Stories You Should Know: Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones was raised in what today we would call privilege. His Dad was a prominent lawyer in Atlanta, but Robert Tyre Jones Jr. was a sickly boy. The doctors encouraged his parents to push Bobby into athletics to strengthen the youngster. Bobby chose golf, and pushed by his father, became a child prodigy quickly. His family were members of the East Lake Country Club, where he started playing, and winning tournaments at age six. At age 14 he won the Georgia Amateur Championship. That win put him in the national spotlight. He would compete in the U.S. Amateur at Merion two years later, reaching the quarterfinals as a 16 year old. At 18 he qualified for his first United States Open, finishing tied for 8th in 1920. 

He was a cocky young man, prone to lose his temper, this more than anything prevented him from winning. In 1921 he journeyed to Scotland and qualified for the (British) Open Championship. In the third round he couldn’t get out of a sand trap on the 11th hole. Jones blew up, picked up his ball and didn’t finish the hole. Although he eventually finished the round he was disqualified from the tournament due to his outburst. After the round the young man did not say nice things about the Old Course at St. Andrews and the Scottish Press pounced. “Master Bobby is just a boy, and an ordinary boy at that,” they declared. Jones wouldn’t return to Scotland for another five years. 

Bobby Jones started his run as the dominant golfer in the world in the U.S. Open in 1922. At age 20 he finished second  to another young sensation, Gene Sarazen. 1923 saw him win for the first time, and after back to back runner-up finishes in 1924 and 1925 he won again in 1926. That was the year he returned to Scotland and won his first Open Championship. A disappointing 11th followed at the U.S. Open in 1927, but he came back to win both the U.S. Amateur, and a second straight Claret Jug, this one at the Old Course where he had his memorable meltdown six years earlier. He  would ingratiate himself to the local population when he chose to leave the Claret Jug in Scotland instead of bringing it home to Atlanta. He won his 3rd U.S. Open title in 1929, setting the stage for his historic year in 1930.

Bobby Jones’ 1930 season is one of the most dominant seasons of all time. He entered six tournaments, and won them all. Included in this was a calendar slam of the four Majors he was eligible to compete in. Because he remained an amateur he was not invited to participate in the PGA Championship, but both the U.S. and British Amateurs were still considered Majors at the time (for more information on the history of the Golf Majors click here). It must be remembered that at this time many of the best players in the world did not turn pro. Jones was one of many who chose the amateur route. 

In 1930, Bobby placed a bet on himself at 50-1 that he would win the slam. He first traveled to Scotland, and at the Old Course at St. Andrews, won the British Amateur with a resounding 7 & 6 victory in the Finals. That was in late May. In mid-June he traveled down to Hoylake, and at Royal Liverpool Golf Club came from behind to win the Open Championship by two strokes.

Returning to the United States he won the United States Open at Interlachen Country Club in Minnesota by two. That left the U.S. Amateur at Merion, where he cruised to an 8 & 7 triumph in the Final to complete the Grand Slam. He won his bet and pocketed $60,000. He then retired from competitive golf. He was only 28.

Jones’ life after golf was full of other achievements. He had earned a degree in Engineering from Georgia Tech in 1922, then entered Harvard, where he earned a degree in English Literature in 1924. In 1926, he earned a Law Degree from Emory University and quickly passed the Georgia bar exam. Bobby, Jr. then joined the law firm of his father’s. He married Mary Malone, who he met at Georgia Tech, in 1924 and they would have three children. After his retirement from golf he went to Hollywood and made several golf films. He also got into Golf Club Design, but his crowning achievement was the purchase of a plant nursery in Augusta, Georgia, that he and Cliff Roberts turned into the Augusta National Golf Club and created the tournament now known as the Masters.

Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts

Let’s now compare Jones to the two chief rivals in his own timer, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen.

We’ll start with the first player to win the career professional Grand Slam, Gene Sarazen. The comparison is pretty simple because they were both born in 1902, Sarazen in February and Jones in March. So we’re comparing players at the same age. Sarazen, like Jones, first appearance in a Major Championship was the 1920 U.S. Open when he was only 18 years old. They would compete against each other for the next 11 years. As a 20 year old Gene bested Bobby by winning the United States Open in 1922, Jones finished tied for second. In 1927, Sarazen finished third and Jones tied for 11th. Those are the only two times Sarazen finished ahead of Bobby Jones in Jones’ 11 appearances in the U.S. Open. In the (British) Open Championship they only faced each other one time, 1929. That year Bobby Jones won and Gene Sarazen finished tied for 8th. That’s 12 times they competed against each other in one of the Opens, Jones won seven to Sarazen’s one, and Jones finished ahead of him in 10 of the 12. Jones was simply the better player.

Winner of the National Championship Golf Cup, Bobby Jones (1902 – 1971) who won the British Open three times (1926-27, 1930) and the US Open four times (1923, 1926, 1929-30) on the right with fellow competitor Gene Sarazen on the left. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

What about Walter Hagen? After all, Hagen won 11 professional Majors ( 5 PGAs, 4 Open Championships, 2 U.S. Opens). Hagen was born in December of 1892, so he was 9 years older than Jones. That means that when Jones played his first Major, the 1920 U.S. Open, Walter was 27 and Bobby was 18. Read this carefully, Hagen was in the field for all 11 U.S. Opens that Bobby Jones participated in and won zero of them. He only finished ahead of him twice (1921 and 1927). With the Open Championship, Jones entered only four times, 1921, 1926, 1927, and 1930. Jones won three of the 4, Hagen was entered in all four. The only time Hagen finished ahead of Bobby Jones in the British was when Bobby infamously “withdrew” in 1921 as a 19 year old. That’s 15 Majors they both were entered in, Jones won seven, Hagen won none. In the 15, Hagen finished ahead of Jones in only three, one when Jones was 19, another when he was 21 and the last when Bobby was 25. Hagen’s record is very impressive, but he was not the player Bobby Jones was.

Jones and Walter Hagen

So how does Jones rate against the other five we’re considering? Do we give him credit for the tournaments he might have won if he didn’t retire at 28? Of course not. How about the PGA Championships and the Masters?  Well, the first he was not allowed to play in, and the other he created after his playing days were over. So, we can’t give him credit for tournaments he didn’t play, but we won’t hold them against him either. We’ll judge him primarily on his performances in the two Opens.

Nobody has won more United States Open Titles than Bobby Jones’ four. You add in his three (British) Open Championships, that makes seven wins in the two Opens. Nobody has surpassed that either, Harry Vardon and Jack Nicklaus matched it. Besides his meltdown in the 1921 Open Championship, his next worst finish in any Open event was a tie for 11th in the U.S. Open in 1927. His other finishes, when he didn’t win, were a tie for 8th, tie for 5th, and four 2nd place finishes. In summary, he won 7 of his 15 appearances in Majors and finished first or second in 11 of the 15. An unprecedented decade of domination. He’s definitely in the conversation as the Greatest Golfer of All Time. 

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