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On His Shoulders

The Masters might never have evolved had Bobby Jones not made the painful decision to un-retire

By: David Barrett

 

Moments after he wrapped up the Grand Slam in 1930 by winning the U.S. Amateur, Bobby Jones told defending champion Jimmy Johnston in the locker room that he was through with competition. “The game of golf is wrecking my health, stunting me in my business ambitions, and I am sick of it all,” Jones confided. 

The greatest amateur golfer of his, or any, time had competed in only a handful of tournaments a year. But those tournaments had taken a lot out of him. He “blew up completely,” as he later wrote, after the 1926 U.S. Open, weeping uncontrollably in his room as he waited for the rest of the field to finish. And in 1930, after Jones had won the British Open and Amateur, writer George Greenwood observed, “I never saw a man closer to collapse than was ‘Bobby’ Jones.”  

So, even though he was only 28 years old, it was no surprise when Jones announced his retirement in November of 1930. He had other priorities in his life, including his family (a third child was on the way) and the Atlanta law practice he had started in 1927. It didn’t hurt that he was able to cash in on his fame in a way he couldn’t as an amateur golfer, signing a lucrative deal for film shorts with Warner Brothers and joining the A.G. Spalding Company to create a Bobby Jones line of golf clubs. 

His other significant post-retirement venture was launching Augusta National Golf Club, fulfilling a dream that he had confided to his friend Clifford Roberts in the late 1920s. Roberts took that dream and ran with it, finding the site through connections in Augusta and taking care of the myriad details required to get the club off the ground. 

There was one big problem: The Depression was precisely the wrong time to try to start a golf club. The financial underwriting efforts fell short of the club’s goals and the membership drive was also faltering. Not even the name of Bobby Jones was enough in those hard times to get a sufficient number of men to join Augusta National to sustain the club, which was unable to make its mortgage payments or pay its bills from course construction. 

Roberts had a solution. The Augusta National would hold a  tournament. If orchestrated properly, such an event would generate publicity for the club—publicity that could lead to new members. If there was any way out of the hole Augusta National found itself in, this was it. Thus, the Masters was born primarily as a way of drumming up membership for a struggling new club. 

Of course, there was one way to maximize the publicity—by announcing that Bobby Jones would be a competitor. But would Jones agree to come out of retirement? 

Jones wanted his club to survive and he wanted to showcase the golf course. The tournament was a means to those ends. A tournament without him might not be enough to accomplish those goals; a tournament with him might. It would attract much more media attention and bigger headlines nationwide, and it would mean higher gate receipts. 

The one thing that probably made Jones hesitate was that he didn’t want this to become a Return of Bobby Jones story that would turn the event into a pressure cooker for him. In the back of his mind, he must have known that’s exactly what would happen. But the other points were too persuasive. If that’s the way it had to be, Jones would just have to deal with it. He was painted into a corner.  

The tendency decades later is to think of Jones’s appearances in his tournament as purely ceremonial. In reality, his 1934 appearance was anything but. The press angle going into the tournament was the same as at any open event in the 1920s—could the pros beat Bobby? 

Associated Press sports editor Alan Gould wrote that the pros entertained “more hope than convictions” that they could. “I would feel confident in [Jones’s] old competitive spirit asserting itself. No performer dominant for so long as Jones was could sensibly feel other than a strong urge to do his absolute best in attempting even a transient comeback. 

“Championship golf . . . is not like boxing in respect to the angle that a long layoff is so costly in speed, stamina, and competitive edge,” Gould wrote. “I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t finish among the first three at Augusta.” 

If that seems overly optimistic for a player who had been retired for four years, it’s worth reviewing Jones’s record from 1922 through 1930. He played in 12 U.S. and British Opens during that time, winning seven and finishing second in four. 

Jones would be coming into the tournament cold in terms of competitive play, but he was taking his preparation seriously. Three weeks before the March 22–25 tournament, he set the course record with a 65 during a visit to Augusta. Bookmakers—yes, they were a part of the scene in those days—installed Jones as a co-favorite with Paul Runyan, the hottest player on Tour at the time, at 6 to 1.

But there were troubling signs from Jones as tournament week dawn-ed. On Monday he complained that he hadn’t been making any long putts in his practice rounds (he had arrived the previous Wednesday) and in the next two days his woes extended to the shorter putts. 

As the first day of the Masters dawned, one question loomed largest over the proceedings: Did the Emperor of Golf still have clothes? While the answer wouldn’t definitively come in a single day, this first round would go a long way toward showing what Jones still brought to the table as a player. 

The results were highly discouraging to Jones’s supporters: The Emperor was naked on the greens. While striking the ball nearly as well as ever, Jones was practically helpless with the putter. The result was a four-over-par 76, six strokes out of the lead and in a tie for 34th place. 

Having lost none of his prodigious power off the tee, Jones took advantage of his own course design by going for the green in two on all four par fives. He missed a 15-foot eagle putt on the fourth hole, known today as the famed 13th, and a four-foot eagle putt on the 11th, one of an astounding seven misses on putts of five feet or less. 

Jones pulled no punches in describing his own putting woes in a conversation with famed sports writer and Augusta National member Grantland Rice after the round. “I had no putting stroke at all. . .I hope to be better, for I know I can’t be worse around the greens, not even if I use my shoe or an old rake,” he admitted. 

In preparing for the tournament, Jones had shot par or better in nearly all of his rounds at Augusta National. But when the bell rang he proved the dictum that he had earlier written in his book, Down the Fairway: “There are two kinds of golf: golf—and tournament golf. And they are not at all the same thing.” 

The stories in the newspapers briefly glossed over the leaders—eventual winner Horton Smith, Jimmy Hines, and Emmet French were tied at 70—and devoted most of their space to Jones’s disappointing round. The Augusta Chronicle later reported that more words were transmitted by telegraph from Augusta than at the previous year’s U.S. Open. That kind of  coverage was attributable to interest in Jones’s return to competition. 

The saga of Jones and his putting continued on Friday. After a long practice session the previous evening, Jones came out on Friday morning and spent another hour on the practice green before his afternoon tee time. He raised the hopes of onlookers by holing putts with impressive regularity, but gave an indication as to his mindset by saying, “I hope I don’t leave this luck on the practice green.” 

That’s exactly what happened. If anything, Jones was worse on the greens in the second round than the first, taking 38 putts and even missing twice from a mere 18 inches. He hit the ball well enough and improved his score to a 74, but he was now eight strokes behind.  

Gould wrote that Jones’s “hands seemed to shake” and Jones’s biographer O.B. Keeler wrote that he “stabbed jerkily at the ball,” which sounds like the malady that today we know as the yips, where short putts become the thing of nightmares as hand control goes away.  

“I honestly have been afraid of even a foot putt,” Jones told Rice after the round. “I almost missed three of those today. . .The minute I walked onto the green I had the jitters. Even the sight of that cup made me sick. It looked to be smaller than the ball I was putting. . . When I got close to the cup I felt as if I was looking at the fangs of a rattlesnake.” 

Gould wrote that the pros were galloping toward their biggest golfing “kill” since they routed Jones at the 1927 U.S. Open, where he finished 11th. 

Such a perception of his play was the risk Jones took in taking his game out of mothballs for a return to the national stage. Gould did acknowledge that Jones’s role as tournament host, and his long absence from competition, had taken something out of him: “So far he has played exactly like a perfect host, happy to see his old friends having a good time but quite unequal to the personal job of keeping pace with them after a lapse of four seasons.” 

Jones played with his old 1920s rival Walter Hagen in the third and fourth rounds, a pairing suggested by the 41-year-old Haig himself. Jones’s putting improved in the third round, thanks perhaps to an old, rusty putter that a friend had brought from Atlanta on Friday night. “Calamity Jane III” was a relative of Jones’s old reliable Calamity Jane (unavailable to him since he had given it to Spalding to use as a model) and was rescued from Bobby’s mother’s golf bag. 

“The club appeared out of place, along with his other shiny instruments,” the New York Times report noted. “It was rusty and the shaft was of wood.” 

Despite holing some long ones and finishing with 30 putts, Jones missed three times from four feet or less as a 72 left him 10 strokes back after 54 holes. 

No matter what his score, the Emperor was still king to the galleries. Walking down the fairway of the 2nd hole during the final round, he siphoned off a good portion of what was originally a sizable gallery following tournament leader Smith, who was just completing the nearby 5th hole (pairings were not made according to score in those days). 

Jones put on a good show, making five birdies in a round of 72 as he tied with Hagen for 13th, which would stand as his best showing in 12 Masters appearances. Remarkably, Jones had more subpar holes for the tournament than winner Smith, finishing with 17 birdies while Smith was notching 15 birdies and an eagle. But Jones finished 10 strokes behind, and six-over par, because he made 17 bogeys and three double bogeys.

Rice asked Jones if he’d had fun. “Not a bit this time,” Bobby answered. “When you hit your drives and approaches and all your harder shots and can’t putt, you suffer, no matter what your handicap. It is the worst suffering in golf.” 

Jones had only agreed to play for the sake of keeping his club afloat in tough economic times. However, the nation’s writers weren’t aware of Augusta National’s financial woes, and thus didn’t know the real reason Jones had joined the field. 

Jones would be one of the favorites in 1935, only to finish 25th. By the end of that week it had dawned on everyone that Jones would probably never be a threat to win his own tournament. But the tournament was already past needing that. The writers initially drawn by Jones’s comeback would return each year to tell the story of the Masters.

Adapted from Making the Masters: Bobby  Jones & the Birth of the World’s Greatest Golf Tournament (Skyhorse Publishing). 

 

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