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.