Bobby Jones has been on a terrific roll lately, especially for a man who has been dead for almost 35 years. A medium-sized library can be stocked solely with Jones tomes lauding the legendary Gentleman Amateur. Jones was even given the Hollywood treatment in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, in which Jones was portrayed by Jim Caviezel in a manner nearly as saintly as the actor's other major role last year, as Jesus in The Passion of The Christ.
With 2005 as the 75th anniversary of Jones's Grand Slam, expect the books to keep coming. It's hard to believe, however, that any will be as fun as Curt Sampson'sThe Slam, a breezy yet well-researched account that passes as entertainingly as a five-hour round with friends.
Sampson, a veteran golf writer and former golf pro, makes his aim clear early on by dismissing most Jones books as mere hero worship. He dislikes that approach not because Jones isn't a fitting hero (Sampson's admiration is clear) but because the result is no fun.
"By ascribing to him every Boy Scout virtue, they've done the impossible: They've made Bobby Jones boring," writes Sampson. "They hear organ music from a stone cathedral when they summon his memory; I hear the theme from a James Bond film and imagine Jones -- at least in 1930 -- as Bond himself, an international agent doing the impossible with utter aplomb, his hair perfect, his clothes impeccable, his manner suave and ironic."
Indeed, the Jones that strides across the pages of The Slam cuts quite a dashing figure. At the start of 1930, a 28-year-old Jones was already tiring of competitive golf. Besides, as Sampson argues convincingly, the Atlanta lawyer was eager to start making some serious money, which in those days could best be made off the course. But Jones hoped to go out in a blaze of glory by winning what were then the game's four biggest titles: the U.S. Open and Amateur and the British Open and Amateur.
The book follows Jones on that historic 1930 campaign in which he played a total of six tournaments, winning five. Sampson gained invaluable insight by playing each of those courses with hickory-shafted clubs similar to those used by Jones, though to the author's credit he never mentions such research in the book. We travel with Jones by train and ocean liner as he pursues a goal that nobody, frankly, had even thought about accomplishing to that point.
There are some nice nuggets in the tournament recaps, especially a vivid description of a controversial rules decision made in Jones's favor, most likely incorrectly, on the 71st hole of the U.S. Open on the third leg of the slam. The rules official was none other than USGA secretary Prescott Bush, father of 41 and grandfather of 43. Bush was also a friend of Jones, with the golfer already a member of the USGA Executive Committee though he was still competing.
The most enjoyable aspects of this book are Sampson's light touches -- such as when he remarks on the body odor likely flooding the gallery at the steamy U.S. Open in Minneapolis that year in a pre-deodorant era -- and the cameos by other prominent figures of the day. To that end, we see fellow Georgia legend Ty Cobb castigating Jones for relaxing too much in what would turn out to be another convincing victory.
Readers also will encounter such luminaries as sportswriter Grantland Rice, President Herbert Hoover and George Seaver, a semifinalist in the U.S. Amateur that year and the father of Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. Jones wasn't just the top amateur golfer of his day but a true sporting icon, who received his second ticker-tape parade in New York in 1930 after he won the British Amateur and Open to kick off the Slam.
Sampson also does some gentle debunking of the Jones myth, such as questioning the golfer's status as a scholar. Jones did receive degrees from Georgia Tech and Harvard, but his grades were actually of the "gentlemen's C" variety as he coasted by primarily on the force of his personality and already powerful celebrity.
Jones didn't cruise through his Grand Slam, however, as the pressure of winning the game's biggest prizes seemed to age him 10 years. By the last of the big four tournaments, the U.S. Amateur, Jones was starting off the day with a stiff whiskey, Prohibition be damned. Then Jones went out on top, announcing his retirement from competitive golf while simultaneously cashing in with a series of lucrative instructional golf films to cash in on the new "talkie" market.
The Jones that emerges from The Slam is no Boy Scout but a flawed yet still admirable athlete and gentleman. He seems like a guy whom anyone would love to have in his foursome. That is perhaps Sampson's greatest achievement: He has humanized a legend.