Museum Moment: Jess Sweetser in the Golden Age

Apr 14, 2011

Jess Sweetser, a formidable amateur and close friend of Bob Jones, won the 1922 U.S. Amateur and in 1926 became the first American to win the British Amateur. April 18 marks the 109th anniversary of his birth.

By Rhonda Glenn

As a boy, shortly after the turn of the last century, but for a little money in his pocket Jess Sweetser might well have become a baseball player.

In his early life in St. Louis, Sweetser was a powerful young catcher. Jess needed a piece of equipment – catcher’s mask, shin guards or chest protector, he never could recall which – but didn’t have the money. His father, a golfer, offered to help by hiring him as a caddie. Soon, Jess was bitten by the golf bug and baseball went out the window. So began the career of one of the most distinguished amateurs in the game.

Jess Sweetser, born April 18, 1902, came along during the golden era of amateurs as a contemporary of Francis Ouimet, Chick Evans, Bob Gardner and Bob Jones. In the 1920s he was, according to many, the best of them, excepting Jones.

While the achievements of Jones overshadow those of any other golfer during that period, it’s worth noting that Sweetser won the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur before Jones and that in 1922 he defeated Jones by 8 and 7 in the semifinal round en route to his U.S. Amateur Championship title.

Sweetser’s game blossomed after his family moved to the suburbs of New York City. In 1920, he entered Yale University and won the Intercollegiate Golf Championship his freshman year. Although he just missed qualifying for the U.S. Amateur in 1920, he made it to the quarterfinals in 1921, losing to Chick Evans, 1 up.

By 1922, Sweetser was ready to challenge the giants. He had just turned 20 when he arrived at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where Ouimet had Americanized golf with his U.S. Open victory in 1913. Bob Jones had gained the recognition that would soon be his alone, but Jones had not yet won his first national championship. Ouimet was also there, but many thought it was Jones’ turn to win. It wasn’t to be. Sweetser swept through the championship.

“In gaining his place on the throne,” said The New York Times, “Sweetser accomplished a task that no one thought possible a week ago, for he blazed his way through one of the greatest fields that has ever played in the event. The field comprised not only the stars of American golf but those of the British as well, and he personally accounted for four of the greatest players of the game today.”

The story said of his march to the trophy, “His margins of victory were all decisive enough to stamp him as one of the greatest players of the age.” Sweetser swept his first-round opponent, H.E. Kenworthy, 10 and 9, and then disposed of Willie Hunter, the reigning British Amateur champion, 7 and 6. Jesse Guilford, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, fell, 4 and 3, in the quarterfinal round, which brought Sweetser to his encounter with Bob Jones.

Sweetser played his best golf, in the morning shooting an equivalent of 69, a course record, and captured the match, 8 and 7. In the final, Sweetser defeated Chick Evans, 3 and 2.

As important as the title was, Sweetser had cemented his relationship with Jones and the two remained lifelong friends.

Both made the USA Team for the inaugural Walker Cup, which the USA won at National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y., 8-4, although Sweetser lost his singles match in extra holes. In the 1923 Amateur at Flossmoor Country Club in Chicago, Sweetser nearly made it two in a row but lost to Max Marston in the final on the 38th hole.

In 1926, Sweetser became the first American to capture the British Amateur when it was played at Muirfield in Scotland.

“On the first day our successes were great, for all our giants survived,” said a story in The New York Times. “Then the carnage started. On the second day Von Elm, Gardner and Mackenzie expired. On the third day Chick crumpled in the ruins and Ouimet went with him. On the fourth day, Guilford and Watts Gunn dropped, and on the fifth day Bobby Jones…

“Only Sweetser remained and he came through. What brought him through was his great fighting spirit, for next to Walter Hagen there is no better match player in America.”

The Scots hoisted Sweetser on their shoulders after he defeated Alexander Simpson in the final, 6 and 5, and carried him back to the clubhouse. The London Observer generously noted, “None can make the statement that Sweetser’s name is not worthy to figure on the roll of great amateur champions. He had to reach it by way of some of the most grueling tests any golfer could undergo.”

The championship had been even more grueling than anyone knew. Shortly before arriving at Muirfield, Sweetser had caught a cold which grew dramatically worse.

“The astonishing thing about Sweetser’s victory,” wrote the great American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, “was that he managed to stand up to the exhausting demands of the championship despite a severe illness that he thought was a bad case of the flu, but which proved to be tuberculosis.”

Well, it never quite developed into tuberculosis, but it was bad enough. On the morning of his first match he felt so bad that he believed he would have to withdraw, but his opponent, J.L. Humphreys, withdrew first. Sweetser felt better the next day and easily won in the second round.

In later years, the legend was that Sweetser was practically on his deathbed, dragging himself down the fairway to hit his shots, but he said the stories were overcooked. “Once I hit a few practice shots, I felt pretty good,” Sweetser said. “I didn’t tire too much until the day was over. As the week wore on I became stronger each day.”

“Beware the wounded” is an old adage in golf. Many a player suffering from illness, too sick to think of the myriad puzzles of the golf swing, too exhausted to do anything but swing the club at a natural pace, too feverish to feel the slightest case of nerves, has staggered to an amazing victory. That’s what happened to Sweetser.

Two of his matches went to the 18th hole while a third went 21 holes. The final was a 36-hole encounter with Alex Simpson, which Sweetser won on the 31st hole.

Then it was on to St. Andrews for the Walker Cup Match, which began four days later. The weather in Scotland turned very cold and Sweetser got even more sick. He managed to win his foursomes match, with partner George Von Elm, and his singles match and prepared for the return voyage to New York.

Before the ship sailed, he suffered a chest hemorrhage. Only after pleading with doctors was he allowed to return, under heavy medication, with his team. When the ship docked in New York, Sweetser was carried off on a stretcher and put into an ambulance. He spent more than a year recovering.

In 1928, Sweetser once again played on the USA Walker Cup Team, winning both his matches.

The 1930 U.S. Amateur was at Merion and Jones was there to try for the last leg of the Grand Slam, having won the U.S. and British Opens and the British Amateur. Jess was trying to get his game in shape by practicing at Pine Valley. When he read that Jones was being swamped by crowds of several thousand watching his practice rounds, he called Jones and suggested he come to Pine Valley to practice for the championship. Jones accepted.

The next day, Jones and Sweetser played Pine Valley with only a half-dozen people watching. The following day they went to a ball game in Philadelphia, and Jones was more relaxed after the break and his confidence seemed renewed.

Both players moved through the lower brackets and met in the semifinals. Sweetser was struggling. By the afternoon 18 of their 36-hole match, it was no contest and Jones won, 9 and 8. He went on, of course, to capture the Grand Slam.

Sweetser had peaked, although he played on the Walker Cup team for the fifth time in 1932, winning in foursomes with partner George Voigt and halving his singles match. His ties with golf were strong and he was named to the USGA Executive Committee in 1936, serving as treasurer from 1938 through 1941. He also served as president of the Metropolitan Golf Association. Courtesy of Jones, Sweetser played in several Masters Tournaments in the early days of the event. He captained the Walker Cup Team in 1967 and 1973 and was captain of the World Amateur Team in 1966.

After working in the bond business for many years, he became advertising sales manager of a national magazine. During World War II he went to work for the Curtiss Wright Company and, in 1950, the Glenn L. Martin Company, both aircraft manufacturers.

In 1986, it was a fitting and popular decision when the USGA presented Sweetser with the Bob Jones Award for a lifetime of distinguished sportsmanship. He died in 1989 at the age of 87.

Sweetser is honored at the USGA Museum with the display of a Heavy mashie he used in winning the 1922 U.S. Amateur and the 1926 British Amateur. In 1922 the club was, quite legally, slotted for the purpose of imparting backspin on a ball. In 1924 the markings were ruled illegal and Sweetser had the grooves filled, evidence of which can still be seen today. The club is one of two that Sweetser donated to the Museum.

Jess Sweetser, Yale grad, gentleman golfer, champion of two countries, Walker Cup player, successful businessman, USGA Executive Committee member and close friend of Bob Jones, donated the clubs to the Museum in 1938.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

Jess Sweetser is honored at the USGA Museum with the display of a Heavy mashie he used in winning the 1922 U.S. Amateur and the 1926 British Amateur. In 1922 the club was, quite legally, slotted for the purpose of imparting backspin on a ball. In 1924 the markings were ruled illegal and Sweetser had the grooves filled, evidence of which can still be seen today. The club is one of two that Sweetser donated to the Museum. (USGA Museum)


Jess Sweetser, Yale grad, gentleman golfer, champion of two countries, Walker Cup player, successful businessman, USGA Executive Committee member and close friend of Bob Jones, donated the clubs to the Museum in 1938. (USGA Museum)


Jess Sweetser, a formidable amateur and close friend of Bob Jones, won the 1922 U.S. Amateur and in 1926 became the first American to win the British Amateur. April 18 marks the 109th anniversary of his birth.