As with many young hotheaded super-talents, it took Bobby Jones some time to grow up and learn how to be a man. He was a perfectionist as a youngster, and when he'd miss an easy shot, he might take the ball and wind up like Nolan Ryan on PCP and throw the ball over the crowd as far into the woods as he could. Once, he took Calamity Jane (this was his nickname for his putter) and helicoptered her into the trees surrounding the green which had just mocked him by disallowing his putt to fall. They say it was an Atlanta sportswriter named O.B. "Pop" Keller who became his sensei and taught little Bobby what it means to be a man as well as a real golfer. I suppose that makes Keller one of the first sports psychologists.
Ah, but I'm ahead of myself in this story, aren't I? You probably don't even know who Bobby Jones is. Let me back up and try to summarize the story of this fellow who was the Tiger Woods of his era, back in the first half of the last Century.
He was born Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. on March 17, 1902. His dad, Colonel Robert P. Jones, was a well-known lawyer in Atlanta, GA. His birthday was St. Patrick's Day, but the luck of the Irish was not with the wee one in the beginning. He was never well as a child. In fact, it's said that he didn't eat solid food until he was five years old. His family moved out to a summer home near East Lake Country Club when he was six, partially in order to see if the country air would help their son get over whatever it was that was ailing him.
Bobby did start to overcome his difficulties and even started to play some sports such as baseball and golf. There was a Scottish pro at this Country Club near his house, and he patterned a golf swing by watching this fellow hit balls. He would follow Stewart Maiden (isn't that a great name?) around as he played eighteen holes, and this is about as close as Jones ever got to a formal golf lesson.
When he was nine years old, he won the Atlanta Athletic Club junior title by beating a 16-year-old kid. You know that had to burn that teenager up to get whipped by a nine-year-old, don't you? Apparently he was a fat little nine-year-old by this time, too. He had apparently overcome his inability to eat solid foods. He was still pudgy at 14 when he won the Georgia Amateur, and became the youngest player ever to qualify and play in the U. S. Amateur Championship. He stunned the field with his performance at that Championship, even though he didn't win. The buzz around the golf circle was that there was a new young phenom from down South who was going to be one to watch out for as years went by.
"Jones has the face of an angel and the temper of a timber wolf." -- Sportswriter Grantland Rice
That temper and sense of perfection kept dogging Bobby Jones as he grew up and more and more folks expected even grander heroics from him. The defining moment in his life was probably at the 1921 British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews. He had come to Great Britain to play in the British Amateur at Royal Liverpool and the Open Championship at St. Andrews. He'd lost in the fourth round of the Amateur and probably still had some red ass over that failure. When he got to the Old Course at St. Andrews, he was bitching about the course from day one. Despite this, and despite not playing his best, the 19-year-old kid from Dixie was still leading all the amateurs after two rounds of the Open. In the third round he shot a horrendous 46 on the front nine and started the back nine with a double bogey on Number 10. Number 11 is a Par 3 and he hit his ball into the infamous sand trap known as Hell Bunker. This little thing looks like a pit where you'd torture small animals. He had a hard time getting out (as do many who find themselves in Hell) and finally just picked his ball up and stormed off the course. This sounds like something John Daly would do these days, doesn't it? Well, the British press didn't take kindly to this behavior and Jones got the John Rocker treatment in the papers of the day.
This was the turning point. This is when O.B. Keeler got involved with Jones and began traveling with him to tournaments. In 1923 Jones choked after having a 3-shot lead in the final round at the U.S. Open at Inwood Country Cub in New York. He did manage to eke out the 18-hole playoff the next day by hitting a 2-iron from the rough on the final hole to within eight feet. This was his first major championship and was also the time in his life when he grew up. He was 21 years old. That sounds about right to me. If you haven't grown up by the time you're 21, you may well never.
For the next seven years, Bobby Jones would be the Tiger Woods of his day. He was seldom out of contention in any tournament he entered. He won at least one national championship each of those seven years. He won 13 out of the 21 major championships he entered. His two closest rivals (think Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els in relation to Tiger) were Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. Neither of them won any U.S. or British Open during this period if Bobby Jones was in the field.
In 1926, he became the only amateur golfer ever to win both the U.S. and British Open in the same year. In 1927, the British Open was back at the Old Course in St. Andrews. He humbled himself to the people of St. Andrews as well as to the course itself and left an impression which is one of the greatest stories in sports. After his death, Number 10 (the site of the double bogey which pissed him off so badly back in 1921) was named "Bobby Jones". In October of 1958, long after he'd retired from playing golf, St. Andrews invited him over in order to confer upon him the Freedom of the City and the Royal Burgh of St. Andrews. There was only one other American so honored by the city of St. Andrews. That was Benjamin Franklin back in 1759.
A fairly famous writer at the time, Herbert Warren Wind, was present at this event. This is what he wrote of what happened after Jones gave his speech that day:
"He left the stage and got into his electric golf cart. As he directed it down the aisle to leave, the whole hall spontaneously burst into the old Scottish song Will ye No Come back Again? So honestly heartfelt was this reunion for Bobby Jones and the people of St. Andrews (and for everyone) that it was ten minutes before many who attended were able to speak again in a tranquil voice."
He never was able to come back to St. Andrews. But he did give a wonderful speech that day in 1958. Here is some of what he said:
"There are two very important words in the English language that are very much mis-used and abused. They are friend and friendship. When I say to a person, 'I am your friend,' I have said about the ultimate. When I say, 'You are my friend,' I am assuming too much, for it is a possibility that you do not want to accept my friendship. When I have said as much about you and you have done so much for me, I think that when I say, 'You are my friend,' under these circumstances, I am, at the same time, affirming my affection and regard for you and expressing my complete faith in you and my trust in the sincerity of your friendship.
"Therefore, when I say now to you - 'Greetings, my friends at St Andrews, ' I know I am not presuming because of what has passed between us."
In 1930, Jones won what was called back then the Grand Slam: He won the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the Amateur Championships that year. When you heard all that talk this year about Tiger Woods possibly winning the Grand Slam, this is the legacy he's chasing. One could not overlook the irony of a man of mixed race trying as hard as he can to match the record of the boy from Atlanta who went on to help build the all-white, all-male Augusta National course where the Masters is played each year. To make that story seamless and perfect, Tiger Woods gets his back up if someone calls him black or if they try to egg him on to comment about the policies of Augusta National. He says, "It's a private club. They can do what they like. It's none of my business." You can bet your bottom dollar that behavior like this is going to ensure that Tiger Woods is remembered as more than a golfer as time goes on. It may be for different reasons than his dad, Earl, would like. But, in my humble opinion, they will be grander and far superior reasons.
Anyway, I'm sure Tiger would agree with Jones' statement when he was asked about the membership rules at Augusta National. He said, "I like the human race as a tribe, but I prefer it in small doses." Amen, brother Jones.
Of course, the biggest difference between Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones is that Tiger Woods is a professional golfer. Most of those who followed golf back in the early 1900s assumed Jones would turn pro and continue to win golfing events for years and years to come. He left their mouths wide open when he announced, just a month after completing that Grand Slam in 1930, that he was retiring from golf. He was only 28 years old.
He continued to do golf-related things, such as starring in a dozen short, educational films on "How I Play Golf" for Warner Brothers. These films are on video now and continue to be great teaching tools for anyone interested in the golf swing. It's also just downright charming to hear the Southern drawl come out of this guy's mouth.
And, as I said, he designed Augusta National which opened for play in 1933. This course has come to be some sort of shrine to golf. Just listen to the hushed tones of the TV guys as they cover this tournament each year. It's sacred ground.
Jones was in the Army during World War II and landed at Normandy the day after D-Day. He spent several months in Europe fighting the war and came home a Lieutenant Colonel. Later in his life, he would not speak much of his experiences over there, and he was the same way when folks wanted to chat him up about his golfing life.
The kid who was sickly when young and robust as a man fell to illness again as he grew older. In 1948 he was having horrible pains in his neck and back. He was diagnosed (at age 46) with a rare degenerative disease of the central nervous system called syringomyelia. He had to start using a cane, and finally could only get around in a wheelchair. Someone asked him a question about the disease which caused him so much pain for 22 years until he died. He simply said, "We all have to play the ball as it lies."
On December 18, 1971, the flag on the clubhouse at the Old Course at St. Andrews was lowered to half-staff. All play was stopped for a remembrance. Bobby Jones had died at the age of 69.
When praised for his honesty, Jones once replied,
"You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game."
Jones played in only 52 events as a golfer. He won 23 of them.