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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Bobby Jones: Hero Enough for Me

Finding myself with time on my hands, unable to play because of the weather, and resorting to writing about golf instead of playing, my thoughts turn to Bobby Jones; not only Bobby Jones the golfer, but also Bobby Jones the person. Bobby Jones probably did as much to put golf on the map and in the minds of Americans, and the rest of the world for that matter, as anyone before or since he burst on the scene as a fourteen year old prodigy.

To just imagine; this was a man who was by far the greatest player of his generation, winning thirteen major championships by the time he was twenty eight years old. But if that wasn't enough, while forging that incredible golfing record, Bobby Jones remained an amateur and played less golf than almost all of his contemporaries. While beating all the best players in the game, he managed to somehow find time to earn a degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, a degree in literature at Harvard and attend law school at Emory before dropping out to go practise half way through his second year because he was able to pass the state bar exams. 

His golfing accomplishments won him the admiration of the entire world. He was given two ticker tape parades in New York City and awarded the Freedom of the City of St Andrews, the only American to have received this honour and privilege before him being Benjamin Franklin. I don't know if any American has received the honour since, but if you ever get the opportunity to read about and/or see film of the ceremony, do so. It is incredibly moving to see just how much loved he was was by the Scots, who were the founders, and remain the caretakers and overseers, of the game.

After winning the Grand Slam and essentially having no more mountains to climb, Bobby retired from competitive golf at twenty eight years of age and at the peak of his golfing powers. He had the wisdom and the ability to essentially quit while he was ahead, while at the pinnacle of the game. 

After retiring from competitive golf, Bobby not only practised law with his father, but also found himself making instructional films in Hollywood, hob-knobbing with the greatest Hollywood stars. He was befriended by many of the richest and most powerful men of his generation and imagined, then helped design and build perhaps the second most famous golf course in the world after the old course at St Andrews, the Augusta National. He then organized and started the Masters, which is now arguably the most famous, and probably the most watched, golf tournament in the world. He also managed to find the time to write some of the most insightful, timeless golf instruction to be found.

Bobby Jones had it all, it seems. He was handsome, charming, and obviously incredibly intelligent. Because of his golfing genius, the world was his oyster. Yet he was probably the least likely person to achieve golfing immortality. He started on his path to greatness as a very sickly child whose parents moved from Atlanta to East Lake in large part to provide Bobby with a healthy environment in which to spend his summers. It was this move that placed Bobby in proximity to East Lake Golf Club and the game he grew to love and then conquered like no one before or since.

Bursting onto the national golf scene as a fourteen year old prodigy, Bobby was known, at least initially, for his displays of temper on the golf course, and despite his prodigious talent had to endure seven lean years before he really broke through and began winning major tournaments. However, once he learned to win the big ones, he won them with abandon, winning sixty two percent of the time in his last eight competitive seasons. A statistic and record that will surely never be duplicated.

And to think, after this incredible rise to fame, and fortune, Bobby Jones was stricken with a crippling disease at forty six that left him unable to play golf and eventually unable to walk. Rather than indulge in self pity after being laid low by this disease, Bobby continued to stay around and ponder the game he loved and gave us the gift of his golfing knowledge by continuing to write about the game.

Having heros in this day and age is probably deemed a bit naive. After all, we have the paparazzi working full time to try to expose any chinks in the armour of our modern day heros. But Bobby Jones is a hero of mine. He is a hero in part because, in spite of his golfing greatness, he seemed to still manage to be so humble and genuine, and above all an absolute gentleman. He was no saint. He never claimed to be. He smoked, he liked a drink, and he probably cussed a bit as well. I don't know if he had skeletons in his closet. Quite frankly, I don't want to know. All I know is that as a golfer, a teacher and a gentleman he seems to have no peer. That's good enough for me.