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Monday, 1 December 2014

Bobby Jones: Golf's Greatest Player and Teacher

There are often discussions by sports enthusiasts trying to determine who was the greatest. Settling on who was the best in any sport is difficult because, from one era to another, the person being considered for the title of the greatest faced different opponents from the one he is being compared to. In golf, the discussion becomes possibly more difficult yet because the game has evolved so much. The courses are better manicured, but longer, the equipment has improved drastically, and there are more accomplished players that must be beaten to get to the top of the heap now than there ever were.

That having been said, I honestly don't know how anyone in possession of all the facts cannot conclude that Bobby Jones was the greatest player of all time. The fascinating thing about Bobby Jones is that he was the greatest golfer of his day while remaining an amateur and essentially playing part time. The other interesting thing about Bobby Jones is that he was not only golf's greatest player, he became and, in my opinion, remains golf's greatest teacher.

When writing the foreword to Bobby Jones' book entitled "Bobby Jones on Golf," Charles Price pointed out that in the eight years prior to his retirement at the "laughable" age of twenty eight, Bobby won sixty two percent of the national championships he entered. He won thirteen major championships, winning all four of the Major championships of his day in his final year of competition, a feat that came to be called the Grand Slam. Mr. Price pointed out that no amateur or professional golfer has come close to compiling such a record, and suggested that "nobody with any sense could imagine that anybody else ever will." Of course, this assertion was made BT (before Tiger). Tiger's record has been truly amazing, as was Jack's, but I believe winning sixty two percent of the Majors entered over an eight year span still holds up as the best, and likely always will.

Again, as Charles Price aptly pointed out, not only did "he beat everybody in the world worth beating," he did so while playing less golf than virtually all the players he beat. During his competitive career, while he was beating all the pros and amateurs of his day, Bobby Jones studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, secured a degree in English literature from Harvard, and studied law at Emory University. After passing the state bar examinations midway through his second year, he quit school to go practise. After Bobby won the Grand Slam, he retired. There were essentially no more mountains in the game of golf for him to climb, so he went home to his family and practised law with his father.

Bobby Jones didn't, however, stop there. He wrote extensively about golf. He made golf instructional films that included many of the famous Hollywood stars of his day, and he helped design and build the Augusta National golf course. He also organized and started the Masters golf tournament which he hosted for many years. Two of his books on golf, entitled "Golf is my Game" and "Bobby Jones on Golf" are classics, and for my money still contain the finest instruction on how to play the game that can be found. 

The interesting thing about Bobby Jones, as Charles Price was quick to point out, was that he was a great champion and a true sporting legend and hero, not to mention his off course accomplishments, but he was also intensely human. He had frailties. In fact, the only reason he took up golf in the first place was because he was a very sickly child and his parents moved out of town, and across the road from East Lake golf course, because they felt it might be good for Bobby's fragile health. 

Bursting onto the golf scene as a teenaged golfing prodigy, Bobby Jones endured seven lean years during which he never won a major championship. He first learned how to lose and bring under control his prodigious temper. His frailties perhaps became his greatest strengths and helped him gain such profound insight into both himself and the game of golf. He might have been a golfing genius, but, as Charles Price wrote, "he was also the sort of golfer who could come to the last three holes of a major tournament he was leading by the almost incredible margin of eighteen strokes and then limp home four over par. He could travel clear to California by train to play in an Amateur Championship he was almost certain to win and then lose in the first round to somebody the public had never heard of. He could break into tears from nervous exhaustion an hour after he had defeated the top professionals in the country."

Price went on to write: "But what really set Jones apart from all the other athletes of his day, and from all the other golfers before or since him, was not so much his educated intelligence, although that had a lot to do with it, nor his modesty, although that had something to do with it, nor his native talent, although without that we might not be privileged to be reading this book. No, what really set him apart was his insight into the game, gorgeous in its dimensions... No other player so effectively reduced this fearfully complex game to such common sense."

Anyone who truly loves this game, and wants to better understand its complexities, does themselves a disservice if they don't seek to read everything they can get their hands on by Bobby Jones. Not only was he a golfing genius, but his incredible intelligence and sensitivity allowed him to make observations and gain insights about the game that continue to escape or allude most of the rest of us. If you love golf, do yourself a favour and get your hands on Bobby Jones' books on golf. You'll be awfully glad you did.