Did Bobby Jones Want A White Masters?

By Joe Posnanski
Updated: April 7, 2005

Bobby Jones

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When you live in Augusta, you hear Bobby Jones’ name pretty much every day, not just at Masters time. True, most of the time you hear it in phrases like: “You’ll wanna take the Bobby Jones Expressway past the Boot Village Western Wear,” or “I just bought a Super Duty at Bobby Jones Ford.”

Still, there is no escaping Bobby Jones in this town. In 1931 — one year after Jones won the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs, the famous Grand Slam — he walked through a fruit orchard here with his friend Clifford Roberts. Jones fell in love. Not with Roberts. He loved the magnolia trees and the azaleas and the huge clearing behind the house.

“It seemed,” he says in Ron Rapoport’s fine new book The Immortal Bobby, “that this land had been lying here for years for someone to lay a golf course upon it.”

That land, of course, ended up being Augusta National. Shortly after the golf course was designed by Alister Mackenzie, Roberts told the U.S. Golf Association people that the Augusta National wanted to be host to the U.S. Open. But they wanted to have it in April, when the azaleas would be in bloom. He was told something he already knew: The U.S. Open is always in June.

And so, of course, Roberts and Jones started the Masters.

The Masters is probably bigger than the U.S. Open now. It has made this city famous around the world. They call it “Ah-gus-tay” in Australia and “Ooh-goos-tah” in parts of Europe and “Aw-guh-sta” in most parts of the South.

When I lived in Augusta, we called it lots of names, especially on those stifling summer days long after the grass at the Augusta National had gone brown. But few of those names are printable.

In any case, Bobby Jones turned a small Southern town into the home of golf. And yet, even here, he remains a mystery. He was the greatest golfer of his time, perhaps all time.

He was once as famous as Babe Ruth. He remained an amateur when there was money to be had. He was a lawyer, he loved opera, he earned a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and a degree in literature from Harvard, he made movies in Hollywood, and he designed America’s favorite golf clubs for 40 years.

And yet, in a way, Jones remained unknowable.

This is best seen in Rapoport’s chapter on Bobby Jones’ views on race and the Masters, the biggest issue this golf tournament has faced through the years (in 1996, when the Olympics were in Atlanta, they were going to play the first Olympic golf tournament at Augusta. The tournament was eventually pulled because of what were called Augusta’s “discriminatory policies”).

There are those who say that Jones was a racist — the Masters, after all, did not invite a black man until after his death. There are others who say that he was a man of his time and place, a man who grew up in the American South just after the turn of the century.

And there are still others who will say that Jones was ahead of his time, a good man who was always, as Rapoport says, “fair and honorable to the many black people he knew.”

The truth is, we don’t have any idea.

Rapoport interviewed dozens of people for his book. He scoured more than 100 golf books. He read an uncountable number of magazine and newspaper articles and letters Jones had written. And he never once heard or read a single clue about how Jones felt about race issues.

“I just find that remarkable for a guy who was so political and such a prolific letter writer,” Rapoport says.

The closest Rapoport was able to get to Jones’ heart was when he discovered a fascinating exchange of letters Jones had with Jim Murray, who in my book was the best sportswriter of them all. The exchange was over Charlie Sifford, the first black man to play on the PGA Tour. Sifford was never invited to play in the Masters.

Murray found that infuriating. He was a hilarious writer — that was Murray’s trademark — but he had a powerful sense of right and wrong. And when he turned the magnifying glass on something, he started fires.

He was furious that Sifford — who was kept off the PGA Tour until he was almost 40 and still managed to win the Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969 — could not get a Masters invitation.

“Charlie Sifford is a golfer, an American, a gentleman,” Murray wrote. “He is not, however, a Caucasian.”

Murray railed against the Augusta National and the PGA (which he wrote was at one point the “recreational arm of the Ku Klux Klan”). He quoted Sifford saying that, after he complained about not getting invited, he received a threatening letter from Bobby Jones himself.

Jones then wrote to Murray explaining that he had not threatened Sifford (he enclosed his letter to Sifford; Rapoport would say it was probably not threatening but it was certainly patronizing).

Jones also pointed out that Sifford had not fulfilled any of the Masters requirements (which back then were tilted toward amateurs and foreign players), and Sifford could not be invited until he did.

Murray wrote back to Jones. He wrote that requirements changed all the time (they did) and that surely the club could see that Sifford deserved an invitation. Sifford had played his best golf when he was barred from the PGA Tour because of his color.

He had spent his life overcoming obstacles — when he reached the PGA Tour, he was often not allowed in the clubhouse. Surely, a man who could do those things and still win PGA events deserved an invitation from the greatest golf tournament.

Jones responded again.

“I think he responded more in sorrow than in anger,” Rapoport says. “Jim’s columns were widely reproduced in that syndicated age, and I think the sarcasm and the fact he so dearly loved golf rankled. Jones’ letters were a model of restraint, I thought. But he really did want to convince Jim. Boy, did he fail.”

In the end, they both failed. Murray kept writing columns about Sifford and how unfair it was that he could not move to the “front of the bus.” And the Masters — using a well-established pattern that continues on — ignored the criticism and stood its ground. The Masters did not invite a black man until 1975, when Sifford was too old. The first black man to play here was Lee Elder.

By then, Bobby Jones had been dead for four years.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Jones’ grand-slam year. He lived an extraordinary life. He had a golf record that, in its way, will never be touched, not even by Tiger Woods. He was given two — count ’em, two — tickertape parades in New York. He left behind scholarships and wisdom and the most popular golf tournament in the world.

But we’ll never know exactly what he thought about all this. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Masters goes on. It’s the greatest and most prestigious golf tournament in the world. There is one black golfer in this year’s field. The club has a handful of black members. There are people still fighting to get a woman member invited.

“We’ve adopted a new policy,” Masters chairman Hootie Johnson says about the woman-member issue. “We don’t talk about club matters, period.”

Actually, that’s a very old policy at Augusta National.