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The Greatest Sportsman of all time
On March 17th, St Patrick's Day, Robert T. Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in the USA. He was also a favourite adopted son of St Andrews. The town celebrated the centenary of his birth with a grand dinner on Friday night when, fittingly, Sir Michael Bonallack, former secretary of the R&A, proposed a toast. On Sunday the townsfolk and their American visitors from Atlanta enjoyed the rare experience of Sabbath golf on the Old Course in a celebratory grand match.

It is entirely appropriate that Jones should be celebrated in this way for he was quite simply not only the greatest golfer that ever lived, he is also the greatest sportsman of all time.

The case for Bobby Jones' place at the head of the top table in the golfing pantheon is clear. Although his Open Championship record is identical to that of Jack Nicklaus - both won four US Opens and three British - Jones did his in 15 starts while Nicklaus has played in over 80. In Jones' day the majors were considered to be the British and American Amateur championships (matchplay events) and the Opens themselves. Jones played in 21 such majors and won 13 of them. He twice won both Opens in the same year and is the only man to ever successfully defend both championships. For eight successive years between 1922 and 1930 he won at least one major a year. He played in five Walker Cups, winning every singles match and was defeated only once in foursomes play.

In 1923 Jones started a championship spree that remains unparalleled to this day. Although the British Amateur eluded him until 1930 he won the US Amateur in 1924, 25, 27, 28 and 1930, losing in two finals in the same period. During that same stretch of time he also won seven Opens.

Jones is, of course, immortalised for his Grand Slam of 1930. This was and is an awesome achievement and, against the background of the modern commercial world, one can confidently state will never be repeated.

But it is Jones the sportsman who is rightly revered to this day. The stories of his sportsmanship are legion and legendary. He was the consummate amateur, a basically simple man with homespun Southern sensibilities and a profound devotion to golf. When he called a penalty on himself after touching the ball at address, which passed unswitnessed, a disbelieving reporter praised him for his action. Jones' response characterises him perfectly: 'You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank' he said, shaking his head in incomprehension.

But if testimony is required for Jones the man it is best seen in the reverence in which he was held, and remains held in St Andrews. He clearly gained the respect of the members of the R&A in 1930 when they presented him with a miniature replica of the Amateur trophy with the inscription 'To a golfer matchless in skill and chivalrous in spirit.' But gaining the respect of the R&A is one thing, winning the hearts of the heard-bitten St Andrews townsfolk is another.

Jones was not new to the town in 1930. His first appearance on the links was in 1921 when he was but 19 years old. He did not distinguish himself in that year's Open for in the third round, after going out in 46 and taking a six at the 10th hole he found himself in the notorious Hill Bunker at the short 11th. At that time, Hill was an even more formidably faced monster than it is today. To his lifelong chagrin Jones picked up his ball. It was the only tournament in his life that he did not finish.

It was not until 1926 that Jones made his big impression as the popular young champion when he won the Open at Lytham. The following year in St Andrews he not only retained the claret jug but he also won with the record score of 285, when he was extensively praised for his modesty and demeanour. The townsfolk of St Andrews carried him shoulder high from the 18th green, by far the most popular winner of the Open in living memory.

But it was in 1930 when he won the first leg of the grand slam by taking the Amateur Championship at St Andrews that the locals adopted him as one of their own. The reasons are clear enough. He a truly great golfer, certainly, but he had also beaten Cyril Tolley on his way to the final and trounced Roger Wethered seven and six in the final itself. To the Scots in general and to the St Andreans in particular, this was manna from heaven. Not since Maxwell in 1909 had a Scot won the Amateur. St Andrews born but American naturalised Jock Hutchison's Open triumph in 1921 had raised St Andrews's spirits and endeared all Americans to them. The English were dominating the game at all levels and had come to claim it as their own. This 'stuck in the Scots craw' and the fact that a personable young American, openly appreciative of the town and its game, was walking all over the best of the English was much appreciated. Bobby Jones happily complied in being an adopted son and readily entered into the romance.

And a romance it was. St Andrews mourned Jones' retirement from competitive golf that year for the English were bound to eclipse any Scottish field. He did not return to the town until 1936 when en route to the Olympic Games in Munich. Jones was unaware of the depth of his affair with St Andrews and he was astonished to find thousands awaiting him on the first tee. Shops in the town had closed for the day with signs in the windows reading simply 'Closed, Bobby's back.'

Marriage was inevitable and in 1958 St Andrews conferred honorary citizenship upon him when he signed the Burghers Book - the first American since Benjamin Franklin in 1759 to do so. It was a moving and memorable ceremony. 'I just want to say to you that this is the finest thing that has ever happened to me,' he said and clearly meant it. And if there was any remaining doubt concerning his feelings he said: 'If you took away everything in my life but the times I have experienced at St Andrews, I would still have had a rich and rewarding life.'

By this time Bobby Jones was restricted to a wheelchair, stricken with the rare and agonisingly crippling spinal disease, syringomyelia. At that time, Herbert Warren Wind wrote of him: 'As a young man he was able to stand up against just about the best that life had to offer, and later he stood up against just about the worst.'

Most tellingly it was a quote from his friend Grantland Rice that hung on his law office wall in Atlanta and later on his cabin wall at the Augusta National Golf Club. Jones inspired the club and course that is yet today home to the Masters Tournament, a title that he utterly detested. The piece reads: 'For when the great Scorer comes to write your name, He writes not that you have won or lost, but how you played the game.'

Bobby Jones played golf better than anyone else before or since. We will certainly never see his like again.




©    18 - MARCH 2002



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