Until Bobby Jones came along, the amateur in golf was most often thought of as a gentleman of utter leisure who had as many hyphens and apostrophes in his name as he had lisps in his speech and lurches in his stride. Except for the rarity of a Francis Ouimet or Chick Evans, the amateur was usually somebody like swell old fun-to-be-with Winthrop D. Apostrophe Winter Hyphen Dexter (Sonny) Northington, who could usually be found idly inventing the striped tie or 14 over par and holding. If he was not the Sonny Northington whose great-grandfather had been the first actual whaling skipper ever to marry for money, then he might possibly be the grandson of colorful old Chip Northington, who once threatened to buy the Taiping Rebellion and move it to Muirfield if the members didn't speed up play. At any rate, Sonny went back a long way, except on his follow-through, neither of which happened to be a fact that mattered much to America. But then, delightfully, there was Jones.
What most everybody knows about Bobby Jones, mainly, is that he won a thing called the Grand Slam back in the days of the 15¢ lunch and the Packard Speedster, that he built a golf course out of a giant flower bed down in Georgia and that he originated a tournament called the Masters, which Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer used to win all the time if Gene Sarazen didn't make a double eagle or something.
Jones' tournament comes up again next week for the 34th time, which means that Augusta, Ga. for a few days will again become the world's most glorified parking lot. It also means that a select dozen or so amateurs, men who supposedly play the game for fun as Jones did, will get to mingle with the heavies of the sport for nothing more than prestige and a chance to win some assorted chunks of crystal and silver. And, of course, it means that they will most likely do a lot of thinking about Bobby Jones, who gave all amateurs a stature they had never known and popularized golf for everyone.
It has become a fact that aside from winning the U.S. Amateur or making the Walker Cup team, there is no higher honor an amateur can receive than the invitation from Jones to play in the Masters, there to stroll among the dogwood and Sarazens, the azalea and Palmers, to walk the rich green hills and valleys of the Augusta National course or browse through the relies of the meandering clubhouse, which range from a green-jacketed member to a thin steak sandwich to an old hickory-shafted iron that Bobby chipped with.
April 6, 1970
There have been so many true heroes in golf in the 40 years since Jones captured the Grand Slam and retired (at an appalling 28) that perhaps only those among us who have hooked or sliced into upper middle age may cling fondly to the memory of what he was and what he meant. Younger men might indeed tend to think of him as some kind of cliché, one whose name sounds so painfully suburban and whose deeds have been so closely associated with eating a hearty breakfast cereal that his reputation as an athlete, like that of your neighborhood All-America, must surely have been enhanced by the years.
Jones was very real, however, despite the fact that he was young, possessed startling good looks and rare charm, was disarmingly intelligent for an athlete and won big championships so regularly that Grantland Rice and O. B. Keeler almost ran out of superlatives. Almost but didn't. When Jones quit after the summer of 1930, after taking the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs—the Slam, in other words—both writers settled back in their own elegant styles and tried to explain why he had happened.
Rice said the explanation began with the correct fundamentals of swinging, unlimited concentration, unusual determination, physical strength and stamina and experience. "To this, one must add a blend of genius that is always beyond diagnosis—that has no place in any clinic." he wrote. "The results were obtained with an ease and grace that were born in the system. Of the thousands of pictures taken of [him], no one can recall an awkward pose, an awkward swing, a sign of effort beyond control."
Slightly more lavish was Keeler, the Atlanta newspaperman who saw Jones win all of his record 13 major championships. He said: "Looking back...you may see crisis after crisis where the least slip in nerve or skill or plain fortune would have spelled...ruin. Yet at every crisis he stood up to the shot with something which I can define only as inevitability and performed what was needed with all the certainty of a natural phenomenon."
In case anyone has forgotten how precisely phenomenal the record was, Jones managed to win five U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens and one British Amateur. But there are more fascinating ways to look at it. For example, he won well over a third of the 31 major championships he entered during the brief 13 years he competed (World War I eliminated two years of major championships). For eight straight summers he won a national title of some kind, either our Open or our Amateur. And one of the least-remembered statistics about it all is that Walter Hagen, the other reigning competitor of the era and the most glamorous pro, never won a U.S. or British Open that Jones played in.
But even beyond all of this, beyond his youth, looks and the fact that he was just about the winningest athlete of the whole Golden Age, there was the least-heralded aspect of Jones: his intellect. For it just so happened that during all of his victories he quietly picked up a degree in English literature at Harvard, studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and then, after only a year and a half at Emory University Law School, passed the Georgia bar exam. All of which seems now like a far better reason for Jones to have received not one but two ticker-tape parades in New York.
Proof of Jones' intellect was to be found in his writing. First of all, he himself formed the words and put them down, which is hardly the case of today's star, whose idea of literature is a tape recorder and a ghost-writer. Jones' golf articles remain perhaps the best instruction ever.
"Nobody ever swung a golf club too slowly," he said about timing.
On the pressure of a big championship: "One always feels that he is running from something without knowing exactly what nor where it is."
On shifting the weight: "No one would attempt to throw a baseball while reared back on his heels or to deliver a right uppercut while stepping away from his foe. Why, then, should he fling his left foot at the water bucket when he tries to hit a golf ball?"
On the whimsy of an 18-hole match: "I admit that 18 holes constitute a round of golf, but since this came about by accident rather than design, the fact furnishes no reason why 18 holes should be a test of golf."
And on his habit of playing his putts to die at the hole: "Of course we never know but that the ball which is on line and stops short would have holed out. But we do know that the ball that ran past did not hole out."
It could be argued that Jones' greatest achievements came after his playing days ended, those being, of course, the building of the Augusta National and the starting of the Masters. To design Augusta, with Dr. Alister MacKenzie, he drew on all of his experiences but largely on his fondness for Sunningdale, a marvelous course near London that has many of the same qualities—hills, trees, great beauty and variety—that the National ended up with.
It is unlikely that many modern fans realize the Masters was first called only the Augusta National Invitational Tournament and that its front and back nines were just the opposite from the way they play today.
As for how the name Masters came into being, no one is really sure. Jones liked to give both Grantland Rice and his friend Clifford Roberts the credit, but in any case he once said, revealing his subtle humor, "I must admit that the name was rather born of immodesty."
It would be nice to think that the reason a few amateurs have done well in the Masters is because of their reverence of Jones and their knowledge of what he has contributed to golf, but this is probably without substance. While the amateur seems sometimes to be more welcome on the premises than most of the pros, and while the fairways are pretty wide, and while the field is not as fierce as that of the Open or even most of the big-money summer stops on the tour, the real explanation for the near success of such players as Frank Stranahan, Ken Venturi, Billy Joe Patton and Charlie Coe is that they were golfers of rare brilliance in spurts.
Stranahan, for example, never had to apologize for his ability. He was good enough to win four tournaments on the pro tour as an amateur. So it was not too surprising in 1947 to see him finish with a four-under-par 68 on Sunday, a total of 283 and a tie with Byron Nelson for second in the Masters, two strokes behind Jimmy Demaret.
"I never actually felt I had a chance of winning," Frank remembers. "All I knew was that I was finishing strong. What saddens me a little is that in the days when I was the low amateur they didn't give any prizes."
Two amateurs came within a single error in judgment of capturing the Masters, of becoming the first for-fun player to steal a major championship since Johnny Goodman won the U.S. Open of 1933. Each was perhaps the most deserving player of his glory-filled week at Augusta, but each lost it, finally, through inexperience and immaturity. They were, of course, Patton in 1954 and then Venturi in 1956.
Patton wound up tossing the title away on the final nine holes by gambling at the two par 5s, 13 and 15—even though he led—and taking a 6 and a 7. Two months later he furnished proof that he had not been just an odd catastrophe by finishing in a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open.
Two years later Venturi, just out of the Army and lobbied into the tournament by his teacher and friend, Byron Nelson, dominated play for 70 agonizing holes. He fired a 66 in the opening round and followed it up with a 69. Venturi held his lead through the third round. In fact, he held it until the 71st hole, where he made his last bogey of the day for a disastrous 80, while Jack Burke Jr. holed a monster for a birdie, a 71 and victory.
"I kept trying to play safe," says Venturi, "instead of being smart enough to play those hard greens and that wind and each hole for what it was."
The last serious bid by an amateur in the Masters was by Charlie Coe, who is an Augusta member wearing a green jacket. Five times the tournament's low amateur and a man who has posted 20 rounds of par or better in the event over the years, Charlie tied for second in 1961, the year Palmer made the double bogey on the last green and allowed Gary Player to win. Coe, too, had a chance in the midst of Arnold's embarrassing misery, but he failed to hole a birdie putt on the last green.
"I was only trying to be second," he says. "It never occurred to me that I had a chance until the final green."
It is safe to say that nothing would have pleased Jones quite so much as seeing one of these amateurs—or someone like a Vinnie Giles or Steve Melnyk—win the Masters. That day might have come and gone with the Pattons and Coes and young Venturis, but then one never knows.
The nicest thing for most everyone who cares about golf is that Bobby Jones' days have never really vanished, thanks mostly to the tournament he created. At least for a few days every April one can contemplate the man and his feats with a renewed relish or listen as others do so.
What Jones meant to his followers was most vividly displayed as recently as 1959, almost 30 years after the Grand Slam. On the eve of winning that Masters it was Art Wall's fate to be relaxing in the lobby of the old Bon Air Hotel when he was suddenly approached by a fan with a Southern accent, a man who was properly scorched from the day's sun and duly fortified by Augusta's beverages.
"Ain't you Art Wall?" the man asked.
"Yes," said Art.
"Ain't you suppose to have made 34 hole in ones or somethin'?"
Wall looked a bit embarrassed and nodded that he was, yes, that person.
"Son, who you tryin' to fool? Bobby didn't make but three!"