Bound by the drive and a Slam
By Rial Cummings of the Missoulian
April 25, 2005

The man was a golfing prodigy, celebrated from sea to shining sea by the time he was old enough to shave. Handsome, intelligent, polished, he enjoyed the benefits of an upper crust education, yet swore with earthy feeling on the course and traded bawdy jokes off it.

He bashed the ball prodigious distances, holed outrageous putts, dominated his peers on the par-5s ... and collected major championships like lint.

Galleries literally mobbed him every step of the way, on both sides of the Atlantic. He wasn't just the most naturally gifted player of his time, or the most technically sound, or the most ambitious, or the most charismatic, though all of those were arguably true. Somehow, he possessed that rarest blend of skill and will - the ability to summon his best when the stakes were highest, and do it even after making mistakes.

His contemporaries stood in awe of his talent and, at times, crumbled in the face of his resolution. Even when his game wasn't at its best, they had reason to fear the worst.

He made a ton of money because of golf, and felt a deep sense of responsibility to uphold its values. Incredibly, before the age of 30, he held all four of the sport's most cherished championships at the same time.

And his name wasn't Tiger Woods.

You're going to hear a lot this summer about Bobby Jones, American golf's original boy wonder. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., winning golf's Grand Slam, a feat that made Jones the beau ideal of the 1920s, the era that myth-making sportswriters dubbed the Golden Age of Sports. Their admiration for Jones outstripped the other greats: Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden.

The glow was preserved in amber when Jones, an amateur who whipped all the professionals - claiming 13 major titles in a span of just seven years - walked away from competitive golf after that earth-shaking season. He was still only 28, an age when most golfers haven't entered their prime.

(By comparison, the 29-year-old Woods has won nine majors, the latest coming a couple of weeks ago when he holed out a miraculous chip late in the final round of the Masters - the tournament Jones helped create on a course he helped design.)

Ron Rapoport, an award-winning sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, admires Jones too. But his new biography, "The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf," presents a more complete - and complex - portrait of the man from Georgia who was very much a product of his time and place.

"I was determined to separate the man from the myth, because he's been mythologized through the years," said Rapoport, in Missoula last week to talk with journalism students at the University of Montana. "But the big problem was separating the myths from the myths. The myths have been repeated so many times that layers have been added to them."

You can't talk about Jones, who died in 1971, without bringing up Woods. They had so much in common, not the least of which was their devotion to golf, a game that, as any devotee can attest, steals the heart and tortures the soul in equal measure. Augusta National, a world-renowned course in Augusta, Ga., and the Masters tournament are Jones' finest legacies; Woods has made them his own.

Woods won his first major there in 1997, by an astonishing 12 strokes, and with his combination of length and touch has since added three more Green Jackets, emblematic of the Masters champion. His latest triumph, following a stretch of 10 majors without a victory, put Tiger back on track to fulfill his self-professed goal of catching Jack Nicklaus, golf's all-time leader with six Masters and 18 professional majors.

Yet, Jones and Woods will always be separated, and not just by time. Woods is invariably thought of as the first great black golfer, although his mother hails from Thailand. Jones was born and raised in Atlanta at a time when the mayor was a proud member of the Klu Klux Klan.

As the most beloved Southerner since Robert E. Lee, Bobby Jones was in a unique position to promote racial progress, an opportunity he never embraced, within golf or the wider community.

"When it comes to race, the record is very conflicted," Rapoport said. "He had these wonderful relationships with black people all his life, and if anybody insulted or degraded a black person in front of him, Jones would let him have it in no uncertain terms. ... But while he was very political, and didn't care who knew about it, there was one subject he never, ever wrote about, or, as far as I could discover, even talked about. And that was race, the biggest, most important political issue of his time."

While other barriers fell, one by one, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the Augusta National club's exclusion of black members attracted increasing criticism. So did its refusal to invite a black player to compete in the Masters. Charlie Sifford was good enough to win a PGA Tour event, the Los Angeles Open, in 1969, but never got the call. Eventually the qualifying rules were amended so that any PGA Tour victor automatically received an invitation, and Lee Elder became the first black participant in 1975 - the year Woods was born.

As Rapoport points out, Jones, privately or publicly, could've made sure a black player was invited long before Elder; he could've insisted that the municipal course in Atlanta that bore his name be desegregated. He didn't.

"I don't think he disliked black people. I don't know whether he thought they were inferior or not," Rapoport said. "I do think he believed in the Southern social order, though I can only infer it."

Given this background, what would've Jones thought of Woods?

"I think he would've loved Tiger, because he really loved golf and golfers," Rapoport said. "Jones would've appreciated not just the way Tiger played, but his respect for the sport."

It seems the height of irony that Woods, who recently married Swedish model Elin Nordegren, could wind up with eight or nine Masters titles before he's through, linking his name to Augusta above all others.

"What it tells me is that the world has really changed," Rapoport said. "He not only won (the Masters), but the first thing he did was give a real big sloppy kiss to a blonde lady. And that's what they were fighting against, integration, intermarriage. Talk about a different time."

Even today, in our celebrity-mad culture, it would be hard to exaggerate the breadth and depth of Jones' appeal.

He earned degrees in engineering from Georgia Tech and literature from Harvard; passed the bar after only two years of law school at Emory University, smack dab in the middle of his golfing career; wrote gracefully about the sport in numerous books and articles. He once estimated his published output at half a million words.

Sometimes, Jones would write accounts of his matches that would appear in the newspaper the next day, alongside dispatches from the regular sportswriters.

Only a few million Americans played golf in the 1920s. There was no television. Fans knew him only by reading about his triumphs in newspapers and magazines, catching glimpses of him in newsreels, and occasionally hearing him on the radio.

But folks were mad about Bobby. Not once, but twice, New York City showered him with ticker-tape parades that rivaled the one it gave Charles Lindbergh.

According to Rapoport, that popularity rested on many factors. He retained an innate sense of modesty, although his accomplishments were the stuff of dime novels. He regularly drank alcoholic beverages, readers were told, and had a particular liking for home-distilled corn whiskey. He had a fierce temper, which he struggled to control, especially in his younger days.

"He was seen as this combination of noble patrician and regular guy," Rapoport said.

The most enduring myth was that Jones practiced law during the winter, beat the pros who were playing year-round, then put away the sticks when summer was done.

"That's bunk," Rapoport said. "He played a ton of golf. He played all the time. He loved playing golf."

As an example, Rapoport points to the winter of 1925, when Jones and Tommy Armour played grudge matches in Florida every day for almost five months.

It is true that Jones, who came from comfortable means, chose to remain an amateur throughout his career. Then again, pro golf was tenuous at best until prize money exploded in the 1960s. Until then, almost all touring pros were tied to club jobs.

Shortly after he retired, Jones went to Hollywood to make a series of popular movie shorts with such stars as W.C. Fields, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. He also signed a contract with Spalding to manufacture clubs bearing his name. According to Rapoport, Jones earned an estimated $300,000 in 1931, more than twice the value of the all the money awarded in U.S. professional tournaments that year. It would be more than 40 years before Jack Nicklaus earned that much money playing golf in a single year.

"Bobby made a fortune from golf," Rapoport said. "But he was honest about it. I will serve golf, and golf will serve me, he said. It did for the rest of his life."

Jones' greatest accomplishment, winning the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur titles in the same year, didn't even have a name at the time. And no one really talked about it beforehand or while it was happening, not even Jones.

"The idea hadn't occurred to anybody," Rapoport said.

Sportswriter O.B. Keeler, a friend and confidante, came up with the term Grand Slam as the two were sailing home after the British Amateur and British Open. When Jones went on to claim the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur, it was clear it would never be accomplished again, because professionals were so much better than other amateurs, aside from Jones.

The modern version of the Grand Slam, a concept conceived by Arnold Palmer and his marketers in 1960, consists of winning the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in the same year, a feat no one has accomplished.

Woods achieved the so-called "Tiger Slam" when he won the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship in 2000, then won the Masters, the first major of 2001. Now, having won the Masters, there will be plenty of speculation about his chances of pulling off a historic Grand Slam in 2005, putting his name alongside Jones.

Rapoport doubts whether Jones, given a high-strung, nervous temperament, could've endured the grind of the modern PGA Tour. Jones rarely played more than four tournaments a year during his career, and the strain was so great that he was said to have lost 18 pounds during one event. After winning the U.S. Open in 1926, a tournament in which he almost frittered away the lead, Jones returned to his hotel room and wept.

The Grand Slam season was littered with near catastrophes. But Jones surmounted them all.

"The first seven years of his career he had a lot of near misses," Rapoport said. "Even the great golfers are going to lose a lot more than they win. Jones was beginning to doubt himself, but when he finally broke through and started winning, he won in bunches."

In the end, however, Jones was something much more than just a legendary athlete. He was a human being, flawed and vulnerable. It's a story well worth hearing again, for the first time.