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It was fifty years ago that Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam, making him the only man who ever has—or probably ever will—conquer the “Impregnable Quadrilateral” of golf
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
It was two years after Hagen’s first Open championship that Jones burst onto the national scene. After his club-throwing match with Eben Byers in the 1916 Amateur, the press and public naturally made much of the prodigy’s turbulent disposition. Probably too much. In his second match at Merion his deportment was faultless and his golf extraordinary. After losing five of the first six holes to Frank Dyer, he shot twenty-eight consecutive holes in better than even 4s, the finest stretch of golf in that tournament. He eliminated Dyer, 4 and 2, before losing to Robert A. Gardner, the defending champion.
“In his most youthful and tempestuous days,” Bernard Darwin wrote, “he had never been angry with his opponent and not often, I think, with Fate, but he had been furiously angry with himself. He set himself an almost impossibly high standard; he thought it an act of incredible folly if not a positive crime to make a stroke that was not exactly as it ought to be made and as he knew he could make it. If he ever derogated from that standard he may even in his most mature days have been ‘mad’ in the recesses of his heart, but he became outwardly a man of ice, with the very best golfing manners....
“There is much to be said for the stolid, phlegmatic player, but the great golfers have never had what I once heard Jack White call a dead nerve. It is worth remembering that James Braid, most rocklike and apparently impassive of men, said that he ‘liked to be a wee bit nervous’ before a big game. The steady-going and unimaginative will often beat the more eager champion and they will get very near the top, but there, I think, they will stop. The prose laborer must yield to the poet, and Bobby as a golfer had a strain of poetry in him. He stands forever as the greatest encourager of the highly strung player who is bent on conquering himself.”
Yet although Jones conquered himself, he had to wait a long time before he could conquer his opponents. O. B. Keeler, his biographer and most faithful companion, called it the “seven lean years.” It goes without saying that they were followed by seven fat ones.
If Bobby Jones were finishing high school today, he would be offered a scholarship by one of the colleges that take special pride in their golf teams, such as the University of Houston. He would matriculate on the practice tee, hit 500 shots a day for four years, graduate with a degree in business administration, and set out directly on the professional tournament tour. Bobby’s golf was mostly self-taught, though he sometimes received tips from Stewart Maiden, the pro at East Lake. As a boy, he played whenever he could. Indeed, when he was about seven he asked his father, “What do people do on Sunday who don’t play golf?”
Later he had other demands on his time. He had become a national figure at fourteen in the National Amateur in Merion. He would go through Georgia Tech and take a bachelor of science degree at Harvard before his first victory in a major tournament. (The law degree from Emory would come later.) Unlike the pros who play a different course almost every week, Bobby got in only three or four tournaments a year but by 1923 he had competed in five U.S. Amateur championships, three U.S. Opens, one British Amateur, and one British Open—ten major national tournaments—without winning one.
He did a lot of growing up. In the 1922 Open at Skokie outside Chigago, he went into the last round tied for the lead with Wild Bill Mehlhorn at 216. Gene Sarazen, starting four shots off the pace, came home early with a 68 for 288. Bobby was just making the turn with a 36 when Gene’s score was posted. It meant Jones would have to shoot the long last nine in 35, one under par, to win. He lost a stroke to par at the tenth and another at the twelfth.
“Bobby was working as hard as he had ever worked in his life,” O. B. Keeler wrote, “and as I was trudging dejectedly down the fairway, someone came up behind me and said: ‘Don’t let your chin drag. It’s not as bad as all that.’
“And there was Bobby, grinning bravely, and I did my best to grin back. His face was gray and his eyes looked an inch deep in his head.”
“The greatest golfer in the world,” people had begun saying, “but he can’t win.” The troops were assembled at Inwood on the South Shore of Long Island for the United States Open of 1923. In three rounds, Bobby took a lead of three strokes. The eighteenth hole at Inwood is a wicked par 4—425 yards long with trees and rough flanking the narrow fairway and a lagoon in front of the green. On his first three rounds, Bobby had scored two birdies there and one easy par.
When he stood on the tee for the fourth time he needed one more par for 74, which would give him 294 and the championship, for that total was beyond the reach of Bobby Cruickshank, the only pursuer with a chance. Jones had taken bogey 5s on the sixteenth and seventeenth, but even so his position seemed secure. His drive was good, and although he hooked his second shot into rough near the twelfth tee, this still left him a routine pitch to the green. So he pitched into a pot bunker and took a 6 for 296.
With plenty of golf course in front of him, Cruickshank was charging. In one seven-hole stretch he scored 2-3-3-4-3-4-3. From the thirteenth through the fifteenth he lost three shots to par but he still could win with 295 by finishing with three par 4s. On the sixteenth he took a double-bogey 6. On seventeen he got his par. His drive on eighteen was down the middle. His second cleared the lagoon and stopped six feet from the hole. His putt went down for a birdie and a tie.