My history hero: Robert Tyre Jones (1902–71)

Chosen by Tim Smith, BBC radio presenter

American golfer Bobby Jones practising his swing on the roof of the Savoy Hotel in London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Bobby Jones was born in Atlanta in 1902. He was a sickly child and took up golf at the age of five, largely for health reasons. An unpredictable temper restricted his early achievements but in 1923 he won the US Open and dominated golf for the rest of that decade. This culminated in the ‘Grand Slam’ of 1930 when Jones, playing as an amateur, won the US and British Amateur Championships and the US and British Opens, a feat never achieved before or since. Shortly afterwards he retired from competitive golf to work as a lawyer. In 1931 he bought a piece of land near Augusta, Georgia that would become Augusta National Golf Club, home to The Masters tournament from 1934 onwards.

When did you first come across Bobby Jones?

I’d heard the name numerous times when I was younger, usually while watching The Masters on television, but it was a long time before I really knew who he was or what he’d achieved. After developing a passion for the game in my early 30s, I became interested in its history and began reading about the early players who had done so much to shape the sport. I’ve since read numerous books and articles about Bobby Jones.

What kind of a man was he?

Clearly an extremely talented one but also one who wasn’t without the kind of human failings we all suffer from. His bad temper famously led to him tearing up his scorecard (effectively giving up) when he couldn’t get out of a bunker during his first trip to St Andrews for the British Open in 1921. He was, however, a very honest and modest man who knew that upholding the principles, etiquette and rules of the game were as important to the sport as winning was to the individual.

What makes Jones a hero?

I genuinely believe he was one of the first global sports superstars but he took all of that adulation with a modesty and generosity we often feel is missing in some sections of today’s sporting world. He was gracious both in defeat and victory and was always willing to accept that you can’t win all the time.

Despite his success, Jones never gave up his amateur status. He remained a dedicated family man and even found time to study at Harvard.

In later life he was struck down with a debilitating disease that meant he couldn’t hold a golf club or even walk without the aid of sticks, yet by all accounts he remained dignified and positive throughout. He was also largely responsible for Augusta National and The Masters – that alone should make him a hero in most golfers’ eyes.

What was his finest moment?

Undoubtedly winning the ‘Grand Slam’ in 1930. In our lifetime we’ve only seen Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus come close to emulating that kind of sustained and consistent success and even they haven’t won all four ‘majors’ in the same calendar year. It was a fabulous if not miraculous achievement and one that helped promote the game of golf around the world.

If you could meet Bobby, what would you ask him?

Well I’d start with the obvious one: “Why did you give up golf at such a young age and did you ever regret it?” In 1931 he went to Hollywood where he made a series of instructional films for Warner Bros (the first of their kind and hugely successful) so I’d have to ask him to take a look at my swing. And I’d ask him what he thinks about golf today.

Do you see any parallels between Jones’s life and your own?

Sadly the standard of golf I play bears no resemblance to his although I’d like to think I have as much respect and love for the game as he had. I certainly know that had I achieved the kind of success he did I wouldn’t have retired at the age of 28. I suspect also that I wouldn’t have handled that success with quite the same modesty as he apparently did.

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Tim Smith is co-host of Steve Wright in the Afternoon on BBC Radio 2. Over the course of his career he has presented programmes on a variety of stations including BBC Radio 1 and 5 Live. He is a regular contributor to Golf International magazine and also hosts his own regular golf podcast GOLFtalk.