In Bobby's Open: Mr Jones and the Golf Shot that Defined a Legend, Steven Reid, a doctor, works to examine Bobby Jones’s complex mind by stitching together the various strands that Jones had to pull together to win his first Open Championship in 1926. This chapter, titled "A Teaspoonful of Sand," tells the story of Jones’s miracle recovery on the penultimate hole of his drag-out with Al Watrous over the storied links of Royal Lytham and St. Annes, site of this year's Open.
As he left the seventeenth tee, Jones must have felt his stomach in a total knot. By now the British Open was no longer medal play but raw match play – his biggest threat was walking alongside him. So when it was all square in match play terms with two holes to play, what had he done? Tightening up, his right hand had crawled over his left at impact and the result was a high hanging draw, with the ball disappearing from his view.
But he knew where the ball had finished: in just about the worst place possible on the hole – scrubby wasteland with who knew what sort of lie? To make things worse, Watrous had done just what Jones would have done in similar circumstances: choked down slightly and hit a drive of decent length safely down the right half of the fairway.
By now each player was in his cocoon of concentration. Jones was trying to focus on his own plight, but was still aware that Watrous was set to regain his lead. All Watrous had to do was to put his next shot onto the green. It was too much to hope that tension would get to him at this stage. Before he played his shot, he came across to see the plight of Jones’s ball. What he saw gave him considerable comfort, as there was little prospect that Jones could make any great progress from where he was. Watrous made a swing that looked just as smooth as those of the rest of the round, but perhaps some tension did have its influence as his shot pulled up short and only just made the front of the putting surface.
When those watching saw where Jones’s ball lay, they could see that the shot played by Watrous was likely to suffice. As part of the preparation for the Open, large areas of earth had been stripped of their grass covering and left open to the elements as expanses of sand broken up with shrubs and tufts. There lay the ball of the Georgian amateur, on sand with all of 175 yards to go to the green.
The almost impossible challenge presented can be seen from the map at right, taken from a detailed survey of the course made in 1934. The hole is a dramatic dogleg from right to left. From the right half of the fairway the green is visible and accessible. From the left-hand side the green is completely obscured from view, but that is less of a problem than the intervening hazards. Playing directly for the green called for a shot of nothing other than perfection. Anything short would call for another nightmare recovery shot.
The sensible shot was to play out sideways or a few yards forwards and then hope against hope that an outstanding third shot might yet save the day. Jones considered this option but not for too long. He had come all this way to win, not to finish second. The old Jones, rendered volatile by the destructive effect of his temperament, would have gone for the impossible shot but failed. The new Jones, in which temperament had metamorphosed into strain, dealt with the crisis differently. Instead of weakening, he became stronger: but in place of outward fury, the price was internal erosion. The bigger the challenge, the more his game rose to meet it. A few years earlier he had revealed his ability to play supreme shots under pressure on the last hole of his 1923 US Open play-off against Bobby Cruickshank, but this shot was dramatically more of a challenge, not only of technique and temperament, but also of inner steel.
His own account, written in 1927, is matter of fact. He writes:
The seventeenth at St. Anne’s is a hole of 411 yards, with apparently acres of sand along the left side of the fairway, all done out in dunes. The hole bends to the left and the sand is not a good place to play your second from. Added to the native disadvantage of a sand lie, from the position in which I found my ball after a slightly pulled drive I could not see the green at all. Al Watrous, with whom I was paired, had lost a lead of two strokes and we were level with two holes to play. Here he had a good drive and his second was on the green. As suggested, it was a critical position.
The only way I could get a good look at the green, and what lay between it and my ball, was to walk far out to the right, nearly across the fairway. I did this. The prospect was not precisely encouraging. I had to hit a shot with a carry of close to 175 yards, and hit it on a good line, and stop the ball very promptly when it reached the green – if it reached the green. This, off dry sand, though the ball luckily lay clean, was a stiff assignment. You know, an eighth of an inch too deep, and the shot expires right in front of your eyes. And if your blade is a thought too high – I will dismiss this harrowing reflection.
Anyway, I played the shot and it came off, and the ball stopped closer to the pin than Al’s, and he took three putts.
‘Anyway, I played the shot and it came off’ must be the ultimate example of understatement. This singular shot was significant from a variety of angles. From the host club’s point of view, it meant that the 1926 British Open was instantly more memorable than those that preceded it or followed it for several years. From Jones’s point of view, it probably saved his sanity and also secured his reputation on the world stage as a golfer of the highest order. For those assessing Jones’s place in golfing history, it became a focal point in revealing his mettle and defining his nature.
Such is the importance of this single shot that it is worth examining in detail how it was reported at the time and since. Bernard Darwin wrote about it in The Times, George Greenwood in Golf Illustrated and the Daily Telegraph, and Al Laney in Following the Leaders. While many claimed over the following years to have seen the stroke, the truth is somewhat different. In the Royal Lytham & St Anne’s yearbook of 1998, an article appeared recording the clear recollection of a former captain of the club, Ian Hargreave, who was almost certainly the last person living who had seen the famous shot. At that time he was aged 85, having been a young man in his early teens in 1926.
One interesting aspect of his memories is that while there were huge numbers of spectators around the green, the number back down the fairway wasn’t that many. In several texts it is stated that after Jones’s shot, someone was heard to say, ‘There goes $100,000.’ Instead, what was said was by the American Walker Cup player William Fownes before Watrous played his second shot. ‘At the moment when Watrous was about to play his second,’ reminisced Bernard Darwin in Golf Between Two Wars, ‘Mr. Fownes was justified in saying to me as he did: “He’s got this shot for 100,000 dollars.”’
What is beyond doubt is that the shot played by Jones was extraordinary. Even nearly twenty years later, Darwin still viewed it with rapt admiration. In the same book, published in 1944, he wrote:
Bobby’s ball lay in a shallow bunker and it lay clean, but he was 170 yards or more from the flag and between him and it were the sandhills. He took what I think he called his mashie-iron (it now reposes a sacred relic in the St Anne’s club) and hit the ball perfectly clean, playing it somewhat out into the wind so that it came to finish on the green and nearer the hole than his opponent. Admittedly the ball lay clean as clean could be and this was the kind of shot that he might very well have played in a practice game, but in the circumstances, when a teaspoonful too much sand might have meant irretrievable ruin, it was a staggering shot, and it staggered poor Al Watrous. He took three putts, Bobby got down in two and everybody felt that that shot had settled it.
The contemporary report in the Daily Telegraph described it thus:
When Mr. Jones, at the dog-legged seventeenth, put his drive into the long stretch of sand and bents away on the left the position indeed looked black. But, after much study, Mr. Jones played one of the finest shots ever witnessed in a championship, and one that will live in history. Taking a No. 4 iron, he thumped the ball slap on to the middle of the green nearly 180 yards away. This was so unexpected a development that Watrous, who had visions of getting in front again, took three putts and was one stroke to the bad.
The account in the Scotsman of Jones’s last five holes reads:
Mr. Jones came along that stretch in 43444, terribly relentless blows in the crisis. His golf contained one heroic stroke produced in time of stress with the mastery we now know. He pulled his drive to the seventeenth into sand and star grass, and from this he hit a beautiful recovery, a stroke of about 150 yards, which carried over the shoulder of the hillock and finished in the middle of the green. The crowd broke into a roar of applause at this effort. They knew it for what it was, a victory stroke, and they followed the drama to the close.
In The Times, Darwin reported that
He [Watrous] rallied well, but was finally knocked out by a tremendous thrust of his enemy’s at the 17th. Watrous was right down the middle, and Mr. Jones away in a waste of sand on the left. Watrous played the odd, and reached the green, and then Mr. Jones played the most superb full iron shot. True, he was lucky enough to have a clean-lying ball on the sand, but, even so, what a shot at such a point, and it killed Watrous, who was short and took three putts.
George Greenwood’s account in Golf Illustrated states that after the sixteenth:
The excitement now grew fast and furious. Something had to give and it did at the seventeenth, a dog-legged hole swinging from right to left. Running down the left hand side of the course is a wilderness of sand and broken country with huge tufts of sea grass sticking out here and there. When Bobby hooked his drive into the wilderness, and Watrous hit one straight down the middle we thought the end had surely come. What seemed more likely than that Watrous would nip in and clinch the matter once and for all.
Jones waded into the sand with his favourite mashieiron and, lo and behold! a miracle happened. A cloud of sand spurted into the air, and a few seconds later the frenzied spectators were astounded to see the ball drop slap on to the middle of the green, give a couple of feeble hops and stop. This shot will live in history not only because it won a championship, but because of the manner in which it was executed. Considering the heavy lie, and the fact that the shot was all carry over 175 yards of terrible country it was a marvellous shot. It was a shot that so astounded Watrous that once more he took three putts. He was now one shot to the bad, having lost three shots in the last four holes.
The description in the Glasgow Herald reads:
Watrous from the tee was in the middle of the fairway. Jones walked from his ball to the fairway and carefully surveyed the ground. Watrous, who had to play the odd, went over and had a look at Jones’s lie to weigh probabilities. Watrous just got to the edge of the green. Jones had to get to the green or in all probability lose the championship, which now seemed, barring Hagen, to be within his grasp. He took a No. 4 iron and with the courage of a lion hit a magnificent shot onto the middle of the green. Watrous, shaken by this shattering blow, took three from the edge of the green, and now for the first time in the round, Jones was in the lead for the four round aggregate.
The aforementioned account of the 1963 club captain Ian Hargreave, recollected in the club’s 1998 yearbook, reads as follows:
I have seen all the Open championships played over our course. The first in 1926 was won by Bobby Jones. I saw the famous shot on the 17th hole – a remarkable stroke. In view of the conflicting and confusing accounts written since, it is worth defining just what Jones did. The area to the left of the seventeenth where the ball lay wasn’t a bunker as such – there was a forty yard stretch of bare sand with occasional shrubs and tufts of grass, just like there still is at Pine Valley. Jones’s ball lay on sand in this wild expanse and to play the shot he did called for great courage and ability.
The club he used for that wonderful shot was later presented to Royal Lytham. It was a mashie, the equivalent of the five iron of today and it was hung inside the clubhouse. Tommy Catlow and I got into severe trouble with Pattirson the porter for taking it out on the short course for a few practice shots. It was subsequently fastened down!
The last eyewitness account, perhaps the most revealing, rests with American journalist Al Laney:
Since Hagen was so far behind Jones and Watrous, I went with the other two. Jones gave me the fits. He was not playing the sort of golf that was needed to close the gap, but he did finally get even at the 16th after struggling for many of his pars. Then he promptly pulled his tee shot at the 17th into serious trouble to set the stage for the climax. The 17th measured a few more yards than 400, and the hole bent a little to the left around a large, rolling sweep of sand. Jones’s ball lay clean on the sand, but between it and the green were a nearby bunker and a series of dunes. He was a long way from the green, probably 180 yards, and could not see the flag. Neither could I from where I stood, and I did not want to move. I wanted to see the shot itself, and I was almost afraid to look.
Watrous had hit a good straight drive, and, playing first, he put his ball on the green. Jones walked straight across the fairway from left to right and stood there looking first at the green, then at the spot where he had put his tee shot. I wondered what he was thinking, looking first one way then back, and I have wondered a thousand times since what it is that tournament players think about when they stand there, putting off the moment for taking action. Not that Jones dawdled. Far from it. He always decided quickly, then went to work.
Now he looked, came back with his mind already made up, and what I remember more acutely than the shot itself was how drawn and almost ill Bob’s face appeared as he stepped into the sand and settled his feet. Then he struck the ball with a mashie-iron, about a no. 4 by later gradings. A big shout down the fairway told us that the ball had safely reached the green. When Watrous eventually took three putts, Jones moved a stroke ahead.
What made it one of the finest shots ever brought off in championship play? The ball lay on dry sand. A fraction too much sand, and the ball might hardly move at all and end up in a worse place. A fraction too little sand or none at all, and the ball might skitter and run into some really horrid spot. With the target out of sight, the stroke also had to be judged exactly so that the ball would become airborne instantly, carry 175 yards or more, and stop quickly after reaching the green. It was only after I heard the shot discussed that I came to have some understanding of its difficulty and the boldness, technical mastery and even artistry involved in bringing it off.
One person who missed seeing this extraordinary shot was O.B. Keeler who witnessed everything else Jones did. He later confessed, ‘I did NOT see that shot. I followed that last round through the thirteenth hole where Bobby was still two behind Watrous then I switched over to the clubhouse hoping against hope that if I quit watching the luck would change … It did. It did. I was over at the clubhouse in the bar taking on a liberal belt of antifreeze when the news came in.’
In retrospect, it is clear that this was to Jones the defining shot of his golfing career. The inward forces driving Jones on to success and giving him the ability to produce such a shot in such a pressure-laden situation extracted a high price for this gift, as is revealed in the telling observations of Laney, giving an insight into how playing to this level of performance was at the same time consuming Jones from within. Now pale and almost sucked dry by the drama, Jones walked with the shaken Watrous to the eighteenth tee.