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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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Naturally, he succeeded, beginning with the British Amateur at St. Andrews, site of his earlier humiliation but his favorite course since winning the British Open there in 1927. Jones had so charmed the British then that they now cheered him as one of their own. "They had never known an American quite like him," said Wind. "He had had such a wonderful education, he seemed at home wherever he went."

"The British considered him the best that America can be," said Cooke.

At St. Andrews, Jones won seven straight 18-hole matches and then defeated Britain's Roger Wethered in the final 36-hole match. Two weeks later he won the British Open at Hoylake by two strokes over Macdonald Smith and Leo Diegel and returned home for his second ticker-tape extravaganza. Exhausted both by travel and the New York celebration, he nevertheless played the U.S. Open at Interlachen in Minnesota in temperatures that reached more than 100°. He was so overheated after the first round that Keeler had to cut off Jones's necktie, whose sweat-soaked knot was impossible to untie. In the second round Jones saved a critical stroke on the 9th hole with his famous "lily pad shot," in which the ball skipped like a stone across a lake and landed safely on the other side. In the third round he spun off six birdies in the first 16 holes. And he became the third man in the history of the Open to break par over 72 holes.

All that remained was the U.S. Amateur at Merion, a championship Jones regarded as the easiest of the four. All he had to do, in fact, was stay alive to win it, but that wasn't easy, for in the space of a week he was nearly struck by lightning while playing a practice round at East Lake and almost hit by a runaway car while heading out to lunch at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

The world press and a gallery of 18,000, at the time the largest in U.S. golf history, watched Jones easily defeat Gene Homans in the 36-hole final round of match play, 8 and 7. And when Homans reached out to shake Jones's hand in congratulations on the 11th green, there was at first an eerie silence and then a demonstration never before seen on a golf course: The crowd surged hysterically toward the Grand Slam champion. A cordon of 50 marines was needed to escort Jones safely to the clubhouse some 600 yards away. That walk was, according to The New York Times, "the most triumphant journey any man ever travelled in sport."

Jones had topped off his improbable career with the greatest feat in the history of his game. An AP poll in 1950 called the Slam "the Supreme Athletic Achievement of the Century." And for Jones that was enough. In golf, he wrote, "nothing more remained to be done."

He would step back from his fame and devote himself to supporting his wife, Mary, and their three children: Bob III and daughters Clara and Mary Ellen.

In November 1930, Jones signed a $101,000 contract with Warner Brothers to make 12 golf instructional short subjects (with an option, soon picked up, to do six more) with some of that studio's most popular stars, among them W.C. Fields, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joe E. Brown. The actors, apparently eager to get some tips from the master, agreed to work without pay and without scripts. Director George Marshall, himself a golf enthusiast, would simply outline a scenario, and Jones and friends would ad-lib the dialogue. Each film ends with Jones demonstrating the use of specific clubs.

In one of the reels Brown bets Robinson that he can beat the world's greatest golfer simply by having Jones play Brown's shots from tee to green while he plays Jones's. "Let's see how you do hitting my ball," the comedian challenges a willing Jones. Brown, of course, loses as Jones gives an amazing demonstration of hitting trouble shots out of the rough and even out of the water. In all of these films Jones, with his easy Georgia drawl, seems more at ease than the actors.

Hastily conceived and inexpensively produced, these films were nonetheless box-office smashes, witnessed by more than 25 million moviegoers in 1931 and '32. Frank Tatum, then attending John Burroughs Junior High in Los Angeles, remembers watching the filming of The Brassie, in which Jones plays opposite, among others, Loretta Young. "I was absolutely mesmerized," recalls Tatum, who went on to become the USGA president from 1978 to '79. "I watched Jones hit shot after shot onto a green more than 240 yards away. No second takes were necessary, because he never missed. I had never seen such grace. He was a role model for me."

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