From the Golf Journal Archives - He Does Not Live in the Past but in the Present of Golf

Dec 09, 2011

By Al Laney

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March 1972 issue of Golf Journal.)

We all had known for months that the long battle between the spirit of Bob Jones and the disease that slowly wasted and twisted his once beautiful body was nearing the end. We were, we thought, prepared for it and even felt glad, in a sense, that the quarter century of constant suffering soon would be over. Then the word came unexpectedly, and immediately I began to miss him so keenly that for a little while the sense of personal loss was all but unbearable.

I thought then of the words of Bernard Darwin quoted above and I think that all of us felt something similar; those who feel the right way about Bob Jones may take comfort from them, for they tell us that the tie that binds us to him is not a physical but a spiritual tie.

As is usually the case following the sad, deep feeling of loss, there came quickly the flood of memories; vivid endless golfing scenes back to that most memorable of golfing days when first I met the schoolboy Bobby to begin a friendship that has been so rewarding and so enduring as almost to justify the stronger term of love affair.

It was in the summer of 1919. Stopping off in Atlanta to see about a job with the Associated Press, on which I would start when released by the Army, I had gone to East Lake for the final day of the Southern Open Championship. I had gone there expressly to see this fiery prodigy of the links about whom all the people were talking. The papers were full of Bobby Jones, already, at 17, a national celebrity.

At the conclusion of play, in which he finished second to Jim Barnes in a very strong field, I stood outside the circle of admirers and listened to the soft, almost inaudible voice with which he answered questions and conversed so easily without self-consciousness. I stood in something near to wonder at this remarkable youth who could play so brilliantly and speak so well, and when I had pushed through the crowd and spoken directly to him, I was all but overwhelmed by the winsomeness of the smile with which he received my greeting. It seemed a special smile produced for me alone.

Our meeting was only a few brief words and a quick handshake, but this 17-year-old national celebrity, over whom the most important people were constantly making a great deal of fuss, clearly and surprisingly remembered when I encountered him again months later, after he had gone to the final at Oakmont and even greater acclaim.

The second meeting came in October when, one afternoon soon after I had gone to work nights, I went looking for him with the thought that I might write a piece about Bobby Jones’ schooldays. Every bit of trivial information about this unusual personality would be avidly read.

I found him on the front porch of a fraternity house at the corner of a busy intersection just off the campus of Georgia Tech, where he was a precocious undergraduate. He was in a cluster of raucous, bantering college boys, who made room for me beside Bobby on a bench, or more likely a porch swing. Coming up the steps I had been amused at the jibes of those I considered children compared with my greater age and knowledge of life.

Now, as the group broke up, leaving me alone with Bobby, I had the strange experience of feeling shy in the presence of the teenage boy. I had to make a conscious effort to overcome a slight embarrassment while the boy remained perfectly calm and self-possessed. Already this early he had begun to display a maturity usually associated only with experience, and he was surrounded by a faint sense of magic that deepened as he grew older. Sitting there at a loss for something to say, I had the unsettling feeling that I was the young one, a small boy in the presence of a grownup.

I said I had not expected he would remember me, to which he made what I always felt was a penetrating reply looking toward our future lifelong relationship. “You’re not so easily forgotten as you think,” he said.

But I insisted he had remembered because I had been still in uniform at East Lake, with evidence of front-line service on the sleeve. The whole approach to World War I was more romantic, and boys regretted being too young to be in it. Bobby rejected this thought very firmly. No, he said, absolutely not. That had nothing to do with it. Then, after a pause, “You called me Bob,” as if that settled the matter. Already he’d had enough of being Little Bobby Jones, and wanted that understood from the start.

Years later, when we both actually had grown up and he was the greatest golfer in the world, the memory of this scene on the porch became for him a pleasant private joke between us. He would sometimes call out to me, “I’ve not forgotten you,” or would say to a mutual acquaintance, “Tell Al he’s not so easily forgotten.” More than once, surrounded by golf officials and other writers, he said with a deep chuckle for me, “Oh, yes, I knew him when he was a small boy.” All this to remind me he remembered my embarrassment and thoroughly enjoyed the memory of it.

At our third meeting, at Inwood in 1923, however, I did not yet know of Bob’s sometimes astonishing memory for intimate detail, and the meeting almost did not come off because of that. Inwood was the scene of Jones’ first victory in the Open and my first Open as a reporter, albeit in a rather miniscule role, and always afterward whenever Inwood came up, he would refer to it as “our first victories.”

On the second day of this week-long tournament I watched from about 20 yards away a group of famous golfers and writers surrounding Jones on the clubhouse steps, laughing and talking together. Among them were Francis Ouimet, and Grantland Rice, golfing and journalistic boyhood heroes. I longed to join him, but I hadn’t the boldness to approach. It had been four years now and I was afraid.

I was about to walk away sadly when Bob looked up and saw me standing there, probably with mouth wide open. He understood immediately my longing and my shyness, and his reaction was as natural as the singing of birds. He rose, came to me, took me in, introducing me, the insignificant unknown, as his friend to people who would mean much to me in later years.

Overseas memories of Jones include a triumphant Bobby taking the trouble after the celebrated “perfect” round at Sunningdale, to hunt up and comfort a tearful and still rather new golf writer because of the downright rudeness of the great Bernard Darwin ... Jones in the clubhouse at Lytham-St. Anne’s surrounded by many notables, including Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor, all happy that Bobby had won in England ... Jones twice at St. Andrews mobbed by cheering Scotsmen, but always concerned that an inexperienced writing friend should know all he needed to know, never too busy, too worried, or too happy to be gracious, kind and generous, full of wit and full of wisdom ... Jones in the clubhouse at Hoylake, pacing back and forth, face the color of ashes, in hand the glass he dared not drink from for fear of being ill... waiting ... the agony of waiting to see if his pursuers all would fail.

Jones that same night at Liverpool station, leaning through a window of the London train, about to set out for Interlachen, Merion and the end of the road, saying “All right. Now you can speak of it (The Grand Slam) if you want to,” and then as the carriage moved away down the platform, calling back, “But don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed.”

Then Jones at Augusta, the happy memory of those early years of the Masters with Jones as host to his old friendly enemies, the pros. And was there ever so charming a host as the young Atlanta barrister? ... Years when you could be with Bob on the course and any evening he might say “Come on, lets pick up Granny and so-and-so and so-and-so. I know a good place to eat out in the country ...”

Those days, at the time, seemed endless, but of course they were numbered, and now there comes the haunting memory of Jones, the slowly declining invalid, so wonderfully calm and cheerful about it that no one outside his immediate circle knew for a long time how fatefully serious it was. I recall still with sudden indrawn breath, the day I myself first discovered it.

We heard that Jones had gone to Boston for an operation that would relieve the condition and were happy we would see him at the USGA meeting, for which he would stop off in New York on the way home. I found him seated in a low chair off the end of the raised dais, and as I approached I thought he looked the same as before. He took my hand in both of his and pulled me down toward him in a semblance of an embrace, and as he did I saw steel braces showing below the cuffs of his trousers.

As soon as I could I moved away from him for fear he would see the shock of it in my face, but at the Masters three months later, when he picked me up in his golf cart as he drove about the course one day, he showed plainly that if he had not seen he had nevertheless understood. In his gently understanding way he placed his not yet gnarled hand on my knee, and said quietly, “You ran away from me at the meeting.” I tried to say awkwardly that I did not want to impose on him.

“Never mind that,” he said, “I want my old friends to impose on me. I love my old friends and I want to be bothered by them.”

Thus encouraged I asked after his condition for the first time and the last, although I felt I already knew. His reply I can never forget.

“I’ve known you now longer than anyone in golf,” he said. “I can tell you there is no help. I know I can only get worse. But you are not to keep thinking of it. You know, in golf we play the ball as it lies. Now, we will not speak of this again, ever.”

With this came the smile that everyone who knew Jones thought of as his own personal smile, and as he dropped me near his cottage, he said, “Remember now! Bother me.”

It was just in these years of the early 1950s, when Jones still was able to drive about alone in his cart that I received more from our friendship than at any other time. Meetings could only be at the Masters now and they were necessarily brief, but they are precious memories. I recall as vividly as the first, each succeeding ride in the cart and the talk has been stored in the mind, never written down, not even in notes. Even now I question if I ought to do so, but ever since his death I have had the strong urge to reveal everything good of this man who was my dear friend. I will mention only one other.

On a day of the 1954 Masters, at which Ben Hogan, as defending champion, lost a memorable playoff to Sam Snead, I had come down the 11th fairway with Hogan’s gallery. I found Jones sitting in his cart beside the 12th tee, from which the crowd had been held back a way. He caught my eye while Hogan was holing out at the 11th and motioned me toward him.

“Sit here a minute,” he said. “Let’s watch Ben hit this iron.”

The 12th is a par 3 of only about 150 yards, but a dangerous hole where more than one Masters has been lost. There is water in front and a bank of matted stuff rising behind a wide narrow green. After Hogan had struck his ball and the crowd moved away through the trees behind us toward the 13th fairway, Bob pointed his cane and said:

“Look behind the green there. That’s the ninth fairway of the Augusta Country Club you see through the fence. That’s where I played the best golf of my life before going to England in 1930.

“And here,” he added, swinging the cane right and left in a full circle, “is where Hogan played the best golf of his life last year before winning U.S. and British Opens, his best year. Every time I come down here and look over the 12th green I think of that.

“I think possibly nobody played better golf than I did over there and I know nobody ever played better golf than Ben played over here. Nobody can play better golf than that. But somebody will. Perhaps we’ll see it right here.” And so we did see it 10 years after, so far as the score is concerned.

This so positive statement seemed to imply that Jones was placing Hogan above himself, and I protested vigorously, saying nobody could be placed above Jones. Bob smiled at that, appreciating the loyalty to him, but he said quietly, “You know it has nothing to do with who you love and who you don’t.”

Jones, as noted, had this phenomenal memory for long past detail that appeared to astonish some, and he also had what appeared to all who knew him a real and sometimes delicious sense of humor. These two qualities I would like to combine in a last pleasant recollection. During those last years at Augusta, when his steadily worsening condition prevented his regular appearance on the course, he would receive each Wednesday of Masters Week in his cabin beyond the 10th tee, a group of old friends who often brought along some who just wanted to be in his presence once before it was too late. Only a few of us knew at what cost Bob continued these gatherings right up to his last year in Augusta.

Propped by cushions in his wheelchair, he was ever charming, courteous and humorous. He loved talking to us on any subject, and how he talked! He must surely have been one of the finest conversationalists of his time. As we noted his slow decline from year to year we marveled at the continued keeness of his intellect and at the clear, precise, now and then brilliant use of the language, even in this informal gathering.

At one of the later of these Wednesday visits, Bob was presented with an old picture of himself from which the caption had been lost and was asked if he could identify the occasion. It showed him obviously at or near his prime driving from a tee somewhere with a crowd of spectators pressed close behind. With only a quick glance he said at once:

“Yes, that’s the 14th tee at Hoylake in 1930,” and then proceeded to name half a dozen standing there, including the secretary of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, which is the proper name of Hoylake.

And then, with a sly look around the room, he turned to me with that wonderful special smile I had first seen at East Lake more than half a century earlier and said:

“I don’t see you there. I suppose you were out chasing after Mac Smith.”

Can there be anyone to wonder that Bob Jones was loved? In our game of golf he has not left his peer.

(USGA Museum)

The young Jones being congratulated by Grantland Rice (right) after an early triumph. (USGA Museum)

On the veranda of the Augusta National Golf Club with Jess Sweetser, over his left shoulder, and Ed Dudley, with his back to the camera. (USGA Museum)