Looking Back: 1930 U.S. Amateur at Merion
By Robert Alvarez
This is the 16th in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
Robert Tyre Jones Jr., Bobby to some, and Bob to others, was born in Atlanta, Ga., on March 17, 1902, to Mary and Robert Permedus Jones. Jones had a close and even competitive relationship with his father, a successful Atlanta lawyer, as evidenced by the younger Jones defeating his father in the 1915 Atlanta Athletic Club championship.
Young Bob, who was sickly as a child, was encouraged to play golf as a means of building his strength. The exercise was convenient for Jones as his family had a home near Atlanta Athletic Club, where he played many rounds with his father, future women’s golf star Alexa Stirling, and his friend, Perry Adair. He quickly developed into a child prodigy, winning tournaments by age 6. Within a few years, Jones would be contending for state and national amateur championships.
The young Georgian’s first taste of national competition came in 1916 at the U.S. Amateur Championship, which took place at what was then known as Merion Cricket Club, a jewel of Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs. Jones, fresh from his victory at the Georgia State Amateur Championship, went to Philadelphia as a longshot to win the national amateur at age 14, but he qualified for match play, then defeated 1908 U.S. Amateur champion Eben Byers, 4 and 2, in the first round. His victory immediately became the marquee story of the championship. Newspapers ran headlines about the “boy golfer” beating the ex-champion, noting that the ruddy-faced youngster from the South would bear watching as the championship progressed.
Jones played better in his second match against Frank Dyer, winning 4 and 2, validating the hype that surrounded him. Robert Gardner, who was defending his 1915 U.S. Amateur title, awaited Jones in the quarterfinals. Gardner, renowned for his athletic prowess in track and field, was hampered by a finger infection but managed to defeat Jones in a hard-fought match. Jones’ magical run at the 1916 U.S. Amateur had come to an end, but he did not leave Merion disappointed. According to Jones, “I never learned anything from a match that I won; I got my golfing education from drubbings.” He would be back.
Seven years later, now a veteran at age 21, Jones broke through and captured his first major championship, the 1923 U.S. Open Championship at Inwood Country Club in Inwood, N.Y. Jones learned a lot during what he termed his “lean years,” which paid off during his “fat years,” from 1923 through 1930. First he overcame the temper that hindered him as a youth, then went on to discover an important key to winning: learning to score well when he wasn’t playing his best. “I think this is what I learned to do best of all," Jones once wrote.
The U.S. Amateur returned to Merion Cricket Club in 1924, and this time Jones was considered a heavy favorite to win as the game’s premier amateur player. Jones dominated the field. After qualifying with a pair of 72s on Merion’s East Course, he easily dispatched W.J. Thompson, D. Clarke Corkran, Rudolf Knepper, Francis Ouimet and George Von Elm on his way to victory.
Six years and 11 major championship victories later, Jones returned to Merion with the goal of completing what O.B. Keeler had coined “The Grand Slam.” The pressure on Jones to win at Merion for a second time was immense. A field of elite amateur players was assembled, hoping to stop Jones’s momentum. For only the second time in his career, Jones would play in all four major championships, an opportunity he was afforded by being a member of the USA Walker Cup team. In May 1930, before record crowds at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England, the Americans had claimed their sixth consecutive Walker Cup victory. Partnered with Oregon dentist “Doc” Willing, Jones won his foursomes match, 8 and 7, and the following day defeated British Team captain Roger Wethered in singles.
Inspired by his Walker Cup success, Jones arrived at St. Andrews, Scotland, for the British Amateur, the only major title missing from his resume. He defeated the defending champion, Cyril Tolley, in the fourth round, and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Jimmy Johnston, in the fifth round. In the final, in front of the largest crowd ever gathered on the Old Course, Jones once again defeated Wethered, this time capturing the first leg of the Grand Slam.
In June, Jones traveled to Hoylake, England, for the British Open, played at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. After matching the course record of 70 in the opening round, Jones turned in rounds of 72, 74, and 75 to win the championship by two strokes over Macdonald Smith and Leo Diegel.
Jones had kept his quest secret to this point. But following his victory at Hoylake, Jones finally confided in Al Laney, a sportswriter for New York’s Herald Tribune, telling him about the goal of winning all four majors.
In the blazing heat of July, Jones continued his Grand Slam quest in the U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club in Minneapolis. As the field of 143 took to the course for the opening round, the temperature soared to 108 degrees. Despite losing 10 pounds, Jones posted a score of 71 and trailed Macdonald Smith and Tommy Armour, the 1927 U.S. Open champion, by one stroke. At the close of the second round, Jones trailed a new leader, Missouri’s Horton Smith, by two. The final two rounds were played on Saturday, July 12. Before a crowd of 10,000 spectators, Jones shot 68 in the morning to take a five-stroke lead, then held on through the grueling pressure of the final round. He holed a 40-foot putt for birdie on the 72nd hole to claim a two-stroke victory, once again over Macdonald Smith.
Jones traveled back to Atlanta the following day and arrived to a celebration whose ranks swelled to some 125,000. For four weeks he rested, recovering his strength, as well as the 17 pounds he had shed in three days at Interlachen. He was in top form for the final push at the U.S. Amateur at one of his favorite places, Merion Cricket Club.
For the sixth time, Jones secured medalist honors in the qualifying rounds, tying his own record for lowest qualifying score. He then breezed through his early round matches, defeating C. Ross Somerville, Fred Hoblitzel and Fay Coleman. In the 36-hole semifinal, he defeated his good friend and Walker Cup teammate Jess Sweetser, 9 and 8. A record gallery of 18,000 gathered at Merion to watch Jones take on Eugene Homans in his quest to complete the Grand Slam. Jones dominated the 36-hole final, securing a 7-up lead in the morning round. He double-bogeyed the 28th hole of the match when he failed to escape a greenside bunker, but a conceded par at the 29th secured the 8-and-7 victory. Jones had won the Grand Slam.
Bob Jones loved Merion. He cut his teeth there in 1916 as a talented but raw 14-year-old. He won his second major and first U.S. Amateur Championship there in 1924, and he became the first, and only, player in the game’s history to win all four major championships in the same season there in 1930. Merion’s lore is unmistakable, producing some of the game’s great champions and finest moments, but perhaps none more memorable than Jones and his capstone to the Grand Slam.