Golf’s Greatest Shots 1860-1939
The final green at Prestwick was rather bumpy and Park had two putts to claim the Challenge Belt but only needed one. It meant Park beat his rival and the favorite, ‘Old’ Tom Morris, by two strokes, to become the very first Open Champion and the pair went on to dominate the early Opens.
But then along came Tom’s son, Tommy, also known as ‘Young’ Tom. The game’s first superstar won his inaugrual Open in 1868 and the following year achieved the first hole-in-one in The Open’s history. It came at Prestwick’s 166-yard 8th hole, the Station Hole where the front of the green was guarded by the Sahara bunker. But Morris cleared the sand and his ball landed on the green before rolling a further 15 feet into the hole. There was a stunned silence, since something like this had never been seen before, but then the cheers rang out and accompanied Morris as he walked the length of the hole from tee to green.
Suitably inspired, Morris won his second Open that year and made it three in a row in 1870, when he opened at the monster 578-yard 1st with a three after holing out from 200 yards with a long-spoon. With ‘Young’ Tom having won the Challenge Belt outright, there was no championship the following year; then the claret jug was put up in 1872 and Tommy won that as well.
Six years later, in 1878, Jamie Anderson won the second of three successive Open titles and claimed the championship’s second hole-in-one. It came at the penultimate hole, the 11th at Prestwick, and helped the Scot to a two-stroke win over Bob Kirk. But he was fortunate not to incur the ultimate penalty on his final tee shot. Just before Anderson hit the ball he was informed by his marker that he was outside the teeing ground. If Anderson had proceeded with the stroke from there he would have been disqualified!
Around the turn of the century, it was the Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid who dominated the game with 16 Open titles between them. At Muirfield in 1901, Braid hit his approach at the last hole from 200 yards. Such was the force with which Braid swung, the shaft of the club splintered and the head flew towards the clubhouse. But it was also such a well-struck shot that the ball continued on its way unaffected and landed on the green. Braid thus beat Vardon by three shots, not bad after he had started the championship by hooking his opening drive over a stone wall and out of bounds.
Vardon claimed the fifth of his six Open victories in 1911 at Royal St. George’s when he faced Arnaud Massy in a playoff. Vardon was not only 30 yards longer than Massy off the tee, he was also the straightest hitter of his time. Vardon was always in control of the 36-hole playoff. He came to the 17th of the second round well ahead and even though Massy hit his approach to 12 feet, Vardon hit his inside the Frenchman—not for the first time. This was the last straw for Massy, the 1907 champion, who conceded and walked back to the clubhouse muttering: “I cannot play this damn game.”
Two years later, Vardon was due to face his compatriot from Jersey, Ted Ray, in a playoff for the U.S. Open. But a 20-year-old amateur who lived across the road from The Country Club at Brookline, MA, was still battling away on the course. Francis Ouimet needed a birdie at one of the last two holes to tie and at the 17th gave himself a 15-footer for a three. It was no simple putt, downhill and breaking sharply but Ouimet hit it firmly.
The ball banged into the back of the hole, jumped up and dropped in. The green was packed with spectators and a huge roar went up. The following day an unlikely fairy tale was completed when the youngster defeated the two mighty British professionals in the playoff. Ouimet scored a 72 to a 77 by Vardon and a 78 by Ray. It was the moment that American golf came of age and as well as entering the folklore of the game, Ouimet’s putt at the 71st hole remains a strong contender as the most significant in the whole history of the game.
Walter Hagen became America’s first great professional and despite his image as a flamboyant showman, there was no doubting his golfing skill or courage. At the 1919 U.S. Open at Brae Burn Country Club, West Newton, MA, Hagen made up five strokes in the final round but needed a birdie at the last to win. The hole on the 18th green was cut on the top tier but a low stone wall marked the out-of-bounds just past the green. This was no time for caution. Hagen blasted a long-iron to 8 feet and refused to hit his putt until his closest rival, Mike Brady, came out of the clubhouse to watch. Hagen missed the putt but victory was merely delayed as he won the playoff the next day.
Bobby Jones was the amateur who eclipsed Hagen and Gene Sarazen as the greatest player of the 1920s. He was the consummate golfer, a genuine hero who hit many of golf’s famous shots. But he was a little hot-headed in his early days and his first Major title, the U.S. Open in 1923 at Inwood Country Club, NY, was when that image was dispelled. The playoff with Bobby Cruickshank was level as the match came up the 18th but Jones needed to hit his second shot from a bare lie from 195 yards over a pond in front of the green. He hit it to 6 feet and won by two strokes having proved he could hit the decisive shot when it mattered.
Three years later, Jones was in a battle with Al Watrous for the [British] Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Jones had trailed for most of the final round before catching his compatriot with just two holes to play. But while Watrous made it onto the green safely in two at the 17th, Jones pulled his drive into a scrubby, sandy area inside the dogleg of the fairway. The second shot was blind as he had to go over some dunes as well as clearing rough and bunkers. Jones hit his mashie iron perfectly and his ball finished inside Watrous, who was so shocked he promptly three-putted.
Jones retired from competitive golf after winning the Grand Slam in 1930—the U.S. and British Opens and Amateur Championships—and then devoted his time to creating Augusta National Golf Club. In 1934, Jones instituted an invitational tournament for his friends which became known as the Masters. But it might not have taken off so quickly without the “shot heard around the world” a year later. Hearing a roar from the 18th green, Sarazen soon realized he was three behind as he stood over his second shot at the par-5 15th hole. Hagen, his playing partner, said: “Well, that’s it then.” But Sarazen was not so pessimistic.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied, “they could go in from anywhere.” Taking a 4-iron from 232 yards down the hill and over the pond, Sarazen “hit it pure”. His ball landed just short of the green and rolled into the hole for an albatross, or double-eagle. Sarazen was now tied for the lead and eventually beat Craig Wood in a playoff.
Finally, a word for Byron Nelson, one of the purest ball-strikers the game has ever seen. At the 1939 U.S. Open over the Spring Mill course at Philadelphia Country Club, Nelson hit the flagstick six times in 72 holes, each time with a different club: wedge, 9-iron, 6-iron, 4-iron, 1-iron and driver. He ended up in a playoff with Wood and Denny Shute, with Shute falling out after the first round. Nelson faced Wood over another 18 holes and at the 453-yard 4th he holed out with a one-iron for an eagle-two on his way to the title. When the USGA developed a machine to test equipment, they had every reason to call it “Iron Byron.”
Andy Farrell is author of The 100 Greatest Ever Golfers.