Giant Jones still stands tall upon pedestal

Tomorrow marks 100 years since birth of only golfer to win 'real' grand slam who also embodied sporting excellence and integrity
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Tomorrow, St Patrick's Day, it will be 100 years since the birth in Atlanta, Georgia, of Robert Tyre Jones Junior.

It is a significant anniversary, being marked this weekend by grand dinners in St Andrews and Atlanta. For there are still those who consider Bobby Jones to have been the finest golfer ever to draw breath. Whether or not that is so in the era of Tiger Woods, Jones, who never turned professional, remains the only man to capture golf's holy grail – the "grand slam" of the game's four major tournaments in the same year.

In 1930, the year Jones did it, golf's four majors were the Open Championship, the US Open, and the amateur championships of Britain and the United States. It was then known not as the grand slam but, far more poetically, as the "impregnable quadrilateral". And the impregnating of the quadrilateral, as it were, earned Jones a ticker-tape parade along Broadway in New York. It was perhaps his crowning achievement, lifting the Great Depression for a day. Aged 28, he promptly retired from competitive golf.

In any case, there was much more to him than golf. He studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, then English Literature at Harvard, then law, at Emory University back in Atlanta. He was also square-jawed and absurdly handsome. When Zelda Sayre, an 18-year-old girl from Montgomery, Alabama, grew impatient with her novelist fiancé for procrastinating over their wedding date, she tried to make him jealous by obtaining a photograph of Jones, whom she had met at a party, and signing it: "With love, Bobby". This dastardly forgery evidently worked. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald were married soon afterwards.

The Fitzgeralds came to embody the Jazz Age, while Jones – who as a teenager had been a petulant club-chucker – came to embody not only sporting excellence, but also fierce integrity. When complimented for calling a penalty on himself when deep in the rough, he famously responded: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank."

Indeed, Cassell's Sports Quotations, an otherwise admirable book, has committed an inexplicable oversight by not including an entry on Jones, who not only said some memorable things, but also inspired some. The golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas, for example, commenting on the rare and agonising spinal disease that would cripple Jones and ultimately, in 1971, kill him, poignantly wrote: "He enjoyed the best that life could throw at him, and endured the worst, with equal grace."

By 1958, already unable to walk unaided, Jones was given the freedom of St Andrews – where in winning the 1927 Open he had set a course record of 68, and a championship record of 285. He concluded his speech, in the university's Younger Hall, by saying, with characteristic elegance: "I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St Andrews and I would still have had a rich, full life." He was then helped from the stage to his electric golf cart, and, as he drove slowly along the central aisle to the door, the packed auditorium spontaneously broke into the song "Will Ye No' Come Back Again?".

Another distinguished golf writer, Herbert Warren Wind, recorded the occasion with marvellous hyperbole. "It came pouring out," he wrote, "with all the wild, overwhelming emotion of a pibroch wailed in some lonesome glen."

Jones never did come back again, but in 1977 a Robert T Jones Memorial Scholarship was established, an exchange programme between St Andrews University and Emory. In 1985 I was fortunate enough to win a Jones Scholarship, and thus embarked upon one of the most enjoyable years of my life. And it was at Emory, where those administering the scholarship helped me to become a student intern with the television company CNN, that I took my first stumbling steps in journalism.

It is immensely satisfying, therefore, to write about the man who posthumously helped me to become a writer. A man, moreover, with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, who would no doubt forgive me for relating that, before a civic banquet in Atlanta, my three fellow-scholars and I were once erroneously introduced to the assembled diners as "Bobby Sands scholars". For some reason, the Southern fried chicken that night did not taste as good as usual.

The highlight of my year as a Jones scholar came in April 1986, when I was invited to the Augusta National to watch the US Masters, the tournament established by Jones in 1934, at the club he helped found. And to cap it all, I watched one of the scholarship trustees, Jack Nicklaus, win his sixth green jacket.

In 1965, the year Nicklaus won his second green jacket with a tournament record of 271, Jones observed from his wheelchair that golf as played by Nicklaus was a game "which I'm not even familiar with". Heaven knows what he would have made of Tiger Woods. But then Jones, in his time, was no less astonishing a prodigy.

He played in his first US Amateur Championship in 1916, aged 14, and by 1920 had made such a name for himself that in the US Open, as the youngest in the field, he was deliberately paired with the oldest, Harry Vardon, the 50-year-old Channel Islander. Vardon, the winner between 1896 and 1914 of six Open Championships, was a legend even then. And The Bobby Jones Story – the biography written by Jones' "Boswell", O B Keeler of the Atlanta Journal – describes splendidly what happened next.

On the seventh hole Jones half-topped a niblick shot, "which scuttled over the green like a rabbit into much trouble beyond. He played out with the loss of a stroke to par, and, his ears flaming with embarrassment, walked along beside Vardon toward the next tee.

"Vardon always was a silent competitor when engaged in serious play. He had not spoken thus far in the round. Bobby, with an idea of breaking the ice, and at the same time alleviating his own embarrassment, decided to open a conversation. 'Mr Vardon,' he said bashfully, 'did you ever see a worse shot than that?' 'No,' said Harry. It was a simple answer, but explicit. The incident was closed and no further conversation ensued."

Jones, in his slow Georgia drawl, apparently liked to tell and re-tell that story. He enjoyed trying to knock himself from his pedestal. But it is up there, well beyond the centenary of his birth and probably forever, that he will remain.