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The Immortal Shot

Bobby Jones is a Lytham Legend, writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Jul 16, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

bobby jones

On the Wednesday of this Open week, a rather special book is being launched in the Clifton Arms Hotel in Lytham. “Bobby’s Open: Mr Jones and the Golf Shot that Defined a Legend” has been written by Dr Steven Reid, the 1996 captain of Royal Lytham and the current medical officer of the Royal and Ancient.

It concerns the 1926 Open won by Jones at Lytham and the famous golf shot is remarkable recovery of almost 180 yards from sand, which he hit with a mashie-iron (four-iron) onto the middle of the 17th green, his 71st hole.  In recounting every conceivable detail of the event, the author has also unearthed hitherto unpublished correspondence between Jones and the host club.

We are all familiar with the plaque, suggested by Henry Cotton which marks the precise spot from where the “immortal shot” was played and was, in fact, the first plaque of its kind, anywhere in the golfing world.  But the correspondence had to do with a photograph discovered by the Royal Lytham club during the 1950s, purporting to be of The Shot.

In the event, the club secretary, Squadron Leader C W Martin, sent a copy of the photograph to Jones in the hope that he might verify it.  One could imagine the average player being somewhat dismissive of such a request and returning a stereotyped letter to the effect that it must, in fact, be so.  But as his extraordinary career was to demonstrate, Jones was far from being an average player.

As it happened, he studied the photograph sent from Lytham and concluded from a shadow cast in the sand,  that it was not of the famous shot on the 17th but of a bunker recovery he had played during the third round earlier that day.  And the secretary agreed.  In a letter dated August 21st 1958, not long after Lytham had played post to the Open Championship won by Peter Thomson, Martin wrote: “…..How very right you were about the shadow.  We have successfully proved that the photograph is not of the famous shot, and further investigation has revealed that it was probably taken in a bunker on the left-hand side of the 14th as it was then…..”

Elsewhere in the letter, Martin extended an invitation to Jones to visit Royal Lytham while he was in Britain later that year as non-playing captain of the United States team in the inaugural Eisenhower Trophy at St Andrews. But Jones regretfully declined.  In a letter dated August 27th, he wrote: “I am very glad that you have been able to resolve the question of the photograph.  Your invitation to visit your club is most gracious and I assure that I should have great pleasure in accepting, were it likely to be at all possible for me to do so.  Unfortunately, my physical mobility is not such that I am able to undertake much moving around…..”    

Earlier in this particular chapter, the author, a medical doctor, writes: “Jones had the misfortune to be stricken with a disease that is best avoided.  It consists of an expanding collection of fluid within the spinal cord in the lower part of the neck.  The pressure on the nervous tissue of the cord causes relentless and progressive damage affecting the upper and lower limbs.”  So it was that the great man, who played his last round of golf in 1948, was confined to a wheelchair less than a decade later.  

Meanwhile, it was a great love of Royal Lytham, however, where he has been a member since 1965, which prompted Dr Reid to write this charming book which is published by Icon Books at £19.99. It carries a nostalgic forward by Jack Nicklaus and while acknowledging that few golfers have had more words written about them than Jones, the author still manages to turn a number of fascinating, fresh furrows.

Retired from general practice, he retains the medical man’s special insights into the human condition.  So it is that a profound understanding of Jones the man, emerges from these pages, guided by the evocative words of the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit: genius hits a target no one else can see.”

As it happened, no Open could have had a more thrilling build-up than that delivered by the qualifying stage at Sunningdale.  In the context of today’s five-hour tournament rounds, Jones must have been a joy to watch, not least for the fact that he took no more than three seconds, we’re told, from standing up to the ball to hitting the shot.

Famously, he carded a 66 which contained halves of 33, nothing higher than a four and 33 putts. Charles Macfarlane of the London Evening News was moved to write: “His exhibition was, indeed, the finest I have ever witnessed in my long acquaintance with the game.”  But it proves to be only a foretaste of what was to come at Lytham.

- Dermot Gilleece

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