50 years ago, the people of St. Andrews honored "Our Bobby" in an emotional ceremony that lives on
Never has a native land so loved and embraced a foreign conquering hero than the occasion upon which Bobby Jones invaded the Kingdom of Fife.
There are two known ways to become a citizen of the Royal Burgh of St. Andrews, home of golf to Scotland and the world. The first and easiest is to choose one's ancestors with care. Those with less keen judgment but greater fortitude have simply gathered sufficient legions to invade the ground and conquer its inhabitants. This latter, old-fashioned way is less-endearing but equally effective. Even so, the native St. Andreans are proud, and those who would be conquerors are more often thought fools. The Picts, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Romans and Normans had their day as they played the fool in Fife. But they shrank away, one by one, except for One.
In 1948, Bobby Jones, co-founder of Augusta National and the Masters, was playing the No. 2 East Lake course in Atlanta with Charlie Yates and Tommy Barnes when he began dragging his leg and missing shots uncharacteristically. "I won't be playing with you boys after today," he told them. "I'm going in for some tests."
The tests led to surgery on Jones' neck to relieve pressure from a rare spinal-cord disorder, syringomyelia. The result was a gradual deterioration of his musculature such that he used one cane, then two, one leg brace, then two, and ultimately a wheelchair. He never played golf again. His affliction had no known cure. Despite the grim prognosis, he refused all offers of sympathy, saying, "You play the ball where it lies."
In 1958, the world golf powers resolved to play a World Amateur Team Championship at St. Andrews, site of spectacular failure and achievement during Jones' career. It was on Jones' first visit to the Old Course, in 1921, that he famously tore up his scorecard after failing to extricate his ball from the deep Hill bunker on the par-3 11th. Six years later, he returned to St. Andrews and successfully defended his British Open championship and was "chaired" off the home green by 12,000 Scots. "He's our Bobby now!" the people of St. Andrews shouted.
In Jones' Grand Slam year, 1930, he added the British Amateur championship at St. Andrews. He could not walk down the streets without hearing, "Good boy, Bobby"; "Aye, Bobby"; "Well done, Bobby." Years later, Jones recalled this fondly: "It's a wonderful experience to go about a town where people wave at you from doorways and windows, where strangers smile and greet you by name, often your first name, and where a simple and direct courtesy is the outstanding characteristic."
The USGA thought the 1958 World Amateur was a perfect occasion to nominate Jones as USA team captain. To everyone's surprise, he accepted. Elaborate preparations were made by St. Andrews. The town notified Jones that it wished to honor him during competition week. Jones figured this was something like receiving the key to the city, which he considered "largely an excuse to have the visitor's and incidentally the mayor's picture printed in the afternoon newspaper."
When the town insisted it receive Bob's prepared remarks, he demurred, saying he would hand them over on his arrival. The fact is, Jones scribbled only a few notes about topics he might want to cover, but that was it. He planned to evaluate the scene as it occurred and fashion a response on the spot.
The highlight of his trip was surely the dinner on Oct. 9, 1958, at Younger Graduation Hall. Jones had been provided a courtesy copy of Provost Robert Leonard's opening remarks, which caused the matter to assume alarming proportions. Little did Jones know that the only other American to be conferred such an honor was Benjamin Franklin.
As 1,700 people filled the hall, Jones feared he might get up before the throng and draw a blank. Provost Leonard spoke of the town's desire to welcome an "old and dearly beloved friend... not only as a distinguished golfer but as a man of outstanding character, courage and accomplishment well worthy to adorn the roll of our Honorary Burgesses." The provost explained that an Honorary Burgess had the rights "to catch rabbits, to take divots, and to dry one's washing upon the first and last fairways of the Old Course."
It was now Jones' turn to speak. He had previously been lifted to the stage with his heavy metal leg braces rattling like swords in a loose saber. It would not have been impolite for him to speak sitting down. But Jones did the unexpected. He grabbed the table in front of him with gnarled hands and literally pulled his body up until he stood stooped over the table. There were gasps from the spectators. Jones' son, Bob III, was sitting just behind his father. The son coiled in readiness should he need to catch his frail father.
When Jones began to shuffle to the podium, using the table as a brace, the audience stood and began applauding enthusiastically. Jones braced himself with each hand on the side of the podium, and it was plain to see just how dire his circumstances were.
"Within the few seconds it took me to make my way to the lectern along the table so thoughtfully provided," Jones recalled, "I found out how a man's life, or a great part of it, can flash through his mind in an instant. I knew I would have no difficulty finding things to say to the people of St. Andrews.