Jones, Robert Tyre, Jr. ("Bobby")
JONES, Robert Tyre, Jr. ("Bobby")
(b. 17 March 1902 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 18 December 1971 in Atlanta, Georgia), considered the greatest amateur golfer ever, known for winning thirteen major championships, including the Grand Slam in 1930, and for cofounding the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament.
Jones was the only child of Robert Purmedus Jones, a lawyer, and Clara Thomas, a homemaker. He was born and raised in Atlanta, where he excelled in school. Following a successful career at Tech High School, where he graduated in 1918, Jones enrolled at the Georgia School of Technology. In 1922 he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Jones then attended Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he received a B.A. in English literature in 1924. After working for two years in real estate, Jones entered Emory University's law program in Atlanta. In his third semester, he took the bar exam and passed. Jones joined his father's law firm in early 1928 and spent the rest of his life practicing both law and golf. On 17 June 1924 he married Mary Malone; they had three children.
Jones may have been the most intellectually well-rounded athlete ever, but despite all of his academic achievements, his primary arena was competitive golf. Although he was not born into a wealthy family, Jones had a relatively privileged upbringing, which was made possible by the social standing of his grandfather Robert Tyre Jones. That man's lasting influence meant his grandson and namesake was allowed access to the Atlanta Athletic Club (AAC) and its exclusive East Lake Country Club golf course. Jones was a sickly toddler and, from the age of five, he was taken each summer to East Lake in the hope that fresh air and exercise would help him to gain strength. From the beginning he was fascinated with the sport of golf and learned to play on the country club's course. East Lake's professional, Stewart Maiden, possessed a classic swing and it became a model for the young, impressionable Jones.
By the time he was nine, "Little Bob" was competing in local junior tournaments, even winning the 1911 AAC Junior Championship by defeating a sixteen-year-old opponent in the final match. Spurred on by the AAC's other talented youngsters, such as Perry Adair and Alexa Stirling, Jones continued to develop his competitive skill. After he fired a 68 in 1916 to tie East Lake's course record, the New York Times announced, "Georgia Has Golf Marvel!"
Jones's father determined his fourteen-year-old son was ready to taste national competition. In the fall of 1916 an overconfident Bobby Jones traveled to Philadelphia's Merion Cricket Club, the site of the U.S. Amateur Championship. After an exciting performance in the medal-qualifying rounds, Jones defeated the 1906 champion in the first round and the reigning Pennsylvania state champion in the second round. Those victories set up a third-round match with the defending national champion, Robert Gardner. Jones fought hard but eventually succumbed to Gardner's experience. Still, until he was eliminated, Jones was the biggest story of the week. Within a few days, he gained international fame and became the nation's number-one golf prodigy.
The 1916 U.S. Amateur Championship began a fifteen-year golf career for Jones. O. B. Keeler, Jones's good friend and biographer, liked to write that Jones really had two careers: seven lean years (1916–1922), followed by eight fat years (1923–1930). Actually, although he failed to win a major tournament, the first seven years of Jones's competitive record were not too lean. From 1916 to 1922 Jones steadily gained experience, physical strength, and emotional maturity. He particularly needed the latter, having developed a reputation as a club-throwing hothead. In 1919 he was the runner-up in the national amateur. Jones entered his first U.S. Open in 1920, finishing a solid eighth, and within two years he had improved to runner-up in that event.
By 1923 Jones was ready to break through. He finally won his first major title, claiming the U.S. Open in an exciting play-off with Bobby Cruickshank. This major victory was the first of thirteen overall; Jones won four U.S. Opens (1923, 1926, 1929, 1930), five U.S. Amateurs (1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1930), three British Opens (1926, 1927, 1930), and one British Amateur (1930). Jones also played on the first U.S. Walker Cup teams, serving as the captain in 1928 and 1930. Having accomplished the unprecedented feat of winning the Grand Slam—all four major crowns in one season—Jones retired from competitive golf late in 1930.
The 1930 Grand Slam win was often heralded as Jones's finest achievement, but his career U.S. Open record was equally impressive. In eleven starts between 1920 and 1930, Jones compiled four wins and four runners-up, losing twice in a play-off; he finished out of the top ten only once (eleventh in 1927). For a decade, Jones dominated the world's toughest medal tournament. Following the 1926 season, in which he won both the U.S. and British Opens, Jones was unquestionably the world's number-one golfer, a designation he held until his retirement.
With the exception of Babe Ruth, no sports star was more popular in the 1920s than Jones. Part of his appeal was based on his outstanding skill. Another part was based on his amateurism, personality, and handsome appearance. Jones was a model of sportsmanship; he never disrespected his opponents and became famous for calling penalty strokes on himself, even when it cost him a major tournament, as it did in the 1925 U.S. Open. By the time he started winning major championships, Jones had subdued his fiery temper and had learned to conduct himself with decorum and modesty. Finally, Jones looked like a matinee idol; he was five feet, seven inches tall, weighed about 165 pounds, and had light-brown hair, dark eyes, and a deep voice marked by a syrupy southern accent.
During his competitive years, the simon-pure Jones steadfastly abided by the amateur regulations of the U.S. Golf Association. He never, for example, accepted prize money in open events. Free from such strictures in retirement, Jones traded on his spotless image and unprecedented golf record in a handful of commercial projects. The day he retired, Jones also revealed that he had signed a motion-picture contract with Warner Brothers to star in a series of golf instructional shorts entitled How I Play Golf (1931). They were so successful that Warner Brothers exercised its option to have Jones do another series, How to Break Ninety (1933). The movie deal brought Jones an estimated $250,000. Beyond that, Jones signed with A. G. Spalding and Brothers to design a new line of golf equipment bearing his name. Finally, Jones pursued a lifelong dream of building his own golf course. Joining forces with the New York financier Clifford Roberts and the renowned architect Alister MacKenzie, Jones created the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. In 1934 Jones and Roberts organized the Augusta National Invitational, soon renamed the Masters Tournament.
The years of the Great Depression were probably the best of Jones's life. Out of the limelight, he had more time to spend with his wife and three children, while reaping the benefits of his golf career. Although he was past the draft age when World War II erupted, Jones felt a duty to serve his country. Stationed by the U.S. Army in Europe in 1942, he worked as an intelligence officer, first helping to plan the invasion of Normandy and then taking part in it himself, landing in France on D-Day plus two. By the time he was discharged late in 1944, Jones had been promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel.
In 1948 Jones's life took a tragic turn. Experiencing pain in his back and insensitivity in his limbs, Jones submitted to several operations before being diagnosed with the rare, congenital spinal disorder syringomyelia. He played his last round of golf that year and soon went from walking with crutches to sitting in a wheelchair. It was a cruel fate for anyone, much less a former top athlete. Yet Jones remained as active as possible throughout the next two decades. He campaigned tirelessly for Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, developing a deep friendship with the general. Jones also watched as Eisenhower, Roberts, and the exploits of Arnold Palmer helped to make his Masters Tournament a "major" event, the fourth leg of a modern professional Grand Slam: Eisenhower brought the club immense status by vacationing in Augusta numerous times during his presidency, Roberts skillfully negotiated contracts with CBS and helped the Masters to become a pioneer in televised golf, and Palmer won the tournament several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a dramatic style. By 1960, there was a consensus among golf writers that the Masters was a legitimate fourth "major" event of the year. Jones's annual involvement in presenting the tournament champion with a green jacket was a springtime highlight for all golf fans until 1968.
Through all of his pain and misfortune, Jones maintained a steady temper and personal charm. He not only remained popular, but was also widely revered. In December 1971 the sixty-nine-year-old Jones died of a heart aneurysm, a complication of his spinal disease. Never a religious man and always a nominal Protestant, Jones converted to Catholicism, his wife's faith, days before his death. He is buried in a secluded section of Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery.
Jones was the greatest amateur golfer of the twentieth century and a superstar of the Golden Age of Sports. His thirteen major championship victories ranked number two all-time, exceeded only by Jack Nicklaus, and no player has ever amassed so many major wins in such a short period. The fact that he compiled his record as an amateur was not only unique but historically significant because, in the 1920s, U.S. sports became increasingly professionalized. Jones's greatest legacy may be the Augusta National and the Masters Tournament. Whatever their virtues and shortcomings, those institutions have grown in importance and serve as an annual reminder of Jones's contributions to the game.
A collection of Jones's personal papers is housed at the U.S. Golf Association in Far Hills, New Jersey. A smaller file consisting mostly of newspaper clippings exists at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Jones authored hundreds of articles and instructional works; his two autobiographies are Down the Fairway (1927), and Golf Is My Game (1960). For a full-scale biographical treatment of Jones, see Stephen R. Lowe, Sir Walter and Mr. Jones: Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, and the Rise of American Golf (2000). Other useful biographical works include Richard Miller, Triumphant Journey: The Saga of Bobby Jones and the Grand Slam of Golf (1980), Sidney Matthew, Portrait of a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Bobby Jones (1995), and Stephen R. Lowe, "Demarbleizing Bobby Jones," Georgia Historical Quarterly (winter 1999). Obituaries are in the New York Times (19 Dec. 1971), and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (19–20 Dec. 1971).
Stephen R. Lowe