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There is all the
difference in the world between the Open Championship and the ordinary
tournaments. In a way it is a silly thing for men to permit a sporting
competition of any kind to weigh so heavily upon them. But if you have ever
been there yourself, you know that you just can't help it.
Next week the U.S. Open will be held at the Atlanta Athletic Club, to which Bob Jones belonged, and so it is fitting at this time to take a look at the man and his record in the tournament he regarded so highly. Bob Jones played 11 times in the U.S. Open. He started in 1920, when he was 18, and continued through 1930, when he decided to abandon competitive golf. During those 11 years he won four Opens, was second four times (losing twice in playoffs) and finished fifth, eighth and 11th the other three years. What Jones accomplished in the Open is contrary to our understanding of what golf, as it is played on the highest level, requires. Jones was never more than an occasional competitor. During those 11 years he was otherwise occupied as an excellent student, a husband, parent and a young lawyer. He was an amateur. Jones' entire career consisted of only 52 golf tournaments. He won 23.
Jack Nicklaus has been conceded supremacy in the game for a number of years. "The greatest golfer of all time" is a definition of Nicklaus that goes down easier as the years slip by and as Jack piles title upon title. But a comparison of the records of Bob Jones and Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open, at ages 18 through 28, offers an argument. During that period Nicklaus had only two firsts and two seconds (to Jones' four of each) and five times finished worse than 20th (which Jones never did). Even today, with seven more starts than Jones, Nicklaus is one first and one second behind.
Ah, you say, apples and oranges. Jones was running his race in a limited field. Nicklaus has had to beat the world. Perhaps. Nevertheless, there was more than a touch of genius in the likes of Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. Once he burst through to win his first Open in 1923, Jones had a devastating effect on the pros. Between 1923 and 1930 neither Hagen nor Sarazen ever so much as led any single round during any U.S. Open.
The Open, in relative terms, may have meant more to the pros in the '20s than it does today. The leading money-winners on the early winter tours in Florida and California were interesting but not affluent sporting characters. The important money, for exhibitions and other commercial emoluments, was available only to those who could say they had won either the U.S. or British Open. (Jones, incidentally, won the British Open three of the four years he entered.) It was vital to the pros that they "stop Jones." Hagen, their natural leader, went so far as to give his colleagues pep talks. Still, as the clich� went, it was always "Jones against the field." And this was the truth, because he won half the time, and bookies, who were then part of the championship golf scene, listed him at 2 to 1. No, the pros not only had a terrible time competing against him ( Tommy Armour said he accepted a handicap of one hole a side in casual matches with Jones), they couldn't even hate him.
Bob was a fine
man to be partnered with in a tournament. He made you feel that you were
playing with a friend—and you were.
Only the Open record of Ben Hogan ranks with that of Jones. Hogan, too, enjoyed a marvelous stretch of 11 years, between 1946 and 1956, when he also won four times. In that stretch, Hogan was also second twice, third once, fourth once and sixth twice. One year, when he was recovering from his terrible automobile accident, he was unable to play. The numbers may favor Jones, but not by much.
Curiously, Hogan did not win an Open until he was 35, or seven years older than Jones was when he retired. It is closer to fact than conjecture to insist, as Jones' friends always have, that had Jones chosen to follow a different path and gone on playing championship golf after 1930, he would have continued to win—as long as his health allowed.
The Jones-Hogan comparison is apt. Hogan, like Jones, was confident that he could play in a very few tournaments and still play superbly when it mattered. Hogan's best year was 1953, when he entered six tournaments and won five—including the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. At the height of his prowess, Jones played in only two tournaments—the U.S. Open and Amateur—in three years, 1923, 1924 and 1929.
When Hogan won the 1953 British Open Jones happened to be in New York City, where he was pounced upon by golf writers who then poured out torrents of copy on who was the greater golfer. Jones loathed the comparison. He made a special effort to return to New York when Hogan came back from Europe and was honored at a luncheon at the Waldorf. By then Jones could no longer walk without assistance and he knew that all that remained for him was physical deterioration and increasing pain because of the spinal disease that afflicted him the last 22 years of his life.