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Seventy five years ago this month a young American lawyer with a boyish smile set out to conquer the world. Five months later he returned to a hero’s welcome, after setting a record which has never been equalled. Having achieved supremacy in a sport dominated by Americans from the north and the east and by Britons, this 28-year-old amateur from the south retired at his peak without having earned a penny from his efforts.
The story of Robert Tyre Jones junior, known to his fans as Bobby, starts in Atlanta, where he was born in 1902, a frail child from a middle-class family. When he was five, his parents decided to spend the summer in the country at East Lake, near the Atlanta Athletic Club’s first golf course. It was a decision that shaped his future.
There’s still a golf course at East Lake and standing beside the serene waters of the lake it’s easy to picture why the Jones family liked it, even though the course is now surrounded by rather rundown housing. The clubhouse isn’t the one Jones knew as a child because that burned down and destroyed the trophy he’d received as US Amateur Champion.But it has recently been restored and contains a replica of the destroyed trophy commissioned from the Crown jewellers Garrard.
That first summer an older boy cut down a golf club to a size Jones could use. Too young for the proper course, he made five holes of his own, the longest 60 yards, and started playing golf. At once his determination and skill were evident, as was his anger with himself when he hit a bad shot and danced in the street in rage. Next year the family moved permanently to East Lake, where a taciturn new golf professional, Stewart Maiden, had just arrived from Carnoustie. Jones imitated Maiden’s uncomplicated swing so faithfully that later he was sometimes mistaken for him.
His first victory came at the age of six when he beat three young golfers at East Lake. Actually it was suspected afterwards that the real winner was another of Maiden’s pupils, Alexa Stirling, later United States Ladies Champion, but the judges could not bring themselves to award the prize to a girl so Jones took the three-inch-high cup to bed with him that night. It is now displayed in the Atlanta Athletic Club, which moved from East Lake to Duluth in the 1960s, where its spacious clubhouse is a lavish shrine to the memory of its most distinguished member.
Jones progressed swiftly, scoring an 80 when he was 11, the year two English champions, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, played an exhibition match at East Lake. Jones watched them intently, impressed by Vardon’s single-minded focus. At this time amateurs enjoyed more prestige than professionals and the four “majors” were the Amateur and Open Championships of the United States and their equivalents in Britain.
No player had ever won more than two in the same year.
Jones enjoyed early success, reaching the quarter-final of the United States Amateur at Merion, Philadelphia, aged 14. Leafing through the archives in Merion’s charming clubhouse, a converted farmhouse and barn, I found the October 1916 issue of The American Golfer, whose title page proclaimed itself “the Authoritative Organ of the Royal and Ancient Game”. It described Jones as “one of the sensations of the tournament”.
In 1921 he visited Britain, a handsome young man of below average height with powerful legs and hair parted close to the centre of his head. On the course he dressed immaculately, favouring fawn plus-fours, cashmere sweaters and hand- made shoes. He smoked regularly and, despite prohibition, enjoyed a drink, once taking a fancy to “A Bosom Blush”, a cocktail served in the Savoy Hotel.
He went to St Andrews for the Open, the start of a grand passion which led to him being granted the Freedom of the City in 1958, when he said: “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St Andrews and I’d still have a rich, full life”. Like many love affairs it had a sticky start because initially he disliked the Old Course and in a frustrated moment in the Open he picked up his ball on the 11th hole, an incident which embarrassed him for years. It was the only time he played St Andrews without winning.
The idea of winning all four majors in the same year may have entered his mind in 1926 when he became the first player ever to win the American and British Opens in one year.
Work and family pressures – he’d married his teenage sweetheart Mary in 1924 – plus the expense of travel made it impossible to cross the Atlantic every year but an opportunity beckoned in 1930. The previous winter he embarked on a rigorous fitness regime based on Doug, an indoor amalgam of badminton and tennis, learned from Douglas Fairbanks.
In early May Jones sailed for England on the Mauritania with Mary and friends from Atlanta. It was a gentler journey than the overnight flight modern stars endure, though the berths in a 1930 liner were probably little better than a British Airways flat bed.
After various preliminary skirmishes it was time, in his words, “to begin in earnest the quest for the Grand Slam”. The British Amateur was the only major he hadn’t already won.
It was “the most important tournament of his life” he wrote, on which his whole project depended. Fortunately it was at St Andrews, where he felt particularly at home, having won his Walker Cup contests there in 1926 and the Open the following year, endearing himself to the fans by leaving the Claret Jug in the keeping of the Royal and Ancient.
Standing on the first tee at St Andrews today, the view of the course is little different from what it was in 1930. The widest opening fairway in tournament golf, shared by the first and 18th holes, remains unchanged, with walkers crossing it freely, a puzzling sight for golfers used to courses where the public cannot roam. In the distance the Road Hole is much the same, despite the disappearance of the railway and the building of the Old Course Hotel. Like most golfers who’ve won at St Andrews, including Arnold
Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods, Jones had studied the course, concluding that “truly if I had to select one course upon which to play the match of my life, I should have selected the Old Course”.
Business in St Andrews halted one windy afternoon when everyone streamed to watch Jones play the defending champion Cyril Tolley, prompting Bernard Darwin to observe “there would have been ample opportunity to commit several murders and escape undetected through the streets, though stained with the marks of crime”. Standing all square on the 17th hole in this match, Jones gambled by deliberately hitting his second shot left of the green. Determined to get past the dangerous bunker, he hit the ball a shade strongly and it bounced into the crowd and struck a spectator.
Had this not happened the ball might have finished in the road and cost Jones the hole. Moments later on the 18th green, he held his breath for an agonising instant while Tolley lined up a putt for the match, only to miss it. This was his closest call, when the whole enterprise nearly foundered, but eventually he beat Tolley on the 19th hole. In the final he easily defeated Roger Wethered, a fine golfer whose desire for championship titles was weaker than his own. His relief at securing the one major that had previously eluded him was enormous and, in his own words, “put a price support under my crop”.
After a week’s rest with Mary in Paris, Jones returned to Britain, reflecting “how good it would be after all that rich French cooking to get back to some cold mutton and boiled potatoes”. The AdelphiHotel in Liverpool, where he now went for the Open Championship at Hoylake, doubtless provided such fare in abundance. Like St Andrews, Hoylake has altered comparatively little, with its timeless view of Wales across the sands of Dee and many of the houses bordering it dating from before 1930.
Despite not feeling on top of his game he was only one shot behind the leader going into the final round. Riding his luck, he progressed well until the par five eighth where, after two good shots to the edge of the green, a weak chip and a missed short putt led to a disastrous seven. Jones was now in turmoil, his long-nurtured hopes again threatened, and only tremendous mental strength kept him going. In a bunker by the 16th green, using a club which sadly has not survived, he hit his ball to within inches fromof the hole, a shot he later described as “one of the best I ever made in my life. As it turned out, it won the championship for me”.
Although Jones had won both British titles, success had required hard graft. Bernard Darwin’s report, “sent by wireless” to the New York Times Magazine on June 29, hangs in the Bobby Jones Room at EastLake, and comments that it was “all agonising work for him and he was longing for it to be over”. Of the problems at the eighth hole Darwin wrote: “I am sure he felt supremely unhappy then but I do not believe he had one moment’s happiness in any of his other rounds. For him I believe the strain is an ever-increasing one. Bobby Jones has made himself the supreme conqueror of himself but how prostrating is the effort one only realises when one sees him white and exhausted after the round is over.”
This analysis is confirmed by O.B.Keeler, the Atlanta sports journalist who became Jones’s constant companion and biographer – Boswell to Jones’s Johnson – who described him before a crucial round, his “face drawn and pinched and his eyes far back in his head”. It does much to explain both how he dominated the game and why he quit so young.
At the end of June the year’s work was only half done and before it resumed Jones was feted with a ticker tape parade on his return to New York. These celebrations weren’t the best preparation for the United States Open at the Interlachen Country Club, however, and soon he was on the train for Minneapolis, where he struggled to find his competitive edge. With most of America now hanging on his every move and crowd control on the course looser than today he arranged for two friends to protect him against overzealous fans by walking alongside during the tournament.
Like many players in those days Jones usually played in a tie, even in competitions. The first day at Interlachen was so hot that after his round this sweat-soaked garment had to be cut off. Next day, distracted by movement in the crowd at the par five ninth, he mis-hit his second shot. The ball bounced across the surface of the lake guarding the green, a break which allowed him to chip up and hole a birdie putt. A brilliant third round opened up a five-shot lead but, like many tournament leaders before and since, he squandered this on the last afternoon and had to sink a 40ft putt on the 18th green to preserve a margin of safety.
Once again Jones had risen to the occasion under pressure and at the end of two long months he returned home with three of his four goals accomplished.
Ten weeks remained before the United States Amateur, which he regarded as the easiest of the majors. His main concern was to stay fit and even this was no certainty as a couple of bizarre threateningincidents, involving a runaway car in Atlanta and a lightning strike at East Lake, illustrated.
Jones was a fan of Merion, the venue for the final lap. “No American course could be more to my liking” he wrote, perhaps because he won his first Amateur there in 1924. Merion is indeed delightful, surrounded by quiet streets and attractive houses, with a panelled dining room and an outdoor terrace so close to the first tee that players can put down a drink, walk a dozen paces and hit their first drive. The compactly laid-out course is famous for its bunkers – known as the white faces of Merion – and retains distinctive features from Jones’s day, such as the quarry over which players drive to the 17th green.
As usual Jones produced his best form when it was needed and he progressed more comfortably through this last major than the previous three, the final ending on the 11th hole, where a plaque on the tee marks bears testimony. Alas, the maker was no student of golf history because close examination reveals that the name Robert Tyre Jones juts out from the surface. Originally the name Robert Trent Jones, a course designer, was wrongly inscribed and by the time the blunder was discovered the only remedy was to fix another plate on top of the existing one.
Merion’s members drink an annual toast on this hole, one of many ways in which the “Impregnable Quadrilateral”, as this achievement became known, is honoured around the world. Comparisons between generations are impossible but no amateur has won either Open for 70 years and it is unlikely it will ever be matched. Among modern greats Ben Hogan won the Masters and both Opens in 1953 and did not play the fourth, Nicklaus amassed more majors than anyone else and in 2001 Tiger Woods briefly held all four titles but did not win them in the same calendar year. Jones would surely have been a match for any of these in his heyday.
By the end of 1930 he was drained mentally by tournament golf and had no more worlds to conquer. Talking to his grandson Bob Jones IV in Atlanta recently, I was reminded that Jones had been aware that some friends used to bet heavily on him. After the Wall Street crash, the outcome of these wagers may have been important to them, an extra burden for him to carry. After retiring he founded Augusta National, a private place where he could play with friends without being assailed by well-wishers and there the clubs he used in his annus mirabilis are displayed. Looking at their hickory shafts it is astonishing to be reminded that he was able to hit such distances with them, routinely reaching 500-yard holes in two shots.
At Augusta National, St Andrews, Atlanta and many other places where golfers gather, his memory is cherished. Let the last words be his own. When the Grand Slam was completed, “all at once I felt the wonderful feeling of release from tension and relaxation that I had wanted so badly for so long a time. I wasn’t quite certain what had happened or what I had done. I only knew I had completed a period of most strenuous effort, and that at this point, nothing more remained to be done, and that on this particular project, at least, there could never at any time in the future be anything else to do . . . ahead, at least for a time, lies nothing but rest and cessation of worry.”