Brian Viner: Cooke the man of letters delivers the last word on Jones

Alistair Cooke was to the conversational tangent what Ernie Els is to the booming drive
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The Independent Online

The US Masters, which begins on Thursday at the Augusta National, last week lost one of its greatest aficionados, Alistair Cooke. Or should that be one of its greatest aficionadi? With Italian words I'm never quite sure. I'm fairly certain I've detected a suppressed smirk over the years, when asking an Italian café proprietor for two or more cappuccinos. Maybe it's the same as an English barman being tickled by an Italian asking for one coffo.

Whatever, I'm meandering off track, which is not inappropriate in a tribute to Cooke, who was to the conversational tangent what Ernie Els is to the booming drive. I first met Cooke at the 1986 Masters. I was studying at Emory University in Atlanta, on a Bobby Jones Scholarship. Emory was where Jones, the greatest golfer of his day - indeed of any day, some old-timers still insist - had studied law.

There were - and are - four Jones Scholars each year, and one of the perks of the scholarship is an invitation to the Masters, the tournament Jones conceived. But there is no such thing as a free ticket to Augusta. At least there wasn't for us. On the Saturday of the tournament, behind the Butler cabin, we each had to give a short talk to the scholarship trustees, who included Cooke, a late but zealous convert to golf, and Jack Nicklaus.

Giving a short talk to the man who turned the short talk into an art form remains one of the more nerve-racking episodes of my life. The presence of Nicklaus wouldn't have soothed my nerves any, either, but he excused himself because even at 46 he felt, to a general feeling of scepticism, that he was in serious contention. The sceptics cheered as loudly as anyone when, the following afternoon, Nicklaus was helped into his sixth green jacket.

A few months later, I contacted Cooke in New York, reminded him who I was, and asked whether I could interview him. I said I was a budding journalist and wanted very much to talk to him about his own start in journalism, and the remarkable people he had subsequently met. He agreed, slightly grudgingly, to give me an hour.

For nearly three hours, in the study of his plush Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, he talked and I listened, periodically and neurotically checking to make sure my tape recorder was still whirring. In all that time I managed to interrupt his elegant flow with only eight questions. One of them was this: What are your memories of Bobby Jones? "Well, they are nice, and not very long," he said. They had only got to know each other in the twilight of Jones's life, in the mid-1960s.

"He was an absolutely enchanting man, and of course the thing you couldn't get over was that he handled it so wonderfully because by that time, by '66, those marvellous hands had become so twisted. But he never talked about his illness; we only knew in the last three years or so that he was screaming with agony because of this dreadful disease, where the marrow of the spine begins to peel off and hits all the nerve ends. He could not bear to put on a suit, for instance, and had to wear a very, very slack dressing-gown.

"Herb Wind really summed it up when he said that Jones had had the best that life could offer and took it with great grace, and then he had the worst and took it the same way. That's an absolutely marvellous sentence because it was so true. He was a total gentleman, and so absolutely bereft of meanness or malice. He had a very pretty wit - he wasn't fooled - but he never used it against people.

"Of course, we think of him as the great golfer but the point was that he was a lawyer, he'd taken an English literature degree at Harvard, and he had an engineering degree. There's never been anybody else remotely like that.

"And he really was a weekend golfer. By contrast, I remember one day talking to Gary Player, probably the best bunker player who ever lived. He said: 'I'm not what I was. I only hit 200 shots a day out of sand. I used to hit 1,000 a day.' That's what it took. I remember Nicklaus saying that if you were playing with Gary Player and you came up over the hill and saw that he was on the fringe of the green, you said, 'Thank God he's not in the bunker'.

"That wasn't for Jones. I remember when Johnny Miller had this incredible two years when he won everything in sight and people were saying: 'God, this marvellous kid!' They talked about him as the kid. He was then the age - 28 - at which Jones retired, having conquered all worlds."

Cooke, on the other hand, retired at 95, and died three weeks later. I hope the odd mint julep is raised to him in the Deep South this week, as he and Jones resume their conversation in a paradise even more handsome than the Augusta National in early April.