Museum Moment: Jimmy Johnston’s Spade Mashie

Mar 18, 2010

By Rand Jerris

Displayed in a shallow case in the Golden Age gallery of the USGA Museum is a rather humble club that was used to play one of the most remarkable shots in USGA championship history. The club itself was quite common for its day – a Spalding Kro-Flite spade mashie (the equivalent of a modern 7-iron) manufactured in the late 1920s that may be counted among the best-selling clubs of the decade. But the shot that Harrison R. “Jimmy” Johnston played in the match-play final of the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach was truly one of the most heroic and most daring shots attempted in the championship’s history, even if it is remembered today only by the most voracious of golf historians.

Arriving at Pebble Beach’s par-5 18th hole, Johnston stood one hole down after 17 holes of the 36-hole final to Dr. Oscar F. Willing, an Oregon dentist. The famed 18th skirts Monterey Bay its entire length from tee to green. Any pulled or hooked shot spells certain disaster. And at that moment, Jimmy Johnston hit such a shot. After finding the fairway off the tee, Johnston hooked his second shot over the cliff. “After playing a provisional shot just short of the green,” Johnston recalled, “my caddie came running through the gallery and said he thought I might play my original second shot, if I hurried. I found my ball resting securely among the small pebbles below the seawall. When I took my stance to play the shot, a wave swished up behind me and buried my feet six inches in the water. But when the wave receded, the ball was still there!” Johnston then executed a remarkable shot, playing a spade mashie from the beach to the edge of the green to secure a valuable half. Johnston remained just one down to Dr. Willing at the conclusion of the morning play, then rallied in the afternoon round to secure a 4-and-3 victory at the 15th hole.

Born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minn., Johnston was a man with broad interests and talents. Ever the consummate gentleman, Johnston excelled at baseball, swimming, diving, skiing, hockey, and tennis, yet was also an accomplished painter and piano player. The son of a renowned Minnesota architect, Johnston attended St. Paul’s Academy and the Hotchkiss School, but passed up college to serve on the front lines during World War I. Following the war, Johnston returned to Minnesota, renewed his passion for golf, and in 1921 won the first of seven consecutive Minnesota Amateur titles.

In 1924, Johnston claimed the Western Amateur at the Hinsdale Golf Club in Illinois, recording a string of birdies on the last five holes to recover from a four-hole deficit. In 1927, when he captured the last of his Minnesota Amateur titles, he also won the Minnesota Open, becoming the first player to win both championships in a single year. That same year, he led the U.S. Open at Oakmont after two rounds of play, and finished tied for 19th. And in 1930, he advanced to the quarterfinals of the British Amateur, where he was defeated by his good friend Bob Jones.

However, it was Johnston’s immensely popular victory in 1929 that defines his legacy. “Jimmy Johnston, next to Robert Tyre Jones, probably will be the most popular champion in the history of American golf,” wrote Virginia Stafford of Amateur Golfer and Sportsman. “Far above the importance of winning championships he has placed the value of sportsmanship and an appreciation of the best traditions of the game.”

Even the defending champion professed his admiration. “There has never been in golf a finer sportsman or a more loveable chap than the new champion,” wrote Bob Jones in American Golfer. “Throughout the week he displayed a command of his shots and a courageous spirit which entirely deserved the honor which he eventually won.”

Back home in St. Paul, Johnston received a ticker-tape parade from thousands of adoring fans.

Rand Jerris is the managing director of USGA communications and the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History. Contact him at with comments.

Harrison (Jimmy) R. Johnston during the 1929 U.S. Amateur Championship, which he won at Del Monte Golf & Country Club (Pebble Beach Golf Links) in Pebble Beach, Calif. (Copyright unknown/Courtesy of USGA Museum)

Jimmy Johnston's Spalding Kro-Flite Spade Mashie as seen on Wednesday, March 17, 2010, at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. (USGA Museum)

Jimmy Johnston's Spalding Kro-Flite Spade Mashie as seen on Wednesday, March 17, 2010, at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. (USGA Museum)