Three reasons why Bobby Jones excelled

Bobby Jones
Mark Aumann/
Bobby Jones won golf's "Grand Slam" in 1930, then retired from competition.
By Mark Aumann

Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Friday, September 18, 2015 | 10:43 a.m.

ATLANTA — When it comes to the history of golf, particularly in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, it’s hard to not to be impressed with the impact of Robert Tyre Jones Jr.

That’s the opinion of Dr. Robert Tyre Jones IV, an Atlanta licensed psychologist who just happens to be the grandson of Bobby Jones. That opinion isn’t just a family bias, however. During a presentation Thursday evening at Emory University — which is concurrently hosting an exhibition of Bobby Jones artifacts this fall — Dr. Jones pointed out several key contributions Bobby Jones made to the game.

If not for Bobby Jones, there would be no mention of a “Grand Slam,” for one. In fact, Jones remains the only man in history to have accomplished the feat, winning both American and British Opens in 1930, along with both American and British Amateurs. Because he was an amateur, he wasn't eligible to play in the PGA Championship.

In addition, Bobby Jones was a pioneer in golf course design, the evolution of equipment and bringing the game to a new audience, which included women and juniors.

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But more than 80 years after he retired from competition, Bobby Jones is still largely remembered for winning 13 major events over an eight-year span, mainly because of his fiercely competitive nature and incredible focus.

Dr. Jones said there were three reasons why his grandfather was so successful, both on and off the course:

1. He believed in predestination

“He believed a golf tournament was won or lost before the first ball had even been struck,” Dr. Jones said. “He believed that destiny was set before the tournament was played.”

According to his grandson, Bobby Jones felt that future events were ordained to happen, that there was an order already preset. And with that in mind, Jones was able to separate himself from the stress, anxiety and pressure of playing the match.

“It allowed him to have a little bit of a healthy distance from it,” Dr. Jones said. “So he wasn’t emotionally enmeshed in the event."

2. He was able to remain in the moment

“In order to be successful in golf, you have to focus simply on one shot at a time,” Dr. Jones said. “You cannot allow your mind to drift to things that which come ahead of you, or get stuck on things that have come behind you.”

Bobby Jones was so focused, his grandson said, he would sometimes be unable to remember having hit the shot.

“He didn’t even go to the mental effort of saving it in his short-term memory so that it could be later saved in long-term recall,” Dr. Jones said. “That is an unbelievable level of focus."

3. He played against the course, not the competition

“He learned how to compete against Old Man Par,” Dr. Jones said. “Because in the days when he played, if you shot par, you stood a pretty good chance of winning the tournament.”

Dr. Jones said his grandfather rarely concerned himself with his opponent. Instead, he focused on the task at hand, which was making par on each hole.

“In all three cases, those are all extremely present focus items, and that’s what allowed him — along with his phenomenal hand-eye coordination — to be such a great golfer,” Dr. Jones said. “But it did more, because golf is a funny thing.

“Golf, more than any other game, more closely mirrors life. In a round of golf, you can be everything from the hero of a side-splitting comedy to the dogged victim of inexorable fate in four hours.”

And Dr. Jones believes that metaphor turned out to be the case even more so for his grandfather, as the illness which eventually killed him came from the result of a near-fatal lightning strike during a round of golf in 1929.

More things you may or may not know about Bobby Jones, according to his grandson:

... Bobby was a sickly child and didn’t eat solid food until he was 5. Before that, his diet consisted mainly of pabulum.

… Bobby’s favorite sport growing up wasn’t golf. It was baseball. He was a catcher, then moved to the outfield because it was safer.

… Bobby’s first tournament was at age 6. It was a six-hole match between several children at East Lake Golf Club. He won a small silver cup, which he cherished and kept the rest of his life. It’s now on display at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

… Bobby first broke 80 at age 10. He won the Druid Hills club championship that year.

… At age 14, Bobby won the Georgia State Amateur at Brookhaven. He then traveled to Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia for the U.S. Amateur and led first-round qualifying, losing in the third round to the eventual tournament winner.

… Bobby was a notorious club thrower early in his career. In a 1916 match, he defeated Eben Byers — another club-thrower — and famously said, “I think I beat him because he ran out of clubs first.” An incident in which he injured a woman with a thrown club — coupled with a stern letter from USGA President George Herbert Walker — made Jones change his temperament from that point on.

… A loss at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open led Bobby to a chance meeting with golf course architect Alister MacKenzie. Since he was in the area, Bobby decided to play a round at nearby Cypress Point, designed by MacKenzie. Eventually the two worked together to design Augusta National.

… From 1916 until he retired in 1930, Bobby never lost in match play to the same opponent twice.

… Bobby was a voracious reader and had an extreme intellectual curiosity. He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1922 with a mechanical engineering degree and then two years later, earned a degree in English Literature from Harvard.

… Despite being a lawyer for most of his life, Bobby never finished law school. He completed three semesters at Emory University, then decided to take the bar exam. After passing it, he dropped out and joined his father’s law firm.

… In an effort to make the game more manageable for the average player, Bobby designed the first set of steel shafts for the A.G. Spaulding Company in the early 1930s.

… Bobby made a series of instructional films in Hollywood between 1931 and 1933 to help teach the game to the average golfer.

… At 40, Bobby enlisted in the U.S. Army and came ashore at Normandy on the day after D-Day in 1943. He spent several months as an interrogator of captured prisoners of war.

… Bobby had amazing hand-to-eye coordination. He was a master at badminton, ping pong and tennis.

… Bobby’s death was indirectly the result of a lightning strike in 1929. He was playing a round at East Lake with friends when a sudden storm appeared. They took refuge next to the clubhouse, but a lightning bolt struck the building’s chimney, sending a shower of bricks and other debris raining down. Bobby was hit in the neck. And the resulting injury eventually led to fluid building in his spinal cord — syringomyelia — a crippling disease that left him wheelchair-bound. He died in Atlanta in 1971.