From the Golf Journal Archives - Merion – First Visit

Nov 09, 2012

The 2013 U.S. Open will be contested at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. Merion has hosted 18 USGA championships, more than any other club. It first hosted the U.S. Amateur in 1916, which marked the first USGA championship appearance for Bob Jones. He filed the following report in the August, 1966 issue of Golf Journal. For more information about the 2013 U.S. Open, visit the the championship website.

by Robert T. Jones, Jr. and O.B. Keeler

My debut in national championship affairs at the Merion Cricket Club, Philadelphia, in 1916, has given rise to a great deal of comment, due to my lack of years, and as the personal statistics have been somewhat mixed I may explain that I was 14 years and six months old, five feet four inches tall, and weighed 165 pounds – a chunky, rather knock-kneed, tow-headed youngster playing in long pants; supremely innocent of the vicissitudes of major tournament golf and the keenness of northern greens – so different from our heavy Bermuda texture in the South; pretty cocky, I suppose, from having at last won a real title, if only a state championship; and simply pop-eyed with excitement and interest. I had two weeks of violet-ray treatments for the lumbago that had tormented me earlier in the season, and it left me, never to return. I never had seen any of the great players who were to compete at Merion – Bob Gardner, then amateur champion, and Chick Evans, who had lately won the Open Championship at Minneapolis, and the others; and so far as I recall, I was not in the least afraid of any of them, I hadn’t sense or experience enough to be afraid. Mr. Adair and his son Perry and I stayed in the Bellevue-Stratford hotel in Philadelphia and traveled out to the club on suburban trains. It was my first big trip away from home and I was having a grand time.

We played our first practice round on the West Course – there were, and are, two fine courses at Merion – and I never had seen any such beautiful greens. They looked like billiard tables to me and I was crazy to putt on them. But their speed was bewildering. I remember the sixth hole, then a short pitch down to the green over a brook, the green faced slightly toward the shot. I was thirty feet beyond the hole, which was in the middle of the green. Forgetting all about the faster pace of these new greens, I socked the ball firmly with my little Travis putter and was horrified to see it roll on past the hole, apparently gathering momentum, and trickle into the brook, so that I was playing 4 from the other side of the stream – a most embarrassing contretemps.

When the qualifying rounds came on, the field was divided into sections, one playing the morning round on the East Course, the other on the West Course, and both sections changing for the second round. I played the West Course in the morning and turned in a 74 which led the entire field for that round. After luncheon, when I got over to the East Course, word had got about that the new kid from Dixie was breaking up the tournament, and almost the entire gallery assembled to follow me. Gosh – it scared me to death! I fancy I led the field the other way in the afternoon, taking an 89, for a total of 163, about ten strokes more than will get you in, these days, but safe enough then. Perry got in by a play-off at 167, won his first match, and lost the second. I was drawn with Eben Byers for my first match, a former national champion, and everybody in our party began to condole with me. Tough luck, they said, catching a big one in the first round. But Mr. Adair clapped me hard on the back and told me not to mind what they said.”Remember what old Bob Fitzsimmons used to say,” he advised. “ ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall!’ ”

I thought that was a corking line, but as a matter of fact the name of Eben Byers meant nothing to me, I was a fresh kid, and golf as yet didn’t have me down – at least, I didn’t know Mr. Byers and I played terribly. He was a veteran and I was a youngster, but we expressed our feelings in exactly the same way – when we missed a shot, we threw the club away. This habit later got me no end of critical comment, some of which hurt my feelings deeply, as I continued reading references to my temper long after I had got it under control to the point where there was no outward evidence of it except my ears getting red, which they do to this day – for I still get as mad as ever, missing a simple shot.

These columns I’ve read about my temper – it seems I got off on the wrong foot, and it was a long time before I was anywhere near in step with the critics, in the matter of disposition and deportment. Even now it strikes me as a bit unreasonable that so much type should have been employed on the gusty vagaries of one petulant youngster, when so little has been printed about the same unaffected displays by great golfers twice his age and more. There was only a whimsical reference to the club-throwing of Mr. Byers, I remember; and since then I have seen more than one national champion rival both of us. Two years ago at Oakmont, I saw a competitor in the National Amateur championship heave his putter into an adjoining wood and forbid his caddie to go after it – and he has been a national title-holder more than once. But nothing was said about it in the papers.

I’m not saying I didn’t need some lecturing, mind you. The golf writers have been only too good to me, all along. And I was a sort of bad boy of golf, I suppose, and required an occasional spanking, such as appeared in a Boston paper of 1918, when Alexa Sterling and Elaine Rosenthal and Perry Adair and I were playing a Red Cross benefit match at Brae Burn. I kept those spankings in my scrapbook, along with the more pleasant clippings. This one was as follows:

Some interesting golf was shown during the match, interspersed with some pranks by Jones, which will have to be corrected if this player expects to rank with the best in the country. Although Jones is only a boy, his display of temper when things went wrong did not appeal to the gallery.

That was two years after Merion. And I was a year or two more, getting my turbulent disposition in hand. It wasn’t an easy matter. It’s sort of hard to explain, unless you play golf yourself, and have a temper. You see, I never lost my temper with an opponent. I was angry only with myself. It always seemed, and it seems today, such an utterly useless and idiotic thing to stand up to a perfectly simple shot, one that I know I can make a hundred times running without a miss – and then mess up the blamed thing the one time I want to make it! And it’s gone forever – an irrevocable crime, that stroke. I think it was Stevenson who said that bad men and fools eventually got what was coming to them, but the fools first. And when you feel so extremely a fool, and a bad golfer to boot, what the deuce can you do, except throw the club away? Well, well – Chick Evans, writing years later, said I had conquered my temper not wisely but too well; that a flare now and then would help me. I liked that of Chick. But I could have told him I get just as mad today. I stopped club-throwing in public, but the lectures didn’t stop coincidentally. A bad name sticks. Having quoted one well-merited spanking, let me give an example of how hard it is to live down a wicked reputation.

Four years after Merion, and two years after Brae Burn, when I had reached the mature age of 18 years and the club-throwing penchant had been completely hammered out of me, I was playing in my first National Open championship, at the Inverness Club, Toledo, qualifying with Harry Vardon. At the last hole I messed up a good round and took a villainous 8, finally missing a putt of about four feet. I was mad – thoroughly mad, certainly. But I didn’t mean to show it. I holed out the ball, which lay at the edge of the cup, and tossed the putter to my caddie. He was not looking for it and the club fell on the green. Next day the newspapers said that I was throwing my clubs again, and had hacked up a slice of the eighteenth green in a rage after missing a short putt. That hurt me a lot.

Returning to my first match at Merion in 1916, after this bit of apologia – which may not be in the best of taste – I repeat that Mr. Byers and I played very wretchedly and I think the main reason I beat him was because he ran out of clubs first. Somebody playing behind us said later we looked like a juggling act. At the twelfth hole Mr. Byers threw an iron out of bounds and wouldn’t let his caddie go after it. I finally won, 3-1, and felt no elation whatever over my successful debut in a national championship, I knew I was lucky to win, the way I had played, and that I ought to have been well drubbed.

The second match I played better. This was with Frank Dyer, champion of several states and districts, and he started fast, putting me 5 down in the first six holes. I was getting dizzy. “So this is big league golf,” I reflected. Then Frank made a few mistakes and I saw he was human, and I began to play better. At the turn I was 3 down and when we stood on the eighteenth tee I had a 4 left for a 32 coming in, and was 1 up. I was shooting some hot golf and was enjoying myself immensely.

We both hooked from this tee and one ball stopped in a fairly convenient position on top of a mound while the other was at the foot of the same mound, in a distinctly distressing situation. We were playing the same kind of ball, a Red Honor. Mine had gone on an excursion out of bounds at the second hole and was wearing a tar-stain from the roadway; I didn’t change the ball every sixth hole, as I do now, figuring that the one in play may be knocked slightly off-center. I didn’t stop to examine and identify the balls, but confidently whaled away at the one under the mound and missed the shot grievously, taking an 8 and losing the hole. After holing out I looked at the balls, and discovered I had played his ball and he mine. There was nothing to do about it then – we had played out each with the wrong ball, and the score stood. We started the second round even, and I won 4-2.

By this time the golf writers were paying me a good deal of attention and some of the things they wrote made me feel extremely foolish. They wrote about my worn shoes and my dusty pants and my fresh young face and other embarrassing personal attributes. I never had considered my shoes or my pants before, so long as they held together. Golf wasn’t a dress-up game, to me, and it was a new and puzzling experience to be looked at closely by so many people. I never had thought much of my face, for example, and it seemed sort of indelicate thus to expose it in print, not to mention my pants. The galleries were the largest I had ever seen, of course, and only half a dozen familiar faces, but everybody was curiously friendly. I remember thinking these Yankees must be pretty good folks, after all.

So I got through the second round and in the third round I met Robert A. Gardner, then champion, and the biggest gallery I had yet seen followed the match, which I will describe with some detail because of a certain significance it always has had, for me – it was in this match that I first got my fresh young head under the bludgeonings of chance, and I must confess, wound up by bowing it.

Bob was playing with an infected finger, a handicap that rendered his game uncertain, and possibly cost him the championship in the end, as he lost to Chick Evans, who, however, was playing admirably in the finals.

I shot a 76 in the morning round and was 1 up. We were having a fine match, never far apart. In the afternoon we continued playing evenly and at the sixth tee we were square. When I planted my second shot on the green five yards from the pin I felt certain of going into the lead again, as Gardner’s second was above the green and to the right, in a difficult place from which to approach. But he chipped stone dead and got a half.

At the next green my ball was fifteen feet below the cup and Bob’s was off to the left. Again he chipped dead for a half. I wasn’t discouraged. He can’t keep on doing it, I told myself. I’ll get him yet!

Playing the eighth hole, my second shot was ten feet from the pin and Bob’s was on the ninth tee – and this time he didn’t chip dead. After his third shot he was still outside my position, and then I felt the break had come. But Gardner sank his twelve-foot putt, and I missed my ten footer, and he had halved another. It seemed he could keep on doing it.

As for me, I couldn’t. The break had come. But it was not my break. My fresh young head was bloody – and bowed. Frankly, I blew up. Bob won five of the next seven holes. He beat me, 5-3, holing a twenty-foot putt for a par of 4 at the fifteenth, after driving out of bounds.

They all told me it was a tough match to lose. But I’ve lost many a tough match since then, more than one by being clearly out-played – and more than one because I simply blew up under pressure. And I’ve been out-finished in more than one medal-play championship. But I never have felt quite the same way again. In after years I began to reason the business out a bit; as I said early in these memoirs, I never learned anything from a match that I won; I got my golfing education from drubbings. And very lately I have come to a sort of Presbyterian attitude toward tournament golf: I can’t get away from the idea of predestination.

The professionals, you know, have a way of saying of the winner in a competition, “It was his tournament.” And step by step, and hole by hole, and shot by shot, you may trace it back and see that he was bound to win – after it is all over. There’s a tremendous lot to this game; and I fancied when I started this little story that maybe I could think a little of it out as I went along, and tell people about it. But it’s a big assignment; too big for me. I may have reasoned out some of the mechanical side; perhaps just a bit of the psychological side. But behind it all, and over it all, there is something I think nobody understands.

Anyway, as they said, this was a tough match to lose, because I had played very well up to the place where those continued recoveries of Bob’s had broken my back, and next day one of the papers had a well-written account of the match which gave me a lot of credit and concluded with these lines:

Carefree and unconcerned, save with the big disk of ice cream awaiting him at the clubhouse, the Georgia schoolboy swung along from the fifteenth green in his worn shoes and dusty pants and sweat-streaked shirt, whistling an air from a recent musical comedy, as jaunty and complacent as if he had just won his first national championship instead of having just been beaten in the third round. He was thinking about the ice cream.

But I wasn’t, I was puzzled, and hurt, some way. Not with Bob Gardner, who had played so pluckily when his shots were not coming off, and had kept the pressure on, when I was hitting the ball better. Bob, as I recall it, was an abstract figure: he was in the picture only as an agent for something else, something that I didn’t understand. I had felt all along that I could beat Bob Gardner, but there was something besides him that was big and hard and invincible. That was what kept the pressure on me; that was what beat me. Fatality wasn’t even a word to me then, and it doesn’t mean now what I want it to.

But as I walked back to the clubhouse – and I got the ice cream, too – I kept wondering over and over again in a vague way what was on Bob Gardner’s side that had beat me and made me blow up, when I was hitting the shots better than he was. Would it be on my side sometimes, I wondered. Or – with a queer little sinking sensation – would it always be on the other side?

You know, I never have made sure what it was, and is. I have found out this much: In the long run it seems to play no favorites – if the run is long enough. In my case it was a run of seven years.

14-year-old Bob Jones as he made his national debut in the 1916 Amateur at Merion. (USGA Museum)

Whenever Jones played at Merion he attracted a crowd, some of whom didn’t care where they stood so long as they could see him play. Here a few spectators spill into a bunker as Jones putts during the 1924 Amateur. (USGA Museum)

The climax of it all. Jones accepts the Amateur Championship trophy for the fifth time. Eugene Homans is at the right. The trophy is presented by Findlay S. Douglas, then USGA president. (USGA Museum)