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The Old Masters: Thoughts on Golf and Life from Bobby Jones

In 1958, Post authors Harry Paxton and Fred Russell interviewed golf champion Bobby Jones—28 years after he had scored the first “grand slam,” winning the open and amateur championships in America and England. During the interview (“A Visit with Bobby Jones,” April 5, 1958 [PDF]), he spoke only of golf, but much of what he said applies to the game of life.

Concentration and Discipline

“These [golfers] who play the circuit now,” he said, “they all have to take a week or two off every now and then. They all get jaded with it, as you do with anything. That’s really the reason I quit playing in competition. I’d made up my mind even before I got around to 1930 that if I ever found a convenient stopping place, I was going to do it.

“In tournament golf, and particularly in an Open championship, you take an awful lot of mental punishment. Golf is played at such a slow pace that you don’t have an opportunity to work off steam in physical activity. Playing around that golf course in four hours, you get so weighted down by the strain and the responsibility and the difficulty of concentrating that you just wish to goodness you could hit a careless shot—just hit the ball without thinking. And if you ever yield to that temptation you’ll always pay for it.

Mental Preparation

“I think that a lot of our younger pros and amateurs are over-impressed with amount of time and study they have to give to the making of a golf shot. They look to me like they try to take into consideration more damn things than they have to. I think they’re setting a very bad example for youngsters.

“I used to walk around a little bit on the green after I got the ball on there, but all I was trying to do was to tranquilize my breathing. Walking a good distance up to the green and making your way through a crowd of people requires a little exertion, and so I’d stall around a little bit just to get my breathing tranquilized, and get my mind back on the shot. But no more than that. Like old Alex Smith used to say, ‘Miss ‘em quick.’ If I ever took a second waggle, I might as well put the club back in the bag. I just couldn’t hit the ball.”

Focusing on the Job at Hand

“Fundamentally, there’s just one order of movement that is the most efficient method of hitting a golf ball. You hear an awful lot of talk about the modem swing differing from the swing of twenty years ago. It doesn’t at all, except in the minutest sort of detail.

“There’s just one basic way a man can hit a golf ball with full power and full efficiency, and it never will be any different as long as he’s just got two arms and two legs. You’ve got to wind up the trunk and lift the arms and cock the wrists. Then you’ve got to use those sources of power in a certain order—unwinding the hips, leading, unwinding the trunk, leading the downswing, pulling with the arms. The final uncocking of the wrists is the culmination of the blow. But you can’t be thinking about all those things and about where you want the ball to go. And where you want it to go is the most important.”

Sportsmanship

“One of the first questions everybody asks us in connection with our trip to see Bob Jones is, ‘How is his health?’ [No one who knows him ever calls him Bobby.]

“The answer is, ‘About the same.’ His trouble was caused by an injured vertebra at the top of the spine, the effect of which was a deterioration of nerve supply to his limbs. This resulted in an increasing atrophy, and pain in his arms and legs. Two operations some years back failed to correct the trouble.”

In time, this condition led to his paralysis and, eventually, his death. Shortly before his death, someone asked him about the state of his health. Jones’ response is one of those rare expressions of true courage, and is worth remembering in the dark moments we will all face.

“I will tell you privately it’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse all the time, but don’t fret. Remember, we ‘play the ball where it lies,’ and now let’s not talk about this, ever again.”

Read “A Visit with Bobby Jones,” April 5, 1958 [PDF].

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  • Eileen W

    How can one be that philosophical when suffering as he was? More than just a great golfer …. A truly strong individual !!

  • Frank James Davis

    We “play the ball where it lies”–and the ball never lies. This playing-of-the-hand- you’re-dealt is easy enough to accept philosophically; hard as granite to live. Bobby Jones actually lived it.
    This great golfer was a high-tier model for manhood. Author Jeff Nilsson is to be congratulated for recognizing that.