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The Emperor Jones
Ron Fimrite
April 11, 1994
BOBBY JONES'S REIGN OVER GOLF FROM 1923 TO 1930 WAS ABSOLUTE, BUT HE PROVED JUST AS MASTERLY OFF THE COURSE AS HE WAS ON IT
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April 11, 1994

The Emperor Jones

BOBBY JONES'S REIGN OVER GOLF FROM 1923 TO 1930 WAS ABSOLUTE, BUT HE PROVED JUST AS MASTERLY OFF THE COURSE AS HE WAS ON IT

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Reflecting on his disappointment at losing the U.S. Amateur of 1916, when he was not yet 15, Jones wrote in his book Golf Is My Game: "Yet if I had won, what would have happened next? Not giving myself any the worst of it, I think I was a fairly normal kid of fourteen. But how many of us today can look back at ourselves at that age and be completely proud of the picture? I must admit that I had already become a bit cocky because of my golfing success in play against grown men. Had I won that championship, I should have been Amateur Champion for not only the next twelve months, but, because of the suspension of play for the period of [World War I], for three whole years. I shudder to think what these years might have done to me, not so much to my golf, but in a vastly more important respect, to me as a human being."

Indeed, for those who knew him best, it is as a human being, not as a golfer, that Bobby Jones will be treasured. "Bob had so many great personal qualities, they overshadowed his golf," says his former law partner Eugene Branch. "Counting all that he accomplished and all the attention paid to him, he has to be the most modest person I've ever met."

Even at the peak of his game, Jones would play golf with anyone he met. "He'd go out to East Lake and just pick up a game," says Branch. "He even got me to playing, and I told him it was his only disservice to the game." And after a game Jones would join his companions for convivial rounds of bourbon—or, during Prohibition, corn whiskey—in the clubhouse. He was a man who could sing Puccini arias without a glitch, but he also Applied his strong baritone to bawdy limericks.

His favorite golfing partner was always his father, an exuberant, fun-loving man whom his many friends called the Colonel. Charles Yates, a longtime friend of both Bob's and the Colonel's and a leading amateur golfer in the 1930s, recalls how the Joneses often teamed up to play matches at East Lake against Yates and "a lefthanded Methodist preacher named Pierce Harris, whom Bob just loved. Well, we had what I'd call a historic match one day back in the early 1940s. We got to the 16th hole and the Colonel lands in a trap right in front of the green. Now, the Colonel could cuss with the best of them, and, preacher or no, he's in there hacking away and blistering the air with each swing. He reaches the edge of the green in five, and then he three-putts. You never heard such cussing. Bob, of course, holes out with a birdie three—he had a 64 for the day—so the preacher and I know we've lost. But the Colonel keeps cussing anyway. Finally, the preacher turns to me and says, 'Charlie, we should've known better than to think we could beat such a combination of proficiency and profanity.' "

Bobby Jones was a man of unflagging integrity on the course and off. On four separate occasions in championship play, he called penalties on himself, one of which—when his ball moved almost imperceptibly as his club touched the grass—cost him the 1925 U.S. Open. In his law practice he avoided courtroom trials because he felt his name and reputation gave him an unfair advantage over other lawyers. He answered all of his own mail and was, according to the distinguished golf and tennis writer Herbert Warren Wind, "one of the best letter writers I've read." Jones was unfailingly friendly with visitors to Augusta, and he enjoyed entertaining by the hour at his cabin opposite the 10th tee. He was both amusing and easily amused.

"He had a sly humor," says Branch. "Once I said to him, 'Bob, I know you don't especially like being called Bobby, although you put up with it. How come?' He just smiled and reached into his desk drawer to pull out a letter he had received some years earlier. It was from a third-grader. 'Dear Bobby,' it read, 'when I grow up I want to be an engineer. What do you want to be when you grow up?' "

Unlike today's athletes, who, perhaps not without reason, regard journalists with a mixture of fear and loathing, Jones included them among his best friends: Wind, Price, Grantland Rice, Paul Gallico, Alistair Cooke, Al Laney and, preeminently, Jones's own Boswell, Oscar Bane (O.B.) Keeler of the Atlanta Journal. Jones felt a special kinship with these scriveners, and they, many of them renowned cynics, repaid that brotherly sentiment with unabashed adoration.

"Bob Jones radiated goodness, yet without a smidgen of piety," says Cooke, the ever-popular British-born author, journalist and television personality. "I have met only two other men with that quality. One was a Franciscan monk who worked in the slums of London, and the other was my supervisor in English literature at Cambridge. But I never felt as comfortable with either of them as I did with Bob Jones. And that's because of his wonderful sense of humor. He was so graceful and kind, so modest without ever being diffident. An amazing man."

With the world as it is, such a man could scarcely escape tragedy. Bobby Jones didn't. "As a young man," wrote Wind, "he was able to stand up to just about the best life can offer, which is not easy. And later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst."

Robert Tyre Jones was born on St. Patrick's Day, 1902, in Atlanta, the son of Robert and Clara Jones. He was named after his paternal grandfather, a stern businessman who considered golf and all sports a monumental waste of time. Bob's father's middle initial was P, but, possibly out of affection for the Colonel, Bob always called himself Robert T. Jones Jr. As a child he loved all sports, particularly baseball. But he was, as he described himself in his book Down the Fairway, "an odd-looking youngster. I started out with an over-size head and a spindling body and legs with staring knees, and some serious digestive derangements which caused my parents and six or seven doctors a deal of distress."

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