BOBBY JONES...SIMPLY GRAND

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
April 3, 2005

BY RON RAPOPORT SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

ON SEPT. 27, 1930, A NERVOUS YOUNG GOLFER NAMED EUGENE HOMANS HIT A
BALL THAT LAY 20 FEET FROM THE 11TH HOLE OF MERION GOLF CLUB'S EAST
COURSE IN ARDMORE, PA., ON PHILADELPHIA'S MAIN LINE. FOR A MOMENT, THE
PUTT APPEARED TO HAVE A CHANCE, BUT HALFWAY TO THE CUP, IT BROKE TO
THE RIGHT. WHILE IT WAS STILL ROLLING, HOMANS WALKED NOT AFTER HIS
BALL, BUT, SMILING BROADLY, TOWARD HIS OPPONENT.

Bobby Jones' final act in achieving the Grand Slam was not making a
putt of his own, but shaking Eugene Homans' hand.

*****

It has been 75 years since Jones accomplished one of the most storied
feats in the history of sports -- a feat that became the stuff of
legend when it was quickly realized it never would happen again. Jones
won the U.S. and British Open and Amateur championships in 1930, but
amateur golf was in decline, and it was clear that Open championships
soon would be won only by professionals.

The very term Grand Slam, which had been coined that summer by Jones'
friend and biographer, the Atlanta sportswriter O.B. Keeler, fell into
disuse until, in 1960, Arnold Palmer revived it overnight. Why not
create a "new'' Grand Slam, Palmer suggested after he had won the
Masters and U.S. Open that year? It would begin with the Masters --
the tournament Jones helped create on a course he helped build --
continue with the U.S. and British Opens and end with the PGA
Championship.

But Palmer failed in his quest, and his version of the Grand Slam
never has been accomplished, a fact that did not displease Jones. The
new Grand Slam, he wrote in 1967, four years before he died, was a
creature of professionals and television people. And it was phony.

*****

Beginning with the Masters this week, the 75th anniversary of the
Grand Slam will be celebrated throughout the spring and summer in
retrospectives and observances on both sides of the Atlantic. So
perhaps this is the time to take a closer look at one of the most
admired athletes America has produced -- and one of the most
mythologized.

My own attempt to navigate a path between the life and the legend
appears in The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf,
which has just been published by John Wiley & Sons.

*****

During the 1920s, Jones was the object of tumultuous displays of
affection in both the United States and Britain. He remains the only
person to have two ticker-tape parades up Broadway in his honor, and
the demonstrations after several of his tournament victories grew so
out of control, they occasionally threatened his safety. And in the
minds of some of the most prominent journalists of the era, Jones
evoked an added emotion: awe.

These writers were drawn to Jones in part by his education, which was
rare among champion athletes, then as well as now. He had a diploma in
mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, another degree in literature
from Harvard and, after winning five national championships in the
U.S. and Britain, he entered law school at Emory University in
Atlanta. Only the fact that he passed the state bar during his second
year kept him from earning a third degree.

Jones was also at the very least their equal as a writer. He once
estimated his published output at half a million words, and his
youthful autobiography, Down the Fairway, remains a classic of sports
literature.

Occasionally, Jones would write accounts of some of his matches that
would appear in the next day's newspapers alongside the reports of the
mere journalists covering the events. Jones would walk off the course,
seek a quiet corner to write his articles in longhand or borrow
Keeler's typewriter. Even after some of his most debilitating matches
during the Grand Slam, Jones sat down and wrote about them.

Thus was Jones' attraction to the sportswriters of his generation
complete. He was a great athlete, a fascinating person and a bona fide
intellectual who valued their craft as well as his own. What else was
there?

So it may not be going too far to say that if Bobby Jones had not
existed, the myth-making sportswriters of the Golden Age of Sports
might have had to invent him. And in a sense, perhaps they did.

Their affection for Jones led to portrayals that left Babe Ruth, Jack
Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden and the other great athletes of the
era behind.

As talented and popular as they were, they were in it for the money,
while Jones, an amateur who never accepted a winner's purse, was not.

They were susceptible to the temptations of fame in the new age of
celebrity, while Jones, who fled to the serenity of his home in
Atlanta when not playing golf, was not.

They tended toward showmanship and arrogance, flaunting their talents,
taunting and belittling their opponents, while Jones, the embodiment
of modesty and Southern courtesy, did not.

Occasionally, those who assumed the task of explaining Jones to an
increasingly fascinated public would assure their audiences that Jones
was not a saint, not perfect. But even the flaws they listed
proclaimed a humanity that only added to his mystique.

Jones regularly drank alcoholic beverages, newspaper and magazine
readers were told, and had a particular affection for home-distilled
corn whiskey. He occasionally swore, on the golf course and off, and
was known to enjoy bawdy stories. His temper was notorious in his
younger days, and it was not until he brought it under control that he
became a champion.

So, Jones was seen as that rare combination of noble patrician and
regular guy. He was courtly, well-spoken, wise ... and humble,
approachable, one of the boys. By the time the catalog was complete,
it seemed almost beside the point that he was also the greatest golfer
the world had known.

"I come now with faltering pen to the greatest of them all,'' the
great British golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote in Golf Between Two
Wars, and the title of the chapter devoted to Jones betrayed his
feelings before he wrote a word: "The Immortal Bobby.''

*****

But in researching Jones' life and career -- and in talking to scores
of people who knew and have studied him -- I discovered a disparity
between the man and the myth that was not always so simple.

Consider Jones' decision to remain an amateur his entire career. Was
it a noble example of the ideals of a true sportsman or a recognition
that professional golf in the 1920s and 1930s was a financially
precarious enterprise that required constant travel and
self-promotion, neither of which suited him?

Jones never romanticized his choice -- he admired professional golfers
and enjoyed playing with them -- but neither did he object to those
who did. If it fit some beau ideal image to depict him as putting his
clubs away for months at a time while he practiced law, so be it. Even
if, as was the case in the winter of 1925, he played golf in Florida
with Tommy Armour almost every day for five months.

Two months after he won the Grand Slam, Jones announced his retirement
at the age of 28, and shortly afterward he was in Hollywood making a
popular series of movie shorts with many of the era's top stars --
W.C. Fields, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and
others who happily worked for free just to be able to play golf with
him. Jones also signed a contract with Spalding to manufacture the
clubs that bore his name and remained on the market until after his
death.

Jones earned an estimated $300,000 in 1931, more than twice the total
value of all the money awarded in professional tournaments in the
United States that year. It would be more than 40 years before Jack
Nicklaus would earn that much money playing golf in a single year.

Jones' life and career contain other ironies, as well.

Though his personal charm and capacity for friendship seemed
limitless, he was capable of holding an implacable grudge against a
former friend and golf champion who had offended him, Chicago's Chick
Evans. I found reading the letters between those two great patriarchs
of golf -- Evans' entreaties to forgive and forget, Jones' cold
refusal -- to be excruciating.

And while Jones' record of kindness to any black person who crossed
his path is not in dispute -- the grandson of his former caddie told
me several touching stories -- he kept his views on his notoriously
segregated sport to himself. This was true even when a battle over the
integration of Atlanta's municipal Bobby Jones Golf Course reached the
U.S. Supreme Court. And at a time when his home city and state were
choosing up sides on civil rights, Jones was offering his private
support to some of Georgia's most powerful segregationist politicians.

There is also compelling evidence that what we have been told about
the spinal condition that reduced him to a painful immobility is
incomplete and incorrect. Though Jones refused even to consider the
possibility that the game he loved could have exacted such cruel
revenge, a neurosurgeon who has studied his condition thoroughly told
me that an important role in the illness that made his final years so
desperate was almost certainly played by golf itself.

*****

Jones was never more human than when he was on the golf course. He was
the most accomplished golfer of his time -- the most naturally gifted,
the most technically proficient, the keenest student, the most
fiercely competitive. And yet he was capable of sensational blunders,
of unthinking lapses and of letting opponents off the hook time after
time.

Part of Jones' appeal lay in his ability to come up with an almost
impossibly dramatic shot just when he needed it most. His victory in
the 1930 U.S. Open, for instance, came only after one of his shots
literally walked on water. But while there are many instances when he
came from behind to beat an opponent, there are almost as many when he
frittered away a lead to turn an easy win into a defeat, or a victory
so agonizing he could take no pleasure from it.

This was never more true than during his quest for the Grand
Slam. Though it remains golf's greatest accomplishment, it was a
precarious adventure that was littered with near catastrophes and
could have come unraveled at any moment.

The Grand Slam also contained some simply remarkable events: Jones
getting out of a tight spot by using a club that soon would be ruled
illegal; a controversial and unprecedented ruling by Prescott Bush,
the president's grandfather; mob scenes on the courses that were all
but uncontrollable and, in fact, helped determine the outcome of
several matches. No wonder he retired from golf two months later at
28. The game was driving him crazy.

"I was writing in the room where he was waiting to know if he had
won,'' Darwin wrote after Jones' final round in the 1930 British
Open. "He was utterly exhausted and had to hold his glass in two hands
lest the good liquor be spilt. All he could say was that he would
never, never do it again. He could doubtless have won more and more
championships, but at too high a price.''

*****

And so Jones retired from competition but not from golf, a sport he
promoted and earned a living from the rest of his life. And he
continued to play in Atlanta, at the Masters and elsewhere until one
day in 1948 when, toward the end of a round at East Lake Country Club,
the course where he had learned to play as a boy, he turned to his
friend Charlie Yates and said, "I guess I won't be playing with you
boys anymore for a while. I've decided to have an operation.'' He
never played again.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,'' a newspaper editor
says in the John Ford film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.'' In the
case of Bobby Jones, the legend has the virtue of being the truth.

He was a great golfer, an icon who was revered in his own country and
adored in Great Britain, a model of rectitude, an amiable companion, a
loving husband, a doting father, a loyal friend.

Can the fact that these were not the only truths surprise us? Does the
knowledge that he was subject to the complexities and contradictions
that life holds for everyone diminish his stature among the great
champions of sport? Surely not, because as the makers of the legend
suggested with a knowing wink, Bobby Jones was not a saint after all,
but a human being.