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The Immortal Bobby

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I wrote twice last week (here and here) about Georgia Odyssey, James Cobb’s short history of the state, which I was reading in preparation for our upcoming trip. On finishing it Tuesday, I had two ideas for further reading directions: a book on the history of the Masters golf tournament, or a book on some aspect of the South’s economic history.

There’s no shortage of books on either subject. For southern history, I eventually settled on three candidates, which I’ll discuss in a separate post. More difficult was coming up with candidates for Masters history, especially given my fear that many would be of pedestrian writing quality.

A search at Amazon yields, just as a start, Steve Eubanks’ Augusta: Home of the Masters Tournament, Curt Sampson’s The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia, and David Owen’s The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament, all from around 1998. Of more recent vintage is last year’s Making the Masters: Bobby Jones and the Birth of America’s Greatest Golf Tournament, by David Barrett.

How is one supposed to choose?

I decided on a different tack. Why not a biography of Bobby Jones, golfing great, Atlanta native, and Masters co-founder? That might give me a better combination of golf history, Masters history specifically, and Georgia history. Alas, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an inexhaustible supply of Jones biographies as well. A more recent one is Ron Rapoport’s The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf, from 2005.

Rapoport’s website offers reviews by two prominent sportswriters, the Washington Post’s Leonard Shapiro and then-Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski. Shapiro writes, “There’s a fabulous new biography out on Bobby Jones, “The Immortal Bobby,” by Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport. The author conducted scores of interviews and had access to previously undiscovered correspondence between Jones and some of his friends and acquaintances, … .” And Posnanski:

Bobby Jones turned a small Southern town into the home of golf. And yet, even here, he remains a mystery. He was the greatest golfer of his time, perhaps all time. He was once as famous as Babe Ruth. He remained an amateur when there was money to be had. He was a lawyer, he loved opera, he earned a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and a degree in literature from Harvard, he made movies in Hollywood, and he designed America’s favorite golf clubs for 40 years.

And yet, in a way, Jones remained unknowable.

This is best seen in Rapoport’s chapter on Bobby Jones’ views on race and the Masters, the biggest issue this golf tournament has faced through the years (in 1996, when the Olympics were in Atlanta, they were going to play the first Olympic golf tournament at Augusta. The tournament was eventually pulled because of what were called Augusta’s “discriminatory policies”).

There are those who say that Jones was a racist – the Masters, after all, did not invite a black man until after his death. There are others who say that he was a man of his time and place, a man who grew up in the American South just after the turn of the century. And there are still others who will say that Jones was ahead of his time, a good man who was always, as Rapoport says, “fair and honorable to the many black people he knew.”

The truth is, we don’t have any idea.

Rapoport interviewed dozens of people for his book. He scoured more than 100 golf books. He read an uncountable number of magazine and newspaper articles and letters Jones had written. And he never once heard or read a single clue about how Jones felt about race issues.

“I just find that remarkable for a guy who was so political and such a prolific letter writer,” Rapoport says.

These reviews appeared to confirm my impression that Rapoport’s book would simultaneously enhance my knowledge of golf history, inform me on the early days of the Masters, and provide background on race history in Georgia. I downloaded it and began reading, reaching the end this morning. Though mistaken in my expectations, I was thoroughly entertained.

The book has three parts. The first two, which occupy 260 of the book’s 320 pages, offer a close account of Jones’ career, from his stunning 1916 appearance in the US Amateur at suburban Philadelphia’s Merion as a 14-year-old to his dramatic return fourteen years later—when Merion once again hosted the US Amateur—to complete his Grand Slam: a sweep of the year’s four major national championships (the British Amateur and Open, followed by the US Open and Amateur).

The focus is narrow: golf, golf, golf, and the psychological toll the pressure takes on Jones. Yes, Jones studies engineering at Georgia Tech, literature at Harvard, law at Emory, ultimately joining his father’s law firm, but Rapoport mentions this only in passing. The book is not a biography, as it turns out, so much as a you-are-there report on the drama of Jones’ golfing career. Which is pretty darned exciting, so no complaints.

Only in the final 60 pages—Jones having retired from competitive golf after his 1930 victory at Merion—does Rapoport broaden the book’s scope. Jones may have been an amateur, and a practicing lawyer, but golf remained his love and became the primary source of his income. He goes to Hollywood to make instructional videos with the stars. He contracts to make golf clubs with Spalding and become a member of their board. He writes golf books. And he oversees the construction of a new golf course in Augusta.

Rapoport treats all this in one chapter, then devotes the next chapter to the desegregation of Atlanta’s public golf courses including the eponymous Bobby Jones course. (This would go to the US Supreme Court, which decided the case in 1955 in favor of desegregation.) This, too, is the chapter in which Rapoport discusses Jones’ attitude toward race and the long contentious issue of allowing a black golfer to play in the Masters.

Next comes comes a chapter on Jones’ crippling spinal problems, the exact nature of which remains a mystery today. Rapoport has done some excellent research here, tracking down doctors and addressing the issue of whether Jones suffered, as he claimed, from a particular kind of spinal cord illness or whether, instead, his wondrous golf swing was the source of long-term damage. A final chapter brings Jones’ life to a close, way too soon and with way too much physical pain.

Let me mention two unexpected cameos. Prescott Bush* shows up at the 1929 US Open as the United States Golf Association official who makes a crucial rules decision on the final day at the 17th hole, a decision that saves Jones a lost ball and seals his victory. And Charles Seaver, one of the top amateur golfers in California, appears at Merion in that 1930 US Amateur, where he makes the semi-finals, with Jones playing in the other semi. Seaver leads or is even with his opponent throughout, until the 36th and final hole, which he loses, ending the match one down. Had he won, he would have faced Jones in the final, representing the last obstacle between Jones and his Grand Slam.

*Bush’s father-in-law, George Herbert Walker, lent his name to the Walker Cup, which is awarded to the champion in the biannual competition between a US amateur team and an amateur team representing Great Britain and Ireland. Jones’ Walker Cup matches are a central part of Rapoport’s story. Bush would go on to success on Wall Street, in business, and in the US Senate, stepping down in 1962, only to regret it when political ally Nelson Rockefeller’s case as 1964 Republican presidential candidate was weakened due to divorce. Who knows? Perhaps Bush might have got the nomination over Goldwater and run for president. Instead, he left presidential politics for his son and grandson. (See Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House for more on these fine fellows.) Seaver’s son would go on to have a pretty good sports career of his own, as a professional baseball pitcher.

The book could have used some additional editing. Seaver is such an important character that it’s jarring, having read about him earlier, to be introduced to him anew at Merion. And there’s one passage in which Rapoport appears to forget that he’s writing about match play, not medal play, and talks about someone being seven strokes down rather than seven holes down. Still, and even though I would have enjoyed more insight into the world of Atlanta in the first half of the twentieth century, I’m happy with what I learned instead.

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Categories: Biography, Books, Golf
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