Wednesday 7 December 2016

Bobby Jones stood up to life's best and worst

Dermot Gilleece

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Bobby Jones (1902 - 1971) Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
Bobby Jones (1902 - 1971) Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

When St Andrews GC was launched in Yonkers, New York in 1888, the members thought it appropriate that they should have a special flag to complement their distinctive blue checked waistcoats. So it was that chests were proudly expanded as the club's official colours fluttered in a fresh breeze off the Hudson River.

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On seeing the flag, however, a more erudite member was moved to mockery. "Get out your green coats and your shillelaghs, begorrah," he scoffed. "It's St Patrick's Day in the mornin'." Even after careful study of their handiwork, colleagues remained baffled by his outburst until it was explained that the flag on display - a diagonal cross on a white field - was St Patrick's cross, whereas the cross of St Andrew was silver or white on a blue field. All of which caused it to be lowered immediately and the proper standard later hoisted in its place.

Given the week that's in it, it should also be noted that the great Bobby Jones was born on St Patrick's Day, 1902. And this happens to be the centenary year of his first challenge in the US Amateur Championship, as a 14-year-old in 1916. It is also the 90th anniversary of Jones becoming the first player to complete the double of the US Open and Open Championship titles, in 1926.

In search of fresh material about this iconic figure, I came across this delightful little verse from the December 1932 issue of Golfing: 'I've never had a hole in one/To figure in the golfing news/The scores I keep are just for fun/The 10s more frequent than the twos/But I, on principle refuse/To ape the styles of better men/I'll swing my clubs just how I choose/Don't mention Bobby Jones again."

Jones never visited this country, which he mentioned as a source of regret in a contribution to the official programme of the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960. As an executive committee member of the organising International Golf Association (IGA), he wrote: "Because of the winning of this event two years ago by Harry Bradshaw and Christy O'Connor, the holding of it this year in Ireland is most appropriate.

"It was for a long time years ago my ambition to play the Portmarnock links. I envy those who will have this privilege. I might add that since I was born on St Patrick's Day, it is mandatory that I should pull for a victory for Ireland . . ."

He liked to write, and according to letters which remained unpublished until the Millennium, took serious exception to the popular notion of "beating the pros at their own game", though it aptly described the supremacy of this extraordinary amateur. In fact he did so on a regular basis, most spectacularly in 1930 when completing the so-called Impregnable Quadrilateral of the British Amateur, US Amateur, Open Championship and the US Open, to claim a unique place in golfing history.

When writing in August 1967 to Charles Price, the founding editor of Golf magazine, Jones insisted: "Actually, we were all playing the same game, and if I played less than they did, that should have been the concern of no one but me; presumably, I could have played more had I wanted to."

As a youngster, Jones was a notorious club-thrower, which was viewed sympathetically by Henry Longhurst, who looked upon golf as an extremely trying pursuit. This was evident in his reflections on a fourball in which his opponents were the vicar of Northampton and "a gentleman whose complexion indicated either good living or shortness of temper, or both."

Apparently, the vicar and his partner were in contention until the 17th where, in attempting a short pitch over a greenside bunker, he with the complexion lifted his head and duffed the ball feebly into the sand. According to Longhurst: "The man raised his niblick to heaven. 'Bugger!' he cried, and 'bugger!' and 'bugger!' Then, pulling himself up with a jerk, he began to make embarrassed apologies. The vicar's reply remains in my mind as though it were yesterday. 'Brother,' he said, slowly and gently. 'The provocation was ample.'"

After Jones had qualified comfortably for his first US Amateur at Merion in 1916, he met the 1906 champion, Eben Byers, in the first round. We're told that both players displayed such flaming tempers that those in the following match compared them to a vaudeville juggling duo.

Especially notable was a very poor shot from Byers on the 12th where he flung the offending club out of bounds and then forbade his caddie from retrieving it. Jones, who sportingly attributed his 3 and 1 victory to the fact that "Mr Byers ran out of clubs first", went on to lose to the 1909 champion, Bob Gardner, in the third round.

On another occasion, Jones borrowed a phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae when describing his mood as "a contained and glowing fury." Still, he would go on to win the admiration of friend and foe, as well as their gratitude. Like in 1930 when the American-based Bobby Cruickshank sent $500 to his father in Scotland to bet on Jones winning the Grand Slam. Odds of 120/1 meant a payout of $60,000 for Cruickshank, which was a fortune in those days.

When the great man died in December 1971 after a long, cruel illness, the celebrated American scribe Herbert Warren Wind noted: "As a young man he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which is not easy, and later he stood up with equal grace, to just about the worst."

We couldn't wish for a finer sporting figure to adorn our national feast-day.

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