit a bad drive, some described it as a half top down the left side of the fairway, so poor in fact that he had no chance of reaching the green with his second shot, especially since it was guarded in front by a water hazard.   Jones followed with a drive that was pushed into the right rough, but found a favorable lie.  Seeing Cruickshank lay up a little over 100 yards short of the green with his second shot, perhaps Jones felt a bit of relief, perhaps his mind was freer of doubt, for he played his own second shot decisively. 

Had he caught it thin or fat and put it in the water, who knows what might have been.  The hole that Jones had butchered the day before with a double-bogey was about to take its place in the revered “long-memory” of golf history.  At that moment the golfing gods looked down on Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. and said, “It’s your time.”  From a bare lie to the right of the fairway, some 200 yards from the hole, he pulled out his hickory shafted 2-iron, with its butter-knife thin head, and hit a bullet of a shot that covered the flag all the way, coming down as close to the hole as his competitor’s second shot had been the day before.  Jones friend and home pro Stewart Maiden, who was following Jones in the gallery, said later that Jones had never played a shot more promptly or decisively as that second on the 18th.   

It was sublime justice, and Cruickshank had no answer to it.  In the words of a New York Times newspaperman who covered the event, it was a shot that “in addition to proving Jones’s capabilities as one of the finest shot-makers in the world and one of the most courageous fighters in the world, will take its place among the epochal strokes that are a part of golf’s lengthy history.”  Not mere hyperbole, this statement proved itself a prophetic truth.   Seeing the result of Jones’s shot for the ages, Cruckshank, fighter that he was, didn’t give in.  He walked up the length of the fairway to measure the shot, knowing he had to get his ball up and down to have any chance to tie Jones.  But he pulled the shot left into the bunker, finished with a six, and afforded Jones the luxury of two easy putts for the victory.  In a show of sportsmanship, Cruickshank went over to Jones and offered him his hand, which Jones shook.  Jones then took two strokes to hole the putt his wondrous second shot had left him, and it was over. 

With the final putts holed, the crowds rushed the green to congratulate the champion.  Jones recounted that “the first conscious thought I had was: ‘I don’t care what happens now.  I had won a championship.’”  Two fellow Georgians in the crowd, who had traveled all the way from Atlanta to see him play, hoisted a smiling Jones onto their shoulders and carried him toward the clubhouse as a man played bagpipes.  

The next day the Times told the story, almost with a sense of relief, that Jones victory had “finally fulfilled the predictions made in his behalf by ardent admirers ever since he had flashed into prominence in 1916.”  It had wiped away years of Jones’s failures and near-misses, which had become so heartbreaking by 1923 that “even the most enthusiastic admirers had lost faith in his ability to shake off the jinx that seemed to be pursuing him.”  Now the jinx was broken, and with this triumph began the “seven fat years,” which writer O.B. Keeler attached to the period which saw Jones win 13 major championships before retiring in 1930, a living legend of the game. 

Indeed, the 2-iron Jones hit over that marshy pond to seal the victory is notched in the collective memory of all those who appreciate the history of this great game.  It connects the past and present, as Jones shared with the current generation of great players the burdensome yoke of unrealized expectations.  Good luck to all the “Mr. and Ms. Sure Things” to come.  I’m sure the spirit of Mr. Jones can sympathize with your predicament.

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