Bobby Jones: Record Breaker

By Sidney L. Matthew

Illustration by Steven Salerno

Bob Jones’s Grand Slam is a record that has remained undisturbed for nearly 90 years and is perhaps the most significant longstanding record in sports history. 

During Jones’s 16-year competitive amateur career, plenty of attention was paid to his breaking the record on his home course, East Lake’s No. 1, a record seven times, culminating with a sparkling 63 on September 16, 1922. (He matched that score in 1930 and again in 1940.) The record stood for 67 years until Tommy Barnes returned a score of 62 on April 26, 1989. (There’s an asterisk: Barnes played from two white tees.) 

However, scant if any notice has been given to the fact that Jones is credited with breaking the records on more than 30 courses worldwide. Although most of these records have since been eclipsed, few players in golf history can claim anywhere near that number of record-breaking scores. 

Skeptics might criticize any course that would allow itself to be beaten into submission. Rather than a sign of weakness, Jones thought that a truly well-designed golf course should graciously give up a record score earned by a stellar isolated performance exhibited by an expert player who deserved it. In fact, he used to tell the story of the posh club member who boasted that no amateur or pro had broken par on his golf course: Jones’s stock reply was, “Why? What’s wrong with it?”

Jones explained this thinking when writing about his beloved Augusta National: “We are quite willing to have low scores made during the tournament. It is not our intention to rig the golf course so as to make it tricky. It is our feeling that there is something wrong with a golf course which will not yield a score in the 60s to a player who has played well enough to deserve it.” 

Jones knew what he was talking about: He broke the course record at the year-old Augusta National on March 4, 1934, with a score of 65. Almost exactly two years later, he lowered it to 64, a record that lasted 50 years. (Nick Price fired a 63 in the 1986 Masters; Greg Norman equaled that during the 1996 Masters.) 

Jones’s co-designer of Augusta National, Alister MacKenzie, was in agreement that an “ideal golf course” should yield occasional record low scores. As he wrote in The Spirit of St. Andrews, “It is no criterion of a good course that the record is high. This is usually an indication of a bad course, and only too frequently means that the putting surfaces are untrue, the approach is unfair, and the greens small and blind. On the contrary, if the average score is high but the records extremely low, 64 or 65 for a course under 7,000 yards, it usually means that a first-class player gets full reward for accurate play.” 

How did Jones go about repeatedly breaking course records? 

Golf historian Stephen Lowe has debunked the myth that Jones was just a “weekend golfer” who put his clubs away for the winter, picked them up in the spring, then played himself into shape to win a U.S. Open. In “DeMarbleizing Bobby Jones,” published in the Winter 1999 issue of Georgia Historical Quarterly, Professor Lowe concluded: 

“The historical record, particularly newspaper and Golf Journal accounts, is clear: in the period between 1915 and 1930, Jones rarely went more than a few weeks, much less than as long as six months, without playing a round of golf… Jones spent the winters of 1925 and 1926 playing golf with professionals in Florida. In 1926 he played his famous 72-hole match against Walter Hagen, the leading professional of the era. Jones did not simply visit Florida for a week to play that match; he lived there for the winter, promoting real estate, especially the Whitfield Estates Golf Club in Sarasota. He also played dozens of exhibitions and entered several open events including the Florida West Coast Opens of 1925 and 1926.…

It is true that during the 1927–1929 seasons Jones played much less golf than the professionals he was beating in the U.S. Open, which would suggest that Jones had extraordinary balance, timing, body control, and physical abilities necessary to play golf; in light of that and his tournament record, it is fair to conclude that Jones was indeed a natural golf genius, probably the most naturally endowed golfer ever.”

There is also some truth to the notion that Jones had an uncommon upper hand in understanding how to recognize and mitigate the risks employed by course architects to formulate diabolical golf course designs. MacKenzie acknowledged Jones’s keen understanding of golf architecture in The Spirit of St. Andrews: “Bob is not only a student of golf, but of golf courses as well, and while I had known him for years, I was amazed at his knowledge and clear recollection of almost all of the particularly famous golf holes in England and Scotland, as well as in America.”

Another component was his knack for concentration while playing competitively. Jones used to say that “golf is played more between the ears than on the golf course.” He did not intend to infer “that anything like superior mentality is required but it does mean that there must be no mental Daisy picking while a shot is being played.” Jones employed a singular temperament that five-time Open Champion J.H. Taylor called “courageous timidity,” meaning “courageous to keep trying in the face of ill luck or disappointment and timidity to appreciate and appraise the dangers of each stroke and to curb the desire to take chances beyond a reasonable hope of success.” 

To limit outside interference with his snap-on concentration, Jones played against a mythical character, “Old Man Par,” rather than focusing on his opponents. He figured that he would be in good shape score-wise if he just beat the tar out of Old Man Par. The record book shows he got the better end of that proposition. 

Perhaps the final key for Jones was the desire to understand what the architect wanted the golfer to accomplish. This required anticipating the rare, subtle nuances intentionally inserted to wreck an otherwise pristine round by a careless oversight. MacKenzie acknowledged use of potential spoilers when he wrote “every really good golf course should have some touches of subtlety that prevent the golfer doing a low score without much previous practice.”

It seems Jones was quite adept at reading the clever architects’ minds and avoiding the “gotchas.”

Bobby Jones Worldwide Course Records

1. 7/13/1918 Druid Hills GC, Ga. (66)

2. 7/13/1920 Memphis CC, Tenn. (69)

3. 7/18/1921 Columbia CC, Md. (68)

4. 7/22/1921 Columbia CC, Md. (33 for nine holes)

5. 10/10/1922  Charles River CC, Mass. (71)

6. 8/22/1923 Ansley Park GC, Ga. (66)

7. 8/8/1924 Newnan CC, Ga. (65)

8. 9/15/1924 Ardsley GC, N.Y. (67)

9. 6/2/1925 Worcester CC, Mass. (66)

10. 6/28/1925 Key Municipal GC, Ga. (33 for nine holes)

11. 8/30/1925 Oakmont CC, Pa. (67)

12. 5/20/1926 Sunningdale Golf Club, England (66)

13. 7/11/1927 Gleneagles GC (Kings Course), Scotland (67)

14. 7/13/1927 St. Andrews Old Course, Scotland (68) (tied)

15. 8/22/1927 Minekahda GC, Minn. (67)

16. 8/20/1928 Biltmore Forest CC, N.C. (69)

17. 8/27/1928 Chicago GC, Ill. (68)

18. 8/29/1928 Flossmoor Links, Ill. (67)

19. 8/10/1929 Sea Island Golf Course, Ga. (67)

20. 8/29/1929 Pebble Beach Golf Links, Calif. (70)

21. 8/30/1929 Pebble Beach Golf Links, Calif. (67)

22. 2/22/1930 Savannah GC, Ga. (65)

23. 6/19/1930 Royal Liverpool GC, England (70) (tied)

24. 7/12/1930 Interlachen GC, Minn. (68)

25. 6/8/1931 Forest Hills Ricker GC, Ga. (68)

26. 7/31/1931 Capital City CC, Ga. (65)

27. 12/30/1933 Bobby Jones Municipal Golf Course, Ga. (67)

28. 3/4/1934 Augusta National GC, Ga. (65)

29. 8/5/1934 Highlands CC, N.C. (62)

30. 3/29/1936 Augusta National GC, Ga. (64)

Bobby Jones East Lake Golf Club Course Records

No. 1 Course 

July 7, 1915 (77) 

July 4, 1916 (74) 

July 18, 1918 (70) 

July 16, 1919 (69) 

September 11, 1919 (68) 

September 13, 1920 (66) 

September 16, 1922 (63) 

February 15, 1930 (63) (tied) 

February 9, 1940 (63) (tied) 

No. 2 Course 

September 13, 1930 (67) 

June 12, 1931 (66)