Setting a new standard: Bobby Jones and the 1930 Grand Slam

August 19, 2011
Bobby Jones won 13 of the 20 major championships he competed in.

Only a handful of people are alive who remember the greatest year in golf, the season when an amateur named Bobby Jones carried a nation on his shoulders. In 1930, as the United States suffered the aftershocks of the stock market crash and the dawn of the Great Depression, Jones achieved sporting immortality by winning golf’s four major championships in one year, an accomplishment so bold, so unexpected and so difficult that it lifted the spirits of the masses.

Jones’s Grand Slam was a moment that changed the game because — like Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile — it altered the view of what was previously thought possible in the sport. The difference? While runners now routinely clock sub four-minute miles, no one has matched Jones’s brilliant mark. Professional golfers have spent their entire careers trying to win four majors in the same year. Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Tiger Woods.

They have all fallen short.

When Jones began by winning the British Amateur and British Open, the sports world deemed the pair of victories the greatest accomplishment in golf history. Jones returned to the United States aboard the S.S. Europa as a conquering hero. New York City threw a tickertape parade in his honor. But he was not finished.

Two more major championships awaited — the United States Open and the United States Amateur. The pressure was suffocating. In Curt Sampson’s book, “The Slam: Bobby Jones and the Price of Glory,” Jones spoke about the weight of expectation. He began ending his evenings with a drink and a hot bath.

With his muscles quivering throughout the United States Open, Jones would achieve the third leg of the Slam over a sultry week in July at Interlachen Country Club in Minnesota, where he defeated Macdonald Smith by two shots thanks to a birdie at the last. By the time Jones reached the United States Amateur Championship at Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pa., the country was completely caught up in his chase.

Some 18,000 fans — the largest gallery in United States Golf Association history at the time — followed Jones’s march over the humps and hollows of a course where he had played his first national tournament at age 14.

In 1930, Jones was at the height of his powers, and he stormed through the field, finally defeating Eugene Homans, 8 and 7, to claim golf’s holy grail. The achievement was given several names. The Impregnable Quadrilateral. The Grand Slam. The New York Times said that Jones had taken “the most triumphant journey that any man ever traveled in sport.”

At 28, with thousands of good swings left, Jones retired from competitive golf. The Grand Slam had left him spent.

Jones’s stature had been so great that the amateur events that he once dominated suffered in his absence. Without Jones chasing British and U.S. Amateur titles, the paradigm of the Grand Slam shifted toward the professional ranks. Jones himself helped foster that change with the formation of the Masters tournament in 1934.

It would soon become the most recognizable event in golf.

The Masters, United States Open, British Open and PGA Championship make up the modern Grand Slam, and it is no secret that professional golfers dream of claiming such a lofty feat.

Woods has come close. He won four consecutive majors between 2000 and 2001 (the 2000 United States Open, British Open and PGA Championship; the 2001 Masters), but Jones is the only one to have done it in the same year. Ben Hogan won three majors in 1953 and might have won a fourth, the PGA, but he missed the tournament because it conflicted with his appearance in the British Open.

Palmer won the first half of the Grand Slam in 1960 and Nicklaus won the first two majors of 1972, but neither could carry the momentum through the summer.

Earlier this year, Woods proclaimed that winning the Grand Slam was “easily within reason,” only to fall three strokes shy of Trevor Immelman’s winning mark at the Masters. After coming up short, Woods said he would no longer broadcast his intentions but, really, he doesn’t have to. Jones set the bar during a long ago summer. It is up to Woods and others to try and hurdle it.