America's Toughest Course (Part III)

By Steven Schlossman
November 8, 2010

This is the third part of a three-part series that examines Oakmont Country Club and its founding fathers' efforts to build what is now the quintessential test of golf.  The article originally appeared in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society magazine and has been reprinted with permission.
Oakmont's 15th hole today. (USGA Museum)

As the 1919 U.S. Amateur got underway, most fans believed that the four champions who had won eight of the last 10 Amateur titles would survive until the semifinal rounds: “Chick” Evans, Jerry Travers, Robert Gardner, and Francis Ouimet. The other contestant who received considerable press attention was the schoolboy Bob Jones, who had shocked the golfing world three years earlier at Merion by reaching the semifinals of the Amateur at age 14. 

Entirely forgotten in the pre-tournament hype was S. Davidson Herron, the son of a club member who, three years earlier as a Princetonian during the Intercollegiate, had demonstrated a special knack for playing Oakmont well by winning the stroke-play qualifying round. Impressively, Herron also won the medal qualifying round during the 1919 Amateur,  but commentators still tended to ignore his game and instead lampooned his considerable heft, one stating that “after hitting the ball a 200-pound crack every time…he still has enough left to ballast an ocean-going blimp.”  No one considered Herron a contender for the Amateur crown.   

Related Links 

America's Toughest Course (Part I) 

America's Toughest Course (Part II) 

 During the first several rounds of match play, even though (while drubbing several no-name opponents) he consistently shot closer to par than anyone in the field, Herron’s mastery of Oakmont continued to be ignored by the press.  The banner headlines went to Ouimet, who ignored his doctor’s pleas and continued to play despite appearing on the verge of physical collapse,  and to Jones, who was not scoring well but was intimidating opponents by hitting drives “far and straight, with no apparent effort at all.” 

But journalists’ perceptions changed by the time of the semifinals, as Herron soundly defeated the prominent Philadelphian, J. Wood Platt, by shooting par 37 on the front nine in the afternoon. As they finally acknowledged, Herron was “turning in the best cards of the week in winning his matches” and getting “terrific distances from the tee” too. All things considered, concluded a reporter for the Pittsburgh Press, “Herron has the advantage [over Jones, who defeated W.C. Fownes, Jr. in his semifinals match] of playing over his home course and is being strongly favored now because of his steady, consistent playing throughout the tournament.” 

As odd as this judgment may seem today, only a seer in 1919 who knew that Jones would emerge several years later as one of the greatest golfers in history would have predicted differently. Had Herron lost to 17-year-old Jones, now that would have been an upset. 

In fact, Herron did defeat Jones decisively to win the 1919 U.S. Amateur by a score of 5 and 4 (i.e., he won five holes more than Jones with only four holes left to play). But Herron’s victory has been cheapened in the historical record by assertions at the time and ever since that he won unfairly because of the infamous “megaphone incident.” Briefly, the claim is that Jones lost the 12th hole of the afternoon round, and ultimately lost the match, only because of a very poor shot that he hit following a sudden burst of sound when a marshal standing close to him shouted for a distant spectator at the green to stand still. 

Is the claim fair? Would Jones clearly have defeated Herron if the megaphone incident had not occurred, and if he had won rather than lost the 12th hole? Obviously, no one can say definitively, but the best answer, I believe, is no.   

First, Herron was already 3 up on Jones after the 11th hole. Second, to the surprise of many, Herron was proving at least the equal of Jones off the tee in driving the ball far and straight in the fairways. Third, despite several spirited comeback attempts by Jones to overcome a slow start, Herron had fought off each one; in fact, after Jones’ most recent comeback effort, Herron had expanded his lead.  And fourth, Herron putted spectacularly throughout the championship, perhaps as only a player with intimate knowledge of Oakmont’s greens could do. He canned several par and bogey saves from distances as long as 25 feet. Jones was undeniably the greatest putter in the game, but at Oakmont Herron was equally good.  

Moreover, I would contend, there was a fifth factor, no less key in shaping the final outcome: Herron’s hometown advantage. Just as when he had competed successfully at the Intercollegiate in 1916, Herron played in 1919 before family, friends, and (to the surprise of some who did not realize how popular a sport golf was becoming) a corps of loud and chauvinistic Pittsburgh fans. Chubby and cherubic, sweating profusely, and possessing a hard, slashing swing that average golfers could identify with, Davey Herron became a very popular local hero the week of the U.S. Amateur. Herron’s survival into the final match against the renowned youngster Jones attracted a motley crew of Pittsburghers who didn’t know much about golf, but defiantly wanted to see the local kid win.  

Throughout the week, the galleries at Oakmont were much larger than the USGA had anticipated. The crowds were also younger and more socially diverse, reflecting Pittsburgh’s remarkable ethnic heterogeneity and the game’s growing democratization during and after World War I. These fans were not well acquainted with the game’s rules of etiquette, especially the need for strict quiet and stillness before each player hit his shot. The crowds throughout the week were highly undisciplined; not until several years later were ropes used at the Amateur to contain their movements. They stampeded en masse across the fairways, through the bunkers, and even across the greens in order to get into perfect position to watch upcoming shots.   

The galleries for the Jones-Herron match were larger than ever before at a U.S. Amateur, several thousand strong. And their partisanship was vociferous; they cheered without mercy for one of their own against the much-lauded Southern teen. “About the only rooters in the gallery for the southern chap were his father and Stewart Maiden, the pro who taught the youngster how to play golf,” observed a sympathetic local reporter. The galleries ran ahead and completely surrounded the greens following the players’ approach shots, often making it difficult for them to walk onto the greens. As a New York writer recounted, “After meeting an impenetrable human wall around one of the greens, Bob Jones had to call out ‘Excuse me, please, I’d like to do a little putting on that green.’” 

On a terrifically hot day, with Herron “bathed in perspiration from start to finish,” the gallery ran wildly after each of Herron’s shots and fought for position to see his next one. “ ‘Get back there; get back there,’” roared an excited official through a megaphone. “ ‘Davie’s in the rough, and we want to give him every chance for the hole.’ ” To which one of the rare Jones supporters responded, “ ‘While you’re about it, give Jones a chance, too.’ ”  

In a deep breach of golf etiquette, the Pittsburgh fans also applauded loudly when Jones hit poor shots and missed putts. As Herron marched toward victory on the afternoon back nine, the gallery did all it collectively could to rub salt into Jones’s wounds. “Some of the younger and irrepressible element thought it was ‘de rigueur’ to giverousing cheers when young Robbie, 4 down and only six to play, pitched from one trap into another at the 13th green” to go five holes down with five to play. 

Herron’s hometown advantage at Oakmont, in short, was quite real. He played the recently toughened Fownes/Loeffler course better than anyone all week, and in the final match against Jones, Pittsburghers did their part to ensure that the local guy won. While Herron’s triumph is rightly viewed as one of the most unexpected victories in American championship golf, the “megaphone incident,” in perspective, seems little more than incidental to understanding who won and why.  

Oakmont’s Second Major Championship: The 1922 PGA Championship 

Oakmont itself, not Davey Herron’s victory, was the memory that stuck most in the minds of America’s golfing elite following the 1919 U.S. Amateur. “Never in the history of golf in this country had the championship been played on a course in such fine shape,”  the USGA wrote to Loeffler in grateful appreciation. Apart from completing their retooling of the greens, W.C. and Loeffler had no compelling incentive to further toughen a course that, in everyone’s judgment, already set a new standard of penality. When Oakmont agreed to host its second major championship, the 1922 PGA, W.C. and Loeffler only felt it necessary to add a few grass and “furrowed” sand bunkers. Otherwise, the course that the pros played in 1922 remained largely as it was in 1919.  

As the PGA got underway, the golf journalists again saluted the design and conditioning of Oakmont, and effusively praised W.C. and Loeffler. “Primed to the smallest blade of grass, combed and curried until it is without a flaw, the course…is the nearest thing to golf course perfection that the trained hands of some two score workmen can make it,” observed the Pittsburgh Post. “Behind its perfection is the master mind of Fownes and the master hand of Loeffler. These two have made the course and kept it, and the professional golfer who carries away the prize that is emblematic of the championship can well say he has won it over a course that is second to none in the whole world.”  In a widely repeated turn of phrase, Oakmont was proclaimed a “golfer’s paradise and a duffer’s hell.” 

As opening day approached, the most widely expressed concern was that lack of rain had baked Oakmont’s fairways, thereby enabling professionals to hit unusually long tee shots and considerably shorten most holes. Drives longer than 300 yards were commonplace; even the 601-yard 12th hole was reachable for the longer hitters (although few actually did so). And with Loeffler nervously watering the greens periodically to keep them from ruin, the pros took advantage of both the hard fairways and the inviting greens to make a mockery of Oakmont’s heralded toughness.  

Much to W.C.’s and Loeffler’s horror, the pros regularly shot under par during their matches – oftentimes several shots under par. Twenty-year-old Gene Sarazen led the pack, shaving five, six, even seven shots off par as he defeated opponents.  

During the quarterfinals, after a poor start, Sarazen played 27 holes in eight under par before downing Jock Hutchison in a thriller with a birdie on the 35thhole. When Oakmont played short, it could easily be had by the world’s best professional golfers. 

Sarazen continued to demolish par during his semifinal match against Bobby Cruickshank, shooting a record-setting 32 on the front nine, including an eagle 3 on the ninth hole following a huge, rolling tee shot of 325 yards. Cruickshank shot one under par on the front side, yet found himself 4 down.  

The next day, Sarazen and Emmet French played for the championship. Both showed signs of fatigue under the burning sun, and neither played as well as he had previously. Ultimately, it was Sarazen’s greater familiarity with the greens that gave him the victory, as he had 13 one-putts and only one three-putt before closing out French, 4 and 3.  

The way the professionals tore up Oakmont during the 1922 PGA was a stern lesson that both W.C. and Loeffler took to heart. As they saw it, recent technological improvements in clubs and balls, plus rising skill levels and rapid expansion in the corps of professional players, required a serious toughening of the Oakmont layout if the course were to retain its recently earned international stature. When the next major championship came to Oakmont, there was no doubt in their minds that major changes would have to be made in order to reinstate Oakmont’s “par” as an indisputable standard of excellence. As the pros left town, one could almost hear W.C. Fownes, Jr. and Emil Loeffler say, “Never again.” 

Steven Schlossman is professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University (where among other things he teaches the history of golf), and is the author (with Adam Lazarus) of Chasing Greatness: Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, and the Miracle at Oakmont (Penguin/New American Library, 2010). His favorite three golf courses are Oakmont, Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach.    

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