September 22, 2009

Bobby Jones' Competitors: Many of Them Were Good, One Was Great

In perhaps the best era of them all, the 1920's is called the Golden Age of Sport. In it, the titans that are Babe Ruth in baseball, Jack Dempsey in boxing, Red Grange in football, Bill Tilden in tennis all set standards of excellence that others aspired to - and usually fell short of.

Perhaps the greatest of them all from the Golden Age was a Georgia gentleman who conquered the world of golf as no other player had ever done before him - all while playing only part time, three months a year. Until 1930, Bobby Jones dominated golf, gracefully powering his way into not only the record-books but also America's heart by winning thirteen major championships with a winning percentage over .600. Jones not only set a standard for victory, but by the way he conducted himself he set the gold standard for sportsmanship, honesty and grace that may never be surpassed, and in many a golf fan's heart, never can be.

Modern legend may tell the tale that Bobby Jones was fated to win his championships, that every battle on the golf course that the Atlantan fought was pre-determined in his favor. That would be completely untrue. Jones' victories were all well-earned and many were hard-fought, and he didn't win every tournament that he entered, even though today that may seem to be the case. The truth is that he had many worthy competitors. Jock Hutchinson and "Long"Jim Barnes, at the end of their careers, often gave Jones fits (sometimes literally) at the beginning of his. Denny Shute and Nebraskan Johnny Goodman would challenge him later. Frances Ouimet won the 1913 US Open before Jones, and would win the US Amateur again after Jones retired, in 1931.

Jess Sweetser was considered the second-best amateur after Jones, and was a player perfectly suited for the rigors of match play. Sweetser played with such great concentration at times that he was considered unsociable, something that Ben Hogan and later, Tiger Woods, would become famous for in their own right. Sweetser was not a man to given an opponent an opportunity to recover in a match once behind. With a careful precision from tee to green, Sweetser rarely made mistakes and even more rarely three-putted. In between shots, Sweetser would talk to himself to keep the steel in his psyche, and as a result, most galleries were intimidated - but appreciative - of his competitive ardor. Sweetser won the only other British championship that went to American hands in the 1920's when he won the 1926 British Amateur.

One, Walter Hagen, stood above all the others as Jones' most worthy competitor. While Jones was a Southerner born into a life of privilege and ease, he was born in New York into a lower middle-class family in which a tradesman's blue collar life was the norm, and one was never expected to rise into a high station in life. Hagen also changed golf and set high standards, and was without doubt Jones' most fierce rival.

The two so thoroughly dominated the British Open between 1924 and 1930 that only one other competitor - Jim Barnes - would win it during that time. Conveniently for Barnes, neither Jones nor Hagen was entered into the 1925 Open in Prestwick. Barnes won that tournament by backing in - some say twice, given the absence of the world's two best players - by taking advantage of a tragic collapse by Macdonald Smith, the player who looked to be the sure winner from the second round on. In a case of playing not to lose, Mac Smith did exactly that - in the final round, he played so conservatively that he shot a 42 on Prestwick's front nine. Smith, the crowd's favorite that day, was also feeling the pressure of being cheered on at extremely close quarters by the gallery. Suffocated and reeling, he finished with a final round 82 and opened the door for Barnes to come and take the win.

Opposite sides of the same competitive coin, Hagen would win 11 major championships and 52 wins professionally, while Jones won 13 majors. The two would often play exhibition matches against one another, and quite often, those matches were legendary unto themselves.

Matches between Jones and Hagen were legendary. The two had great respect for one another, and in fact, Hagen had given Jones some useful advice on how to handle major championship play that Jones later said was a turning point in his competitive career. They were at the least casual friends throughout their lifetimes, despite a fierce rivalry where both refused to give the other quarter on the golf course. The respect between the two, no matter their personal bond, was great.

(pictured: Bobby Jones' letter to Walter Hagen congratulating him for 25th anniversary of his first US Open win.)

One match in 1926 was probably the lynchpin in Jones' decision to remain an amateur throughout his competitive career, which of course later led to the only Grand Slam ever recorded in golf. Had Jones turned professional, he would have been ineligible for the British and US Amateur championships, and thus no Grand Slam.

Late in 1925, Hagen approached Jones with the idea of putting on what Hagen would promote as "World Championship;" a 72-hole exhibition match between the two men, which would be played at the two golfers' respective clubs in Florida, where both had real estate interests to be played shortly after the beginning of the next year.

The idea of the "World Championship" was hardly new, in 1922, Hagen and Gene Sarazen had played one, and another contest in 1925 was held between Hagen and Cyril Walker, who had won the 1924 US Open, while Hagen won the 1924 (British) Open and PGA Championship. It was not much of a match, with Hagen winning 17-and-16 in that 72 hole affair.

The 1926 "World Championship" might be different, according to many sages of the sporting world. Jones had won the 1924 and 1925 U.S. Amateur and nearly won the US Open that same year. Hagen was the PGA Champion, his second running, making the pair two of the best, if not the best golfers in the world. Surely, the conventional wisdom of the day held, this "World Championship" would be a neck and neck affair perhaps decided by the last stroke of the last hole.

For his part Hagen figured that this particular "World Championship" match would not only draw a great deal of interest in the media and among fans everywhere, it would also draw spectators to the courses where they would be played, and of course those spectators would mean potential sales leads. Coupled with the caveat that Hagen would keep any and all financial proceeds from the match (Jones was an amateur and could not accept monetary benefits) it was a no-lose situation for The Haig -- his kind of match. Indeed, fan interest was keen and loyalties largely divided amongst those rooting for "the amateur" Jones, or "the pro" Hagen. For weeks leading up to the event, the press debated the merits and flaws in each players' game.

The match itself didn't live up to it's heavyweight title fight billing. Hagen handed Jones a humiliating 12-and-11 defeat, which Jones took it as a clear sign that he wouldn't be able to rely on his ability as a golfer to pay his bills, and that he would better be served by depending on his law practice for his salary.

The rest of Jones' story is legend. Time would of course, prove that Bobby Jones had every bit of ability one would ever possibly need to earn a living on the links, but the die was cast for the Atlantan to remain an amateur. Jones would go on to win golf's only true Grand Slam, retire shortly afterward and start a personal project that would come to be known as Augusta National and The Masters.

Lesser noticed was "The Rematch." It was not long after the "World Championship" that Bobby Jones had a chance to redeem himself when the pair competed again two weeks later in the Florida West Coast Open. This time, Jones fared better but Hagen still bested him by two strokes to win the medal play event.

Of that period, Jones recollected in his autobiography that "the biggest golfing year of my life, 1926, began with the most impressive trouncing I ever got -- and it was by a professional, Walter Hagen." Jones added "Walter was just too good for me." Jones then concluded that "I have plenty of distinguished company among the victims of Walter's rampages."

For his part, Hagen called the 1926 'World Championship' "my greatest thrill in golf."

As a sportsman, Hagen may best be defined not by winning, but by losing. In 1950, a vote among golf writers was held to determine who was the greatest golfer of the first half of the 20th century, and there, Jones edged out Hagen. Afterward, The Haig told reporters that "I would have voted for Jones myself. He was marvelous."

History often creates legend, and over time, legend becomes myth. It is there that legend and fact often go into two separate directions, the myth a romanticized version of the truth that's somewhat incomplete in its telling. Sports heroes are stronger, faster and invincible in myth, while often the truth is that the real person had to earn each bit of glory and success that they attained. Sometimes that is better than the myth.


  1. This is really great stuff. I am thoroughly enjoying the tour through everybody's pieces on Jones.

  2. All I can say is... awesome, Charles. A great piece about 2 great men and the "supporting cast" among whom they played.

  3. Charles. This was beautifully written. It's now bookmarked so I can read it again when The Masters hits next year.

    A real keeper!

  4. What a great story. Thank you so much for writing this tribute to two great golfers.

  5. Charles,

    This was very well written, and I learned more in reading your article than in the research I did for my own! Very impressive :)

    Keep up the good work!


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