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Grand Master

Legendary Bobby Jones Still Towers Over Augusta Event

April 08, 2002|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bobby Jones died more than 30 years ago, but something he left behind still manages to summon vivid memories of golf's greatest player. The Masters begins Thursday at the course he carved out of an old nursery on hilly, rolling terrain in Augusta, Ga.

It's still Bobby Jones' tournament, fully grown into one of golf's most treasured and revered institutions--much like Jones himself.

Jones attained an unusual status in sport, as an icon, and maintains it more than three decades after his death. Many in the game feel about Jones the same way Arnold Palmer does.

"Bobby Jones was a real gentleman golfer," Palmer said. "What he accomplished in golf, no one else has and probably never will. He's also the father of Augusta National and the Masters, and all those factors are significant to his enduring popularity."

How Jones has endured is a story--his own story, actually--of achieving great fame through heroic achievements, showing the best examples of sportsmanship and humility, getting out of the spotlight early and dying too young.

According to Jones' historian and biographer, Sidney L. Matthew, Jones knew exactly what he was doing when he stopped playing regularly in 1930 at age 28.

"He had the confidence and grace to leave the stage at the top," Matthew said. "That's something very few people can do. And he went on to become a respected ambassador whose opinion was sought because everyone knew it would be reasoned and conservative and completely thought out."

The Jones legacy is storybook stuff, but also powerful. Hootie Johnson, who follows Jones in the line of chairmen of Augusta National, invokes Jones' name often. "The spirit of Bob Jones is alive today," Johnson said. "It is evident here at Augusta National and in the Masters, in his outstanding player record and the decency and honesty he brought to the game of golf.

"He is missed by those that knew him and those who didn't."

How Jones has achieved such a following is not simply told, but it's worth retelling. It is his own story.

A Humble Beginning

Jones was born on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1902, in his parents' house across the street from Grant Park in Atlanta. It was an old house, and the Joneses shared it with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Bryan M. Grant.

Robert Tyre Jones Jr., was named after his paternal grandfather, Robert Tyre Jones, who was 6 feet 5 and weighed 235 pounds. But there was nothing in the physical characteristics of young "Rob" to remind relatives of his grandfather. He would grow up to be known as the most famous golfer in history, but as a child, Jones was frail and sickly, the result of a gastrointestinal disorder, the same ailment that killed his younger brother, William, at 3 months. Jones couldn't eat solid food until he was 5.

But Bobby Jones, whose family was far from impoverished, was able to enjoy some of the privileges of wealth. His grandfather was a successful entrepreneur who established the Jones Mercantile Co. in 1879 and then the Canton Cotton Mill. Bobby Jones' father, Robert Purmedus Jones, was an attorney and also excelled at athletics, especially baseball.

Bobby Jones' father was called "the Colonel," as an affectionate term. But as a young man, the Colonel was treated more like an enlisted man as far as sports went. Robert Tyre Jones never saw his son play baseball at the University of Georgia.

"No son of mine is going to be a baseball player," the elder Jones is supposed to have said. "You're going to have a profession."

So Robert Purmedus Jones went to Mercer Law School and became general counsel to an emerging local company that seemed to have promise, called Coca-Cola.

Young Rob was attracted to golf almost as soon as he could walk, eventually playing at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. .

Fulton Colville, a member at Atlanta Athletic Club who was playing one day at East Lake, gave Jones his first club: a cut-down one-iron, called a "cleek."

At the time, neither Jones nor his friend, Frank Meador, was old enough to play at the club, so they had to find other places to swing their hickory-shafted clubs. On most days, you could find Bobby and Frank playing in the draining ditch or along the side of the road.

In time, Jones built up his club collection, including a brassie, the equivalent of a two-wood, cut down from a club from his mother, Clara. He followed his parents around the course and hit shots when they said it was all right. Jones started imitating the swing of Stewart Maiden, the pro at East Lake, and showed uncanny ability from the beginning.

It didn't take long for Jones to prove his skill at golf. He won his first cup in a tournament when he was 6 and kept the trophy polished. He even slept with it.

A Prodigy

At 11, Jones shot an 80 at East Lake. At 13, he shot a 70 and won the club championships not only at East Lake, but at Druid Hills Golf Club as well.

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