A SEARCH WAS ON FOR REDLANDS GOLFER PHILLIPS FINLAY

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

The 2018 U.S. Amateur Golf Championship, now 102 years old this year, is scheduled this year for Pebble Beach, beginning August 13. Eighty-eight years ago, a Redlands golfer took on a legend at this course in the same event.

It’s not really known when Phillips Finlay learned how to play golf – or from whom.

Phillips Finlay, 1929
Phillips Finlay, whose golfer career started in Redlands, made a name for himself, both at Harvard University and in major amateur championships while playing against the likes of Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet. He’s shown here at the Chevy Chase Club in 1929 (photo credit, Shorpy Historic Picture Archive).

Maybe it was George Lawson, who served as Redlands Country Club’s head professional from 1901-1937, that taught him. That Finlay, from Redlands, was a student at famed Harvard University was one thing. That he was a contestant for some of golf’s grandest prizes is yet another.

Finlay seemed to have disappeared after showing up prominently, not only on Harvard’s golf team, but also as a stalwart challenger to some of golf’s major tournaments in his day. After a stretch from 1927 through 1930, the older brother of Redlands’ Madison Finlay was nowhere to be found.

A motivated sports writer from the Redlands area was searching.

Following the 1930 U.S. Amateur, Finlay was seemingly nowhere to be found – at least in major tournaments. Only adding to the curiosity is that Finlay had become a prominent golfer.

Amateur golf raged during the 1920s. Professional golf had yet to catch on.

There was no Masters Championship yet.

The PGA Championship, which would eventually become one of golf’s greatest prizes, was a tournament without much tradition.

Bobby Jones won the 1927 United States Amateur, which was played at the Minikaha Club of Minneapolis.

Finlay, who made his presence felt, traveled from Harvard University, engaging in medal play for the qualifying round of that year’s Amateur Championship.

A New Jersey golfer, Eugene V. Romans shot 71, making headlines as the low medalist.

The youthful Finlay, who had just passed his Harvard entrance examinations, was one shot behind.

It’s eerie to think how close Finlay came to such prominence. At the time, he lived on Long Island. Jones, Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans – three of the 1927 semifinalists – began with rounds of 75.

On the second day, Jones got rolling, shooting a course record 67, winning the medalist (that’s low stroke score) trophy for the tournament with 142. George Von Elm, who beat Jones in 1926, barely qualified with 79-75-154.

Onetime champions who qualified included Evans, Ouimet, plus Max R. Marston.

A Minneapolis insurance man, Harry G. Legg, a Minneapolis resident that graduated from Yale, knocked off Von Elm, 1-up, on his home course.

Third day: Jones, trailing Maurice McCarthy, Jr. of Long Island, by a hole at the turn, had three holes remaining. McCarthy missed a short putt, squaring the match; overshot the 17th green, losing the lead; overshot the 18th green, losing the match two down.

Ouimet beat Max R. Marston, 3 & 2.

Finlay kept battling, perhaps in the manner that Ouimet had done, depicted years later in the motion picture, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

But Finlay was cut down by Ouimet, who had written a favorable article about the Redlands product, even displaying some of the matches between the two in a book called “A Game of Golf,” which was published in 1932.

IVY LEAGUE ATHLETES WERE PROMINENT

Was this truly A Redlands Connection? Jones? Ouimet? Both were impressed with the youthful Finlay, whose long driving skills were attributed to the unusual length of his swing.

(During the Roaring ’20s, Ivy League schools – baseball’s Lou Gehrig and, earlier, Eddie Collins, both from Columbia; Penn dropout Bill Tilden, a tennis legend; football’s John Heisman for both Penn and Brown, to name a few – produced prominent athletes that were the kingpins of sports.)

A year later, 1928, Finlay would rise again at the U.S. Amateur, played at Brae Burn Country Club in West Newton, Mass. It wasn’t far from his Harvard digs.

Bobby_Jones_1930_winnaar_US_Amateur
Legendary amateur golf champion Bobby Jones had his hands full with Harvard’s Phillips Finlay during the Roaring 20s when the Redlands golfer squared off against some of golf’s greatest players (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Jones knocked off J.W. Brown, 4 & 3 in the opening round.

Ray Gorton took Jones to the 19th hole in the second round before tumbling.

Jones had his way with John B. Beck, 14 & 13, before coming up against Finlay in the semifinals.

Finlay, a long-hitting Harvard sophomore, got quite a whipping. He lost decisively to Jones, 13 & 12.

On the other hand, A Redlands Connection had struck early. An 18-year-old from Redlands had played the legendary Bobby Jones in the 1928 U.S. Amateur semifinals?

This was news!

Jones claimed his fourth U.S. Amateur title, 10 & 9, over reigning British Amateur champion T. Philip Perkins. Two weeks earlier, Jones beaten Perkins, 13 & 12 at the Walker Cup.

Jones, for his part, had been national champion – winning either the U.S. Open or Amateur championship – for six straight years. During that span, Jones won four U.S. Amateurs, two U.S. Opens, two British Opens.

Jones tied for first two other U.S. Opens, those he subsequently lost in 36-hole playoffs, each by just one stroke. Jones had forever established himself as one of the greatest golfers. Without a doubt, he was the world’s greatest amateur player.

Finlay was chasing a legend.

JONES WRITES OF FINLAY IN HIS BOOK

There were 162 entries in the 1929 U.S. Amateur field. Finlay, for his part, tried the event at Pebble Beach. It was the first time the tournament had been played west of the Mississippi.

In a major upset, Jones fell to John Goodman, a caddy from Omaha, Neb., in the first round.

A documented quote, however, was lifted from “Pebble Beach: The Official Golf History,” had the youthful Finlay going up to Jones with an apology. “I’m so very sorry you lost this morning, Mr. Jones. I was looking forward to beating you this afternoon.”

Finlay lost to 18-year-old Lawson Little, a Northern Californian who won the U.S. Amateur in 1933 and 1934. It was Little who eliminated Jones-killer, Goodman.

Harrison R. “Jimmy” Johnston won the 1929 title.

Prior to the event taking place, Jones spoke of playing with Finlay at Pebble Beach in his book, “Bobby Jones on Golf.”

“There had been so much talk about Phil’s long driving ability,” Jones wrote, “that the publicity given that part of his game must have affected the boy’s play.”

Critics may have affected Finlay’s approach, said Jones.

“Whether Phil was aware of it or not,” said Jones, “this sort of thing had an effect upon his game … so that he immediately eased up on his stroke in an effort to hit the ball straight.”

Jones, in his book, had referred to Finlay in Chapter 8, “Hitting Hard.” Jones held up Finlay’s style of long driving as an example.

“On this day we played, he had quite a bit of trouble on the front nine, getting a little farther from his normal stride at each tee shot as he held himself back more and more.”

After losing his ball on a duck-hook on the ninth hole, Finlay sought Jones’ advice. The four-time U.S. Open champion told him straight out that he thought he was holding back, “that I thought he would do better if he would take a good healthy wallop instead.”

On the tenth hole, Finlay blasted a drive, losing it into the Monterey Bay.

After that, said Jones, “He drove very well, indeed.”

Check out this Pebble Beach foursome:

British Amateur Champion Cyril Tolley and Francis Brown of Honolulu. Jones shot two-under par, 70, while Tolley, Finlay and Brown shot rounds of 79, 80 and 82.

JONES, OUIMET: LONG DRIVING WAS KEY TO SUCCESS

Then there was Ouimet, the upset U.S. Open champion of 1913 that inspired the Disney movie, “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (portrayed by Shia LeBeouf), and after regaining his amateur status that had removed controversially from him by the USGA, he won two U.S. Amateur titles

Ouimet knew of Finlay, having authored an article, “The Art of Long Driving.”

FrancisOuimet1913
Frances Ouimet, the unexpected winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, was one of golf’s top players in the late 1920s when a youthful Redlands-based golfer, Phillips Finlay, was bursting onto the amateur golf scene. Ouimet even wrote about Finlay in his book (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

The first words of that piece were right to the point: “One cannot watch Phillips Finlay hit a tee shot without becoming just a bit envious, for this capable young man makes the game seem simple.”

It seemed a far cry from the troubles Finlay – whose photograph featured a knickers-clad youth, hair combed neatly, while following through on a tee shot – was having during his Pebble Beach round with Jones.

Wrote Ouimet: “Finlay is not yet 20 years of age, and when he reaches his full growth there is no telling how far he will drive a ball.”

Long hitting, concluded Ouimet, was an advantage.

“I am wondering what will happen if a standardized ball is introduced. Perhaps it will bring these boys back on earth, for I must confess on some holes Finlay can miss a shot and arrive on the green as quickly as I do.”

At a match played at Wollaston Country Club in Milton, Mass., Ouimet caught a prime example of Finlay’s lengthy drives.

“I was driving well for me, but (I was) yards and yards in back of my young friend, who was having a field day.”

At Wollaston’s 17th hole, a 500-yard hole against the wind, “my tee shot was a good one, but at least 60 yards in back of his prodigious knock. A perfectly hit brassie (No. 2 wood) gave me a look at the green.”

Finlay smashed a two-iron, his shot carrying a big sand bunker guarding the green.

Said Ouimet: “It seemed a bit too much to expect of his number two iron, but that is the club he used and his ball landed on the green. I threw up my hands. He could have missed that shot and gotten to the green in the same number of shots I required.”

Ouimet, noting a round played by Finlay at North Carolina’s famed Pinehurst Country Club, felt there was no limit for the Harvard golfer. He had read an account of Finlay’s 290-yard average drives on 14 of the 18 holes.

“When he was attending Exeter (Academy in New Hampshire, Finlay’s college prep school), one of his professors wrote a friend of mine saying Phillips Finlay was the longest driver in the game.

“Apart from Finlay’s long driving ability, he has other excellent qualifications to make him a leading golfer.”

Ouimet had predicted quite a future for Finlay – A Redlands Connection.

FINLAY’S CRIMSON CAREER WAS TOPS

A Harvard golfer, as Finlay was at the time, meant he was among the nation’s elite — that’s both student and golfer. If there was ever a pre-eminent sport on that Boston-based campus, it was golf. He was a three-time letter winner (1929-31).

In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, consider that Finlay was battling the likes of Jones, Quimet & Co. before he became a Crimson letterman.

Finlay would captain the Crimson’s team in 1930 and 1931. During his junior season (1930), Harvard won 11 of its 13 matches convincingly, losing only to Princeton, 8-1, on May 10, then a season-ending loss to Yale, 5-4, at Myopia Hunt Club.

By 1931, his senior year, Harvard had returned to beat Yale, 6 ½ to 2 ½. The Crimson split back-to-back matches against Princeton, losing 6-3 and trouncing the Tigers, 9-0. There was a 5-4 loss to Dartmouth at Belmont Springs Country Club on May 9, 1930.

Finlay, a 1931 Harvard graduate, kept charging. The long-driving hitter, the captain of Harvard’s golf team, was beaten in the opening round of the 1930 U.S. Amateur at historic Merion (Pa). A narrow 2 & 1 loss to 1926 British Amateur champion Jess Sweetser didn’t quite reflect Finlay’s early round lead.

Sweetser birdied the 16th and 17th holes to take control of the match.

After that, not much showed up in the golf world on Finlay.

His family continued on.

His brother, Madison, in 2007, was “still riding around on his cart every night with his dog,” said C.L. Simmons, the longtime Redlands Country Club golf professional.

Madison died later that year at age 94, long having outlived his older brother.

The Finlays came to Redlands in 1918, bought a home at the corner of South and Fountain.

When it came time for high school, it was back east to the private academy for the both of them – Phillips, who was five years older than Madison (who wound up at USC). Neither brother showed up at Redlands High School, which was about a quarter-century old during their high school days.

FINALLY LOCATING PHILLIPS FINLAY

Phillips Finlay was a Navy man, eventually serving in the South Pacific. In fact, that had been my guess as to his disappearance. The military. Killed in the war? Would’ve been a sad fact. Imagine a budding golf career coming to an end like that. But it was not true.

“He gave up playing serious golf,” said his niece, Joanne Craig, of Redlands, “after he got back from the war.”

Settling in Pasadena with his wife, Elizabeth, Craig described that Phillips only occasionally played golf. His niece had one settling recollection about the sport. His length off the tee never failed.

“The 17th tee is not at the same place it is now,” she said, referring to Redlands Country Club, “but my uncle drove the green. That was almost unbelievable to me at the time.”

Joanne and her cousin, Fredrica, Phillips’ daughter, both attended Stanford. Eventually, her cousin’s family left Southern California.

“They moved,” recalled Craig, “to 17 Mile Drive.”

That’s up by Spyglass Hill Golf Club – near Pebble Beach.