Once upon a time in a land far away, as most tall tales begin, two young TV producers named Roone Arledge and Frank Chirkinian were enjoying an iced tea under the great oak at Augusta National following their annual confrontation played on Press Day following the Masters.
Neither had played that well, but they loved the opportunity to debate the best moments each had witnessed. Before long, the tea began to take its toll and the jocularity became jock insanity and the conversation bottomed out at who was the best golfer ever?
In their hazed stupor, names were dropped and records recalled until Chirkinian’s face flushed and out of his famous echo chamber tumbled the words, “if you can’t decide who the best player ever to live was how could you ever decide who would win a match between the greatest of all time?”?
From that blusterous statement, “The Greatest Golf Match of all Time” was born.
Afterwards, much bantering took place. Which era would it involve? Could you have players from any era? Where would the match be played?
Around and around they went, for days until finally Freddie Bennett, the long time Caddie Master at Augusta decided to help alleviate the situation. He proposed a time-honoured tradition used by other members of Augusta National, a draw from the yahtzee jar.
Each of the two betting behemoths would be allowed to select two players born in each decade beginning in 1890. One did not have to make a selection for a decade if they felt so inclined, but two was the maximum from any 10-year span and a player could only be selected once in total.
The fur flew. Names were proposed and debated: Old Tom Morris, Vardon, Jones, Hagen, Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Watson, Nicklaus, Player, Palmer. Names were scribbled onto a small rectangular banner of paper, folded like a ballot and placed into the cup.
Three long days and two nights later the blind draw produced: Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. A second draw from the can resulted in the venue. It would be 18 holes of stroke play at St. Andrew’s.
As luck would have it, Eddie Lowery, the little boy who carried Francis Ouimet to victory had become a wealthy car dealer who welcomed the opportunity to underwrite all expenses for ownership of the promo rights.
I doubt if anyone saw it, but a brief flicker of doubt crossed Vardon’s face.He had won the British Open six times but never at St. Andrew’s. Likely embedded in his memory is the statement made by a joyous Bobby Jones who, upon victory in Scotland,stated “I feel no winning record is complete without a victory at St. Andrew’s.”
Jones won the Amateur there in 1930 and the Open in 1927, Tiger won in 2005 and Jack won twice on the most hallowed of golfing turf. Yet there, on the oldest course in the world, the Greatest Golf Match of all-time was to be decided.
At precisely 11 a.m., they were off. A Saturday was selected to accommodate the long standing tradition of Sunday closings at St. Andrews. The August date avoided the clockwise rotation used earlier in the season to rest the course.
All four players drove perfectly with an iron to set up a short iron second shot on the opening hole called “Burn”. The weather was perfect, sunny, 72 degrees F and a devilish, brisk 10 to 15 m.p.h. wind off the sea. Jones scored the only birdie.
He and Vardon had constant discussions about the new equipment and the immaculate putting surfaces. Jones was as giddy as a small child, holing putt after putt. He couldn’t believe the purity of the surfaces, with no grain, no bumps, and no worm casts left by the bamboo dew sweeping poles.
Vardon was hitting shots into bunkers, so he could enjoy splashing sand shots out with ease. With no horses, goats or sheep meandering through the tufts of long grass growing in them, the sand was uniform and seemed to be almost sifted.
He cackled loudly as he used his new sand wedge.
“Bunkers used to be hazards. If I had these conditions and equipment in 1910, I could have broken 70 every time” bragged Vardon, who had missed Gene Sarazen’s game changing invention by about 20 years
Jack didn’t say much, he just did what Jack did. He went to work, but silently within him, a small voice tugged at his inner being. He was appreciative of the extra 50 yards he could now hit the ball.
Tiger seemed subdued. He had always called Jack, “Jack”. Jones was so elegant and likeable, he felt comfortable calling him Bobby. After all, everyone else did.
However, Vardon was a problem for Woods. Harry Vardon, Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris were the founders of the modern game. Vardon was the first touring professional and the only inventor in the long history of golf that changed any part of the swing from something natural to something specific (the grip).
Calling him Harry could be perceived as disrespectful. How could he call him Mr. Vardon and the others by their given names? “Vards” was out of the question, so he waited to see what Jack and Bobby did. They called him Harry and why not? That’s his name.
It was a phenomenal contest.
Tiger struggled to hit the ball in the fairway, but he did hit 15 greens declaring openly, “I finally brought my A game! I drove it good, hit it good and made some putts. Today, the process was completed”!
Jack drove the ball perfectly as did Jones and Vardon, whose ball mysteriously located itself in six greenside bunkers, but he sunk two of them and tapped in the remains of the other four. Jones swung like only Jones could, his fluid motion resembling heather waving in the wind.
Woods was amazed at the beautiful control of Jones. Such a lovely, balanced movement he made, yet when they approached their fairway shots after driving on every hole, a cluster of balls came to be expected, all three exactly in the centre with Jack slightly ahead of Vardon and Jones, who alternated in distance.
Woods was either in play and a bit ahead of Jack or out of play. It was Vardon who finally commented on Woods’ uncanny ability to drive so far off line and still have a shot at the flag. In fact, it occurred to some that the great Harry was agitated by Tiger’s good fortune.
What absolutely shocked Tiger was how Jones repeated the same graceful pace to his swing.
Yet, on the fifth, called “Hole O’ Cross,” a 568-yard par five, and the 14th called “Long,” a 618-yard par five, he conjured up enough extra yardage to inexplicably out drive everyone by over 30 yards, right smack in the cente of the fairway, gaining the green in two swings on each of these monster holes.
Shots were holed, putts were made and bunkers stopped no one except Jack, who failed in his only attempt to get up and down on the Road Hole. Even Wee Bobby defeated his demons on 11 with a holed shot. The play was magnificent and every contestant shot 66.
That is everyone but Wee Bobby, who faced a slippery, twisting 12-footer on the 18th green to win.
Later, after the ceremony was over and the trophy presented, the townsfolk were ogling their heroes. Quaffing a Caledonian Tennent, the most famous and best golf writer of all time, Barnard Darwin approached Bobby to talk about the final putt.
Darwin was inconsistent with the style used in 2013 when the interviewer asks, “What were you thinking as you putted that last putt? Were you nervous?”
Instead, Darwin asked Jones, “Bob, as you lined up that final putt,is there a time in all of your previous victories that you could reflect on to give you the strength to bring out your best effort?”
“Yes, the 12-footer I made on the 18th hole in 1929 at Winged Foot to get into the playoff. Today’s putt on the 18th was the same length, the same speed, the same break and was just as important to me at the time. I’m so happy to have made them both.”
Darwin very quickly advanced the notion of how equipment has changed the game.
Jones thought a moment and then offered, “Yes, equipment has changed way the game is played, but not how it is won. Winning comes from inner belief in yourself. Some call it heart. You are either blessed with it or not. Every champion has it. There is no one player who is the greatest player of all time, simply a limited few who qualify for consideration.”
He smiled wryly, as only Jones could, and left with the trophy tucked securely under his arm.