In the months after the '48 Masters the pain and atrophy on his right side increased alarmingly. And that November, Jones underwent surgery at Emory University Hospital to remove abnormal bone growths on three of his cervical vertebrae. It was an operation that could well have left him paralyzed. After the surgery Jones could still walk, but only with increasing pain.
Two years later a second operation was performed to relieve damage to his upper spine. It too failed to halt his deterioration. Then, in July 1956, Jones was examined at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City by Dr. Houston Merritt, dean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and chairman of its department of neurology. Merritt concluded that Jones was suffering from a rare disease of the nervous system called syringomyelia, cause and cure unknown.
Syringomyelia, like the more common amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), causes progressive paralysis. Like ALS, it leaves the brain unaffected, so the victim is always aware of his diminishing capacities. Unlike ALS, syringomyelia is not fatal, but the patient usually dies of the disease's side effects.
Only Jones's family and a few close friends knew the true nature of his ailment. He was content to let the world at large believe he was suffering from some form of arthritis. As the disease gained command, Jones went from using a cane to leg braces and finally, after much resistance, to a wheelchair.
But he never gave in to the suffering. He reported to his law office every day. He wrote his books. At Augusta he entertained visitors in his cottage with drinks and reminiscences, not missing a Masters until the very end. When someone asked him if he missed playing golf, Jones would laugh and say, "Just think, I'll never again have to worry about a three-foot putt." He amazed guests with his good humor. After one high-spirited visit to the Augusta cottage, golf writer Al Laney turned to Wind and, shaking his head in disbelief, asked, "How on earth does he do it?"
When British writer Pat Ward-Thomas foolishly asked the shrunken and crippled Jones, "How are you, Bob?" Jones cheerfully replied, "Well, Pat, I have my heart, my lungs and my so-called brain. We play it as it lies."
Once, Jones's old friend Yates asked him if he would mind autographing a few of his books. "Sure, Charlie, but don't give me too many," Jones replied. "These hands don't work too well." Jones's hands had become, in fact, little more than claws; he could sign only by using a pen attached to a rubber ball. Yates was embarrassed. "Oh, Bob, I didn't mean for you to sign them personally. I thought that Jean [Jones's private secretary, Jean Marshall] was authorized to copy your signature." Jones gave Yates a look of reprimand. "Oh, no, Charlie," he said. "That wouldn't be proper."
Jones smoked about two packs of cigarettes a day almost to the end, employing a special holder and steadfastly saying, "I've got to give these things up some day." He attended banquets, gave speeches, went to parties, sipped martinis and tried as much as possible to lead an ordinary life. One of his last acts, in November 1971, was to dictate a letter to Robert K. Howse, then chairman of the USGA's championship committee, requesting that a U.S. Open be scheduled for the Atlanta Athletic Club's new course north of the city, even though, Jones wrote, "I am not likely to take much part in a golf tournament in 1975." The request was granted, and the 1976 Open was held at the A.A.C.
Bobby Jones died in his sleep at his Atlanta home on Dec. 18, 1971. By then his disease had left him paralyzed from the chest down and weighing less than 90 pounds, but it did not kill him; he died of an aneurysm. He was buried at the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta with only his immediate family present. At his request his tombstone reads simply ROBERT TYRE JONES, JR. BORN 1902. DIED 1971.
Jones had always had a special relationship with the town of St. Andrews. After his death a memorial service was held for him there, and today many of his golfing treasures are on display at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. Years earlier, in 1958, the town had conferred on him its highest honor, naming him a freeman of the Royal Burgh; he was the first American so honored since Benjamin Franklin in 1759. Jones, visibly moved by the ceremony, responded, as always, extemporaneously: "I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have had a rich and full life." And then he recalled an incident that had touched him deeply.