Bobby Jones: Lytham’s first

It is perhaps fitting that Royal Lytham and St Annes, one of the world’s great links courses, can boast, as it heads into its 11th Open Championships this week, that the legendary Robert Trent ‘Bobby’ Jones was its first Open winner.

For Jones, who remained an amateur all of his life and ended his working days as a respected lawyer, has been, and always will be, regarded as one of the greatest golfers off all time.

This not only because this outstanding ball striker was also a competitor par excellence who, to this day, remains golf’s only Grand Slam winner, the Slam in his day consisting of the Open and Amateur Championships and the US Open and US Amateur, but also because he was the man who inspired the establishment of hallowed Augusta National and the Masters Championship, golf’s traditional first major of the season.

Which ever way you wish to look at it, the true blue Georgian can be put right up there on the highest pinnacle with any of the games greatest who followed in his footsteps, be they Bryron Nelson, still the only man to have won 11 US PGA titles in a row, Sammy Snead, who, with 82 PGA titles won more than any other man, Jack Nicklaus who with 18 holds the record for Major titles, and Tiger Woods, who perhaps is the only 21st Century golfer capable of catching, matching and even bettering these achievements.

He has already come closer than anyone else to matching Jones’ grand-slam by holding, at the same time, the titles of all four majors, now the Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship and the (US) PGA Championship.

He could not claim to have captured the highly exclusive big-four ‘Grand Slam’, though, because they were not all won in the same year.

But to get back to the Jones boy, it was somewhat ironical that he sailed to Britain in 1926 with the intention of playing only in that year’s Walker Cup between the best amateurs of the USA and Great Britain & Ireland and then in the Amateur Championship at Muirfield.

However, stung by his loss to Scottish local Andrew Jamieson in the quarter-final of the Amateur, he decided to stay on in Britain and play in the Open.

As it happened, 1926 was the first year in which qualifiers were held and Jones opted to play in the one at Sunningdale.

The difference in his play at Muirfield and Sunningdale was like chalk and cheese.

Jones marched into the Open with consummate ease, shooting a 66 and a 68, which, to this day, still rank as two the lowest Open qualifying rounds ever posted.

Pundits of the time ranked his 66 as the closest thing to a perfect round they had ever seen.

His brilliance waned in the early part of The Open proper, though, and after the first round he found himself four shots adrift of the 68 fired by fellow American star, Walter Hagen.

Hagen was to slump to a 77 in the second round, though, and Jones’s second successive 72 was enough to edge him into the joint halfway lead on 144.

The final two rounds of the Open in 1926 were both still played on a Friday, this so as to enable the competing British professionals to get back to their clubs by Saturday to attend to the needs of the members on what was, and still is, the most important club day of the week.

In the morning’s third round, Jones found himself paired with American professional Al Watrous, who was to post a 68 and move two shots clear of him and four ahead of Hagen before the round was over.

To relax themselves ahead of the final round in the afternoon, Jones and Watrous went back to the Majestic Hotel, but on their return to the course, Jones discovered that he had lost his competitor’s ticket.

An ultra cautious security guard, did not recognize him, would not accept his explanation and refused him entry.

Remaining cool, calm and collected, Jones went to a pay gate and quietly entered Royal Lytham and St Annes as a spectator – and today remains the only Open Champion who had to pay to play.

Watrous valiantly held off his more famous rival for much of the dramatic final round and was still two shots ahead with five holes to play.

Jones, however, had closed the gap and had drawn level by the sixteenth – but it wasn’t all over just yet.

Royal Lytham and St Annes had now effectively become the scene of a head-to-head, match-play battle between the two and Watrous once more grabbed the advantage when he hit a fine tee shot down the seventeenth after Jones had pulled his tee shot onto some sandy waste.

Watrous played first, putting his approach shot onto the front edge of the green.

Jones was unable to see the green from where his ball lay and had to walk across to the far side of the fairway to weigh up his options.

That done, he returned to his ball, which was resting on hard sand, pulled out his mashie – the equivalent of today’s five iron – and, after little delay, hit a shot of such stunning quality that the ball pitched directly onto the green some 175 yards away.

The shot clearly rattled Watrous, who, after his solid drive, must have seen himself edging back into the lead with just one hole to go.

Instead, shaken by the brilliance of Jones’s shot, he three putted and it was Jones who was to snatch the lead for the first time in the tournament.

And he improved on that at the last when he posted a solid par four while the still-shaken Watrous was to drop another shot.

There were, however, many other players yet to finish and a strong-finishing Hagen arrived at the last hole needing a two to tie.

Always the showman, Hagen, who had broken the British dominance of the Open when he had become the first native-born American to win the title in 1922 and who would go on to win it three more times, purposefully walked all the way up the green and then back to his ball, before sending his caddie forward to attend the flag.

But there was to be no miracle. Not this time.

He almost found the hole with his last desperate pitch shot, but it was played with too much adrenalin and ran right through the green and into the bunker behind it.

Hagen eventually needed six shots to find the hole and finished in fourth place.

Jones’s victory at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s was the first of the three Opens he would go on to win and after sailing home to the USA aboard the ‘Aquitania’, he was given a ticker tape reception in New York.

Jones would have won the princely sum of £75 had he been a professional, but not wanting to endanger his amateur status, he took nothing away.

In the year’s to come, the first prize purse for the Open would rise to £600,000 in 2001 on the last of the 10 occasions it was played at Royal Lytham, this when David Duval became just the third American to win it.

At this week’s Open Championship, the winner will received £900,000 along with the Claret Jug.

For the record, here are all the previous Open winners at Royal Lytham, the late Seve Ballestros being the only man to have won it there more than once:

2001 David Duval (USA) 69 73 65 67=274 (-10); £600,000
1996 Tom Lehman (USA) 67 67 64 73=271 (-13) £200,000
1988 Seve Ballesteros (Isp) 67 71 70 65=273 (-11) £80,000
1979 Seve Ballesteros (Isp) 73 65 75 70=283 (-1) £15,000
1974 Gary Player (RSA) 69 68 75 70=282 (-2) £5,500
1969 Tony Jacklin (Eng) 68 70 70 72=280 (-4) £4,250
1963 Bob Charles (NZl) 68 72 66 71=277 (-7) £1,500
1958 Peter Thomson (Aus) 66 72 67 73=278 (-6) £1,000
1952 Bobby Locke (RSA) 69 71 74 73=287 (-1) £300
1926 Bobby Jones (USA) 72 72 73 74=291 Amateur (£75)