This is the second in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh. The story recounts the 1919 U.S. Amateur Championship, won by Oakmont member S. Davidson Herron over Bob Jones. It was the first USGA championship conducted at the club, which is hosting its record ninth U.S. Open in June.
1919 U.S. Amateur: Herron’s Hometown Advantage
March 7, 2016
By Victoria Student, USGA
The evening before he left for college at Princeton, S. Davidson Herron teed off on the first hole at Oakmont Country Club… again. He had been competing in a ringer tournament that summer and had bettered par on every hole but one. Determined to get his birdie there, he would start a round, reach the hole, fail to improve his score, and return to the first tee to start another round. His father went ahead of him with a flashlight as dusk fell, standing by each green until Herron finally got his birdie and the “ringer” round was complete.
It was with this extensive knowledge of Oakmont that Herron entered the 1919 U.S. Amateur Championship.
Herron’s family lived across the street from the course, and he sold lemondade to players as a child. He grew up sneaking in as many rounds as he could with “Heinie” Fownes, the son of Henry C. Fownes, the founder and designer of Oakmont. On long summer days, Herron could make it around Oakmont six times.
Resuming in 1919 after a two-year interruption due to World War I, the USGA presented a new format for the U.S. Amateur: Two 18-hole rounds of qualifying reduced the field to 32 for match play, with every match scheduled for 36 holes, in the hopes of eliminating fluke victories.
First-time qualifiers comprised half the 1919 field, but there were several stars, too. Francis Ouimet, the 1914 Amateur champion who defeated Britain’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the fabled 1913 U.S. Open was present, along with Charles “Chick” Evans, winner of both the Open and Amateur titles in 1916. So were top Philadelphia player Max Marston; 1909 and 1915 Amateur champion Robert Gardner; and four-time winner Jerome Travers.
Another fan favorite was Robert T. Jones, Jr. It had been a season of “seconds” for the 17-year-old Atlanta native. Although Jones was runner-up in both the Southern Open and Canadian Open, the press noted his excellent showing against these fields of professionals and considered him a serious contender at Oakmont. Since his first appearance in a U.S. Amateur in 1916, when he advanced to the quarterfinals at Merion Cricket Club, Jones’s fame as the “Boy Wonder” had spread across the country. But he had yet to break through with a title of real acclaim.
Arriving at Oakmont, Ouimet was ill, made worse by playing in the torrential rains of the first qualifying round. Although doctors warned him otherwise, Ouimet continued on, facing off against Evans in the Round of 16 – a true battle of giants. Jones, who finished early after defeating Gardner, 5 and 4, joined the crowds to watch the former champions square off in a close match. Ouimet emerged victorious, only to fall the next day to one of Philadelphia’s finest golfers, J. Wood Platt, on the 38th hole.
With both Ouimet and Evans eliminated, headlines read: “Jones is Now Favorite.”
Despite sharing medalist honors with two others, Herron was still a dark horse in the championship. The press began to take notice when the steel-mill worker soundly defeated J.N. Sterns, 7 and 5, and walloped W.J. Thomson, of Canada, 8 and 7, to reach the semifinals. The New York Times reported, “...it must have seemed inhospitable for a home player to greet a visitor from Canada with a score like that.” Herron followed up those lopsided victories with another, 7 and 6, against Platt.
Herron’s stocky build and powerful swing made him tough competition, even when his ball found Oakmont’s heavy rough. The “unheard-of distances” he could hit his niblick were certainly noteworthy, but it was his steady putting that set him apart from the field. “The most delicate part of the game,” one writer marveled, “seems to present no difficulties to him.”
Meanwhile, Jones was matched against 1910 champion W.C. Fownes, the oldest son of Oakmont’s architect. Fownes, despite his intimate knowledge of the course, was no match for Jones and lost a 5-and-3 decision.
It was a hot, steamy August morning when Herron and Jones began the final match. Herron lost the second hole – the only time he trailed – but rallied to take a 2-up lead with an even-par 36 on the outward nine.
Coming in, Herron made a couple of mistakes, which included attempting to escape a deep bunker on the 14th hole with his niblick. He broke his club in the effort, and this opened the door for Jones to square the match by the time the players paused for lunch. Jones and Herron were still all square on the par-5 22nd hole with Jones 5 feet from the hole in three. Herron sank his much longer birdie putt, and Jones missed his. Herron controlled play from there with accurate shots and a hot putter.
The gallery of almost 10,000 was a sea of boater hats, summer dresses and suits. Most had turned out to cheer on Herron. Marshals did their best to contain the crowd, as spectating etiquette was reportedly unfamiliar to the vast majority of onlookers. On the 30th hole, as Jones raised his 2-wood to hit his second shot, an official yelled “Fore!” through his megaphone to warn distant spectators who had strayed too close to the action. Jones subsequently topped his ball into a bunker, where he failed in his recovery attempt. He eventually picked up, ceding the hole to Herron, who was now 4 up with six to play.
Jones later reflected on the incident, “I feel sure Davey would have beaten me anyway,” but added, “I wish all gallery officials realized that the megaphone is the most alarming hazard that ever appears on a golf course.”
With a win on the 31st hole and a half on the 32nd, Herron closed out Jones and was presented with the original two-handled U.S. Amateur Trophy by Frederick Wheeler, the USGA president.
Jones would not win the first of his nine national championships until the 1923 U.S. Open. For Herron, this would be his greatest victory in golf. Though he would go on to represent the USA on the second Walker Cup Team in 1923, and win the Pennsylvania Amateur in 1920 and 1929, he never challenged again on a national stage.
Only 15 years after opening, Oakmont had proved itself to be a venue worthy of hosting national championships. Praise poured in for the challenge that Fownes’ vision presented to players. The American Golfer was not alone in its commendation when it reported, “It can be said without a shadow of a doubt that there never was a championship in this country held on a course which could be regarded as an equal to Oakmont,” a sentiment that resonates 97 years later.
Victoria Student is the USGA’s historian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.