The Golf Bag.

By: James Y. Bartlett

         LET’S TAKE A QUICK MORAL INVENTORY of the sports world

         today. There’s the former football hero accused of murder most

         foul. A New York Yankees roster filled with players once suspended

         for drug abuse. Figure skaters whacking one another on the knee.

         Football teams that trash tradition at the drop of a dollar and move

         themselves hither and yon in search of sky box revenues. Pete Rose

        is banned and Mike Tyson is a champion. Hmmm.

Even the world of golf isn’t immune. One player accuses another of breaking a rule in broad daylight. The accused, it turns out, has a somewhat shaky history with the rules, while the accuser is roundly disliked by his fellow players for his egoism, his arrogance and his penchant for demanding, and getting, six-figure checks just for showing up at some tournaments.

Bobby JonesLadies and gentlemen, it is time for a breath of fresh air, and this year, March 11, 1996, as we rapidly approach the coming of golfs vernal equinox, better known as The Masters tournament at Augusta National, there is one. It is a recently published book compiled by Tallahassee, Florida, lawyer and golf historian Sidney Matthew, entitled “The Life And Times Of Bobby Jones.” Bobby Jones—who appropriately enough originally gave the world The Masters—was the kind of mythic figure who, sadly, no longer exists.. .except in myth or in books like this.

From 1923 until 1930, Jones was virtually unbeatable as a golfer; and yet he played sparingly, as an amateur, mainly in the major events of that era—the National Opens and Amateurs of the United States and Great Britain. He was golf's first true superstar, a national celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, and he remains the only person in history to be awarded two ticker-tape parades down New York’s Fifth Avenue.

But in 1930, at age 28, having won the “Impregnable Quadrilateral”— the Grand Slam of the American and British Open and Amateur titles all in the same summer— Bobby Jones walked away from the game. It stunned the golf world then, and it still stuns the golf world today, that a man in his prime could say, simply, he’d accomplished all that he wanted to accomplish, and that’s that. “Bobby Jones,” says author Matthew, “was a hero after five o’clock.”

The life which Matthew traces in photographs and previously unpublished letters and interviews was that of a sickly child who couldn’t take solid food until he was five years old. In an effort to add some robustness to his son’s frame, Robert Jones, “The Colonel,” moved his family out next to the fairways of Atlanta’s East Lake Country Club. There, the youngster first picked up a club and began following his parents around the course. As he grew older, he began to mimic the swing of the Carnoustie-born head professional, Stewart Maiden, and. very soon he developed into a full-fledged prodigy at the game. At age 12, he won East Lake’s club champon ship, and then went down the road and won the championship at the nearby Druid Hills Golf Club as well. He then entered his first National Amateur in 1916 at age 14, with high hopes and lots of national press.

Although he shot the low medal round, immediately becoming known as “the Dixie whiz kid,” he only lasted a few rounds in match play before losing. It started a pattern that would last another seven years, and almost drove Jones from the game.

Before he could play up to his own ability, he had to battle his own inner demons and a fiery temper. The great sportswriter Grantland Rice, along with U.S. Open champions Long Jim Barnes and Alex Smith, once watched the teen-age Jones play, and during the round, Jones was seen to “violently reposition” his club after an errant shot. Smith immediately wrote him off. “He’ll never make a golfer... too much temper. Barnes disagreed. “This kid will be one of the world’s greatest in a few more years,” he said. Grantland Rice finally put it in perspective. “He isn’t just satisfied with lust a good shot. He wants it to be perfect—stone dead. He’s a fighting cock... a hot head. If he can’t learn to control it, he’ll never play the kind of golf he’ll be capable of shooting.” Others, including the eminent golf historian, Herbert Warren Wind, have insinuated that Bobby Jones battled the bottle during those seven long years of major contention and major disappointment. Historian Matthew does not disagree. “Jones drank his whole life,” he says. “There are real wonderful stories of the wide swath he cut on the road with O.B. Keeler and his other Southern friends. But I don’t think the booze ever got to such a proportion in his life that it became alarming.” If anything, this hint of a hero’s dark side adds to his stature.

After graduating from Georgia Tech, Jones spent two years studying literature at Harvard. He had used up his college golf eligibility, so he volunteered to be manager for Harvard’s golf team so he could earn his crimson “H.” But the team already had a manager, so he was named assistant manager, and although he regularly trimmed all the members of the Harvard golf team in informal matches, his job was to make sure a car full of moonshine made it to every tournament for the post-game celebrations. Thus did Bobby Jones earn his Harvard “H.”

Finally, in 1923, Bobby Jones conquered his demons, made the inner realization that he was, in fact, the best golfer on the planet, and broke through: he won the ‘23 Open at Inwood Country Club, and never looked back. Then in 1924, he won the U.S. Amateur and finished second in the Open. So, in 1925, he did the same again. In 1926 he won the U.S. Open, the British Open and finished second in the Amateur. In 1927, he won the British Open and the U.S. Amateur, and in 1928 he won the Amateur and finished second in the Open. 1929 was a lean year: he only won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. But the next year he made amends by capturing all four “major” titles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Walter Hagen, one of golfs immortals, summed up Jones run when he told Grantland Rice at the U.S. Open in 1930, “The remarkable thing about this championship is just this: here is the greatest field ever assembled on any golf course. Here you have the survivors of 1,200 entries and yet it is one field against one man----Bobby Jones. Nothing like this has ever happened before in golf, from the days of Vardon and Taylor and Braid to the present moment. It is almost unbelievable, but it is true.”

Then, on November 17, 1930, Jones announced his retirement in a terse statement. “Fourteen years of intense tournament play in this country and abroad had given mc about all I wanted in the way of hard work in the game. I had reached the point where I felt that my profession required more of my time and effort, leaving golf in its proper place, a means of obtaining recreation and enjoyment.” But a few months earlier, before capturing the final leg of the Grand Slam crown, the press had been clamoring for Jones to tell them what he planned for the future: turn pro, stay an amateur.. .what? Jones had turned to his personal Boswell, O.B. Keeler, the genial, quick-witted, two-fisted drinking newspaperman for The Atlanta journal, who had followed Bobby every step of the way for 14 years as friend, father confessor, drinking buddy and counselor. “You’d better tell them, O.B.,” Jones had said. And Keeler, who once faced down the erudite British writer Bernard Darwin in a quotation contest, climbed on a bench and recited the following verse from Belloc:

                            If ever I become a rich man,

                            or if ever I grow to be old,

                            I will build a house with a deep thatch

                            to shelter me from the cold.

                            I will hold my house in the

                            high woods within a walk of the sea,

                            and the men who were boys when I was a boy

                            shall sit and drink with me.

That verse, of course, perfectly summed up Bob Jones’ vision of Augusta National, the golfing club that he began building in 1931. Jones had been a major worldwide celebrity for more than a dozen years—he once commented, “I like the human race as a tribe, but I prefer it in small doses”—and Augusta National was going to be his refuge, lush and verdant and real quiet, with a lovely and yet challenging golf course to help him pass the time.

One can only wonder what the vision had been for Jones’ partner in the enterprise, the Wall Street financier Clifford Roberts, who had befriended Jones in the mid-1920s. Roberts’ job was to arrange the cold, hard cash to fund Jones’ dream, and in 1931 and 32, that was not easy, except for a man with Roberts’ flinty characteristics. Despite possessing personalities that could not be set at more opposite poles, the two men somehow managed to work together placidly for 40 years, giving birth not only to one of America’s preeminent golf clubs, but one of the world’s greatest sporting events. In the early 1950s, Jones was entertaining a banker from New York at Augusta, in hopes of being able to arrange financing for his other project, the Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta. He and the banker talked a while, and then Jones said, “I’d better run this past Cliff.” He picked up the telephone, got Roberts and explained that the gentleman from Citibank was sitting in front of him. Suddenly, the telephone erupted, loudly enough that Jones thrust the earpiece away. “NO! NO! NO! NO!” screamed the voice on the phone, and continued for several minutes, after which Jones hung up and smiled across the desk. “Clifford says that’ll be fine,” Jones said. It is one of the enduring tragedies of sport that Jones’ affable, human-friendly spirit no longer dwells within the the heavily guarded gates of the club on Washington Road in Augusta. All the men who were boys when Jones was a boy have died, as has he, and the place is now about making money and upholding the worst kinds of traditions: exclusion, power and status.

The Bobby Jones of Sidney Matthew’s book is a complete and whole. man again, a heroic figure who never lost his sense of humanity. Said Herbert Wind, “[He] had a sense of proportion uncommon in a man with a vigorously perfectionist side to his nature. He had incredible strength of character. As a young man, he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which is not easy, and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst. Jones, in short, was the model American athlete come to life, and it is to the credit of the American public that they recognized this almost instantly.”

Of course, it was not just the American public that lionized Jones. The Scots virtually worshiped the man. When he returned to St. Andrews in 1936 for a casual round of golf—he put his name in the daily ballot for a tee time—the word quickly spread, and when he stepped out to play, more than 3,000 townspeople were there just to watch. In his later years, afflicted with the syringomyelia that first wasted his body and then killed it, the Royal Burgh of St. Andrews made Jones a Freeman of the Burgh, an honor that had only been offered to one other American: Benjamin Franklin.

And when the end came, on December 18, 1971, they lowered the flag in front of the Royal and Ancient, and every golfer on the Old Course stopped playing and walked quietly off the course. When a hero has fallen, there is nothing else to do..

 JAMES Y. BARTLETT is FYI’s golf columnist.




Copyright@1996, Forbes 

March 11, 1996, (pgs. 69-74)

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