Jess Sweetser: Amateur Major Winner, Jones Vanquisher

Golfer Jess Sweetser

Jess Sweetser was one of the best amateur golfers of early 20th century, the first native-born American golfer to win the British Amateur and a man who handed Bobby Jones one of Jones' worst defeats.

Full name: Jesse William Sweetser

Date of birth: April 8, 1902

Place of birth: St. Louis, Missouri

Date and place of death: May 27, 1989 in Bethesda, Maryland

His Biggest Wins

These are the biggest victories by Jess Sweetser, all of them in top amateur tournaments:
  • 1920 NCAA Championship
  • 1922 U.S. Amateur
  • 1922 Metropolitan Amateur
  • 1925 Metropolitan Amateur
  • 1925 Gold Golf Ball Tourney*
  • 1925 Gibson Island Country Club Invitational
  • 1926 British Amateur
  • 1927 Gold Mashie Tournament
(*This was a team tournament that paired male and female amateur golfers. Sweetser's partner was Glenna Collett.)

Sweetser's U.S. Amateur Win

Jess Sweetser's victory in the 1922 U.S. Amateur Championship was considered, in its time, one of the most impressive tournament performances of any golfer. Sweetser, 20 years old, ran a murderer's row of opponents, and beat most of them handily.

It started with an 11-and-9 romp (all matches were 36 holes) in Round 1. In Round 2, Sweetser dispatched 1921 British Amateur champ Willie Hunter 7-and-6. In the third round, it was an 11-and-9 win over the defending champ, Jesse Guilford.

In the semifinals, Sweetser met another 20-year-old: Bobby Jones. Jones had not yet won any of his majors, but had been a major figure in the amateur ranks for several years. And Sweetser beat him 8-and-7 — the worst loss Jones ever suffered in an amateur major.

Then it was on to the championship match, where Sweetser beat Chick Evans, winner of the 1916 U.S. Open and a two-time U.S. Am winner, by a 3-and-2 score.

Sweetser was known as a great pitcher and chipper of the ball, and he holed out multiple shots during the tournament. He hit the flagstick several times from off the green just against Jones. Sweetser was also known as a great practitioner of the stymie, and laid three stymies against Jones.

Sweetser was the second person ever to win both the NCAA Championship and the U.S. Amateur (after Chandler Egan).

First Native-Born American to Win the British Amateur

Four years after his U.S. Amateur win, Sweetser became the first American-born winner of the British Amateur, taking the trophy at Muirfield in 1926. (Walter Travis, born in Australia, was a naturalized American when he won it in 1904.)

Sweetser won that title despite playing through a serious case of the flu that, multiple times, came close to knocking him out of the tournament. He caught a cold during the boat ride from America, and it only worsened, turning into the flu, in a wet and cold Scotland. On arrival, he nearly withdrew, but a first-round walkover gave him an extra day of rest.

Once play started, Sweetser was also dealing with knee and wrist issues. Feeling terrible, battling nausea, too, he still managed to beat Francis Ouimet en route to the championship match.

Sweetser was very ill the night before the championship match and again considered withdrawing. But then he went out the next day and defeated Scotland's Fred Simpson by a 6-and-5 score.

Sweetser was sick all through the next week, when he still managed to play for Team USA in the Walker Cup. When that was over, one doctor told Sweetser he was too sick to travel back to the U.S. by ocean liner.

He left anyway, and by the time the ship reached American shores had to be stretchered off. It was months before Sweetser was feeling good enough again to resume playing golf.

In addition to becoming the first American winner, Sweetser was also just the third person to record wins in both the U.S. and British amateurs (joining Walter Travis and Harold Hilton).

More About Jess Sweetser

Sweetser was born into a family of means and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the country's top prep schools, in New Hampshire. From there, he went on to Yale University.

While at Yale, Sweetser first gained notice as a golfer, winning the 1920 NCAA Championship at age 18. A year later, Sweetser tied for 14th in the 1921 U.S. Open, but only played the Open once more the rest of his life.

In the 1921 U.S. Amateur, Sweetser lost in the third round to Chick Evans, the man he went on to beat for the championship the following year.

Attempting to win the U.S. Am back-to-back, Sweetser reached the final in 1923 before losing to Max Marston in 38 holes. That remains today the second-longest championship match in U.S. Am history.

In 1930, Sweetser ran into Bobby Jones — having his Grand Slam season — in the semifinals and lost 9-and-8. It was payback for Jones, who suffered his worst defeat to Sweetser in 1922. When the match ended, Sweetser found Jones in the lockerroom and, according to journalist (and Jones friend) O.B. Keeler, said to Jones, "I surely did want to carry you to the eleventh green. That would have made it 8-and-7, the same as at Brookline (in 1922). Then I could have said, 'Well, Bobby, we're all square, after eight years.' But I couldn't make it. You're one up!"

Sweetser was a stalwart on the United States Walker Cup teams of the era, playing in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1928 and 1932. He had a 5-1 record in foursomes but was only 2-3-1 in singles. Although Sweetser's 8.5 points earned in the Walker Cup is down the list today, at the time of his final appearance in 1932 it trailed only Bobby Jones' nine points earned.

Decades later, Sweetser was captain of the USA Walker Cup team in 1967 and again in 1973. He holds the all-time Walker Cup record as the oldest captain: He was 71 years, 4 months and 7 days old in 1973. The Cup was played at Brookline that year, site of Sweetser's U.S. Amateur win. (Sweetser also captained the USA's World Amateur/Eisenhower Trophy team in 1966.)

Sweetser's last big win in tournament golf was the 1927 Gold Mashie Tournament, an event considered one of the most prestigious stroke-play amateur tournaments of its time. Sweetser won it with a new tournament scoring record; he'd finished runner-up in the 1923 and 1924 Gold Mashies.

By the 1930s, Sweetser was fully focused on business — he'd started as a stockbroker in the 1920s. He also had leadership roles in the Metropolitan Golf Association and served in some leadership positions in the USGA over the years. He later worked for multination conglomerate Curtiss-Wright, and, when he retired from work in 1967, was a vice president at Martin Marietta, a building materials supplier.

In 1986, Sweetser was given the Bob Jones Award by the USGA, presented to golfers noted for their sportsmanship and dedication to the spirit of the game.

He died at age 87 of cancer.

Today, Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C., where Sweetser was a longtime member, still holds the Jess Sweetser Memorial Tournament.

The USGA Golf House has and sometimes displays among its collection of golf clubs the so-called "backspin mashie" that Sweetser used in his 1922 U.S. Am and 1926 British Am wins. It had a clubface with deep, wide grooves to impart extra backspin, and was legal in 1922. The club was ruled illegal in 1924, but Sweetser just had the grooves filled in to meet the new rules and continued using it.

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