The Temper of Bobby Jones

The following is an excerpt of my book, Never Despair, which I hope to finish by the coming spring:

According to Grantland Rice, Bobby Jones had “the face of an angel and the temper of a timber wolf,” and with each missed shot his “sunny smile” could turn “suddenly into a black storm.”

This vicious temper was a character flaw Bobby would struggle with for years.  It almost did him in, and heaped considerable criticism upon him.  As Alexa Stirling, his childhood friend recalled, by the time Jones was eight he was obviously destined to become a remarkable player.  “He was a handsome boy, with a gentle, wry way of smiling,”  Even then, adults watched his game with envy.  “However, he had one flaw – his temper.  Let him make a poor shot and he’d turn livid with rage, throw his club after the ball, or break it over his knee, or kick at the ground and let out a stream of very adult oaths.”  Off the course his manners were impeccable, but on it, he was a terror.

Even so, in 1917 and 1918 his game was good enough to capture the Southern Amateur. When World War I broke out, Jones and Sterling played in numerous exhibition matches sponsored by the Red Cross.  She never forgot one moment.  On the eighth hole at Brae Burn in Boston in 1917, “he missed an easy shot.  I saw the blood climb his neck and flood his face.  Then he picked up his ball, took a full pitcher’s windup and threw the ball into the woods.  A gasp of surprise and shock went through the large crowd watching us.”  Later, when she berated him, Jones shot back, “I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks of me.”  He told her he only got mad at himself.  Suddenly, she saw him as “a 15-year old boy driven by the demand of perfection he made of himself.”  When he fell short of his expectations, disappointment turned to rage.  “Worst of all, he knew that these temper outbursts released a psychological poison within him that upset his game.”  Jones would remember that day as well.  “I read the pity in Alexa’s soft brown eyes and finally settled down, but not before I had made a complete fool of myself.”  

Jones’s fiery temper was not easily squelched.  Jerome Travers, 1915 U.S. Open champion, recalled a 1918 exhibition he played with Jones in Canada.  “On the first green, Bobby missed a small putt and became so enraged he hurled his club far over the heads of the crowd into a cluster of trees and stubble bordering the course.”  People gave Jones a lot of slack due to his young age, and since he was a young star with plenty of charisma, he was an acceptable “bad boy.”  Consider the bad behavior displayed on the course by Tiger Woods over the years and a comparison can be made.  Stars get preferential treatment, and, if not condoned, their poor comportment is more easily excused than that of the run-of-the-mill player.  Not everyone gave Jones a pass, however.  After the Brae Burn incident, a newspaper commented that his outbursts would have to be contained “if this player expects to rank with the best in the country.  Although Jones is only a boy, his display of temper when things went wrong did not appeal to the gallery.”   

As Alexa Stirling knew, perfectionism drove Jones.  His mentor Stewart Maiden claimed he was “certainly born with the soul of a perfectionist looking only for perfection.”  Charlie Yates, a legend of Georgia golf and friend of Jones, remembered Jones getting upset with a shot that landed close to the hole.  Yates asked why he was mad.  “I wanted to make it come in left to right and it went in right to left.”  Bernard Darwin, who covered the game from the days of Harry Vardon to Jack Nicklaus, noted that “Bobby did hate missing a shot.  Perhaps that’s why he missed so few…He set himself an impossibly high standard; he thought it an act of incredible folly if not a positive crime to make a stroke that was not exactly as it ought to be made and as he knew he could make it.”  Even so, neither Harry Vardon before him, nor Ben Hogan after him – both perfectionists in their own right – ever threw clubs or swore on the golf course.  Jones’ struggle with his temper would continue, and his emergence as a champion would be inexorably tied to overcoming it.


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2 Responses to “The Temper of Bobby Jones”

  1. Steven Reid Says:

    Lots about Jones and temper etc in Bobby’s Open – looks at how he suppressed his problems but at a price – interested in your views on it!

    • Lyle Slovick Says:

      Thank you Steven, I am so happy you stumbled upon my little blog – I lack the time to do much with it. Jones was such an intense person, and the pressures upon him were so great from himself and an adoring public, that the game almost destroyed him. He wins the 1926 Open you so wonderfully chronicle in your book and a couple weeks later comes back and wins the US Open. Yet in waiting to see if anyone might catch him that final round, he broke down in his hotel room and sobbed uncontrollably, prompting his mother, who was packing his clothes, to tell him she thought that was enough tournament golf for awhile. It was apparent to all around him that the game aged him, and it is amazing that he stuck it out to 1930 before retiring.

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