THE GHOST OF BOBBY JONES SENT HIS REGRETS BY TELEGRAM ...
This is an article from the April 8, 2008 issue
"It was weird," I told Dr. Kline at our weekly session. "The doorbell rang at midnight. I looked out the peephole, and there was a kid in a Western Union uniform on the front step with big wet snowflakes falling and a motorcycle parked at the curb."
Dr. Kline asked to see the telegram.
"I didn't think to bring it," I said. "Next time."
He gave me a tight-lipped smile and reached for his prescription pad.
I'll be the first to admit that I was under a lot of stress. My New York editors had been pressing me for years to "do Jones." They said the public was tired of greenkeeper ghosts and apparitions with muttonchop whiskers who won at Prestwick in the gaslight era. "Jones is the gold standard," they said. "Get Jones or get lost."
It did me no good to explain that Robert Tyre Jones Jr. is the shyest of golf ghosts. I thought I had him cornered once, on the Lake Shore Limited between Chicago and New York, but the ghost in the Pullman compartment turned out to be his friend and mentor, the sportswriter O.B. Keeler. Another time I caught a glimpse of a ghost I thought was Jones—a golfer with a shining aura crossing the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews—but that proved to be the ghost of St. Francis of Assisi, a mid-handicapper at best.
Anyway, I decided that I would make one last effort to reach out to Jones. I flew to Augusta in late February and checked into the Partridge Inn. When night fell, I threw on a jacket and cap and drove to the Augusta National Golf Club. The guard in the gatehouse recognized me and waved me in, yelling "Boo!" as I rolled by. (Everybody's a comedian.)
The clubhouse was lit up and the parking lot was packed, but I found a spot under a tree. I walked boldly through the front door and past the reception desk, through the crowded Trophy Room (where I once interviewed the ghost of Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts), out the doors onto the veranda, across the lawn and out to the 10th tee. There was no moon. I could barely make out the tops of the pines against the coal-black sky.
I thrust my hands in my jacket pockets and waited. An hour passed, then another. I walked in little circles and did deep knee bends to keep warm. The clubhouse lights beckoned and the aroma of grilled steaks tested my resolve, but I maintained my vigil. Voices and laughter came from the Eisenhower and Butler cabins, and a single light burned in a window of the Jones cabin, where the great man had lived while performing his duties as cofounder and president of Augusta National.
More hours passed. The clubhouse windows went dark, but the security lights continued to illuminate the big oak tree and the green-and-white umbrellas. I was cold, stiff, hungry—and determined.
"You're determined, I'll give you that."
Startled, I wheeled around. A shadowy figure stood between the tee markers, a man dressed in plus fours, a white shirt and a bow tie.
My mind was dulled by hours of waiting. I stupidly blurted a sentry's challenge: "Identify yourself!"
The figure dropped a golf ball on the grass, conjured up a hickory-shafted brassie and hit a shot for me. The ball disappeared in the night, but there was no mistaking that long, smooth, loose-limbed swing.
"Mr. Jones," I said, "it's an honor."
The ghost of Jones wanted to walk, so we set off down the hill under a suddenly full moon. His stride was brisk, almost bouncy, the gait he would have displayed between the ages of 21 and 28, when he won 13 major championships on both sides of the Atlantic. "I play at night," he said in a syrupy Georgia drawl, "and I play fast. There's no need to concentrate, no fear of hitting the careless shot." He stepped up to his ball in the fairway and smacked an iron shot. I couldn't follow its flight, but Jones uttered an anachronistic, "Be the club!"
When we got to the green, Jones bent over and retrieved his ball from the hole.
"I think I enjoyed playing in tournaments more before I began winning them," he said, leading me toward the 11th tee. "I suppose that's because I had nothing on my mind but my hat, and no reputation to live up to."
On number 11 he drove his ball into the middle of the fairway—from the members' tee, not from the back-in-the-trees pulpit that Tiger and Phil use—and then holed his approach shot for another eagle. "What do you think of the course changes?" I asked as we walked up the fairway. "It's hundreds of yards longer than when you and Alister MacKenzie designed it. It's tighter. It has rough."
"I'll duck that question," Jones said, glancing back at the recently installed grove of pines that narrows the 11th fairway. "But I used to say that if I'd been sentenced to play only one course for the rest of my life, I'd have chosen ... St. Andrews." He noticed my surprise and chuckled. "The way we build a course in this country, the designer tells you how you must play it. He gives you a fairway and a green and some bunkers, and he says you have to drive it here and pitch it there and so on." Jones added that you could drive it almost anywhere at St. Andrews, "but you have to pick the right spot according to the weather and the condition of the ground."
He took his ball out of the hole and we walked on to the 12th, the infamous par-3 over Rae's Creek. But when we got to the members' tee, Jones veered off toward the 14th green. "I don't play the 12th," he said with a grin. "It's too hard."
I followed him through the trees and on past the 15th tee. He stopped on a mound on the right side of the 15th fairway and looked down toward the green, which was bracketed by water, fore and aft. "This is where I stood when Gene Sarazen made double eagle in the final round of the '35 Masters," he said. "A million people claim they saw it, but I really did. With one blow Gene made up the three strokes he needed to gain a tie."
The moon was so bright that I could see the flagstick on the left side of the green. Then I blinked, and the flagstick was on the right. "The hole was cut that day near the back of the green on the right side," Jones said. "The gallery behind the players was not large, but there was a crowd around the green. I had a full view of Sarazen from here." Jones started down the slope, and I followed him. "Gene hit his full shots with reckless abandon," he continued, "but that spoon shot of his was perfectly struck. I followed the ball in the air until...?." He cut himself off. "Here, I can show you."
Jones dropped a ball in the fairway and smacked it with that long, easy swing. This time I could see its flight. It landed on the tongue of the green, bounced a couple of times, drifted left toward the flagstick and then disappeared over the slope. "I lost sight of it," he said, "but the spectators behind the green began to applaud, and then everybody began jumping up and down. I have never experienced on a golf course anything so explosively exciting."
When we got to the green, Jones pulled his ball from the hole. "Let's rest," he said. "There's a bench on 16 tee."
I assumed Jones was suggesting a sit-down for my benefit, but he, too, suddenly looked tired. His face was puffier, his hair thinner, and he walked as if his right foot was heavier than his left. When we got to the bench, he sat down with an audible grunt. As did I.
The par-3 was beautiful in the moonlight. Silver highlights shimmered on the pond. The greenside bunkers looked like the white-sheet ghosts in a Casper comic.
"If you don't mind my asking"—I gave him a sideways glance—"why did you finally decide to see me?"
"Well, I thought I should say something about Tiger Woods and the Grand Slam."
I smiled. Apparently Jones had read or heard—I don't know how ghosts get their information—that Woods had not ruled out the possibility that he might win all four majors in 2008, matching Jones's Grand Slam of 1930.
"Are you, pardon the expression, spinning in your grave?"
Jones looked startled. "Oh, no! Not at all," he responded. "People jump higher today and run faster, all that sort of thing. It's perfectly natural."
"You don't think Tiger has an advantage, with modern equipment and all?" I asked.
He shrugged. "The boys he plays against have the same advantage. And don't think for a minute that I didn't exploit the technology of my time. The ball we used to play in the late teens was a soft, heavy sort of small ball. On a hard, dry fairway I could get tremendous distance with it because it had a lot of run."
"But you were an amateur and an attorney." I wanted to stick up for Jones in an argument about the relative merits of Grand Slams. "Wouldn't you have been as good as Tiger if you played every week?"
Jones snorted. "If I would've had to play three or four tournaments in a row, I'd have gotten so damn fed up with golf that I wouldn't have been able to hit the side of a barn. I'd have had to change my whole way of thinking and living. You see, I never regarded golf as the paramount interest in my life. I got jaded with it, as you do with anything."
"How could that be?" I asked. "You were a relentless competitor, you were driven."
"Well, in tournaments you take an awful lot of mental punishment," Jones said. "I had made up my mind even before I got around to 1930 that if I ever found a convenient stopping place, I was going to do it. Walter Hagen and some of the others of my era, I think they lost their real enthusiasm for tournaments long before they were physically on the downgrade."
"There's no sign of that happening with Tiger." I pictured Woods in his full, fist-pumping glory.
"No sign at all. He thrives on pressure. And I admire how he handles his fame—the autograph seekers, the glad-hand boys, all you fellows in the press." Jones sucked on his teeth, his gaze fixed on the distant green. "I never wanted to be around the hotel lobby with a bunch of people pulling on me and wanting to talk about golf, golf, golf. I'd go straight up to my room and get in a tub with a highball. I'd drink that one and maybe one or two more, and then I'd eat supper in my room and go to bed."
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. Besides, I was distracted by the change in Jones's ghost. He had turned plump and gray and had traded his plus fours for a business suit. The golf club, which had been leaning against his thigh, was now a cane.
He caught me looking at the cane. "Here's a right funny story," he said. "There was a grand old girl up in Kentucky, Miss Nola Minton, who had a stable of show horses, and she used to make hickory golf club shafts. Well, she saw me with a bamboo cane, so she shipped me a couple of hickory canes along with a little note that said, 'You've been leaning on hickory all your life. It's too late to change now.'" Chuckling, he reached inside his coat for a handkerchief. He started coughing before he could get it to his mouth.
Jones got to his feet with difficulty, tugging on my arm for support. He shuffled out to the end of the tee and stared across the water. Call it telepathy, but I sensed that he was visualizing Tiger's miracle chip-in from behind the green at the 2005 Masters. "Tiger Woods," Jones murmured, "plays a game with which I am not familiar."
Suddenly it struck me. "You know!" I blurted. "You know that Tiger is going to win the Grand Slam."
Jones, smiling again, said, "Maybe I do, maybe I don't." A cloud passed over the moon, and I could barely see him.
"Tell me," I pleaded. "Off the record, on deep background, anything."
"Talk to Keeler," he said, his voice no more than a whisper. Then whisper and ghost were gone, and I found myself back on the 10th tee with my hands in my pockets, and the first light of dawn showing through the pines. A cuckoo whistled from the woods.
Or maybe it was a lark.
For more of John Garrity's ghosts, go to GOLF.com/Garrity.