• Sal Maiorana

Bobby Jones made history 90 years ago when he won the British Open

The British Open was supposed to be happening this week, but for the first time since the end of World War II it was postponed due to the coronavirus. So, this is a good opportunity for a trip back in time to 90 years ago when the great Bobby Jones began his quest for what was then considered the grand slam of golf.

HOYLAKE, Eng. (June 20, 1930) – As Bobby Jones strode to the first tee at Royal Liverpool on a typically dark, misty and gloomy England day, the imposing figure of bombastic Brit Archie Compston and an entourage of fans and photographers passed by him, headed in the opposite direction toward the grand clubhouse.

Back in the days when the final 36 holes of the British Open were contested on the same day and leaders weren’t paired together in the final group, Jones, entrenched in second place, was on his way to begin the fourth round while frontrunner Compston was on his way to lunch, having just completed his third round.

In his memoir, written more than three decades later, Jones wrote that Compston, 6-foot-2, blessed with a burglar’s nerve and a smile as bright as his blond hair, looked like a man who had already won the Claret Jug, so happy was he receiving back slaps from an adoring phalanx of well-wishers in the face of exploding camera flashbulbs.

You couldn’t blame Compston for his bluster. The man had just spent the morning bringing Royal Liverpool to its knees with a third-round course-record 68 to overtake the 36-hole leader, Jones, by one shot. And while Jones – by now a world-famous amateur and arguably the greatest player of his era – had developed quite a following in Great Britain, Compston was still the native son and thus was afforded the hero treatment.

Jones watched the spectacle unfold, but upon reaching the first tee box he couldn’t help but think to himself that Compston – who had won two British PGA championships and had once trounced Jones’ chief rival, the great Walter Hagen, in an exhibition match – could not, and would not, play that well again in the afternoon.

So Jones never thought about Compston again. He set his sights on Royal Liverpool’s wet and rugged terrain and fashioned a final-round 75 – not pretty by today’s scoring standards but simply stupendous 90 years ago – to vault past Compston and propel him to a two-stroke victory over fellow American Leo Diegel and Scotland’s MacDonald Smith.

As for Compston, an ugly 82 wiped that vivacious lunchtime smile off his face and sent all those photographers scurrying to capture Jones’ victory speech.

“This is my last shot at the British Open,” said Jones, who became the first man since England’s John Ball in 1890 to win both the British Amateur and Open in the same year. Later, Jones would become the only man in history to win what considered at that time the grand slam when he added the 1930 U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur titles.

“This tournament has taken more out of me than any other I ever played in,” Jones continued. “It’s quite too thick for me. I feel I’m not strong enough to play another one.’’

True to his word, Jones, then only 28, never played in the tournament again, leaving this victory as his lasting legacy on the other side of the great pond.

Jones’ golfing prowess first came to light in 1916 when, as a 14-year-old, he won two matches in the U.S. Amateur before being eliminated. However, his rise to stardom was curtailed by uneven play, the cumbersome burden of expectations, and a surly temper that often got the best of him.

“To me, golf was just a game to beat someone; I didn’t know that someone was me,” he once said.

Wrote the great sports writer Grantland Rice of Jones: “Bobby was a short, rotund kid, with the face of an angel and the temper of a timber wolf. At a missed shot, his sunny smile could turn more suddenly into a black storm cloud than the Nazis can grab a country. Even at the age of 14 Bobby could not understand how anyone ever could miss any kind of golf shot.’’

Playing in the British Open at St. Andrews in 1921, Jones became so disgusted with himself, and the course, he picked up his ball at No. 11 during the third round and walked off in a huff. “The most inglorious failure of my golfing life,” he said.

It wasn’t until 1923 when he won the U.S. Open at Inwood Country Club in New York that Jones conquered his demons and broke through. He beat Bobby Cruickshank in an 18-hole playoff, and from then through the end of 1929 he won nine major championships and became the world’s No. 1 player, even though he did not play for pay.

In 1926 Jones became the first man to win the U.S. Open and British Open in the same year, he identified winning the grand slam as the ultimate goal. If anyone was going to win the four biggest tournaments of the day in the same year – the two Opens and the two Amateurs – Jones was convinced it had to be him.

Jones set sail for England to begin his quest for the slam, a journey that kept him at sea or overseas for two months. First, he served as playing captain for the United States’ Walker Cup team which soundly routed Great Britain 10-2, Jones winning his match in a romp, 9-and-8 over Roger Wethered.

As a final tuneup for the British Amateur, Jones won the 18-hole Golf Illustrated Gold Vase at Sunningdale, England, shooting 68, and then it was off to St. Andrews. The Old Course, which had bedeviled him in 1921, didn’t have a chance, nor did any of his opponents. He swept to victory, routing Wethered again in the final 7-and-6.

“The inescapable fact was I could not win all four without the first one,” Jones wrote of winning the slam.

Upon arrival in Hoylake after a holiday in Paris, Jones read in a newspaper column written by the esteemed Bernard Darwin that Royal Liverpool, in the writer’s opinion, was, “the fiercest test of ground we possess” meaning it was the toughest course in England.

Jones would find this out, but he was up to the task on the first day with a 2-under-par 70 to share the lead with Henry Cotton. On the second day, Jones one-putted eight times in scrambling his way to a 72 that staked him to a one-shot lead over Fred Robson.

When Jones began the morning 18 of the 36-hole final day, a huge gallery trudged along with him despite the wind and rain, and they watched Jones play the first four holes in 2-over while Compston caught Jones with a 3-under start. While Jones made birdies at Nos. 8 and 10, he gave those two back at the end to shoot 74 and by the time he and Compston crossed paths, Jones trailed by one.

While Compston ate lunch, Jones began the final 18 with a par, then hit a wayward tee shot at No. 2 that bounced off a marshal’s head and careened way right into a bunker by the 14th green. Undaunted, Jones hit a marvelous shot to within 20 feet and drained the putt for a birdie. Jones marched along confidently from there and was a competent 1-over through seven holes before a stunning triple-bogey at the eighth pulled him back toward the pack.

As Jones was trying to shake off that calamity, Compston was in free fall. He began his final round by playing the first six holes in 5-over and never recovered.

Jones, of course, did.

“I simply resolved to keep hitting the ball as best I could,” said Jones, who admitted he was in a fog for a few holes after the triple-bogey. “I had no more thought of attacking or defending or of being over par or under par, but merely of finishing.’’

Over the next eight holes Jones made one birdie, four pars and three bogeys, and when he came to the last three holes – deemed by Darwin as the hardest stretch of finishing holes in British golf – Jones was still clinging to a slim lead over Smith and Diegel who had failed to make up any ground.

At the 582-yard 16th he hit two prodigious downwind blasts that left him 25 yards short of the green, but he was confronted with an awful lie in a bunker and it didn’t seem possible he’d be able to extricate the ball cleanly. However, using an odd-looking spoon-like club, the precursor to the modern sand wedge, he hacked the ball out and it came to rest just inches from the hole for a tap-in birdie. Jones would call it one of the best shots of his life.

Two brutal holes left, but he parred both to close his 75. As he waited in the clubhouse for the others to finish, it has been written that his hands were trembling from the pressure as he tried to drink his glass of whiskey.

It was a long two hours before the final scores were in, and no one could top Jones’ 291, which was 10 strokes better than Hagen’s 72-hole Hoylake record of 301 set in 1924.

Jones returned to America a conquering hero and was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Two weeks later he traveled to Minneapolis for the U.S. Open at Interlachen and successfully defended the title he had won at Winged Foot in 1929.

Finally, the last leg of the slam, the U.S. Amateur at Merion outside Philadelphia, and with the pressure at its peak Jones again pulled through. He worked his way through the draw until he met up with Gene Homans of Englewood, N.J. in the 36-hole championship match.

Grantland Rice wrote, “As courageous as (Homans) had been, he had no chance.’’ Jones was 7-up after the morning 18 and went on to win 8-and-7.

Jones retired with 13 majors, a record that stood more than 40 years, and he called it quits because, as legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind said, “There were no worlds left for him to conquer.’’

The qualifications for the grand slam long ago changed. The amateur championships were replaced by the PGA Championship and Jones’ own Masters tournament which he founded in 1935 at the golf course he built, Augusta National.

The closest anyone has come to completing the slam was Ben Hogan in 1953 when he won all but the PGA. Tiger Woods held all four titles at the same time in 2000 and 2001, but he did not win them in the same season and thus his grand slam is referred to merely as the Tiger slam.