The Greatest of Them All (The American Golfer, $60) pays homage to one of the few athletes, golfer Bobby Jones, who might justifiably lay claim to that distinction, and not exclusively because of his accomplishments from tee to green. As publisher-editor-writer Martin Davis and his accompanying battery of six contributing essayists contend, Jones was not merely the finest player of his time—and, in their view, of all time—he was also a most extraordinary human being, a man of uncommon courage and integrity.
"In his instincts and behavior, he was what used to be called a gentleman," writes one Jones admirer, the journalist and television commentator Alistair Cooke. "I do believe that a whole team of investigative reporters, working in shifts like coal miners, would find that in all of Jones's life...he nothing common did or mean."
But this handsome—one might even say beautiful—coffee-table book, subtitled The Legend of Bobby Jones and enhanced by scores of magnificent vintage photographs of the icon in action, backs up its boastful title with some hard facts. "Comparison is invidious," Davis quotes British golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas, but "...in his time, Jones was supreme, at match and medal play, to a greater extent than [Ben] Hogan or [Jack] Nicklaus have been in theirs."
True enough, Jones's domination of his era was as nearly complete as any athlete's in history. He won 13 major championships—four U.S. Opens, three British Opens (in four tries), five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur—between 1923 and his retirement at the youthful age of 28 in 1930. In his last year of competition he became the only player to complete what was then considered the Grand Slam of golf, winning in succession within four months the British Amateur, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. Jones played in 31 majors during his brief 14-year career and won an astonishing 42% of them. Overall, he played in 52 tournaments and won 23 for an even more astonishing 44%. One of editor Davis's experts, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, marvels at Jones's decision to give up the game so "laughably" early while speculating what further wonders he might have accomplished had he played into middle age. But Jones, as much as he treasured his sport, never looked back, mostly because he had so many other fish to fry. By the time he was 21 and the U.S. Open champion, he had received degrees in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech and in English literature from Harvard. By 24, and after only three semesters of law school at Emory University in his hometown of Atlanta, he was a practicing lawyer.
But though he stopped playing competitively, he never gave up golf, devoting his spare time to designing clubs, making perhaps the most informative instructional films ever and, most memorably, founding the Augusta National Golf Club and, with his friend Clifford Roberts, the tournament that has made the club internationally renowned, the Masters.
Yet it is the man himself who ultimately captures the emotions of The Greatest's contributors—Cooke, Crenshaw, New York Times columnist Dave Anderson and golf writers Peter Dobereiner, Nick Seitz and Larry Dorman. Dobereiner, the dean of British golf writers, details reverentially how Jones, the very embodiment of the English ideal of the gifted amateur, "conquered Britain as comprehensively as the Roman legions [had] 2,000 years earlier."
In 1948, the last year he swung a golf club, Jones began suffering from syringomyelia, an incurable disease of the spinal cord that led to his death at 69, in 1971. It did not—until the end—prevent him from appearing at the Masters or from cheerfully sharing the company there of his countless friends. "Perhaps it is best simply to say that just as there was a touch of poetry to his golf," wrote Herbert Warren Wind in The Story of American Golf, "so there was always a certain definite magic about the man himself."
The Greatest of Them All goes far in words and pictures toward recapturing some of that lost magic.