More than any player in history, Bobby Jones is the model of the complete golfer. Supremely gifted, Jones was also a man of vast intelligence and profound character, and he merged all three forces to become not only a singular champion, but a genuine hero. Wrote Herbert Warren Wind, “In the opinion of many people, of all the great athletes, Jones came the closest to being what we called a great man.”
As a golfer, Jones was a giant. In the 1920s, he was “an ultra-athlete,” according to writer and historian Charles Price, “recognized at being better at his game than any other athlete was at his.” While there is no doubt Jones is the finest amateur golfer the game has ever produced, there’s a strong argument that he was the greatest golfer, period. Beginning with his victory in the 1923 U.S. Open at Inwood and ending with his U.S. Amateur victory at Merion in 1930, Jones won 13 championships in 20 tries, the most imposing run of major titles the game has ever seen.
"I think this is what I learned to do best of all."
His crowning glory was The Grand Slam of 1930, in which he became the only golfer ever to win the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, British Open and U.S. Open in the same year, indeed, the only golfer to win all four in a career. When he retired at the end of that year at the age of 28, The New York Times noted the occasion in an editorial that read, “With dignity, he quit the scene on which he nothing common did, or mean.” Jones was born March 17, 1902, in Atlanta. He was clearly a prodigy, and his first championship was the 1916 U.S. Amateur, where as a 14-year-old he went to the third round.
From the beginning, Jones’ swing possessed “a drowsy beauty,” in the words of Bernard Darwin. Yet Jones was a passionate man who had to overcome his own frailties of temperament. The strain of competition would cause him to lose as much as 18 pounds in a week. After winning the 1926 U.S. Open, he suddenly broke into tears in his Columbus, Ohio, hotel room, the strain catching up to him. He had to dominate a fiery temper that hindered him as a youth. As talented as he was, he did not win his first championship until 1923, prompting the early part of his career to be labeled “The Seven Lean Years.” But Jones had a revelation when he discovered that the key to winning was learning to score well when playing badly. “I think this is what I learned to do best of all,” wrote Jones, and “The Seven Fat Years” ensued.
Jones accomplished all this while playing competitive golf no more than three months in a year at any point in his life. The rest of the time was dedicated to academics, and later, the workaday world of the law. He studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, graduating in three years, received a degree in English Literature from Harvard and attended law school at Emory University, withdrawing in his third semester to pass the bar. He would go on to become one of the game’s most lucid and enlightening writers. Besides his record and character, Jones’ greatest legacy is Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, which he founded in 1934. He played in the tournament several times, never finishing better than 13th. In 1948, he developed syringomyelia, a fluid-filled cavity in his spinal cord causing first pain, then paralysis. Jones never played golf again and was eventually restricted to a wheelchair until his death Dec. 18, 1971. As Wind wrote, “As a young man he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which isn’t easy, and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst.”
The USGA’s award for distinguished sportsmanship is the Bob Jones Award. “What Jones did was create a model that everyone, consciously or unconsciously, followed,” said William Campbell. “It is why we have so many fine people in golf. He showed the world how to do it.”