Bill Borrows: Ironing Out the Woods
So there’s Bob Drum, and ‘The King’, it’s the early hours of the morning in the early years of the 1960’s, about the same time that sexual intercourse began for the poet Philip Larkin (“Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”) and drink has been taken. A lot of drink has been taken, actually, and naturally the conversation gravitates towards sport.
Drum, the golfing journalist and former volunteer ‘Battle of Britain’ pilot, and his friend Arnold Palmer, unarguably one of the greatest players in the history of the game, are talking about Bobby Jones and his fabled ‘Grand Slam’ in the summer of 1930. A feat that has never been replicated by that point and, even now, in its modern incarnation, is never likely to be.
In those few glorious months, Jones, a man who primarily earned his living as a lawyer, won The (British) Amateur Championship (to use the correct nomenclature) and The Open Championship before sailing back to America from Southampton to claim The US Open Championship in Minnesota and bag the United States Men’s Amateur Golf Championship for good measure.
The discussion between Drum and Palmer, well-lubricated as it was, moved on to what might constitute the modern definition of a ‘Grand Slam’. As the next vodkatini arrived, it was agreed that the Open Championships on both sides of the Atlantic were a done deal – Palmer, having won the US Open in 1960, had recently taken back-to-back (British) Open titles in 1961 and 1962. The next issue concerned what might be able to replace the amateur events?
The Masters, with a nod to Jones who helped found the Augusta National Golf Club in the city of his birth in the early 1930s, was the next to go on the back of the cocktail menu. A couple of hours and several drinks later, or so the story goes, it was joined by the US PGA Championship. These, unofficially then, became and remain ‘The Majors.’ Winning them all constitutes a ‘Grand Slam.’
Beyond any sporting significance, the Masters in April (and those acres of untouchable lush verdant grass, the holes named after shrubs and trees) signals the arrival of the summer and late nights lapsing into early mornings following one of the all time great television sports in front of a huge HD screen and ice clinking against the side of your glass.
Sweet memories of Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer slipping on the famous green jacket, homework still undone, languishing in the bottom of your school bag somewhere. Of course, it also means the Majors are here.
Five players have won all the modern Majors at some point in the career – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan (who may have emulated Jones but was unable to enter the 1953 PGA Championship as the dates overlapped with the British Open at Carnoustie – which he won), Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and, of course, Tiger Woods.
Tiger Woods, predictably enough, has come closest to the modern Grand Slam and, having won all four titles consecutively from the 2000 US Open through to the 2001 Masters and was only denied the chance to emulate Bobby Jones by the simple fact that whilst being in possession of all four titles he had not won them in the same calendar year. The so-called – somehow slightly cheaper – ‘Tiger Slam’ as it is now known.
There is an argument that the two Amateur championships claimed by Jones were of a lesser standard than the Masters and the PGA in modern times. However, this does not really stand up as there was not a huge difference between the amateur and professional game in the early 1930s, as evidenced by Jones beating those who played for a living in both the British and US Opens. Jones was a part-time amateur player with a swing which evaded the descriptive powers of even the great American sportswriter Grantland Rice who once noted, ‘One might as well attempt to describe the smoothness of the wind as to paint a clear picture of his complete swing.’ Like Woods, Jones was also a fierce competitor (Rice again: ‘He has the face of an angel and the temper of a timber wolf’) but also was a naturally modest man.
He confessed after his Grand Slam that he had intended to win all four tournaments but reflected, ‘I felt reluctant to admit that I considered myself capable of such an accomplishment…actually, I did make plans for that golfing year with precisely this end in view.’ After the historic summer of 1930 he announced that he was retiring. ‘[A championship] is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.’ He was aged just 28.
Woods, now ten years older than Jones when he retired, has spoken of Jack Nicklaus being the gold standard – and he may be right, after all, 18 Majors over a period stretching from 1962 (US Open) to 1986 (the Masters) is a remarkable achievement. Woods arrives at the Augusta National Golf Club this month a 6-1 favourite for the Masters with the Las Vegas Hilton sports book – the current issues with his back problem notwithstanding. Surely he’ll be thinking about Bobby Jones and, beyond even tieing the number of Major wins with Nicklaus, what it would feel like to finally win a true ‘Grand Slam’ for the first time in 84 years.
*Since Bill submitted this piece, Tiger has, like a big girly wuss, pulled out of The Masters. Mr Borrows’ bookie has also retired.
Bill Borrows is a Journalist and Author. He has been in fights with several celebrities including Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, Hulk Hogan and Derek Hatton but prefers to relax by sewing and studying the history of the Vietnam War. Follow him on Twitter at @billborrows.