The Enduring Legacy of Bobby Jones


In March 2002, the golf community around the world marks my grandfather's 100th birthday with much fanfare and celebration. How many once-famous people are forgotten 100 years after their birth? Yet a century after he came into this world, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., is still remembered, admired, and, interestingly, may even enjoy greater popularity than ever.

What is it about Bobby Jones that still captures the attention and admiration of the world? Why is he still held up as the ideal champion when other great athletes are remembered only because their name is on a trophy?

I think that one reason my grandfather is still revered is because he was the single most influential man in the history of golf. There is no aspect of the game upon which his shadow does not fall and there is no aspect of the game that he did not alter. I realize that a statement this brash deserves some clarification. Let me elaborate.

First, Bobby Jones lived during an interesting era in American history. He was born in Atlanta in 1902, less than 50 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. When he began to play golf competitively, it was the considered wisdom of the golf world that truly great champions could only come from the northern half of the country. This was accounted for by the fact that most championships were contested on bent-grass greens, whereas southern courses had much slower Bermuda-grass putting surfaces.
I suspect, but cannot prove, that there was also a good bit of regional chauvinism in this statement as well. Bobby Jones's success as a competitor put a quick and ignominious end to that theory as he won championships on all sorts of surfaces and on several continents. His popularity, both in the North and the South, served as a bridge between two parts of the country that still smarted from the bitter war of the 1860s.

Second, in addition to being a reconciler in his own country, Jones also served as a good will ambassador in the United Kingdom. When he began playing 'over there' in 1921, World War I had just ended. Many of us now don't fully appreciate the devastating effect that the Great War had on the British populace. The male populations of entire villages and towns either had fallen on the battlefields of Europe, were severely maimed, or had been rendered insane by their experience. At the time, there were some very bad feelings toward the brash Americans, the 'Johnny-come-latelys' who, in British eyes, came in at the end of the war, saw comparatively few casualties, and left claiming that they had secured the victory that had eluded their British allies.

My grandfather came into this potential hothouse and made a phenomenally poor first impression, withdrawing from the British Open at St. Andrews. The British press snubbed him, calling him 'a mere boy.' But a few years later, when he won his first British Open, he won the hearts of the British and Scottish people -when he asked if the Claret Jug - the trophy given to the winner of the British Open - could remain in Scotland rather than come back to the United States. The ice had been broken between him and the British.
His relationship with the Scottish people continued to grow and deepen until they took the remarkably unusual step of naming him 'Freeman of the City' in 1958. Adding some humor to his touching remarks at that ceremony, Jones said, 'Now I can officially feel as much at home here as I have unofficially presumed for years.'

In addition to being an ambassador for the game, Bobby Jones changed almost every facet of golf as we know it today. First, he affected the way we currently count major championships. National championships were always important, but did not assume their current significance until my grandfather won all of them in 1930. He set the bar by which all great golfers plan their career.
Interestingly, when the professionals needed a 'grand slam' (since they could not play in the amateur championships), they added the P.G.A. Championship and The Masters tournament. The Masters is the only major that is played on the same course every year, a course that Jones co-designed and a tournament that he founded.

My grandfather effected great changes in the technology of the game. Although he grew up on hickory-shafted clubs, after his retirement he designed the first set of steel-shafted clubs, with wood and iron heads specifically matched to the technology of the shaft. These were as radical to their day as graphite and titanium are to our day, and may even be more so. Why? Simply because in the Robt. T. Jones, Jr., clubs the vagaries of hickory were removed: for the first time in history, clubheads were designed to help the average player get the ball in the air. The golfer could focus more on the challenges of the shot and less on the whippy, high-torque shafts of the club and the knife-like blades of the day. This is why the Jones clubs remained the hottest-selling golf clubs for several decades.

Bobby Jones even changed the way we understand the golf swing. His writings are still viewed as outstanding examples of how to describe proper technique. Noted television commentators have said that Jones' instructional films are state-of-the-art by our standards today, to say nothing of the 1930s when they were filmed. Although top players have developed more efficient and powerful ways to swing a golf club, authorities no less than Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus have said that the average player can learn more from studying my grandfather's swing technique than from analyzing the form of any contemporary player. That's high praise from men who are not noted for hyperbole.

In almost every area one can think of in the game of golf, no name holds greater stature than Bobby Jones. The highest award the United States Golf Association gives each year is the Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship and contributions to the game. Scholarship funds in both the United States and Canada have been established in his honor that have raised millions of dollars to support student exchanges between Emory University, Georgia Tech and St. Andrews University. In Canada, a similar but separate exchange has been created between the University of Western Ontario and St. Andrews University. These exchanges are highly prized within their institutions and the Jones Scholars have gone on to very successful careers.

No discussion of my grandfather's impact on the world of golf, indeed on all sports, would be complete without mentioning his personal code of honor and sportsmanship. During his playing career, Jones conquered a fierce temper and played to a standard of impeccable integrity, several times calling penalties on himself for infractions that no else witnessed. One time, one of these even cost him a national championship.
When he was disabled by a painful, incurable disease he never complained, only expressed a determination to 'play the ball as it lies.' His character shines as brightly today as it did in his heyday, prompting Alistair Cooke to write recently in his book Memories Of The Great and The Good: 'I have done a little digging among friends and old golfing acquaintances who knew him and among old and new writers who, in other fields, have a sharp nose for the disreputable. But I do believe that a whole team of investigative reporters, working in shifts like coal miners, would find that in all of Jones's life anyone had been able to observe, he nothing common did or mean.'

Any one of Bobby Jones' achievements would make for a legendary career. That they are found in one man is remarkable. That they are found in my grandfather is personally humbling. He was, in many ways, one of the greatest men of our era, or any era.

Yet to me and my siblings and cousins, he was just 'Bub' ' our nickname for him, coined by his oldest grandson, Bill Black. And memories of the times I was privileged to spend with him, of the advice he gave me and the smiles he bestowed on me, I will treasure all my life.