News & Opinion

Farrell stared down a legend to win ’28 Open

Just as he does every year during U.S. Open week, Bobby Farrell plans to showcase his grandfather's memorabilia at Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich, Conn. That would be the winner's gold medal, the scrapbook that his great-grandmother made and the hickory-shafted Ted Smith Model 7 putter that Johnny Farrell used to pull off one of the underappreciated victories in U.S. Open history.

Ninety years ago, “Handsome Johnny,” the pro from New York's Quaker Ridge Golf Club, sank an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole of a 36-hole playoff to beat Bobby Jones at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago and win his lone major championship. 

"It was like going against Tiger Woods in his prime," Bobby Farrell, the proud grandson, said from his shop where he is head professional of facing Jones, who won 13 majors. In 1930, Jones became the only golfer to win in a season the four tournaments that were considered the Grand Slam of his day, the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs. “No one thought anyone could beat Jones in a 36-hole playoff.”

It's ironic that beginning this year, in the event of a tie, the U.S. Golf Association, the last holdout to require an 18-hole playoff to determine a champion, instituted a two-hole aggregate playoff.

Ninety years ago – after Tommy Armour’s 1927 playoff victory – the USGA concluded that 18 holes wouldn’t suffice to identify the game's best player. Farrell and Jones played 36 holes in one day. On the back of four straight birdies to round out the opening 18 holes, Farrell signed for 70 and led Jones by three strokes. But it didn't last long. All of two holes, in fact. A steady rain began to fall in what became a back-and-forth affair. Jones was his most dangerous when his back was against the wall, and he made birdie on the final two holes in a valiant effort to catch Farrell. He faced an 8-foot birdie putt at the 36th hole of the match to win. If Farrell missed, they would have to play another 36 holes to settle it. He backed off once due to a photographer's flash. Then a bolt of lightning flashed in the sky just as Farrell buried the putt for the victory, and a 73 on the second 18. Gene Sarazen, Farrell’s best friend, and four other players carried the winner off the 18th green on their shoulders. Video of the award ceremony shows Farrell playfully removing the top off the silver trophy and peaking inside.

"Mere words will never be able to adequately describe the battle that was waged between Johnny Farrell and Bobby Jones," one local columnist wrote. 

That was the highlight-reel moment for Farrell, but his was the quintessential life lived in full. The son of Irish immigrants, Farrell took up the game in the caddie yards of Westchester County, N.Y., and learned the game at the foot of Jerry Travers, the four-time U.S. Amateur champion and winner of the 1915 U.S. Open. Farrell was a clotheshorse, tagged "Handsome Johnny" by sportswriter Grantland Rice, and a frequent winner of the tour's best-dressed award, which paid better than the $500 first-place check at the U.S. Open.

Farrell played in the first Masters, on the first three Ryder Cup tournaments, and is credited with 22 PGA Tour victories, tied with Raymond Floyd on the all-time list. In 1927, he won – depending on the source and what tournaments are considered "official wins" – six to eight tournaments in a row, a feat that stood until Byron Nelson peeled off 11 straight in 1941.

Farrell was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953. For some odd reason, he was among a group of hall members not transferred when the PGA Hall of Fame merged with the World Golf Hall of Fame, and remains on the outside looking in.

In 1934, Farrell, who had married a few years earlier, accepted a position as head professional at Baltusrol Golf Club, a post he held for 38 years. He became the Butch Harmon of his era, teaching the Duke of Windsor, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, multiple U.S. presidents and celebrated athletes such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. He also passed along a love of the game to his five children. Johnny Jr. was a top-flight amateur, and Bobby's father, Billy, was the head professional at The Stanwich Club in Greenwich for 37 years, competing in eight U.S. Opens and seven PGA Championships. In 1966, the Farrells were named Golf Family of the Year by the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Grandson Bobby, who has been the head professional at Tamarack for 16 years, remembers being assigned to watch the ball for his grandfather after his eyesight failed him in his later years.

“One of my favorite memories is walking into the kitchen at 5 o’clock in the morning and seeing my grandfather in the dark making some mock practice swings while humming the tune to the “Merry Widow Waltz,” a song he always kept his rhythm to,” Bobby Farrell said. “Later that afternoon, I met him up at the club for a bunker lesson. I can still hear him telling me to drop the club in with the rhythm, and to ‘spank the sand,’ a quote I still use when teaching my members today.” 

Bobby often wonders whether the “Merry Widow Waltz” helped his grandfather beat Jones on that fateful day in 1928. It is an accomplishment that is largely forgotten these days, though when the 2003 U.S. Open returned to Olympia Fields, the USGA honored Farrell by including his image on tickets. In 1988, Farrell died at his home after suffering a stroke at 87. What would Bobby's grandfather make of this new era of a two-hole playoff? 

"I don't think he would like it," Bobby said. "He needed all 36 holes to join the ‘I Beat Bobby Jones’ club."

And that alone was a major achievement.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:; Twitter: @adamschupak