From the Golf Journal Archives - Bob Jones' First Retirement

Oct 07, 2011

What really happened at the 1921 British Open? It’s hard to say.

By Howard Rabinowitz

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)

ON JUNE 25, 1921, during the third round of the British Open at St Andrews, Bobby Jones picked up his ball on the 11th green and “retired” from the championship. As Jones fans and history buffs know, this was a transcendent moment in his golfing career. Jones himself described it 40 years later as “the most inglorious failure of my golfing life.”

Although Bob injured a woman with a thrown club shortly thereafter at the U.S. Amateur and received a severe reprimand from the USGA, his bout of immaturity at the British Open has rightly been credited as helping him to get his juvenile tantrums under control and prepare the way for his remarkable string of 13 national championships between 1923 and 1930. Indeed, no account of Jones’ life is complete without prominent reference to the incident and its allegedly transforming effect.

These accounts contain serious discrepancies regarding what actually happened during that infamous third round. Everyone agrees that Jones was in contention when he teed off on an extremely windy morning, only to encounter a disastrous front nine, take double-bogey 6 at the 10th, and finally pick up at the par-3 11th when facing another 6 or worse. But there agreement ends. Questions remain as to what Jones actually shot on the front nine, and the circumstances and aftermath of his decision to withdraw.

First, the matter of Jones’ score on the first nine.

At first glance there seems to be no problem. After all, in his autobiography, Down The Fairway, Jones says he shot a 46. This is the figure used by Dick Miller in Triumphant Journey, the only full-length Jones biography, and by Herbert Warren Wind, Charles Price, and almost everyone else who has retold the story. Indeed, in Golf Is My Game, Jones remembers his famous speech on the occasion of receiving the Freedom of the Borough of St. Andrews on October 9, 1958, as containing the remark that he had battled the wind “as best I could to the turn in 46.”

But if he did shoot 46 (to say nothing of the 49 claimed by Gerald Astor in The PGA World Golf Hall of Fame Book, one wonders why the most contemporaneous source, The Times (of London), June 25,1921, reported that “Mr. Bobby Jones had one of his bad days. He began by topping his tee shot and took 6. Two 5s followed and nothing would go right. He was out in 43.” Perhaps The Times was in error.

One other source provides support for The Times. In the full version of Jones’ 1958 St. Andrews speech reprinted by The Classics of Golf, Jones is quoted as saying, “I reached the turn in 43.” Why the confusion?

What happened at the 11th hole is even more difficult to sort out. Numerous conflicting versions exist, with few commentators seemingly conscious of the discrepancies or concerned about pinning down the details.

First there is the question of Jones’ performance on the hole.

According to Down The Fairway, Jones picked up on the green “when I had a short putt left for a horrid 6.” In the recapitulation of his 1958 St. Andrews speech in Golf Is My Game, however, which in this case generally matches the Library of Golf Classics version, Jones remembers that he “put my tee shot into the Hill Bunker … Here, I wanted to correct a bit of their history recited in a guidebook I read. I had not played two shots in the bunker and then knocked my ball over the green into the Eden River. My ball had come out of the bunker only in my pocket …”

Perhaps Jones was playing with the crowd, for only one other account even suggests that he failed to get out of the bunker. But exactly what did happen still remains a mystery. According to The Times, Jones got into “shell bunker” and “after a protracted and painful experience there, tore up his card and expressed a preference for cricket.” The New York Times was even more vague, saying simply that Jones “retired at the 11th, where he tore up his card.” But as sportswriter Al Laney remembered it in his 1972 Golf Digest eulogy to his close friend, “After taking five strokes and not finding the cup on the 11th, he picked up his ball.” In the standard history of the game, The Story of American Golf, Herbert Warren Wind says in similar fashion that he picked up “when he had played five strokes... and was still not in the cup.” Yet, according to Pat Ward Thomas in the authoritative World Atlas of Golf, Jones tore up his card “after taking six on the short 11th.” Dick Miller claims that “Jones took five shots to reach the green,” but Robert Sommers in The U.S. Open: Golf’s Ultimate Challenge pictures Jones as “seething because he had left a putt short and was about to make another 6.”

So, did Jones get out of the bunker? If so, how many strokes did it take him? And had he taken any putts before picking up? The answer is that we don’t know.

If the facts surrounding the immediate circumstances of Jones’ “retirement” have eluded the experts, hyperbole about what happened afterward has not. As we’ve seen, a number of sources have Jones tearing up his card. A number of others agree, perhaps striving for effect.

In A Century of Opens, for example, Geoffrey Cousins and Tom Scott wrote of a “bewildered, rather young man” who “now stood on the 11th green, gazing moodily out onto the Eden estuary, with the torn fragments of the card in his hand.” According to Dick Miller, Jones “pocketed his ball and tore up his scorecard.” In a 1992 Golf Illustrated article, Mark Joseph Passov, who also believes Jones took five shots to find the green, says Jones “shredded his scorecard.” Jones, however, resented such depictions, and sought to set the record straight. As early as Down The Fairway, after referring to “tearing up my card,” he quickly added, “That is a figurative term, by the way.”

What happened then? In Golf Between the Wars, Bernard Darwin attempted to put to rest one of the rumors. “Legend declares,” wrote the dean of English golf writers, “that he relieved his feelings by teeing ... up [the ball] and driving it far out into the Eden. If he did, it was a gesture deserving of sympathy and if he did not, I am very sure he wanted to.” And whether or not Jones was still playing with the crowd or perhaps telling us what really happened during his St. Andrews speech, he noted that rather than his ball, “It was my scorecard that found its way into the river.”

But it is with regard to Jones’ subsequent action that most writers clearly miss the mark. Having picked up after shooting 43 or 46 on the front nine, taken anywhere from three to five strokes to reach the green (or perhaps not reach it at all), holed out or not holed out, and done something with or to his card and ball, Jones, according to Charles Price in The PGA World Golf Hall of Fame Book, “picked up and left.” Al Laney was more colorful in his 1972 Golf Digest article, noting that “to the horror of the gallery, [Jones] stalked off the course.”

But this time we do know what actually happened.

In fact, as reported in The New York Times, Jones did not leave the course. As Jones pointed out as early as Down The Fairway, and then repeated throughout his life, he played out the round and then shot “a very good 72 in the fourth round, which would have put me in a decent position had I kept on in the competition.”

Why should we care about all this? Well, obviously, if we take the time to write and read golf history, we should want to get it right. The history of the game we all love deserves no less.

Jones’ bunker play was a wonder. The caption records that he holed this shot – and before the days of the sand wedge, too. (USGA Museum)

The 18th green at the Old Course at St. Andrews was the scene for many triumphs, but Bob Jones never made it that far during the third round of the 1921 British Open. (USGA Museum)

The people of St. Andrews idolized Bob Jones. Galleries in the tens of thousands followed him whenever he played the Old Course. (USGA Museum)