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The Emperor Jones
Ron Fimrite
April 11, 1994
BOBBY JONES'S REIGN OVER GOLF FROM 1923 TO 1930 WAS ABSOLUTE, BUT HE PROVED JUST AS MASTERLY OFF THE COURSE AS HE WAS ON IT
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April 11, 1994

The Emperor Jones

BOBBY JONES'S REIGN OVER GOLF FROM 1923 TO 1930 WAS ABSOLUTE, BUT HE PROVED JUST AS MASTERLY OFF THE COURSE AS HE WAS ON IT

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Robert Tyre Jones, called Bobby by his public, Bob by his friends, was in all probability the most extraordinary figure in the history of American sports.

He began winning golf tournaments against grown men when he was 13, but he didn't hit his championship stride until he was 21, and then for seven years he dominated his game as few athletes ever have. "Golf seemed to have been invented just for him to come along and show us how well it could be played," wrote golf historian Charles Price.

From 1923 through '30, Jones won 13 of the 21 national championships he entered in the U.S. and Great Britain. He won five of eight U.S. Amateur titles at a time when that event was considered a major tournament. In eight U.S. Opens he won four times and finished second four times. He won all three of the British Opens he entered in this stretch and one of two British Amateurs. He never missed the cut in any tournament he entered. When Jones didn't win a championship, it was considered an upset. Some tournament directors were known to have engraved his name on their trophies before a single round was played.

During those seven glory years, Jones played in only seven tournaments that were not national championships: two amateur events and five tournaments that would now be considered part of the PGA Tour. He won four of those events. No amateur golfer ever beat him twice in match play—and in Jones's day such superb practitioners as Francis Ouimet, Charles (Chick) Evans and Lawson Little all played as amateurs. And the two leading professionals of the time, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, never won an Open championship in the U.S. or Britain that Jones had also entered.

Using hickory-shafted clubs and relatively dead golf balls that played 30 yards shorter than today's, Jones achieved scores that would be the envy of the best modern shotmakers. In a qualifying round for the 1926 British Open, he played a "perfect" round of 66—33 out, 33 in, 33 shots from tee to green, 33 putts. In 1928 he played 12 straight subpar tournament rounds, only two of which were over 70. That same year he broke four course records in and near Chicago within a week

Jones was as famous as any of the other icons of the so-called Golden Age of Sports—Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden—and he remains the only person to receive two ticker-tape parades down Broadway. Jones's putter, Calamity Jane, and his driver, Jeanie Deans (named for a character in The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott), were themselves better known than most athletes. As handsome as any film star and more charming, Bobby was the Emperor Jones, treated as royalty wherever he went, the boon companion of dukes and duchesses, movie kings and queens.

Although golf gave Jones international renown, he didn't make a nickel out of the game until he retired, for he played only as an amateur. And for all of his enormous success, he actually played about as often as the average weekend hacker. In his entire 14-year career, he played in only 52 tournaments, 23 of which he won. He hated to practice, and he might go three months without touching a club. In all, he averaged no more than 80 rounds a year. And when he did play, it was most often with his father and some of his gregarious pals at East Lake Country Club in his hometown of Atlanta.

At the same time that Jones was effortlessly dominating golf—to the frustration of hardworking professionals—he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech and then, demonstrating the breadth of his intellectual curiosity, another degree in English literature from Harvard. Ineligible as a college graduate for athletics at Harvard, he volunteered to be manager of the university's golf team in 1923. When told by embarrassed athletic officials that the team already had a manager, Jones happily accepted the job of assistant manager—this in a year in which he won the U.S. Open. "But how else," explained Jones, "was I to win a crimson H?"

With two college degrees to his credit, Jones entered law school at Emory University, in Atlanta. In the middle of his second year there, he decided to take the Georgia state bar exam, just to see how difficult it was. He passed easily and dropped out of school to join his father's law firm.

Two years later, in 1930, Jones achieved sports immortality by winning, within four months, the British Amateur, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur—the unprecedented and, of course, never equaled Grand Slam of golf. And then, with no worlds left to conquer, Bobby Jones, all of 28 years old, retired from competition to pursue, he said, "other things." These included establishing a successful law practice; making a series of instructional films, with Hollywood stars, that even today are considered classics of the genre; designing the first matched set of flanged irons; founding the Augusta National Golf Club and creating the distinctive tournament that would make it world-famous, the Masters. Jones also wrote extensively and so brilliantly about his game that there seemed little question he could have successfully pursued yet another career, as a man of letters.

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