Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Bobby Jones Grand Slam at Merion

The Grand Slam of golf might be one of sports' most difficult feats. It was accomplished just once, by Bobby Jones, 81 years ago at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore.

Bobby Jones Grand Slam at Merion

With the AT&T National underway at Aronimink Golf Club, here’s the second in a series of blog posts on other noteworthy golf tournaments in Philadelphia’s past:

1930 U.S. Amateur, Merion Golf Club

 Picturesque as Merion Golf Club's 11th hole is - with a rolling brook slicing across a gently dipping emerald fairway, clusters of white bunkers and an imposing border of mature trees - it hardly looks like the setting for what still might be the greatest accomplishment in sports history.

The testing 367-yard par 4 remains much as it did that sunny Saturday afternoon 81 years ago, when, engulfed by thousands of club members, golf enthusiasts and even the U.S. Marines, 28-year-old Bobby Jones walked toward its kidney-shaped green to strike the final competitive putt of his brief but glorious career.

 

And when, minutes later, his opponent, the outclassed Eugene Homans, conceded him the hole and an 8-and-7 victory, Jones had not only won the 1930 U.S. Amateur, he had pulled off a feat his contract-bridge-loving friend, the Atlanta journalist O.B. Keeler, termed "golf's Grand Slam."

That historic triumph at Merion concluded a breathless 120-day stretch for Jones. During that span, "the Immortal Bobby" had crossed the ocean twice, been feted with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, endured persistent health problems and struggled with the pressures that always dogged the sweet-swinging Atlantan.

But when Homans conceded and the Marines rushed to shield him from the gallery that surged onto the 11th green, Jones had capped his career in the most remarkable fashion, capturing in that single summer golf's four majors - the British Amateur at St. Andrews, the British Open at Royal Liverpool, the U.S. Open at Interlachen and the U.S. Amateur at the esteemed Ardmore course.

"A precipitous and soul-searching and well-nigh impossible ascent to that mountaintop where all the Old Indestructibles of Sportdom [reside]," an understandably anonymous Inquirer sportswriter wrote the following day.

Today, to the right of the hole's tee box, just off Ardmore Avenue, a tiny gold plaque commemorating Jones' still unmatched Grand Slam is embedded into a large boulder. Jones, whose first national tournament came at Merion in 1916 when he was 14 and who won another U.S. Amateur there in 1924, returned to the club for a final time in the 1950s when an earlier memorial was placed in the 11th fairway.

“He was in a wheelchair then," Skee Riegel, a longtime local golf pro who played with Jones just before a degenerative muscular condition forced the legend to abandon the game he mastered and popularized, said in 2005. "There were tears in his eyes. He couldn't play anymore. That was the saddest thing I ever saw."

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Most American golfers could not afford to compete in the British Open and British Amateur. They simply couldn't surrender a large chunk of the summer for a European tour and book expensive round-trip passage on a quality ocean liner.

 

 

But several years earlier Jones, who never turned pro, had seen that the 1930 Walker Cup - pitting the best British and U.S. amateurs - would be held in Great Britain. He began quietly to prepare for his Grand Slam dream.

"He figured out he could spend several weeks in England and that the Walker Cup people would pay for his trip," noted John Capers, Merion's historian.

He sailed for England in April, then captained the United States to a Walker Cup victory. He took the Amateur on May 31 at St. Andrews, surrounded by nearly the entire population of that golf-mad Scottish town.

Three weeks later, Jones triumphed in the Open near Liverpool. He sailed home, was hailed in a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, and on July 12 captured the U.S. Open in Minnesota.

By then, he was nearing burnout. Jones had been playing at golf's highest level since debuting at Merion 14 years earlier. As relaxed on the surface as his legendary swing, internally Jones never coped well with the pressures his fame brought him. He had ulcers and other stomach ailments and was beginning to suffer some of the muscular distress that eventually disabled him.

He arrived in Philadelphia the week before the Amateur, sought out a stomach specialist, and took up residence at the Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square.

"Back then," said Steve Ryan, a Merion member who writes about golf, "there were no Holiday Inns out here. He commuted to the Barclay. Each night he would make himself a couple of corn-whiskey highballs [this was during Prohibition] and soak in a bathtub. He always said it wasn't until his third highball that he could finally relax."

Jones beat Canadian Sandy Sommerville in his first match and Fred Hublitzel in the second, both by wide margins. The final three rounds of the Amateur were then 36 holes each, a wearying stretch for any golfer.

He won easily in the quarterfinals and semifinals to set up a match with Homans, the Ridgefield, N.J., golfer who had beaten Charlie Seaver, the father of future baseball Hall of Famer Tom, in his semifinal match.

"Can you imagine the pressure on those two?" Capers said. "Jones knowing he had to win. And Homans knowing he was going to lose."

Neither played particularly well in the morning round that historic Saturday, though Jones finished with a commanding lead.

Meanwhile, 11-year-old Walter Barrows, a young golfing enthusiast, had read about Jones' quest and decided to visit the course that day. He showed up in the afternoon, just as the two finalists were completing their 27th hole, Merion's 9th.

 

 

"I ran up to the 10th tee and got a position right in front," Barrows, a longtime Merion member, recalled in 2005. "I have a vivid memory of how smoothly [Jones] swung the club. You could see a little bend in his hickory driver at the arc of his swing."

By now the crowd had swollen to the thousands. There were no gallery ropes, so fans were free to roam and trample where they wished. They engulfed Jones after each shot and an aerial photo taken that day shows some standing in the traps along the 10th green.

"The 10th is Merion's shortest, easiest par 4," Capers said, "and they both took 6s on it."

Newspaper accounts and Jones' biographies vary on just how that 11th hole was played that day. Capers said the one indisputable fact is that both hit the fairway with their drives.

"As soon as they pitched to the green, I jumped over the brook and stood in the frog hair along the green," Barrows said.

According to Capers, Jones was inside Homans, who had a 25-footer, on the green. Homans missed, conceded, and became a footnote to sports history.

"All of a sudden the crowd surged and the Marines, who were in full dress uniform, appeared to form a circle around Bobby Jones," Barrows said.

Only Keeler, in his Atlanta newspaper, originally referred to Jones' feat as the Grand Slam. Others tried less successfully to characterize it. The New York Sun's golf writer, for example, termed it "the Impregnable Quadrilateral."

Back at the stately white clubhouse, Jones donned a jacket to wear over the shirt and tie he had played in that day. He hinted to sportswriters that this might have been his final competitive event.

Then he stepped out onto the veranda and received the gold trophy from U.S. Golf Association president Findlay Douglas.

"I expect to continue to play golf, but just when and where I cannot say now," Jones said after accepting the trophy. "I have no definite plans either to retire or as to when and where I may continue in competitions. I might stay out of the battle next season and feel like another tournament the following year. That's all I can say about it now."

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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