Archive for the ‘U.S. Open’ Category

In Memory of Francis Ouimet’s “Shots Heard Round the World”

February 16, 2013

At 360 yards with a sharp dogleg left, the 17th hole was no brute. A birdie could be had, and he needed one desperately. His second shot, piercing through the cool grey sky, settled fifteen soggy feet from the hole. Surveying the putt, he knew it was now or never. Feet squished in the turf as he took his stance. Just give it a chance. The putter swept back and forward into the ball, and it clicked off toward the hole. The line and pace down the slippery slope were perfect. The large crowd held its collective breath as the ball curved right and rolled quickly toward its target. Slow down! It struck the back of the cup hard, bounced into the air, and disappeared from sight. An explosion of ecstatic shouts, whistles, and applause reverberated through the moist autumn air, and may well have shaken a few leaves off the trees.

Twenty-year-old Francis Ouimet had done it! He was tied for the lead in the U.S. Open with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. A hard-earned par on the last forced a playoff, a fitting conclusion to a story few people would believe had it not really happened. “In years to come it will become more famous,” declared the American Golfer. “Not a soul who witnessed it, including Vardon and Ray, will ever forget.” Nor shall we.

A century is a long time, a hundred years of yesterdays and memories long since forgotten. The participants in this battle entered their eternal sleep generations ago, but the events of those three days in September, 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts will always be remembered by those who love golf.

The Bible tells us that “time and chance happen to them all.” Mr. Oumet’s time was married to that place, to that championship. How else can one explain an unknown amateur, with one modest Massachusetts State Amateur title to his name, beating men who had won British Opens and competed in major championships since young Francis was a child? It was simply meant to be.

As Ouimet noted later, “fortune has to deal kindly with any golfer in winning a championship. There are times when things seem to go just right with a player and others when everything goes wrong.” Pretty much everything went right for him, and it all began across the street from that fateful 17th green. “I have often wondered,” Francis wrote in his book, A Game of Golf, “what my golfing activities would have amounted to if my father had not bought a home bordering on The Country Club.”

His opportunities in the game were certainly blessed by his proximity to the course, which in later life he would consider hallowed ground. His older brother Wilfred got a job caddying at the club, and Francis became enamored with the game on his walks back and forth across its green fairways on his way to school. Hunting for golf balls in the tall grass along the way was a fun and beneficial fringe benefit. Francis and Wilfred laid out a 3-hole, homemade course in the cow pasture behind the house, and Francis practiced every chance he got. His father Arthur was not a golfer and looked down on the game, and his mother Mary thought he “had gone crazy because golf was the only thing” he seemed interested in. Parental feelings notwithstanding, he never wavered from his path.

At eleven, Ouimet joined his brother as a caddie and was able to see many great golfers play in tournaments at the club – Jerome Travers, Willie Anderson, and Walter Travis among them – practicing aspects of their techniques he deemed useful. A kind member, Samuel Carr, gave the young boy some discarded clubs; a driver, lofter (similar to a 7-iron), midiron (2-iron), and putter, and more fully armed, Francis kept building his game. Rising at 4:30 or 5 a.m., he’d play a few holes at The Country Club “until a greenskeeper drove me away. Rainy days, when I was sure no one would be around, I would do the same thing.” Francis formed a golf team at his high school, and at sixteen won the Boston Interscholastic championship. When the U.S. Amateur came to his home club in 1910, he tried to qualify, but failed by one stroke. He tried again the following two years, but again failed, each time by a single agonizing stroke. He’d keep trying.

By the time 1913 rolled around, Francis had earned a certain reputation in his home state. In June he won the Massachusetts State Amateur, closing out his semi-final match by playing the last 6 holes in an incredible 6 under par. Two weeks before his tussle with Vardon and Ray, he finished second in qualifying at the U.S. Amateur in New York, then gave eventual winner Jerry Travers a game fight in their second round match before losing 3&2.

People in the know were impressed with Francis. The tall, angular-faced lad with the ready smile had a cool, even temperament that complimented his shot-making and putting skills. Bernard Darwin, the famous British golf writer, affirmed at the time, “Mr. Ouimet stepped at a bound into the forefront of American amateurs.” He had talent, but how far would it take him?

Time and chance then took the stage. The first bit of luck was getting into the field for the U.S. Open. Based on Ouimet’s good performance in the U.S. Amateur, Robert Watson, president of the USGA, encouraged him to play. “He thought I should enter,” recalled Ouimet years later. “I argued with him about the folly of such a thing, and he won the argument.” The main draws were undoubtedly Vardon and Ray. The stoic Vardon, 5-time British Open champion, at age 43 was still the game’s consummate ball-striker, but erratic on the greens. The burly 36-year-old Ray, winner of the British Open in 1912, was one of the game’s longest hitters, but also possessed a wonderful short game. “If only Harry could putt like Ted,” people whispered.

The two had been touring the U.S. since August playing exhibition matches and exciting crowds wherever they went, including an eleven-year-old boy in Atlanta named Bobby Jones. The strong field also included two-time defending champion Johnny McDermott, Mike Brady, Jerry Travers, Macdonald Smith, Jim Barnes, Jock Hutchinson, and Walter Hagen. Wilfred Reid, another strong English player, and Louis Tellier of France added to the international flavor.

The Country Club course they faced measured 6,245 yards, a hardy enough test in the days of hickory shaft clubs when a 250-yard drive was a monster. Francis successfully negotiated the two qualifying rounds, and did more than hold his own in the first rounds of the tournament proper. After smother-topping his opening tee shot about 40 yards into the rough and starting 6-6-5, his nerves smoothed out, and he shot rounds of 77-74. He trailed Vardon and Reid by four shots, Ray by two, and Barnes and Mac Smith by one.

Friday’s final double round was played under horrible conditions. Rain began to fall heavily at two o’clock in the morning and kept up throughout the day. Today, play would be called, but in 1913 they slogged on. Windswept rain soaked contestants to the bone, and made it difficult to hold onto their clubs and take a solid stance. It also saturated the greens to such an extent that long shots were prone to bury under the surface. There was no relief provided, and a number of players had to hack the ball out with mashies (5-irons) or niblicks (9-irons). The USGA took pity on the field in the final round, and allowed players to lift embedded balls on the greens. Francis had played in weather like this many times, and gladly accepted the challenge.

After three rounds Ouimet was still right there, shooting a par 74, tying Vardon (78) and Ray (76) at 225. The final round would validate Bernard Darwin’s assertion that never “was there a championship in which the fortunes fluctuated in so amazing a manner.” Ray was finishing up his round of 79 as Francis walked to the first tee. Francis began well, parring the first four holes. While playing the sixth he was told that Vardon had tied Ray with 304. “There are three or four still out there who will beat us,” Vardon told a British reporter, lamenting that his putting had let him down once again. Ray was beside himself. “I played rotten, and to make matters worse Harry went out and did the same thing.” But those chasing, including Hagen and McDermott, all came up short. The only hope for an American victory rested with Mr. Ouimet.

“I will admit that my pulse beat a trifle faster,” he recalled, “for I felt confident that I could turn in a round of 78. Right there I made a mistake, for I began to play safe.” He made double bogey at the fifth, then after finding out where he stood, went bogey, par, double, par, double – dropping seven shots in six holes. After the double bogey on the 140-yard 10th, he said to himself: “It’s done, forget it. Instead of dwelling upon the play at the tenth I began to figure what I would have to do on the remaining holes. Possibly I was so wrapped up in this calculation that I did not have a chance to get nervous.”

Walking to the 11th tee he heard someone in the gallery say, “‘It’s too bad, he has blown up.’ I knew he meant me, and it made me angry. It put me in the proper frame of mind to carry on. There was still a chance, I thought.” Champions find a way, and he steadied himself with pars on 11 and 12. “Standing on the 13th tee, I realized I must play those last six holes in two under par to tie.” After a good drive, he missed his second on the 320-yard hole and was left with a 30-foot shot from the fringe, but chipped the ball right into the hole for a three and “was still in the hunt.”

The cheers brought Vardon and Ray out to the 14th to watch him finish, “and a great finish they saw,” noted one reporter, “which impressed them enormously even if in the circumstances it did not exactly delight them.” Ouimet parred the 470-yard par-5 fourteenth and saved his par on the 370-yard fifteenth with a delicate pitch over a bunker that he played to perfection, leaving him a yard from the cup. Time was running out. The 16th was a short 125- yard par-3. A birdie from 18 feet seemed possible until he left his putt short – 9 feet short – but somehow he coaxed the next one in.

By the time he reached the 17th tee, an estimated 10,000 spectators had come out to watch him, a huge crowd for that time. Something special was happening, and they wanted to be part of it. Ouimet’s mashie second was struck well and opened the door to a putt. One thought filled his head as he looked over his 15-foot downhill, side hill winder – get it there! A car honked its horn repeatedly as he putted, a horn he never heard, so “thoroughly was my mind centered on the business of holing the putt.” He stroked it as firmly as any putt he ever hit and knew he holed it “the moment I struck it.” Bernard Darwin reported that amid the tumult of cheers, catcalls, and yells, the people appeared, “one and all, like madmen.”

When Ouimet chipped up and sank a 4-foot putt on the final hole to secure his place in a playoff with Vardon and Ray, “there was a briskness and decisiveness about every movement, and whatever he might have felt, he did not betray it by as much as the movement of an eyelash.”

The crowd was euphoric, young Ouimet’s performance had been grand, a dream – but surely he’d blow sky high in the playoff. “That their boy hero, after a night to sleep on it, should go out in cold blood and beat, not one, but two champions, was too much to hope for,” added Darwin.

From Francis’s point of view, “it would be nonsensical for me to say that at the start of the playoff I felt confident of defeating Vardon and Ray. While I did not feel nervous, I did realize the formidable task in hand. Two things and one person, in particular, helped me amazingly. The person was my little caddie, Eddie Lowery; one of the two things was the appeal which he made to my patriotism; the other thing was my determination that Vardon and Ray should not be able to say that my tying them for the championship was a fluke, which I felt they could say if I ‘went to pieces’ in the playoff.”

On the first hole he made a 4-footer for a five to tie his fellow competitors. When it fell, “almost instantly any feeling of awe and excitement left me completely. I seemed to go into a coma.” After 6 holes Vardon was one up on Francis and two on Ray. This heartened Ouimet, who realized “my opponents were not infallible in their play.” They all turned in 38 strokes and Francis took the lead on the tenth with a par. “Once he got the lead I was very much afraid for our British representatives,” wrote correspondent Henry Leach, “and I think they were a little afraid too. No man ever looked less like cracking than young Ouimet.” By the 12th, Francis realized that “even against two such wonderful players there might be a chance of landing the title, with which thought I resolved that if they beat me it would be only by playing better than par golf.”

A hole later he was still one up on Vardon and two in front of Ray. A double-bogey at the 15th took Ray effectively out of it, but Vardon stayed one behind going into the penultimate hole. In need of a birdie, Vardon tried to cut the corner of the dogleg, and instead, found the bunker that now bears his name. When Francis saw where Vardon ended up, he felt, “for the first time in the match, that the title was mine and I felt absolutely sure of it when, after getting safely on the green in two, I sank the putt for a three.” A par on the last gave him a 72 to Vardon’s 77 and Ray’s 78. Victory! The multitudes rushed in and gathered up the beaming champion on their shoulders, as delirious cheers filled the air.

How did it happen? How could it happen – especially on the course Francis grew up on? Harry Vardon claimed he played the worst golf of his entire tour that week of the Open. What if he had played his best? The Sunday before the championship began, Francis played two warm-up rounds with friends at Wellesley Country Club, shooting a pair of wretched 88’s. What if he had done that in the tournament? What if he had failed to convert his putts on 17 and 18 that final round? What if ten-year-old Eddie Lowery, who Francis claimed was “a veritable inspiration all the way around,” had not been his caddy? Golf, like life, isn’t about “what ifs,” it’s about what happens at a particular moment in time.

Francis Ouimet won for the same reasons Bobby Jones won at Inwood in 1923, how Ben Hogan survived a near-fatal car crash and then won at Merion in 1950, how Arnold Palmer won at Cherry Hills in 1960 and lost at Olympic in 1966, how Larry Mize won at Augusta in 1987 and Tom Watson lost at Turnberry in 2009. Time and chance happened to them all. It was meant to be. It was golf.

Ouimet’s victory was a watershed moment. As Herbert Warren Wind put it, the luckiest thing “that happened to American golf was that its first great hero was a person like Francis Ouimet.” He wasn’t a rich kid; he wasn’t a hard-nosed professional. “Here was a person all of America, not just golfing America, could understand.” Ouimet, the ex-caddie, the working-class boy who quit high school to help support his family, the boy who played for the love of the game, remaining an amateur to his final days – the boy who grew into the man who mentored other great champions like Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. No one-hit wonder! After this day he went on to win two U.S. Amateurs, the last in 1931, and was a member of eight Walker Cup teams. He was a gentleman, without scandal in his life, and the ideal of an American hero.

Harry Vardon wrote in his autobiography that Ouimet’s performance “was one of the finest exhibitions of courageous golf which I have ever witnessed.” He was also firmly convinced that it was from this victory that the seeds were sown for what “was to become the remarkable improvement in the play of golfers from the United States.” In 1913 fewer than 350,000 people played golf in the U.S.; ten years later the number had increased to 2,000,000. With Ouimet’s victory, America had graduated as a first-class golfing power. As one reporter put it, “Francis Ouimet, besides having achieved immortal fame among golfers, has done something splendid for the good of that game.”

Time and chance brought Arthur Ouimet and his family to that house on Clyde Street across from the 17th hole at The Country Club, and for that we can be forever grateful.


Fate Wins Out Again

June 18, 2012

Webb Simpson wins the U.S. Open, continuing the Olympic streak of lesser known winners.  Nice guy, nice player, but I was pulling for Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, and Lee Westwood.   But the fates deemed it was Webb’s champioship and that was that.  Just as Bobby Jones always contended.  It is a changing of the guard – Ernie, Jim, Phil, Lee, Vijay, and the “old timers” will never win another major, and the new crew is here to replace them.  Just as Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, and Watson faded away, so it is now.  That’s golf.  That’s life.  I just hope Webb can be a true champion, win at least 10 tournaments, and not peter out.  Same for Bubba, Rory and all the other one-hit major winners of the past 5 years.  WIN!!!!

Who Will Be the Next Great Mistake at the U.S. Open?

June 4, 2012

The U.S. Open returns to Olympic Club in a couple weeks – a venue where Dan Jenkins believes the wrong man has always won.  With the exception of Billy Casper beating Arnie in 1966, I have to agree with his assessment.  Mr. Casper is a Hall of Famer with 51 tour wins, the others will never make it there.  But that’s golf, and the Open.  Fleck beat Hogan in a playoff in 1955 thanks to heaven sent putting down the stretch, Casper beat Palmer in a playoff, coming from 7 down on the back nine Sunday to tie, shooting a 32 – the stuff of champions.  Scott Simpson beat my man Tom Watson in 1987 with an unbelievable up and down from the sand late Sunday, and Lee Janzen beat Paine Stewart in 1998.  It was their time.  Golf doesn’t care that they aren’t among the game’s greats.  Neither were Joe Lloyd in 1897; Willie Macfarlane, who beat Bobby Jones in a playoff in 1925; Sam Parks in 1935; Tony Manero in 1936; Orville Moody in 1969; or Lou Graham in 1975.  Andy North won two U.S. Opens and only one other tournament in his career.  But for that week they were the best, and their names are on that trophy forever.  So who will win this year?  How about Mark Wilson in a four man playoff against Tiger, Phil, and Rory.  Stranger things have happened.  Just ask the spirit of Ben Hogan.

Bobby Jones and the 1923 U.S. Open

February 17, 2012

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.

The Legend of Tiger Grows

June 17, 2008

Tiger Woods is not of this world. I have been watching golf since 1974 and have studied its history closely, and conclude that this man is beyond description. Not only is he blessed with unspeakable physical talent, but also possesses the combined hearts of all the best champions of the game. He hates to lose, always. He never gives up, ever. Yesterday he gouged a third shot from the rough to within 15 feet and made the putt to tie Rocco Mediate and have a chance to win in a playoff today. He was dead, but is never dead. 

Other players don’t have a chance from that lie.  Tiger always has a chance. Always. Even more than Nicklaus – who I thought was superhuman – and Tiger did this on a knee that was gimpy. I mean he was limping around like Ben Hogan after hge was hit by a bis in 1949. Has Tiger ever missed a putt? Remember when he made all those putts to win the 1996 U.S. Amateur when he was dead in that match. The putt to beat Bob May in the 2000 PGA? All the other “regular” events that have become a blur of perfection. And yesterday, 15 feet that he had to make. It may not have had the break of the 12-footer Bobby Jones made on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in the 1927 U.S. Open, but it was at least as improbable.

It gave him life, at the expense of another victim. For today was a fait accompli. I’ m just so proud of Rocco for playing him like a man today and not lying down. Rocco is a throwback, a guy with a swing out of the 1940s, and he’s played through back problems that would have shelved 90% of the timid souls on Tour. So kudos to you Rocco! But you were up against the Tiger, the man with the gift.

Bob Ferguson, who won the British Open three time in the 19th century, once said: “Nerve, enthusiasm, and practice are the three essentials to golf. But to be great requires the gift.” The gift, indeed! That gift has been passed down from Allan Robertson to Young Tom Morris to Harry Vardon to Bobby Jones to Sam Snead to Jack Nicklaus and now to Tiger Woods. He’s the best of them all, and that’s saying something coming from me, the man who said when Tiger turned pro that he would win maybe 15-20 tournaments. I ate my words long ago and now just appreciate his gift and his greatness. We golf fans are lucky to live to witness his feats, believe me.