The Making of a Champion

Bobby Jones, c1930s.

No matter what the sport, America has always admired champions. We should remember though that no champion achieves greatness overnight. It takes years of practice and persistence as well as an ability to learn from one’s mistakes. It is this hard-won experience that forms the foundation a true champion can build on. One of those who excelled above all others in his sport was a young golfer in the early twentieth century. He proved to be one of the greatest champions ever, but it only happened after he recognized, confronted and conquered his weaknesses. His name was Bobby Jones. This is the story of how his experiences as a young man transformed him into, arguably, the greatest golfer of all time.

Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, Jr. learned to play golf at an early age. Named in honor of his grandfather, he was born in Atlanta, Georgia in March 1902 but spent his childhood in the nearby town of East Lake. He was plagued with fragile health, so he was encouraged to spend as much time outside as possible. Often he walked across to the local golf course and watched the golfers tee off. Among those he enjoyed observing was Stewart Maiden, a golf professional from Scotland. Maiden grew so fond of the boy he presented Bobby with his first set of golf clubs. Not only did Bobby spend hours hitting practice balls, but he also impressed his father by imitating Maiden’s style and the styles of the golfers he had seen his father play with. By the age of nine, he was so confident in his ability he decided to enter his first tournament. Playing at the East Lake Country Club, he won the Junior Championship. He kept improving his swing, even shooting an 80 for the first time at age 11 He felt he was ready for the big time, so in 1915 he played in the Southern Championship. There he set a precedent he would follow the rest of his career — that of qualifying in every tournament he entered. His skill with a golf club was so incredible he won the 1916 Georgia State Championship and became the state’s first amateur champion. It would be the last championship he won for seven years, but it also marked the beginning of his education in the sport.

By 1916 Bobby Jones had established a reputation as one of golf’s rising young stars, but certain aspects of his game needed serious attention. Everyone knew he struck the ball well, but he was weak in some of the finer points of the game. His skill in hitting the ball was proven in the qualifying round of the U.S. Amateur Championship where he shot a 74, the best of anyone. Unfortunately, his putting left something to be desired. One of those who noticed this was U.S. Amateur Champion Walter J. Travis. He took it upon himself to give Bobby advice on changing his putting style. Bobby took this advice to heart and practiced so diligently that his biographer O.B. Keeler later said he “became one of the finest and most consistent putters the game has seen.” He employed his newly acquired skill against the professionals he faced when he played in a series of tournaments used to raise funds during World War I. He was the only amateur to not lose against the professionals in any of these tournaments. Part of this success came from his ability to dissect his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

Bobby enjoyed competing against former champions knowing it would give him the opportunity to study their game. By the end of 1919 he was the best golfer at Georgia Tech, where he was a sophomore. He relished the thought of playing the best golfers in the country. In the summer of 1920 he travelled to Chattanooga, Tennessee where, in dramatic fashion, he won the Southern Amateur Championship. He continued on to Memphis to play in the Western Amateur Championship, establishing a new record of 69 and 70 in the qualifying rounds. His opponent was U.S. Amateur and Open champion Chick Evans. Despite being more comfortable playing on Bermuda grass than his opponent, Bobby battled to keep up with Chick. Soon he was down by three strokes. He buckled down and won back those strokes before Chick rallied on the last hole to win. The tournament was not a complete loss though. Bobby took advantage of the match to study Chick’s style. He later told people he had thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He now knew how Chick played, and he would use that knowledge to beat Chick when they faced one another in future tournaments. Chick was not the only former champion to beat Bobby though. Both Bob Gardner and Francis Ouimet would deal Bobby a loss. As with Chick, Bobby would use the losses to analyze both his and his opponents’ games. He realized defeat could be an effective teacher, but he also understood that consistent winning required concentration and control of his emotions.

During several tournaments, Bobby allowed the stress of the game to cause him to lose focus. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 1920 U.S. Open in Toledo, Ohio. He was paired with legendary golfer Harry Vardon of Britain. As the two walked the first six greens Bobby played extremely well and was able to match Vardon’s score. On the seventh hole, however, Bobby pitched his ball over the green and began to fall behind. He believed he was probably out of the contest, but then he began a remarkable comeback at the same time that Vardon and the other leaders began to lose their initiative. Only four strokes behind, he realized he had a chance to win. He knew he needed to score well on the remaining holes, but he began to feel the mental stress once again and his shots suffered as a result. He ended the tournament in eighth place with a score of 299. He was not disappointed though. He later said a win at the U.S. Open might have convinced him “it was an easy thing to do.” The experience taught him to force his opponents to feel pressure while keeping cool himself. He was soon to discover though it was not just his opponents who could apply pressure.

Bobby had determined he would not allow himself to be distracted by the competition, but he soon realized golf courses themselves could be just as much as an adversary. In 1921 he travelled to Britain with other American amateurs to play in the British Open. Upon his arrival, he found British courses rougher and more prone to the elements than American courses. He journeyed north to the most famous golf course in the world — the Royal and Ancient Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. He took an instant disliking to the course and his performance showed it. It took forty-six strokes for him to finish nine holes. On the tenth hole he scored a dismal 6. His anger increased until he felt he had suffered enough. He picked up his ball and walked off the course, thereby withdrawing from the tournament. It was the only time he would ever do so, and the only game where his final score was unrecorded. He later regretted the decision to quit so easily, but still, it was a valuable lesson for him. He gained an appreciation for how difficult a golf course could be, but he also realized that the tougher the course, the sweeter the win. By the time he left St. Andrews, he had come to respect the course. Such respect would eventually lead him to love that particular golf course more than any other he ever played on. He returned to the U.S. with a deeper understanding of what it took to win, but the lessons to be learned were not over.

Once back in the U.S., Bobby decided he could never let his emotions get out of hand like they had at St. Andrews. He had always had a quick temper, and he often displayed that temper on the course. That temper had most often resulted from the strain of the expectations and pressures he put on himself to win. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people flocked to the golf tournaments in which he played. He knew they expected him to play well, almost as much as he expected it himself. Unfortunately, the expectations overloaded him, and he began to lash out by throwing his clubs around. If he missed an easy shot or if he failed to win a hole, he would throw his club on the ground or fling it at a nearby tree. His departure from the course at St. Andrews added to the belief of others that he could not control his volatile emotions. Bobby recognized he needed greater self-discipline if he had any chance of truly becoming a champion. It was time for a change. He made a concentrated effort to even out his emotions and remain in control. He demonstrated his newfound self-control in the 1921 U.S. Open Championship when he badly hooked his shot on the fifth hole, and it rolled out of bounds. Instead of throwing his club down, he took a deep breath and quietly urged himself to think clearly. He loosened his grip on his club and concluded the round with a 77. He tied for fifth place, but more importantly, he had finally managed to master his emotions. Now he felt ready to step on to the tee box and claim the title of champion for himself.

Despite being adored by spectators and opponents alike, there were whispers that Bobby Jones could not win a major championship. He determined to prove these critics wrong. In 1923 his seven years without a championship came to an end when he won the U.S. Open on the final hole of the playoff round when he hit his approach shot over a large pond and dropped it onto the green only six feet from the hole, securing golf’s most prestigious U.S. title. When he arrived home in Atlanta, a crowd met him with thunderous applause. The following year, 1924, his confident swing and calm control wore down his competition and elevated him to the top as America’s amateur champion. Once again Atlanta celebrated the return of its favorite son, even placing his name at the top of the trophy listing every champion. In 1926 he competed in the British Open, and to everyone’s shock he won. He was heralded as a national hero when he returned home. He delighted in each of these wins, but he was determined to clinch one more record before retiring. That record was the “Impregnable Quadrilateral of Golf” — all four tournaments held in Britain and America. In 1930 he finally won the British Amateur Championship at St. Andrews, Scotland when he pitched the ball onto the eighteenth green and then watched it roll into the hole. He went on to win the British Open, the U.S. Open, and finally the U.S. Amateur. Regarded now as the “king of golf,” he announced his retirement from the sport. He played many more holes of golf but none as an active competitor. The golfing world has never been the same. He died in December 1971, but he remains the country’s foremost golfer to this day.

The mark of a true champion is his or her response to adversity. Sometimes the adversity is of the external kind — for example, the opponent or the particular golf course one is playing. More often, the greatest challenge comes from within — confronting the stresses, emotions or even fears one faces. Bobby Jones dealt with all of these challenges and became a champion for the ages. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick, but through perseverance, learning from failure, and mastering his emotions, he climbed to the pinnacle of his sport. His life is an inspiring example not just for those competing in sports but for those who seek to excel in the most important game of all — life.

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One response to “The Making of a Champion

  1. Eric Brown

    Great story Jake! Perseverance is the often key to success but, as you so aptly noted, it takes an inner strength that produces champions. Thanks for bringing this well told story to us!

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