This is the third in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
The present clashed with the future at the 1916 U.S. Amateur at Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia.
Charles “Chick” Evans, 26, of Chicago, who had won the U.S. Open three months earlier at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, finally claimed the Amateur after several close calls, including a runner-up showing four years earlier, by defeating defending champion Robert Gardner, 4 and 3. It was the first time that anyone had claimed the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur titles in the same year and only the second time in history that a golfer had won two of the game’s four majors in one year. In 1890, John Ball won the British Amateur and British Open.
Even while Evans was completing his historic “double,” a 5-foot-4, 165-pound Southerner from Atlanta was capturing the hearts of the public. The country was only three years removed from Francis Ouimet’s remarkable U.S. Open triumph over British stalwarts Ted Ray and Harry Vardon at The Country Club. Ouimet, then an unheralded 20-year-old amateur, brought golf into the American mainstream with his unexpected heroics at Brookline, Mass.
Now a raw and inexperienced lad was announcing his presence in the game.
Robert T. Jones Jr. was only 14 years old when he arrived at Merion for his first USGA championship. Little was expected as this was Jones’ first appearance outside of the South.
“It only required a glance … for one to be speedily convinced that the boy from Atlanta was a golfer from top to bottom,” wrote P.C. Pulver in Golfers Magazine. “There were times where with easy and almost perfectly timed stroke he would get as much distance from the tee as the big chaps who had been playing the game much longer and had twice his length.
“Everything he did was brought off without fuss or frills of any kind.”
Jones came to Merion with childhood friend Perry Adair. The two stayed downtown at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel and commuted to the course daily by train. Jones, perhaps thinking his stay wasn’t going to be long, also kept his wardrobe simple, traveling with only one pair of pants and shoes.
Jones’ inexperience was illustrated during a practice round on the West Course; the USGA held 36-hole stroke-play qualifying on one day, utilizing Merion’s two 18-hole layouts. Jones, accustomed to putting on slower bermudagrass greens, got a taste of what he termed “billiard” greens when he was a bit bold on No. 6 and watched his ball tumble off the putting surface into a creek.
The teen also had a temper, something that would affect his game for several years until he harnessed his emotions and became one of the game’s greatest champions.
His fiery spirit was on display in a first-round match against 1906 U.S. Amateur champion Eben Byers, of Pittsburgh. In fact, both golfers were easily angered by poor play. Clubs were being tossed at such an alarming rate that competitors behind them commented that it looked like a “juggling act on the stage.”
Pulver described Jones as an “unbroken colt” who seemed to find “difficulty restraining himself from doing things with undue haste.”
On the 12th hole, Byers became so enraged that he hurled a club over a hedge, then urged his caddie not to retrieve the implement.
After prevailing, 3 and 1, and being feted as a hero by the large gallery, Jones later confided that he had defeated Byers “only because he had run out of clubs.”
But that week Jones showed glimpses of the superstar he would become. His 74 on the West Course – which played nearly 500 yards shorter than the East – during qualifying was one of the championship’s best rounds. Seeing this remarkable score, a large crowd showed up for Jones’ afternoon qualifying round on the East Course, where he struggled to an 89.
Nevertheless, he easily advanced to match play, and his unbridled talent emerged against New Jersey standout Frank Dyer in the round of 16. Jones, nicknamed the “Boy Wonder” by some in the press, lost five of the first six holes, only to rally for a 4-and-2 win and a spot in the quarterfinals.
Jones’ run was eventually ended by Gardner, 5 and 3, but not before he gave the defending champion a tussle. With huge support from the gallery, Jones took a 1-up lead into the lunch break. A series of tactical mistakes would lead to his ouster, but a star was about to be born.
Merion would eventually play a major role in Jones’ legacy. He returned eight years later to claim the first of his record five U.S. Amateur titles. His fifth and final Amateur triumph would come in his magical season of 1930, as Jones completed the “Grand Slam” at Merion.
When the 22nd National Amateur began in 1916, however, the focus was on several other luminaries, and Merion itself. This would be the first USGA championship contested on the East Course, which had opened four years earlier after the club had relocated to Ardmore, Pa., from its original Haverford, Pa., location. Merion was the first U.S. club to feature 36 holes, with both the East and West courses designed by club member Hugh Wilson.
A mile separated the two drastically different layouts. The West Course was more of a traditional parkland layout, while the East Course had a links feel. And no venue in America featured holes like the East Course’s finishing trio. Holes 16 through 18, situated on a former quarry, were not only long, but extremely challenging.
As for the golfers themselves, the pre-championship favorite was Evans, whose quest to win the U.S. Amateur had been thwarted on four previous occasions, including that 1912 championship-match defeat. A semifinalist in 1910, 1911 and 1913, Evans arguably was the best player to have not claimed his National Amateur.
In late June, Evans had steadied his putting – long considered a weak spot – and earned a two-stroke victory over Jock Hutchison at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis. Even though he hadn’t played much leading into the U.S. Open, the victory gave Evans renewed confidence.
Noted sportswriter Grantland Rice believed Merion was ideal for Evans’ game. “Control of the long iron is one of the key essentials to success, and control of the long iron is one of the strongest features of Chick’s play,” wrote Rice.
Two key rivals also were not in the field. Four-time U.S. Amateur champion Jerome Travers had withdrawn due to an illness and Ouimet, who had won the Amateur a year after his Open victory, was stripped of his amateur status by the USGA in 1916 because the Association decided the Boston native was using his celebrity to benefit his sporting goods business. This ruling came during an era where caddies were considered professionals at age 16.
Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Golf Association champion Oswald Kirby, collegiate title holder Francis Blossom, Gardner, W.C. Fownes, of Pittsburgh, and Boston standout Jesse Guilford were in the field of 157, which was trimmed to 32 for match play. Fownes was the medalist and Adair, Jones’ good friend, was one of two playoff survivors, only to be ousted in the first round.
All of the matches were 36-hole contests and Evans began with a tough 3-and-1 opening-round victory over Nelson Whitney.
He hardly broke a sweat in his next two matches, dispatching local favorite W.P. Smith, 10 and 9, and John Anderson, 9 and 8. The Anderson result was a bit surprising given that Evans had needed extra holes to beat him for the French Amateur Championship in 1911, while Anderson had defeated Evans in the 1913 U.S. Amateur semifinals at Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club.
In the semis against D. Clarke Corkran, of Baltimore, Evans took a 3-up lead into the lunch break, shooting the equivalent of 78 to Corkran’s 82. From there, Evans maintained his advantage for a 3-and-2 victory.
Meanwhile, Gardner defeated Guilford, 4 and 3, in the other semifinal matching two of the game’s longest hitters. With Merion’s turf playing extremely firm and fast, it wasn’t uncommon for either golfer to uncork 300-yard drives. Even a quick afternoon thunderstorm did little to soften the conditions and the 1915 champ advanced, 4 and 3.
This set up a marquee final match between Chicago’s top two players, one that attracted an estimated 10,000 spectators to Merion. Local marshals were brought in by the USGA for gallery control, and the matchup also drew many of the game’s top amateurs, including Travers, who considered Evans the favorite.
“Chick has all the shots, especially [with] the iron,” said Travers. “He is so accurate that in many instances it leaves him little or no putting to do.”
Ideal weather greeted the finalists, and Evans shot 76 in the morning to Gardner’s 79 to grab a 3-up lead. Gardner would shoot 37 on the outward nine of the afternoon round, trimming his deficit to 1 down. But at the 30th hole, Gardner would make a critical tactical mistake after Evans’ second shot to the par 4 had landed on the side of a ditch, leaving a difficult recovery.
Instead of playing conservatively from the fairway, Gardner sliced his shot to the right toward the out of bounds. His ball caromed off the hard turf and trickled off the course. He then missed a 4-foot putt that would have halved the hole in 5s.
Gardner, who had made a similar error with the same club, a cleek, on the 210-yard, 17th hole in the morning round, went 2 down and eventually lost the match on the 33rd hole.
Evans was greeted at the finish by his mother, who had made the journey from Chicago.
He later wrote of his victory: “I had a few games with Gardner, and the fact that with one close exception, I had always beaten him … added to my confidence. Speaking as an expert, I should say that my judgment as to clubs and the general management of my game was good.”
Four years later, Evans would again win the Amateur, and he went on to play in a record 50 consecutive U.S. Amateurs. Today, the Evans Scholarship Fund supported by the Western Golf Association provides college scholarships for caddies, allowing today’s young men and women to chase future dreams.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.