Contemporary offers rare look at Bobby Jones as a Masters competitor

April 01, 2016

Although much is known about Bobby Jones’ life and career leading up to his retirement in 1930, his experiences as a player in 11 Masters tournaments has largely remained a mystery. Rarely competing after he officially stepped down, Jones played in almost every Masters from 1934 to 1948, his best finish a tie for 13th in the inaugural 1934 tournament.

One man who played a great deal with Jones was Paul Runyan, a star of the 1930s and winner of the 1934 and 1938 PGA Championship. Runyan squeezed 29 tournament victories from his slight 5-feet-6 frame, earning the nickname “Little Poison” for his ability to whip larger men and longer hitters, especially at match play. Runyan had a decent record at the Masters, twice finishing third and two more times finishing fourth. He remained an important presence in golf long after his competitive career slowed, becoming one of the game’s best short-game teachers, an outstanding senior player and an excellent chronicler of the game’s history. Runyan’s memory and frank tongue remained intact until shortly before his death in 2002.

Over two days in 1989, senior writer Guy Yocom conducted an extensive interview with Runyan that was transcribed but never published. The purpose was to have Paul offer his best recollections of the game and its players during the colorful Depression era. Runyan passed away in 2002, but his observations remain fresh, original, honest and often personal. In this excerpt from the 1989 chronicles, Runyan discusses Bobby Jones.


Q: You played with Bobby Jones the first round of the second Masters in 1935. What do you remember about him?

Runyan: Bobby Jones I got to meet and know very well. I didn’t meet him until 1930, the year of his formal retirement. I was paired with him once in the Augusta Open, a forerunner of the Masters. He played in that tournament twice to my knowledge. At one time he finished double bogey/double bogey/bogey and beat the professionals by 15 shots.

There are a good many people who think he is still the world’s all-time best player. I wouldn’t give Jones this accolade quite. Maybe this is just ego talking, but I would like to think he wasn’t that much better than the best professionals. But he probably was. It just seemed to me that when Bobby Jones was playing in the professional events, most of us played like we had handcuffs on. We didn’t want to lose to an amateur. We didn’t want to have to admit that an amateur was the best player in the world at that time.

Think of this, now. Every year, Jones and Ed Dudley, who was then the resident professional, would play against other players in practice rounds early in the week. On Monday morning they would play Jug McSpaden and Byron Nelson, which was a very strong combo. In the afternoon, they would play Paul Runyan and Horton Smith. The next morning, they would play Ben Hogan and whomever he happened to have for a partner. It might be anyone--Ben played with a good many different partners. Jones and Dudley never lost an 18-hole match in the six or seven years they did this. They would lose a nine-hole section, but never the full 18 holes. Yet, in the six or seven years that he played in the Masters, he never broke par. He had a lot of 72s [three], but that was the lowest. He just had gotten to a point where he couldn’t control his nerves in tournaments.

Q: Was there pressure on Jones to perform well in those early Masters?

Runyan: It’s been said there was a Calcutta pool for the first tournament, which is true. And that Jones went for the highest bid, which he did. But I keep hearing a rumor that Jones sold for $750, which has to be wrong. See, there were 14 members from Metropolis in New York, my home club, who came to watch that first Masters. They took part in that Calcutta, which they staged at the old Bon Aire hotel, very convivial atmosphere. I told them, “Please don’t bid me so high that I become better than a 6-1 choice to win.” There were bookies in addition to that Calcutta, you know. I was concerned about being bid too high simply because I was leading money winner in 1933 and the favorite among the professionals. When you have friends betting a lot of money on you in a Calcutta, it puts a lot of pressure on you. So I made my members stop at $1,800 for me. I tied for third and got back, if memory serves me correctly, $500.

But Jones was far and away the favorite overall. I am positive that they bid him up to $16,000, not the $750 that was rumored. There was too much pressure on Jones. And the USGA didn’t like those Calcuttas. They stopped them after four or five years. People like Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones, they are going to do what the USGA asks them to do.

Q: Was Jones a showman? Entertaining to watch?

Runyan: He was not necessarily a showman. He became enormously popular and a great draw, because he was an amateur and he was beating the professionals very consistently. The circumstances just made him become a standout. I don’t think his performances in the U.S. Open were very brilliant, score-wise. You will notice that the scores he shot were reasonably high. He beat [Al] Espinosa with a wonderful 36 holes [at the 1929 U.S. Open], because when you start with a double bogey and still shoot 141 on two trips around Winged Foot, you have played some pretty good golf. Pretty soon, the pressure was off him because nobody had ever had such a downfall as Espinosa did to make a 4 on the first hole and lose by 23 strokes. He lost 25 strokes to Jones in the last 35 holes. That is helping the other guy play pretty well.

Q: How would you describe Jones’ game?

Runyan: Jones was the greatest fairway-wood player the world has ever known, in my opinion, followed closely by Byron Nelson. Jones and Nelson were unusual in that they hit their fairway woods and their drives pretty close to the same distance. Jones, because of his fluid motion and the fact that he got his balls up so easily with straight-faced clubs, had unique capabilities.

I remember the first Masters tournament, when the nines were still reversed, and a shot Jones played on the 11th hole, which is the [par 5] No. 2 hole today. Jones hit his drive far enough that it stopped on the very steep, precipitous part of the downslope. I stopped mine about 20 or 25 yards behind him. I am on dead-level ground, and I hit a 2-wood as hard as I could hit it. I come up short of the green by 40 yards. Now, the pin is way over on the right side and tight in behind the bunkers. Jones gets on that downslope and hits that ball. The ball moves up, up like that [makes an upshoot motion]. I thought, Oh my goodness, he has hit it too well, he is going in the bunker. Well, he carried the bunker with still enough height that it stayed 17 feet behind the hole on those slick, fast greens. So I opened my big mouth and said, “Gee, Bobby, that was the best 4-wood shot I have ever seen.” Jones said, “I didn’t hit it with a 4-wood. I hit it with a 2-wood.” From that downslope, he hit one of the greatest wood shots that I have ever seen in my life. And I saw Macdonald Smith hit some wood shots that you couldn’t believe.


Q: Jones also was phenomenal putter, correct?

Runyan: Magnificent if the greens were fast and true, helpless if the greens were slow and bumpy. His stroke was a delicate two-lever action that requires control with a big stroke and smooth motion. He just couldn’t cope with slow or bumpy greens. Along comes a Johnny Revolta and a Paul Runyan, who went on those bumpy greens and stabbed that thing. We were much more likely to win on bad greens than the good players were, because we were better bad-green putters than they were. We even were better than Horton Smith. We beat the life out of Horton on slow greens, because Horton had a longer, slower stroke that doesn’t work well on bumpy greens. Horton Smith is the greatest putter I have ever seen before or since.

Q: Did galleries usually pull for Jones?

Runyan: Yes, and not the spectators only. I know that on two occasions Jones received wonderful, wonderful breaks. There is no question that the governing bodies of that period saw to it that Jones got good breaks. For example, Jones knew year after year that his starting times were going to be good. Since they played 36 holes in those days, his starting times were always going to be 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., which is a heck of a break. What an advantage that is.

At Winged Foot, in the playoff where he beat Espinosa so badly, on the first par-5 hole on the second nine, he comes to his drive. His ball had stopped on a service roadway, and an official there has got Jones’ ball in his hand. This is the gospel truth. He [the official] says, “Your ball was in that heel mark there. That’s ground under repair. You may drop it.” So, Jones drops it and knocks it on the green and makes a birdie. Now he gets in a tie and winds up in a 36-hole playoff. There was no course marking at the spot where that ball was. There was no white line. If you hit it over there in the roadway and it stops in a heel mark that is not dry and hard, you play it. I am not saying that other people don’t get good breaks on occasion, but that was a particularly noticeable one for Jones. Of course, he would have been foolish to say, “Oh, I don’t think you are right there. I will put the ball back in the heel-mark.”

Q: Was there resentment about that?

Runyan: Oh, yes. But, it is only natural. This wonderful amateur was beating the hell out of the pros pretty regularly.

Q: What was Jones’ most notable contribution to golf after he retired?

Runyan: I think Jones’ articles and books on golf, nothing has been done better. I think the instructional movie shorts he did for Warner Brothers were wonderful. When they first started, you know, it looked like it was going to be a flop. I heard that Warner Brothers was just about to cancel the whole thing. One of the Warners was a member at Metropolis, and I was the pro there so I got this information from a fairly reliable source. They were ready to forget it. They had spent about a half-million dollars making them when, suddenly, it took hold. The public ate them up. Jones got a guarantee of $150,000, with a percentage of the income from them. That percentage wound up amounting to half-million dollars.