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Our Friend, Bobby Jones

He wrote the way he golfed -- perfectly.

By 4.14.06

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Bobby Jones on Golf
By Robert Tyre Jones
(Broadway Books, 272 pages, $18.95)

Quick, name a star athlete, past or present, who is also a brilliant intellectual artist. Never mind 4.0 scholar-athletes; look for a tangible intellectual and artistic accomplishment to match the feats on the field of play. Dick Francis comes to mind, but I can't think of any others.

The paragon, of course, is Bobby Jones, the amateur golfing sensation of the 1920s and 1930s, who won 62 percent of what were then the world's "major" golf championships he entered during his brief career, then won all of them at once in a single year, 1930, and then retired. Jones wrote as well as he played. His writing shows why he attained such popularity in his heyday. To the openness of his face add the clarity of his prose. Above all else, Jones was treasured for his friendship. In his writing, you can be Bob Jones's friend today, and it's a wonderful experience.

You can learn a lot, too.

GOLF WRITER CHARLES PRICE wrote the introduction to Bobby Jones on Golf, published originally in 1966, and currently available in a nice paperback edition. In that intro, he explains how the book came about. Jones had written a weekly golf column for the Bell Syndicate from the years 1927 through 1935. It amounted to a diary of Jones's most creative and successful period. Of those millions of words, at Jones's behest, Price selected what he saw as the best 80,000 -- "the timeless," as he wrote. Jones then rewrote virtually every word of that, a feat of considerable will, Jones being so crippled at that point by a spinal degenerative disease that he could not walk, could not even hold a pen except if it were shoved through a tennis ball to grip.

It makes an interesting comparison to contrast the Jones book to the lordly Golf My Way, published in 1974 by Jack Nicklaus. Jones wrote his, and beautifully. The Nicklaus book was thoroughly ghosted by Ken Bowden, and strikes a tone one can only describe as corporate. Nicklaus espouses what might be called a unified field theory of golf. Not for nothing did Tom Watson dub him "Karnack" for his know-it-all attitude. (Nicklaus got much more human in his later years.) Jones sees golf as a lot of little things and advises reading his book that way, dipping into it here and there and now and then. Paging back through the book for quotes this week after finishing it two weeks ago, I kept thinking, "I didn't see that. Wait...let me read that." The Nicklaus book I returned unfinished to the library. Bobby Jones on Golf I bought, and I will keep.

AS PRICE POINTS OUT, Jones was no golfing genius, untouched by ordinary failings. You could reproduce his entire chapter on "Short Putts" with delight. It begins, "To miss a putt of a yard length seems the most useless thing in the world." And it ends with the account of Jones standing terrified over a three-inch putt to win the U.S. Open in 1926. "The wildest thought struck me. 'What if I should stub my putter into the turf and fail to move the ball?'" (Hale Irwin actually did this in a British Open.) "Sounds a bit psycho, doesn't it? But golfers can get that way."

Nor did Jones play every day all year long, like today's champion golfers. In the off season, from the end of the U.S. Open through the winter, Jones played less than half a dozen rounds, usually with his father or his friends at East Lake in Atlanta -- this even in the heyday of his competitive career.

So Jones sounds just like all of us as he goes out for golf at the beginning of every new season. "After a long winter layoff, each club feels like a broom handle, and each ball when struck transmits a shock up the shaft, causing the player to think he has hit a lump of iron."

And like us, too, Jones does not measure up to the iron-man practicing regimens of Ben Hogan or Vijay Singh. "To stand upon a tee for hours banging away mechanically and monotonously at ball after ball...is exercise only in the sense that digging ditches and plowing fields is exercise....I used never to practice, simply because I could never find a way to hold my attention on what I was doing. The first dozen or so shots I would hit painstakingly and thoughtfully, and then the rest would be sent off one after the other at such a pace that soon I would be out of breath, perspiring, and wholly disgusted."

Write a sentence like that, Jack Nicklaus.

BOBBY JONES ON GOLF PROVIDES NOT ONLY the pleasure of Jones's company and friendship, but sound instruction, too, in facets of the game great and small. Written as they were in the hickory shaft era, these meditations still resonate with the modern golfer, not least because of Jones's painstaking rewriting and updating, with frequent reference to the modern steel shaft era and to golfers like Hogan, Palmer, and Nicklaus. The crippled Jones could not go out to the modern tournament, but in one of the greatest of modern tournaments, the Masters, all the players came to him at the Augusta National Golf Club. He knew everybody, right up to his death in 1972.

Once again unlike the imperious Nicklaus, Jones mentions other golfers all the time. His book is filled with good advice, with good golf stories, and with hundreds of things you didn't know. Perhaps more important, it is filled with things you do know, but tend to forget, over and over again.

"When we come to the all-important matter of getting real enjoyment out of the playing of the game...we must produce a round fairly close to our usual standard. To do this with a fair degree of consistency, no matter to which class we belong, we must avoid experiment, refuse to try anything new, and play the game instead of practicing it."

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.