The Real Story of Tommy Armour's Single-Hole Score of 23

Tommy Armour pictured at Riviera Country Club in 1926

In the 1927 Shawnee Open golf tournament, played one week after he won the U.S. Open, Tommy Armour set a record that is still cited today. He made a score of 23 on a single hole.

If you are a student of golf history or a fan of unusual golf records, you've probably heard about Armour's 23 many times. It's a score that shows up on lots of lists of the highest single-hole scores in PGA Tour history, usually regarded as the all-time record for that stat. The fact that it was Armour, a legend of the game, who made the 23 just a week after winning the 1927 U.S. Open makes that score of 23 all the more interesting.

But details — just what, exactly, transpired; just how, exactly, Tommy Armour made that 23 — are always hard to come by. We're going to fill you in on those details.

So what is the true story of Tommy Armour's 23? What is the real story? The real story is this: It never happened.

The Legend of Tommy Armour's 23 in the 1927 Shawnee Open

What supposedly happened to Tommy Armour during the 1927 Shawnee Open? He is supposed to have made a very big score — a score in the 20s, with 23 being the most commonly cited number — after hitting a lot of drives out of bounds on one hole. Or did he hit all those balls into the water? Or was the problem the yips on the putting green?

That's a big problem with the story we've been told about Armour's 23: Even the sources that report it don't agree on the details.

There are tons of books out there of the golf "factoid" or anecdote variety. Books with titles like Golf's All-Time Firsts, Mosts, Leasts, and a Few Nevers (affiliate links used in this post; commissions earned), or Alliss' 19th Hole: Trivial Delights from the World of Golf, or Sports Trivia: Now You Know Golf, or The Book of Golf Lists, or Strange Kicks and Bounces: Funny, Whimsical, Legendary and True Tales of Golf. (These are all real books, but no disrespect to their authors intended: We could have named dozens, probably hundreds, of other similiar works.)

Most of them that tell the Armour story claim that Armour's score was 23 and that it happened because he repeatedly hooked his drive out of bounds — 10 consecutive out-of-bounds drives is the most commonly cited version. But some books (and magazine articles and newspaper articles) claim the score was 21. Peter Alliss, in one of his books, puts the number at 22:

"At the 1927 Shawnee Open, Tommy Armour, an obdurate and often pig-headed player, decided that his best shot on a particular hole was to aim down the right-hand side of the fairway and draw the ball back towards the green. Having hit his first five tee shots out of bounds on the right, he continued with his belief in this judgment. When the next five tee shots did exactly the same thing, he came to the conclusion that his decision was perhaps not the correct one and aimed his 11th straight onto the fairway. He collected a score of 22 for the hole."
Note that Alliss also differs from the "hooked 10 drives out of bounds" narrative: Alliss' book states that Armour was trying to hit draws that didn't draw, and was therefore loosing his drives out of bounds to the right.

Some other such published articles and snippets state that Armour's 23 happened because he hit 10 consecutive drives into water.

And then there's the book Golf's Forgotten Legends: & Unforgettable Controversies, whose author says Armour's score was due to the putting yips and guesses that Armour took 20 putts on the hole! (Armour is credited with inventing the term "yips," and he definitely suffered from them. But some articles claim Armour coined the term "yips" after that score in the 1927 Shawnee Open to explain what happened to him on the hole. And that's not true.)

What Really Happened to Tommy Armour in the 1927 Shawnee Open

Headline on New York Times story about Tommy Armour score of 23
Armour really did have a blow-up hole in that tournament, but it wasn't a 23, it was an 11. He made the sextuple-bogey on the par-5 17th hole during the third round.

The Shawnee Open was first played in 1912, and the tournaments from 1916 through 1937 were part of the pro circuit at the time and are recognized as PGA Tour events today. It was played at The Shawnee Inn & Golf Resort in Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pennsylvania. In 1927, the Shawnee Open took place on June 20-21, 36 holes per day.

That was, indeed, less than a week after the conclusion of the 1927 U.S. Open. Armour won that major championship with a score of 13-over 301, beating Lighthorse Harry Cooper in a playoff.

Johnny Farrell, however, was the winner of the 1927 Shawnee Open, with a score of 279. That was a great score for the era, and Farrell won by 10 strokes. It wasn't just a course record, it was also, the New York Times wrote, "one of the lowest figures ever made in a stroke competition and only four strokes away from the mark made by Walter Hagen in the Eastern Open last year."

And Tommy Armour? He finished at 312, in 24th place and a whopping 33 strokes behind Farrell. That lackluster showing by the newly crowned U.S. Open champ drew attention, too. The Associated Press and United Press articles about the tournament's finish pointed out how poorly Armour fared, but neither made any mention of a blow-up hole, certainly not a 23.

A column by famed sportswriter Grantland Rice published one week after the Shawnee Open noted that at the U.S. Open, Armour beat Farrell by seven strokes, while at the Shawnee Open, Farrell bested Armour by 33 strokes. Rice pointed out the 40-stroke swing. He made no mention of Armour scoring a 23 (or any other huge score) at the Shawnee. Surely the most-famous sportswriter of his time would bring that up when pointing out the huge swing in strokes?

After Day 1 of the tournament, Armour stood in 10th place at 151, with scores of 80-71. That was 13 strokes off Farrell's pace.

It was on Day 2 that trouble really struck for Armour. His scores that day were 82-79, 161 for the third and fourth rounds. Those scores — 80-71-82-79 — while poor for Armour make clear that no 23 could have happened.

But thanks to the New York Times, one of the few major papers that had a reporter on the scene at the 1927 Shawnee Open and that ran an in-depth story about it, we know exactly what happened to Armour on the hole where, legend has long had it, he scored 23.

It was the par-5 17th hole and it happened during the third round. The Times' lengthy, detailed story on the tournament spent several paragraphs discussing Armour's play, including this:

"The new national open champion, Tommy Armour ... finished far down with a total of 312, his last two rounds being 82 and 79. An 11 on the seventeenth hole on the third round and a 7 on the third hole on the last round put him completely out of the running."
The Times called Armour "plainly a tired man." The sportswriter explained the score of 11:
"... and then came the fatal 11, which duplicated the high score that George Duncan took here one year. Playing the 486-yard hole that has been such an annoyance to several others in this year's field, Tommy hooked two balls out of bounds and then missed a two-foot putt for a 10 after getting on the green. From then on he simply went through the formality of finishing."
So Armour hooked two balls out of bounds, not 10; he yipped one putt, not a slew of them. He made an 11, not a 23. That's what really happened.

How Did the Legend of the 23 Become Accepted as True?

That's a good question! Especially since it's been known for a very long time that the score of 23 was mythical. In the introduction to the book The Golf Hall of Shame, published in 1989, authors Bruce Nash and Allen Zullo, wrote:
"Some of the stories we researched turned out to be apocryphal. For example, time and again we heard that Tommy Armour hit 10 straight balls out of bounds at the Shawnee Open a week after he won the 1927 U.S. Open. Upon further checking, we learned the truth — he carded 'only' an 11 on the 17th hole during the third round."
That should have put an end to it. But either few other golf writers noticed, or few others cared. Probably a little bit of both. For decades after, and still to this day, you will find Armour's supposed 23 included in articles about the highest single-hole scores in PGA Tour history. For many years (into the 2010s), the PGA Tour itself listed that fictional 23! The PGA of America website and the websites of many other major golf organizations have included the 23, as have articles and tweets written by major golf writers, and even, we have seen, some posted by golf historians.

There is also the word "archaeopteryx," supposedly made up by Armour himself to describe any single-hole score of 15-over-par or more.

Of course, in the late 1920s, that original New York Times article would have been seen by very people outside New York. It would have been easy for the myth of the 23 to take root and grow. Maybe it started the way lots of what we today call "urban legends" start: as a joke, or an exaggeration, told by one person to another, with the person hearing it not realizing their leg is being pulled.

Perhaps there is a clue to how this legend got started in a 1950 golf column by sportswriter Chuck Albury in the Mansfield, Ohio, News Journal. That was 18 years before Armour's death, and it is the earliest newspaper mention we found of the alleged archaeopteryx, which, in Albury's telling, was a 21. (Note that this was just the earliest mention I found in the particular newspaper archive I was searching — it's certainly possible that earlier examples exist.)

Albury wrote that the record for single-hole score was a 21 first recorded in the 1860 British Open (also a questionable claim, although far more plausible given how high scores were in those days) by an unknown golfer. He wrote that the 21 was:

"... equalled by the Silver Scot (Armour) in 1927, just one week after he had won the National Open at Oakmont. Playing in the Shawnee Open, Armour tried to shave a dogleg to the left a little close and hit several out of bounds. By the time he finally reached the green and holed out a juicy 21 was recorded on his card. Later in the locker room, his throat coated with several drinks of scotch, Armour tried to make his count 23 and thus claim the record. But cooler heads had seen him play and had kept track of his strokes."
This telling includes both the figures of 21 and 23, and claims that Armour tried to inflate his score in order to claim a record as his own! Is it possible that Armour himself could have been responsible for the legend of the 23? Could Armour, who went on to become one of the first gurus of golf instruction, have spread that tall tale himself? As a publicity stunt? As a joke? With a "nudge, nudge" and a twinkle in his eye?

We can't say, but it's fun to speculate. We can at least say that Armour apparently never made much of an effort, if any, to dispel the stories that he once carded a 23.

Photo credit: Tommy Armour in 1926/public domain by Powell Press Service/via Huntington Digital Library

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