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The 55th United States Amateur Golf Championship will get underway in Richmond this Monday on the James River course of the Country Club of Virginia. Harvie Ward, Joe Conrad, Billy Joe Patton, Bill Campbell and all the rest of our current coterie of amateur stars will be there, each with his heart set on winning (for the first time) the most important nonprofessional championship in the world. By the afternoon of the quarter-finals, if the 55th Amateur follows the pattern of its predecessors, a few of these seasoned players will still be in the fight; but most of them will have been unceremoniously eliminated in the early rounds by "complete unknowns"—by teenaged tyros from all over the map with a polish and poise beyond their years, by serious-eyed "club players" of all ages who drive the newspapermen crazy with their deep and genuine lack of even one faintly colorful trait, and by the uprushing new stars (such as Doug Sanders and Hillman Robbins) who, in this fertile land of athletes, continue to spring up annually like the corn in the fields.
No matter how spectacularly fortunes rise and fall on the banks of the James, this year's Amateur cannot hope to approach in its dramatic content the edition of that championship which took place 25 Septembers ago and which has been vividly alive in everybody's mind this summer of its Silver Anniversary. September 22-27, 1930. The Merion Cricket Club in Ardmore, Pa., on the outskirts of Philadelphia. What a week that was! It is unlikely that any other athletic occasion in this century, not excepting the most furious World Series clashes or the Dempsey-Tunney fights, can honestly be compared with the Amateur of 1930 in the hold it had not only on sports followers but also on persons who did not ordinarily follow sports, and not only on Americans but on people living anything but country-club lives on the other five populated continents.
It wasn't the Amateur by itself, to be sure, that was responsible for all this fervor. Rather, it was that previously that year Robert Tyre Jones Jr., a young amateur of 28 from Atlanta, Ga., had captured the three other traditionally major championships of international golf: in May, the British Amateur at St. Andrews; in June, the British Open at Hoylake; in July, the U.S. Open at Interlachen in Minneapolis. Now it was September, and as the amateurs congregated at Merion and the climactic days drew near, it was everybody's business, that one question: would Bobby be able to carry off the Amateur and so complete his Grand Slam of the four big tourneys, "the impregnable quadrilateral" as George Trevor had called it in a moment of inspiration?
A few great golfers had earlier succeeded in winning two major championships in one year. John Ball, for instance, had taken both the British Amateur and Open in 1890; Harold Hilton, both the British and U.S. Amateurs in 1911; Chick Evans, both our Amateur and Open in 1916; Gene Sarazen, our Open and the PGA (the pros' equivalent of the Amateur) in 1922; Walter Hagen, the British Open and our PGA in 1924. But here was Jones with a chance to reach out and grasp the Amateur, and by doing so to make actual the heretofore fatuous idea that any golfer could ever be good enough to capture in one season all four championships, contested by sturdy fields, spanning four arduous months, held on two continents on four vastly different courses, in all sorts of weather, through all rubs of the green.
Thinking or writing about Jones and 1930 produces in 1955 a happy glow of excitement, but today, of course, we know "how it all came out." On the eve of that Amateur, the general feeling was that Bobby had an excellent chance to reach port safely, but nothing is ever sure in a game like golf. The hoping, the hoping against hope, and the general feeling of intense personal involvement which millions experienced all week long would have led some stranger visiting the United States to deduce that nearly every American was a relative or at least a close personal friend of Bobby Jones's.
In a curious way, that last statement is not too far off the mark. Even at the tender age of 28, Bob had been known and known well to the American sports public for 15 years—ever since the summer of 1916 when he had come up to the same Merion course as a cocky youngster of 14 to see if he could qualify for the Amateur. He had qualified, won his first two matches, and impressed everybody who watched him so incisively that even the terribly temperate Mr. Walter J. Travis had enthused to an inquiring Jones admirer, "Improvement? He can never improve his shots, if that's what you mean. But he will learn a good deal more about playing them."
From that date on, Bob grew up in the full glare of the spotlight, the inescapable lot of a sports star who is so good so early and has, in addition, a personal attractiveness that captivates the public's interest. Sports fans knew all about Jones—how as a petulant, self-critical youngster he could fling a club, after a particularly bad shot, as far and as crisply as anybody in the game; how he had gradually mastered his temper—"the way he mastered everything," as Gene Sarazen put it so simply later on—with Bob's final graduation from adolescence coming after he had "picked up" in disgust on the third round of the 1921 British Open, an inescapable breach of true sportsmanship, as Jones regarded it, which cut deeply into his pride and which he could never forget; how the young man, the Georgia Tech and Harvard student, went through "the seven lean years" from 1916 to 1923, heralded after World War I as the best amateur in the country and as a player proficient enough to beat the pros in the Open, but never quite able to win a big one; how in 1923, so downhearted after his multiple failures that he was considering retiring from competition, he finally burst through in the Open, redeeming a great opportunity he had all but chucked away when he played a magnificent two-iron (from the loose sand at the edge of the rough on the 18th at Inwood) which carried the lagoon before the green, finished six feet from the' flag, and enabled him to defeat Bobby Cruickshank in their play-off for the title; how he went on from that shot to compile an incomparable record (through 1929) of three U.S. Open championships, two British Open championships and four U.S. Amateur championships.
But Jones was much more than just a winning golfer. He was a beautiful golfer. Taking nothing away from his superb contemporaries or the marvelous players who came before and after him, the fluid, almost lazy grace of his swing and the handsome parabola of his shots set off within a spectator, were he golfer or nongolfer, a spark of honest-to-goodness delight the like of which only Harry Vardon and Sam Snead have generated. It was something you didn't forget, either—Jones's shotmaking. In the PGA championship this summer, to cite an oddly relevant incident, Jack Burke (in his match with Middlecoff) played a five-iron to the 34th green which he hit with no apparent effort. The ball was dead on line all the way, kicked up a fleck of turf (like a horse's hoof) when it landed on the green just before the flag, took one bounce and then sat down a few feet beyond the hole. " Jones! He looked just like Jones on that shot!" exclaimed Walter Hagen, who had watched the ball come up from behind the green. "That was just the kind of shot Bobby played time and time again. He'd throw that ball up toward the flag and it wouldn't waver an inch off the line from the moment it left his club. He hit hundreds of shots that looked like they would knock the pin right out of the hole."
When people talked about Jones in the '20s, before they knew it they were half-way into a panegyric. It was and is the easiest thing in the world. To approach the man in the plainest terms, he was and is an exceptional person. Tommy Armour, ransacking his mind for the one adjective that would best get across the meat of Jones's personality, settled at length on considerate. Bob, many of his friends felt, often was too considerate for his own good; he found it difficult, for instance, not to try to find the time for the little things asked of him, like accepting an invitation to play a round with friends when, with a prestige tournament coming up, he probably would have been wiser to have been more selfish with his time and his energy.
He had an excellent sense of humor. His favorite stories were always at his own expense, not because he was aiming at presenting himself in a modest light, but because these incidents really struck his funny bone. He liked to recall a qualifying round in the Open with old Harry Vardon. Bob had looked up on a niblick chip from the edge of a green and had skulled the ball clear across the green and into a bunker. " Mr. Vardon, did you ever see a worse shot than that?" Jones had sputtered in high embarrassment. "No," Vardon had answered, and nothing more. Bob also was something of a phrasemaker. He liked to describe a dangerous shot that only a golfer with real guts could pull off as a shot which required "sheer delicatessen."