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The 12-foot putt that changed the course of golf history

Bobby Jones putt to tie for lead 72nd hole 1929 U.S. Open at Winged Foot
Bobby Jones sinks the 12-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the 1929 U.S. Open at Winged Foot that would lead him to remain a competitive golfer for another year and ultimately achieve one of the game’s greatest feats, winning the 1930 Grand Slam.

Legendary Bobby Jones faced a slippery 12-footer on the 72nd hole of the 1929 U.S. Open at Winged Foot to force a playoff. Had he missed it and not won the Open, he likely would have retired, and the 1930 Grand Slam would not have happened. Will Winged Foot produce similar drama later this month when the Open returns?

Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which will host its sixth U.S. Open this month, is known for exciting Open finishes. Think Fuzzy Zoeller outdueling Greg Norman in 1984 in an 18-hole playoff, or Phil Mickelson losing the 2006 edition with a dreadful sliced tee ball into the concession stands at the final hole, handing the title to Geoff Ogilvy.

The first Open at Winged Foot, in 1929, set the standard for the venerable club just north of New York City, providing excitement with a tense moment at the 72nd hole, where the favorite, amateur Bobby Jones, needed a downhill, sidehill 12-foot putt to get into a playoff for the title.

That stroke would prove to be perhaps the most pivotal of the legendary Jones’ career and opened the door to one of the game’s greatest achievements: the 1930 Grand Slam.

Entering the 1929 U.S. Open, the 27-year-old Jones was considered to be the best player in the country, amateur or professional. He had won the U.S. Open in 1923 and 1926, and had finished second four times, most recently in 1928, by one stroke to Johnny Farrell in a 36-hole playoff. Jones won back-to-back British Open titles, in 1926 and 1927. He won the U.S. Amateur in 1924 and 1925, finished second in 1926 and then won again in 1927 and 1928.

In short, he was the man to beat in national championships, whether at medal or match play. One observer described major golf tournaments of the era as “invitationals,” that is, everyone was invited to try to beat Bobby Jones.

Throughout his playing career, Jones concentrated on national championships and the Walker Cup and played in few other tournaments. When he arrived at Winged Foot for the 1929 Open, Jones had played only eight rounds of weekend golf since his victory in the previous September at the U.S. Amateur.

By 1929, Jones was married, had two children and was practicing law in his native Atlanta to earn a living and support his family. He had priorities, in this order: his family, his law practice and then golf.

Winged Foot features two 18-hole courses, the East and the West, both designed by A.W. Tillinghast. The East Course was selected for the 1929 Open. However, due to severe storm damage to the course, the West was used for the championship. The course was set up at 6,786 yards, a stern test for the equipment of the day. Jones was playing with hickory-shafted clubs, as were many in the field, but steel shafts also were in use, having been approved by the USGA in 1924.

Jones started the first round as if he had lost his game, with two double bogeys over the first three holes, but then found his swing. He played the next 15 holes in 6 under par, returning a score of 69, to lead the field. In the second round, Jones shot a lackluster 3-over 75, but still was very much in contention.

As was the standard format for the Open at the time, the third and fourth rounds were played on Saturday, providing a test of mental and physical stamina. Competitors were expected to play quickly. Jones had a starting time in the morning at 9:50 and in the afternoon at 1:50, which meant that he had to finish 18 holes and allow time for lunch before the afternoon round.

After 36 holes, Jones found himself at even par, two strokes behind Gene Sarazen and Al Espinosa, tied with Denny Shute in third place. On Saturday morning, Jones shot a solid 1-under 71 and, at 215, held the lead, ahead of Sarazen (218), Espinosa (219), Shute (220) and Tommy Armour (221).

In the fourth round, on Saturday afternoon, Jones was on his game through the first seven holes and then came a cropper at No. 8. After a poor drive, he dumped his second shot into a greenside bunker. He hit from the bunker into a bunker on the other side of the green and then, incredibly, hit back into the first bunker. He finally reached the green in 5 and two-putted for a triple-bogey 7.

Although shaken, Jones pulled himself together and got a stroke back at the ninth. Standing on the 15th tee, Jones held a four-stroke lead, and he appeared to have the title in hand. But Jones hit a poor tee shot into the woods, had to play out safely, then hit his third shot over the green. A mediocre chip back to the green didn’t hold on the putting surface. He chipped back and two-putted for another disastrous 7, giving up three strokes of his four-stroke lead.

On the par-5 16th, Jones three-putted for a bogey, missing a 20-incher. Now, he faced the last two holes of the round needing two pars to tie Espinosa, who played two groups ahead and was in the clubhouse at 294.

Jones parred the 17th and hit a good drive on 18, but his second shot to the green rolled down a grassy slope near a bunker. He faced a tricky shot. Jones took his niblick and pitched the ball so that it would roll downhill toward the cup. It didn’t roll as far as he anticipated, stopping 12 feet short of the cup.

Bobby Jones and Al Espinosa at 1929 U.S. Open at Winged Foot
Bobby Jones (left) and Al Espinosa, at Winged Foot Golf Club during the 1929 U.S. Open

This tricky putt would give Jones a 79 for his round and a tie with Espinosa. A miss would be an 80, his highest single-round score ever in a U.S. Open, and an inglorious finish to his blazing 69 to start the tournament just two days earlier. And Jones would have thrown away what appeared to be a certain victory only four holes earlier.

For putting, Jones professed that a golfer should “forget about the precise alignment of his putter and learn to adjust his touch so that he may always keep his ball above the hole and always reach the hole with a dying putt. A ball dying on a slope above the hole often topples in, and always stops close; nothing is more disheartening than to watch a ball nearly miss the lower side of the hole and then curl down the slope some 5 or 6 feet. And remember, even on the short putts, that the hole is of full size for the touch putter, while it presents only an inch or so to the charger who has to hit the exact center of the cup.”

The 12-foot putt that Jones faced on the 72nd hole was downhill on a fast green, with a left-to-right break. Jones took a few extra seconds to look over the putt. The gallery had swelled to 7,000, some standing back as far as the knoll in the 18th fairway to get a good view of the green.

Jones decided on his line and aimed 1½ feet above the cup. He stroked the ball amid dead silence from the huge crowd. The ball slowly rolled down the slope and seemed to hesitate at the edge of the cup. The gallery let out a collective gasp. Then, after seeming to hang on the lip, the ball fell into the cup. Thunderous cheering and applause followed. Jones had done it. He had tied Espinosa.

It wasn’t widely known that Jones had for some time been thinking of retirement from tournament golf. He had his growing family to consider, and while Jones outwardly epitomized the calm player on the course, he was stressed by tournament play on the national and international levels. It required physical stamina and a focused mindset over several days of competition. Major tournaments were grueling, and so much was expected of Jones whenever he entered an event. He frequently couldn’t eat during a tournament and routinely would drop 15 or more pounds from his 5-foot-8-inch, 165-pound frame.

But the golf writer for the Atlanta Journal, O.B. Keeler, knew that Jones had retirement in the back of his mind. Keeler was very close to Jones and the only individual, including the Jones family, who saw Jones win all of his major championships. Though a journalist, Keeler was a supporter and confidant of Jones.

Keeler wrote of the 12-foot putt, “[I]t was that or nothing…. He would have blown a lead of six strokes, and one more, in the last six holes. I knew in a sort of bewildering flash that if that putt stayed out, it would remain a spreading and fatal blot, never to be wiped from his record…. I will always believe that the remainder of Bobby’s career hung on that putt and that from this stemmed the Grand Slam of 1930.”

The next day, Jones started the 36-hole playoff with two bogeys on the first three holes, losing two strokes to Espinosa. Jones got back on track and proceeded to post an even-par 72 in the first round. Espinosa, who had played well for the first 72 holes, fell apart with an embarrassing 84. In the afternoon, Jones was on his game with a 69, matching his first-round score, while Espinosa could manage only an 80. It was a rout, with Jones winning by 23 strokes.

Jones was back, and his confidence returned with his third U.S. Open victory. Jones had been considering retirement from competitive golf, but 1930 was a Walker Cup year, and the match against Great Britain and Ireland was to be played at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England. Jones was to be the playing captain of the U.S. side. This trip would allow Jones to compete in the British Amateur and the British Open, setting up Jones’ quiet plan to win both British championships and the U.S. Amateur and Open in the same year and then retire with no worlds left to conquer.

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