Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Bobby Jones Learns the Virtue of Playing Against Something not Someone

I know I persist in writing about Bobby Jones, and sharing his writing.  Of course, I never saw the man play.  I've seen some old video reels; but that's it.  And yet Bobby Jones is my golfing hero.  I have always loved Jack Nicklaus, who is the best player I've ever seen.  But, since reading his books, Bobby Jones is, for me, the greatest of them all.  Through his wonderful writing, I have come to feel like I almost know him; and I love him, just like the people of St. Andrews loved him.

Tonight, I was reading Down the Fairway, by Bobby Jones and O.B. Keeler, his friend and confidante who followed, and chronicled, Bobby's phenomenal career.  Bobby wrote of learning the importance of playing "something," rather than "someone"; that something being Old Man Par.  As usual, it gives us a glimpse of the greatness of the man, and the incredible understanding he had of the game.  
He wrote:

"It was in 1913, the year before the old course was changed, when I was 11 years old, that two things happened to me that seem worthy of note, as influencing my association with golf.  Up to that time, as suggested, golf was rather an incidental matter along with tennis and fishing and baseball; it was just another game , and if I could beat somebody at it I felt I had achieved something, just as when I managed to defeat someone at tennis, or when our side won at baseball.  I suppose I never had the least notion that golf offered more than merely personal competition, as a game.  Even when we had a medal round, I was trying to beat Perry or whoever seemed the most dangerous competitor.  I kept my scores in every round of golf as a matter of course; and naturally I liked to get under 90.  But the scoring, of itself, was relatively a detached part of the affair, which, to my way of thinking, was a contest with somebody--not with something.
  It may not be out of place here to say that I never won a major championship until I learned to play golf against something, and not somebody.  And that something was par... It took me many years to learn that, and a deal of heartache."

Bobby first started to understand about playing against something, instead of someone, when he watched the exhibition match between Harry Vardon and long-hitting Ted Ray against Stewart Maiden and Willie Mann.  Vardon and Ray had come over to play the US Open at Brookline, where Francis Ouimet secured his improbable victory that essentially put American golf on the map.  The match was 36 holes at East Lake, followed by 36 more at Brookhaven the next day.

The match at East Lake, in which young Bobby followed every hole, was won by Ray and Vardon 1up, after Ray managed to sink an eight-foot birdie on the last hole to get a half and the win.  Describing the match, Bobby wrote:

  "This was the first big match I had ever watched and I followed every step of the 36 holes.  Ray's tremendous driving impressed me more than Vardon's beautiful, smooth style, though I couldn't get away from the fact that Harry was scoring more consistently.  Par--par--par, and then another par, Harry's card was progressing.  They played 36 holes at East Lake and 36 more at Brookhaven next day, and I remember Vardon's scores: 72-72-73-71; a total of 288, or an exact average of 4's all the way.  I remember thinking at this time, and it would be difficult to find a better illustration, that 4's seemed to be good enough to win almost anything.  Today I would not qualify the estimate.  I'll take 4's anywhere, at any time."

Bobby went on to describe seeing Ray hit the greatest shot he has ever seen during that match, a seemingly impossible shot over a huge tree that found the green.  Bobby wrote:

"The gallery was in paroxysms.  I remember how men pounded each other on the back, and crowed and cackled and shouted and clapped their hands.  As for me, I didn't really believe it.  A sort of wonder persists in my memory to this day.  It was the greatest shot I ever saw.
  Yet, when it was all over, there was old Harry, shooting par all that day and the next.  And I couldn't forget that, either.  Harry seemed to be playing something beside Stewart and Willie; something I couldn't see, which kept him serious and sort of far way from the gallery and his opponents and even from his big partner; he seemed to be playing against something or someone not in the match at all... I couldn't understand it; but it seemed that way."

Later that year, however, Bobby came to understand what he was witnessing in the play of Harry Vardon when he, for the first time, shot 80.  He described the experience as follows:

"And that year, a bit later, I shot an 80 for the first time on the old course at East Lake.  I remember it with a peculiar distinctness.  I was playing with Perry, and for once I wasn't bothering about what Perry was doing or if I was beating him or he was beating me.  I was scoring better than I ever had scored before and I couldn't think about anything else.  And when I got down a four-foot putt on the last green for an even 80, which I had never done before, I made Perry sign my card and then I set off at a trot to find Dad.  I knew he was on the course, and I ran clear across it, to the fourteenth green, and found him there.  I had sense enough to wait until he was through putting; Dad was impatient of interruptions when he was putting.  Then I walked up to him and held out the card... I remember my hand was trembling a good deal... Dad took it and looked at it and then he looked at me.  I don't remember what he said.  But suddenly he put his arms around me and hugged me--hard.  And I do remember that his eyes looked sort of queer.  I think now they must have been wet.  (As I type this, I find tears rolling down my cheeks; appreciating how special a moment this must have been for father and son, and remembering my father with whom I played so many rounds; fathers and sons, and golf.)
  I suppose that is the first round I ever played against the invisible opponent whose tangible form is the card and pencil; the toughest opponent of them all--Old Man Par."