From the Desk of Ron Rapoport: Bobby Jones and the Masters

Ron Rapoport was a sports columnist and also served as the sports commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition for two decades. He is the author of Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks and editor of The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner (Nebraska, 2017), among other books.

The following is adapted from the new paperback edition of his book The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf (Nebraska, 2021).

Bobby Jones and the Masters

After Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Open in Minneapolis, a reporter asked him when he was going to retire. It was a fair question as only the U.S. Amateur, which Jones would easily win a few months later, stood between him and golf’s Grand Slam, a feat that seemed unachievable at the time and has never been duplicated to this day.

So Jones, it was clear, would soon have no more golfing worlds to conquer. It was time to leave the world of amateurism behind—Jones never made a nickel playing tournament golf—and use his status as one of the most famous people in the United States, not to mention the greatest golfer of his and any previous era, to earn a living.

Jones wasn’t quite ready to admit he was considering quitting tournament golf, but he did drop a tantalizing hint.

“You’d better tell them, O.B,” Jones told O.B. Keeler, the Atlanta sportswriter who had been his closest friend and biographer throughout his career.

Keeler climbed on a bench so all could hear and declaimed some lines from a poem by the French-born British poet Hillaire Belloc that both he and Jones knew by heart.

If ever I become a rich man,
Or ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with a deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold.
I will build my house in the high wood
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.

Even before he first walked through the fruit orchard that would become Augusta National, Jones had had glimpses of it. The Augusta Country Club, where he had played many rounds over the years, lies just beyond the fence at the far end of the course, which is now the famous landscape of “Amen Corner” where the hopes of so many Masters competitors have come to grief. But not until the spring of 1931, when he and Clifford Roberts, a New York banker he had met a few years earlier, drove through the property, did Jones realize he had found the house in the high wood Belloc had spoken of.

“The long lane of magnolias through which we approached was beautiful,” Jones wrote. “The old manor house with its cupola and walls of masonry two feet thick was charming. The rare trees and shrubs of the old nursery were enchanting. But when I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees behind the house and looked down over the property, the experience was unforgettable. It seemed that this land had been lying here for years waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it.”

Roberts paid $70,000 for an option on the land, which he quickly made back by asking a number of wealthy businessmen, many of them friends of his and Jones, to give $5,000 each. Several checks were written on the spot and the full amount was quickly subscribed.

To design the course, Jones never considered anyone other than Alister Mackenzie. From his first look at Cypress Point, a course Mackenzie had built along California’s Monterey Bay, he knew Mackenzie was the man for the job.

Mackenzie’s theory of course design emphasized two principles: the setting should determine the layout and the course should be playable by everyone. Not for him the glut of bunkers and the punishing high rough of other famous courses. The only purpose of rough, Mackenzie said, was to lose balls and frustrate golfers. Jones, who wanted a course that could be enjoyed by players of every ability, could not have agreed more. Though Augusta National has undergone a number of changes over the years, it is still distinctive for its wide fairways, lack of rough and bunkers that offer strategic escape routes to players of lesser skill.

The one difficulty Mackenzie did build into his courses was on the greens. He liked them large and rolling, and designed them to accommodate elaborate drainage systems. Asked how he built in such tricky undulations, he said he told the contractor to “employ the biggest fool in the village and tell him to make all the greens flat.”

As Mackenzie went to work on the huge new layout―at 80 acres Augusta National covered more than twice the ground of courses elsewhere―Jones, who often accompanied him to measure distances, gave him his head. With out-of-work farmers in the area willing to work from dawn to dusk for as little as 25 cents an hour, the course was ready to play in a year.

The formal opening of Augusta National took place in January, 1933, when 80 members and a few friends arrived on a private train from New York chartered by Roberts. For $100, each man received round trip transportation―the Pennsylvania Railroad supplied Pullman cars, diners and club cars―three days at Augusta’s Bon Air Vanderbilt Hotel with meals and transportation to and from the club. Even the fact that it was cold and wet during their stay did not keep the members from enjoying their new playground, perhaps because kegs of corn liquor were stored in tents at the first and 10th holes.

As soon as the course was completed, Roberts lobbied the U.S. Golf Association to schedule a U.S. Open for a date in April, when Augusta was in bloom. When the organization pointed out the Open was always held in June, Roberts had another idea: Augusta National would host a tournament of its own.

Grantland Rice, the nation’s most famous sportswriter and a golfing buddy of Jones, made the shrewd suggestion that the tournament be held late in March when many of the nation’s top sportswriters were heading north from baseball’s spring training camps. The Augusta National Invitation Tournament was a hit from the start and quickly became a signature event on the golf calendar. Other tournaments may have had many of the best golfers in the country, after all, but only one had Bobby Jones.

Jones thought calling the tournament The Masters was presumptuous, but had no choice once the press picked it up from Roberts. Nor could he resist Roberts’ request that he play in the tournament for the publicity value, particularly since the playing partners he regularly thrashed in friendly matches at his home course of East Lake in Atlanta could attest that there was nothing wrong with his game. A few weeks before the first Masters was played in 1934, in fact, he shot 65 at his new course. He was only 32 years old. Why shouldn’t he think of winning?

Jones practiced hard for the tournament, but he never had a chance. His putting was an embarrassment and he was startled to see that his usual pre-match jitters, which he had always welcomed as an indication he was concentrating, never went away. Playing with friends, he was as good as ever—at least he liked to think so—but now that he had given up the pressure of tournament golf there was no going back. He had taken so much punishment in his effort to win over the years, he said, that he simply could not will himself to go through it again. It was one last indication of how much competitive golf had taken out of him, and how wise he had been to give it up.

Jones finished the first Masters with a score of 294, 10 shots behind Horton Smith, who won while playing with a Bobby Jones model driver. Though he played in several more Masters, Jones never did that well in the tournament again.

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