When the first official Amateur was played at the Newport Golf Club in 1895, there were 32 contestants in the field but only two or three golfers, and it was almost a foregone conclusion that the winner would be Charles Blair Macdonald. A well-to-do Chicagoan with a king-size ego, who had been educated at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Charley Macdonald was considered to be in a class by himself among our amateurs, a judgment with which he heartily concurred. The previous year he had unexpectedly gone down to defeat in two invitation tournaments, either of which might well have gone into the record books as the first official Amateur, had Macdonald won. Claiming that both tournaments had been improperly conducted, Old Charley kicked up such a rumpus that he inadvertently became the midwife of the U.S.G.A., an organization formed in December, 1894, and which has since been the official governing body for American golf. The next autumn, in a match-play championship superintended by the U.S.G.A., Old Charley finally made it, shellacking his opponent in the final, a tennis player named Sands, 12 and 11.
At the turn of the century the Amateur produced its first great champion, Walter J. Travis. Travis, an opinionated fellow who learned golf at 35, never took a lesson, but won the U.S. Amateur in 1900, 1901 and 1903, and in 1904 carried off the British Amateur—the first "foreigner" ever to win a British championship. Travis is esteemed by veteran observers to be the finest putter who ever lived.
His brilliant successor, Jerry Travers, won the championship in 1907-08 and 1912-13, a period when sectional rivalry was extremely keen, particularly when Travers, the favorite of the East, came up against Chick Evans, pride of the West. In 1914 21-year-old Francis Ouimet, who had won an astonishing victory in the Open the year before, captured the Amateur, a feat he was to repeat 17 years later.
That 1931 Amateur was historic from another aspect: Bobby Jones was not in the field, having retired from competitive golf the autumn previous, after completing his Grand Slam of the four major championships. Bob—as he preferred to be called—probably set himself the highest standards of performance, athletic and personal, of any American athlete. Everything he touched turned to class. The Amateur, during his reign, was a sporting event. From 1924, when he first won the title, until his retirement, Bob dominated the Amateur as no national championship has ever been dominated before or after: he won it in '25; in '26 he lost in the final to George Von Elm; in '27 he won it and again in '28; in '29 he was put out in the first round by Johnny Goodman, but in '30 he took it for the fifth time. This last victory nailed down the fourth and final leg of the Grand Slam.
August 22, 1954
Over the six days of the 1930 tournament, 35,450 Jones idolators paid $55,319 to watch their hero reach the climactic moment of his career. While the Open has continued to draw increasing numbers of spectators and larger gate receipts—the 1954 Open smashed all records—the 1930 figures remain the high-water marks for the Amateur. In core, the explanation is that since Jones's heyday, amateur golf has never quite come up with an attractive personality and a consistent winner whom the country's golf fans could get to know and follow year in and year out. Quite understandably, unless he has a private income or a "patron," the competent young amateur turns pro, as Lawson Little did in 1936 after that burly bull of a match player had swept our Amateur and the British two years running, or, to cite the most recent example, as Gene Littler, the 1953 champion and the most impressive swinger to come along in a decade, did last winter. The Amateur, as a result, has too often seemed like a "New Faces" revue, with each year's edition having to generate its own momentum and color.
For all this, this year's championship gives definite indications of being a memorable one—the field is fine, the course is testing. More than that, it may well inaugurate a new full-blooded era of amateur golf. No one saw it coming, but just when it seemed that there was no room left for the un professional athlete in a postwar world of hard-bitten, chrome-plated, machinelike perfectionists, along comes a Roger Bannister, the medical student who runs for the sheer love of running, and in golf, along comes a Billy Joe Patton to absorb in both the Masters and Open a series of errors that would have shattered the heart of most professionals and, in a great display of "the old amateur try," to still keep pumping for the pin. It would seem to prove what the old-timers have been quietly saying for years: a sport is only as good as the spirit of its amateurs.