This is the fourth in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
When Bob Jones reached the quarterfinals of the 1916 U.S. Amateur at Merion Cricket Club as a 14-year-old wunderkind, most observers didn’t think it would take him long to win his first title.
That the wait would be eight years was a surprise, even though as a wide-eyed teen, Jones had a temper that needed taming.
Granted, World War I interrupted the championship for two years (1918 and 1919). In 1919 at Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh, a 17-year-old Jones reached the final, where S. Davidson Herron, an Oakmont member, stopped the young Atlanta star, 5 and 4.
Certainly Jones had to be frustrated, but his on-course behavior prompted a letter from George H. Walker, the USGA president, which stated that Jones would need to control his emotions before being accepted into future USGA national championships.
Jones took the letter to heart. His demeanor changed, and so did his fortunes. However, his USGA breakthrough occurred at the U.S. Open, not the U.S. Amateur, when he defeated Bobby Cruickshank in a playoff for the 1923 title at Inwood (N.Y.) Country Club.
With the U.S. Amateur returning to Merion Cricket Club in 1924, where Jones had wowed crowds as young teen, his first National Amateur title seemed a strong possibility.
Jones arrived a different player, not only having won the U.S. Open, but also finishing second twice, in 1922 and 1924. He had gone toe to toe with the greatest professional of the era, Walter Hagen, several times. He was arguably the world’s premier amateur golfer, which added to the expectations.
After qualifying with a pair of 72s over the East Course, Jones appeared poise for a championship run. His 144 was only two strokes off the record qualifying score produced by D. Clarke Corkran, of Baltimore, who shot a course-record 67, then added a 75.
Jones’ mindset was to play against par, not his opponents. He figured if he focused only on his score, everything else would fall into place.
“I didn’t play any better at Merion than I played before when I was beaten,” Jones later told renowned sportswriter Grantland Rice of The American Golfer. “I averaged 73 against [Max] Marston and was beaten. I averaged 74 against [Jess] Sweetser – and was beaten. I averaged around 73 against [Francis] Ouimet and [George] Von Elm – and this time nobody went wild with one of those 70 or 68 rounds. Any time anybody shoots a 68 or a 70 he is going to come pretty close on that day to beating anybody in the world.”
Whether it was the switch in tactics or simply his time to shine, Jones was just 3 over par for his last 72 holes of match play against Rudolf Knepper, Ouimet and Von Elm, whom he crushed in the championship match, 9 and 8.
Jones completely dominated his opponents, outside of a “close” 3-and-2, second-round victory over Corkran, the medalist. At that time, the USGA didn’t separate the match-play draw by score, so Jones and Corkran, the two low scorers from qualifying, were matched up in the round of 16 of the 32-player draw.
It certainly didn’t hurt Jones that several potential challengers either failed to qualify or were vanquished in the opening round. Cyril Tolley of England and Sweetser, two of the era’s greatest players, failed to qualify. Evans, the 1916 champion at Merion, lost a stunning 9-and-7 decision to Knepper. Jones didn’t fall prey to the early-round upsets, crushing W.J. Thompson, of Canada, 6 and 5, in his first match.
In the quarterfinals, he easily handled Knepper, 6 and 4, before dealing Ouimet a startling 11-and-10 setback in the semifinals.
“[Jones] was paying no attention to what I did or where my ball went,” Ouimet said. “He just kept plugging for par after par and two times out of three he was putting for birdies only eight or 10 feet away. He had a 71 in the morning round and he might just as well, with better putting luck, had a … 65.”
As Rice described Merion, with its unyielding rough, narrow fairways and greens heavily protected by bunkers, “It was either a fine shot or nothing. To be pretty good didn’t help. When one erred, he usually lost a stroke, sometimes two strokes … and sometimes three.”
One of the most dramatic early-round matches involved an unheralded 17-year-old, Roland MacKenzie, who took Von Elm, of Los Angeles, to extra holes after trailing, 8 down, with 15 to play. MacKenzie holed an 18-foot putt on the 18th green to tie, but Von Elm prevailed in 37 holes.
Von Elm, who would defeat Jones two years later in the championship match, cruised over his next three matches, including a 7-and-6 semifinal triumph over Marston, the defending champion. Von Elm was a straight driver, one of the best mid- to long-iron players in the field and a strong putter.
It wasn’t until he ran into Jones in the championship match that his game slipped, especially around the greens.
Then again, the way Jones was playing, nobody was going to beat him that week at Merion. And over the next six years, few would beat Jones at the U.S. Amateur.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.