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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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Jones may have been retired as a competitor, but he was hardly finished with the game. He had been interested in the design of golf clubs since his mechanical engineering days at Georgia Tech. Now he put that interest to use, designing that first matched set of flanged irons for A.G. Spalding & Bros, in 1932. "By making the blades more compact, with a thicker top line, and providing a flange sole on the back of the head, we succeeded in bringing the center of gravity of the head more nearly behind the center of the striking surface, or 'sweet spot,' " Jones wrote.

He had another, somewhat more ambitious dream. He wanted to fashion for himself and his golfing friends a perfect course—one that, in his words, "would give pleasure to the greatest number of players without respect to their capabilities." And on the site of a moribund nursery in Augusta, 151 miles southeast of Atlanta, he found land that, he said, "had been lying here for years waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it."

With the help of his friend Clifford Roberts, a Wall Street investment broker, and others, Jones arranged for the purchase of this lush and forested property. He hired the world-famous English golf architect Alister Mackenzie to help design the dream course. They started work in 1931. Jones hit shots to determine the length and shape of the fairways, and Mackenzie prepared the blueprints. The course was completed in 1933. Jones and Roberts called it the Augusta National. Each hole was named after a flowering plant or tree, and the course was, indeed, a thing of great natural beauty.

In 1934 the new club held its first tournament for qualified amateurs and professionals. Jones called it the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, but Roberts, a stubborn man, insisted on a loftier designation—the Masters. Jones would have none of such presumption. The Masters? It was a title, he said, "rather born of immodesty." Jones resisted the name until 1939, by which time, to his mild displeasure, no one called his tournament anything but the Masters.

As the host and drawing card, Jones was obliged to step out of retirement at least once a year to play in the Masters. Although he displayed flashes of the old brilliance, he soon realized that he had lost his touch. As he stepped to the 1st tee in the inaugural Masters, he observed that his hands were trembling and that he was experiencing "the familiar unpleasant vacant sensation in my stomach." Still, he said, "I had become accustomed to these feelings and had learned actually to welcome them, because they usually meant that I was to play good golf."

He parred the first three holes but was troubled by an unfamiliar jerk, as he called it, in his putting stroke. On the 5th tee he was distracted by the whir of a movie camera and shanked his drive into the woods. "At that very instant I realized that this return to competition was not going to be too much fun," he would write. "I realized, too, that I simply had not the desire nor the willingness to take the punishment necessary to compete in that kind of company. I think I realized, too, that whatever part I might have in the Masters Tournament from then on would not be as a serious contender."

Jones finished that opening round with a 76, then improved to a 74 and played the last two rounds in 72. He came in 13th, the highest he would place in the 12 Masters he played. And yet every year he drew by far the largest galleries, even when he fell out of contention early in the tournament. Jones was flattered but dismayed by the attention, and Roberts was highly agitated by a fandom and press that preferred the company of an aging celebrity to that of rising young stars such as Byron Nelson and Jimmy Demaret. When Roberts complained to Alan Gould of the AP that excessive coverage of Jones was detracting from the high purposes of the tournament, Gould replied, "Look, Cliff, why don't you run the tournament and let me write about it? Bob Jones makes more news missing a putt than anyone else in the field does holing a brassie."

The Masters was discontinued during World War II, and Jones, though 40 years old, married, a father and classified 4-F because of varicose veins in his legs, nevertheless managed to enlist in the Army Air Corps and win a commission as an intelligence officer. He served for a time in England under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, later a close friend. After serving briefly on the front lines at Normandy, Jones was mustered out as a lieutenant colonel. At last the Jones family had a legitimate colonel.

Augusta National was refurbished after the war, and the cottage overlooking the 10th tee was built for Jones, originally to protect his privacy and allow him an opportunity to entertain friends. In the end it would be his home away from home.

In the 1948 Masters, Jones's last as a competitor, he experienced considerable pain in his right shoulder, and his right hand felt numb. He had played with pain before—in fact, since 1926 he had endured recurring spasms in his back and cricks in his neck.

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