The Greatest of Them All (The American Golfer, $60) pays homage
to one of the few athletes, golfer Bobby Jones, who might
justifiably lay claim to that distinction, and not exclusively
because of his accomplishments from tee to green. As
publisher-editor-writer Martin Davis and his accompanying
battery of six contributing essayists contend, Jones was not
merely the finest player of his time--and, in their view, of all
time--he was also a most extraordinary human being, a man of
uncommon courage and integrity.
"In his instincts and behavior, he was what used to be called a
gentleman," writes one Jones admirer, the journalist and
television commentator Alistair Cooke. "I do believe that a
whole team of investigative reporters, working in shifts like
coal miners, would find that in all of Jones's life...he nothing
common did or mean."
But this handsome--one might even say beautiful--coffee-table
book, subtitled The Legend of Bobby Jones and enhanced by scores
of magnificent vintage photographs of the icon in action, backs
up its boastful title with some hard facts. "Comparison is
invidious," Davis quotes British golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas,
but "...in his time, Jones was supreme, at match and medal
play, to a greater extent than [Ben] Hogan or [Jack] Nicklaus
have been in theirs."
True enough, Jones's domination of his era was as nearly
complete as any athlete's in history. He won 13 major
championships--four U.S. Opens, three British Opens (in four
tries), five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur--between 1923
and his retirement at the youthful age of 28 in 1930. In his
last year of competition he became the only player to complete
what was then considered the Grand Slam of golf, winning in
succession within four months the British Amateur, the British
Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. Jones played in 31
majors during his brief 14-year career and won an astonishing
42% of them. Overall, he played in 52 tournaments and won 23 for
an even more astonishing 44%. One of editor Davis's experts,
two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, marvels at Jones's
decision to give up the game so "laughably" early while
speculating what further wonders he might have accomplished had
he played into middle age. But Jones, as much as he treasured
his sport, never looked back, mostly because he had so many
other fish to fry. By the time he was 21 and the U.S. Open
champion, he had received degrees in mechanical engineering from
Georgia Tech and in English literature from Harvard. By 24, and
after only three semesters of law school at Emory University in
his hometown of Atlanta, he was a practicing lawyer.
April 21, 1996
But though he stopped playing competitively, he never gave up
golf, devoting his spare time to designing clubs, making perhaps
the most informative instructional films ever and, most
memorably, founding the Augusta National Golf Club and, with his
friend Clifford Roberts, the tournament that has made the club
internationally renowned, the Masters.
Yet it is the man himself who ultimately captures the emo- tions
of The Greatest's contributors--Cooke, Crenshaw, New York Times
columnist Dave Anderson and golf writers Peter Dobereiner, Nick
Seitz and Larry Dorman. Dobereiner, the dean of British golf
writers, details reverentially how Jones, the very embodiment of
the English ideal of the gifted amateur, "conquered Britain as
comprehensively as the Roman legions [had] 2,000 years earlier."
In 1948, the last year he swung a golf club, Jones began
suffering from syringomyelia, an incurable disease of the spinal
cord that led to his death at 69, in 1971. It did not--until the
end--prevent him from appearing at the Masters or from
cheerfully sharing the company there of his countless friends.
"Perhaps it is best simply to say that just as there was a touch
of poetry to his golf," wrote Herbert Warren Wind in The Story
of American Golf, "so there was always a certain definite magic
about the man himself."
The Greatest of Them All goes far in words and pictures toward
recapturing some of that lost magic.