A letter from the Master to the Squire
As a member of a Facebook group that’s focused on the history of golf, I get to see some fascinating and entertaining posts about the game I love, from decades gone by.
One recent post discussed a handwritten letter from Bobby Jones to his good friend Gene Sarazen, in 1965, when both were well into their 60s, which was pretty old for that time. Jones, who retired from competitive golf after winning the (then) Grand Slam in 1930, recalled watching Sarazen in the third round at the 1932 US Open, which Sarazen went on to win:
“I remember so well that marvelous performance of yours at Fresh Meadow. You may not recall this, but you, Reg Newton and I had lunch together between rounds on the final day. Reg and I had been sitting in the clubhouse veranda overlooking the ninth hole as you had come up there in the morning round.
“You were having all sorts of trouble and had played your tee shot on this par three hole to the fringe just in back of the green. You needed to get down in two, I believe, for thirty-nine. As you walked up the fairway, you were about as bedraggled a figure as I ever saw.
“I have a very clear picture from then on. You went over to your ball, took one look at it and chipped it into the hole. As the ball disappeared, you charged after it like a tiger. I remember saying to Reg that that one shot might very well set you going.
“You remember the rest – that you played the last twenty-seven holes in ninety-eight strokes, the first time this had ever been done in a championship. I saw every bit of your play that afternoon and will never forget it.”
Reading this excerpt made me think of – in fact, lament – the fact that the art of personal letter-writing has all but disappeared in the 21st Century. So, for that matter, has the art of personal complimenting. And I’ll add to that, personal articulation.
This letter of Jones would be the equivalent, today, of Tiger Woods sending a message to Brooks Koepka, congratulating him on winning last year’s US Open. Tiger may very well have sent Brooks a word, but I’m guessing it would have been an email, or a text message, and it might’ve said something like “Waytago, dude.” It might’ve taken Tiger less than eight seconds to compose and send.
Jones’s letter to Sarazen was handwritten on note paper, which was the norm for hundreds of years before our time. Writing by hand always conveyed a sense of sincerity (or whatever other emotion the writer was feeling), and certainly took more time and thought than today’s insta-messaging. I’m sure that, even though it had come from a good friend, who could have just as easily conveyed his thoughts by phone, or in person on their next encounter, Sarazen would have cherished the letter that much more because it was written, not spoken; and as much as any of the trophies he won in his unquestioned Hall of Fame career. In fact, he obviously did cherish it, as its contents have been preserved, have been posted on Facebook and are now known to thousands of appreciative golf fans.
I happened to spend an hour or so recently watching some of Bobby Jones’s instructional films, which are readily available on YouTube. These were recorded in sunny Los Angeles in the early 1930s, just after Jones retired at the top of the game. If you’ve never seen them, I urge you to do so. And if you need any more persuading, here’s an interesting piece from Sports Illustrated:
If you watch, you’ll instantly appreciate the beautiful diction, vocabulary, and articulation of Bob Jones, all delivered with a sophisticated and refined southern American accent that makes one think of ripened plums.
Jones was a man of truly singular talent, on and off the golf course. He earned three university degrees, in mechanical engineering (Georgia Tech), English literature (Harvard), and Law (Emory). He founded and helped design Augusta National. Out of 31 major championships played, he won 13 majors, and finished in the top 10 another 14 times. And that’s just scratching the surface. (If all of this is new news to you, I suggest you google Bobby Jones and start with Wikipedia.)
I’ve been a great admirer of Bob Jones since I was 10 years old and was given a copy of one of his biographies, Golf Is My Game for Christmas. That was in 1960, and by then, Jones had been afflicted by perhaps the most debilitating muscular disease a human can endure, Syringomyelia. I only knew of him, then, as the withered old man who used to talk to the winners at the Masters. Then I read the book, and for the rest of my life I’ve regretted that I never had a chance to meet him, remote though that would have been.
I did, however, get to know one of Jones’s best friends, a gentleman in London, England. He described Bobby to me as the greatest man he’d ever known, and this man was, himself, one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain in 1940. (I wrote a blog about this gentleman in Fairways a few years ago. I happened to be sitting in his office with him on December 18, 1971, when he got a phone call from Mary Jones, Bobby’s wife, telling him of Bobby’s death that morning.)
To be honest, I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this particular column. Except perhaps to say, simply and obviously, it’s a very different world we’re living in now.