Thursday, June 17, 2010

One of the Greatest Shots Ever at Pebble Beach - Not Tom Watson's

One of my biggest gripes with the Golf Channel, ESPN and just about every other network--besides the BBC--that covers golf is their failure to know the history of tournament golf before the rise of Arnold Palmer in the early 1960s. The Golf Channel often has a difficult time remembering that golf existed before Tiger Woods.

Case in point: during broadcast of the U.S. Open from Pebble Beach viewers will get to see and hear countless references to the famous Tom Watson chip-in at the 17th that sealed his victory over Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open. It is one of the greatest hole-outs in golf and is indelibly printed in the collective memory of golf fans, as it should be.

Fifty-three years before Watson's heroics there was Harrison R. "Jimmy" Johnston of Minneapolis, Minn. in the U.S. Amateur, the first time it had ever been played on the West Coast. Unfortunately, only a small few are aware of the remarkable events.

Johnston's heroics did not come on the course proper, but on the beach next to the 18th hole, the waves, literally, washing up around his ankles and over the ball.

American Golfer ran this photo of Johnston on the beach in its October 1929 edition.

Playing out of the White Bear Yacht Club at the time, Johnston came to the 18th of the morning round down two shots to Dr. Oscar F. Willing. Johnston's second shot, from the fairway, was hooked onto the beach. He was preparing to drop and re-hit when his caddy pushed his way through the gallery to tell Johnston that he had spotted the ball among the stones and that if Johnston hurried, he might be able to play it. Johnston did just that and produced a remarkable recovery shot, knocking it onto the approach on the way to par. Willing, who had placed his second shot in the fairway, made bogey but still held a 1-up lead at the turn. The sentiment among those who witnessed the event, however, was that Johnston's stunning recovery so deflated Willing that he was not able to bounce back. After lunch, Johnston tied the match on the 19th hole and went on to capture the title, 4 & 3.

Francis Ouimet, who Johnston defeated in the semifinals, 6 & 4, was so impressed with Johnston's feat that detailed the shot in his book, A Game of Golf.

Year's later, Johnston recounted the events in a letter to a newspaper writer.

"Upon arriving at the ocean shore I found my ball resting securely among the small pebbles below the seawall. When I took my stance to play the shot, a wave swished up behind me and buried my feet under six inches of water. But when the wave receded, the ball was still there! I had time and the good fortune to play my shot (with a spade mashie) off the beach to the edge of the green and then chipped up 'stoney' to get par and halve the hole."

Whether it is the greatest shot ever played at Pebble Beach in a major tournament can be argued, but it is surely one of the all-time best. Too bad television golf broadcasts don't even know it occurred.

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