News From Terre Haute, Indiana

On & Off the Course

April 10, 2011

ON AND OFF THE COURSE: Masters a rite of spring

TERRE HAUTE — This is Masters weekend, the grand kickoff to the golf season for a lot of golfers. Sure, there have been tournaments on TV, because the professionals have been playing in Hawaii, California, Texas, Dubai, and other areas not so affected by winter as we are here in the Midwest, but to me, watching The Masters is a rite of spring.

As the players walk over Byron Nelson Bridge to the 13th green, with the azaleas in bloom behind it, I feel a sense of history and excitement, and I’m ready to go play golf! Bobby Jones, who founded The Masters Tournament in 1934, would have appreciated that.

The Masters Tournament is the first major of the year. The other three are the U.S. Open, The Open Championship (what we Yankees call The British Open), and the PGA Tournament. They weren’t considered the four majors, though, until 1960, the year Arnold Palmer won both The Masters and the U.S. Open, and stated his intent of going for a modern Grand Slam by winning the Open Championship and the PGA Championship that year also. (Being Arnold Palmer, that had credence with golf’s media.)   

If someone asked you what the four majors comprising the “Grand Slam of Golf” are, you would be wise to respond, “Currently, or historically?” Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones is the only golfer to have achieved that elusive goal of winning four major tournaments in the same calendar year, which was 1930.

At that time, the four majors were The Open Championship (i.e. The British Open), the British Amateur Championship, The U.S. Open and the United States Men’s Amateur Golf Championship. In order for Bobby Jones to win that slam, he had to be an amateur golfer, which he was throughout his tournament-playing years.

Even though Jones’ profession was as a lawyer, he often beat top professionals of his day, including Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen. In those years, most professional golfers made the majority of their annual income not from tournament play, but from being club pros, designing and building clubs, and giving lessons. Golf professionals were considered second-class citizens back then, and were not even allowed in the club houses until about 1920.

Bobby Jones, born of a wealthy Georgia family, was able to travel and participate in tournaments while retaining his amateur status. He retired from competitive golf at the age of 28, in 1930, after he had won the Grand Slam, to the disbelief of the entire country. To explain his decision to retire from competitive golf he said, “It is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.”

 Even though he didn’t collect a paycheck from winnings, he sometimes still made money from them. In 1930, he placed a bet with British bookmakers that he would win all four majors that year, before the first event had even taken place, and odds were at 50-1. He was said to have collected $60,000 for that bet!

 He also made some money through golf when he made 18 instructional golf films in Hollywood in the early 1930s, where he coached well-known stars with golf pointers. These films are absolutely wonderful, and are priceless treasures. Jones was filmed giving instruction to stars of the day such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, W.C. Fields and more.

One of the most amazing things in these films is when Jones demonstrates how to work the ball. A camera must have been set up on a tripod, and he set himself so he is aligned right at it. First, he says, “Here’s how to hit a slice,” and the ball caroms right past the camera on the left. Then he says, “And here’s how to hit a hook,” and the ball comes right toward the camera then veers off to the right. Then he says, “And here’s how to hit the ball straight,” and the ball goes right at the camera and hits it smack in the middle of the lens! He was a magician with his clubs, which is even more amazing when we remember that they were made of hickory!

These films were put into storage, forgotten about for decades, but were later resurrected by Ely Callaway, who was a distant relative of Bobby Jones. They are now available on DVD.

Bobby Jones was an incredible golfer, also known for his sportsmanship. He will always be remembered, and his memory will always be honored, as the world’s best golfers gather to play in this rite of spring, at his course, Augusta National, and his tournament, The Masters.

Quote of the Day: “You don’t deserve any credit, hitting the ball with that swing of yours … Try to hit one with MY swing!” — W.C. Fields to Bobby Jones, in a film clip from “How I Play Golf by Bobby Jones.”

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    March 12, 2010