Arnold Palmer usually gets the credit for reviving interest in the British Open. His decision to play at St. Andrews in 1960 no doubt inspired other Americans to venture across the pond. It seems a slight, though, to Bobby Jones’ memory.
Nearly 40 years before Palmer made playing in the British Open “fashionable,” Jones traveled to St. Andrews to find out what all the fuss was about. If any U.S. player started America’s love affair with links golf, then surely it was the greatest amateur to play the game.
Jones’ love affair with links golf started at St. Andrews.
“I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life,” are Jones’ immortal words.
Yet it was not love at first sight when Jones first laid eyes on the Old Course.
He played his first British Open at age 19 in 1921. Initially, he appeared to relish the different challenge of the Old Course. The Atlanta amateur led after two rounds, prompting the British media to refer to him as the “Boy Wonder.”
Jones’ love of the links turned sour by the 11th hole of the third round. He turned in 46, then made double-bogey 6 at No. 10 before hitting his tee shot into the greenside Hill Bunker at No. 11. Jones needed four shots to extract his ball from the sand, by which time he’d had enough of the Old Course. Jones did not hole out, quitting and later tearing up his card as he walked up the 12th hole.
“I have some regrets in golf,” Jones wrote in “Down the Fairway,” his autobiography. “This is the principle regret – that ever I quit in a competition. . . . I often have wished I could in some way offer a general apology for picking up my ball. It means nothing to the world of golf, but it means something to me.”
It would be five years before Jones was to make amends.
Jones turned up in Great Britain in 1926 for the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Already a two-time U.S. Open winner, Jones arrived as one of the favorites. He did not disappoint.
Royal Lytham is known for its tough five-hole finish. He entered that stretch two shots behind countryman Al Watrous and came out two ahead. The telling blow came at No. 17 when Jones pulled off one of the best plays in British Open history, finding the green with a blind shot from a shallow bunker. Jones two-putted for par, while Watrous three-putted. A small plaque marks the spot where Jones played his heroic second shot.
The victory put Jones in exalted company. Only John Ball Jr. and Harold Hilton had managed to win the game’s oldest championship as amateurs. Jones later eclipsed Hilton’s two victories by winning at St. Andrews the following year, thus atoning for his earlier misdeed, and at Royal Liverpool in 1930, the year of his historic Grand Slam.
Hilton was the preeminent amateur in British Open history until Jones came along. Hilton holds a unique position: He was the first player to win the Open Championship over 72 holes. Before 1892, competitors played 36 holes.
Hilton’s crowning moment came five years later when he won upon his home course, Royal Liverpool.
He went on to win four British Amateur titles and the 1911 U.S. Amateur.
There was a fairly long dry spell for amateurs in the British Open following Jones’ exploits. It would be another 17 years before a member of the unpaid ranks would contend for the title. Step up to the plate, Frank Stranahan.
Stranahan, from Toledo, Ohio, had won just about every top amateur championship with the exception of the U.S. Amateur, in which he finished runner-up in 1950. By that time he also had been runner-up in the British Open. Stranahan, in his first British Open, came within inches of holing his second shot to the 72nd hole of the 1947 Championship at Royal Liverpool, a stroke that would have tied him for the lead with Fred Daly. He finished second, a shot behind the Irishman, and finished second again in 1953, the year Ben Hogan won the Old Claret Jug at Carnoustie in his only British Open.
The 1995 championship at St. Andrews had the possibility of not only one amateur contending for the title, but two. That was the year of U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods and British Amateur champion Gordon Sherry. Sherry had finished fourth at the Scottish Open the week before, and he and Woods were expected to make a good run for the jug, let alone the silver medal that goes to leading amateurs.
Problem was, no one read the script to England’s Steve Webster. Webster snuck in and stole the medal from both, tying for 24th, well ahead of Sherry and Woods.
In 1997, Barclay Howard provided a heartwarming story. He had fought many personal battles with alcoholism through the years to stand on the greatest stage. Just a few months later, Howard had been diagnosed with leukemia, and he has fought an even bigger battle since.
If Howard’s story was poignant, then Justin Rose’s almost was unbelievable. The 17-year-old South African-born Englishman was the top story at Royal Birkdale in 1998. Playing in his first Open Championship, Rose thrilled everyone with a tie for fourth that included a holed wedge shot for birdie at the last.
“At the Open, the crowd likes to get behind the amateurs, the underdog, and that definitely helped me,” Rose said. “They were enthusiastic, supportive, very encouraging. And then to finish just two shots behind. It was a fairy-tale week.
“The shot to end the tournament, I was behind a bunker and I just wanted to get it over and get it close. Then, holding my hands up in the air, looking to the heavens . . . it was quite a feeling.
I know people will remember me for that.”
Rose beat Sergio Garcia for the silver medal by 10 shots. Small wonder that Rose turned professional to great fanfare and lucrative contracts immediately afterward.
“I’m a far different player now,” said Rose, who has missed the cut twice in four British Open appearances since, and failed to qualify for the 2004 and ’05 events. “My game is more solid, my techniques have improved. But the pro game is very competitive. It just hasn’t come together for me for the Open.”
No list of top amateurs in the British Open would be complete without mentioning Maurice Flitcroft.
The Englishman’s name won’t be found in any British Open record book, but for a while he was the amateur who tried harder to win the trophy than any other.
Flitcroft first came to prominence in 1976. Then a 46-year-old crane operator from Barrow-in-Furnace in northern England, Flitcroft decided he wanted to play in the Open. Only trouble was, he had taken up the game 18 months earlier, had only played nine holes and had no handicap.
Undeterred, Flitcroft sent in an entry. With no handicap, he checked the box marked professional. Flitcroft was given a tee time at Formby in British Open qualifying. The Englishman set a new British Open qualifying record of 121 strokes, and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club banned him from playing the following day.
Flitcroft turned out to be more than a one-hit wonder. He dreamed of playing in the game’s oldest championship as he practiced diligently in a field near his home. In 1978 and 1981, he applied for the championship under the pseudonym of Gene Paceki and got into regional qualifying. On both occasions, he was discovered after only a few holes and escorted from the course.
With the same determination displayed by many Open winners, Flitcroft again made qualifying in 1983 by posing as Swiss professional Gerald Hoppy. Flitcroft made it to the 10th tee that time. His 63 on the front nine gave him away.
Flitcroft’s career ended in 1990 at Ormskirk when, under the name of James Beau Jolley, he arrived at the third hole a fairly respectable 3 over par. He did not play much longer because R&A officials arrived before he could play his approach to the green.
Thus ended the career of the most persistent British Open amateur since Bobby Jones.
– Chuck Stogel contributed