Newspaper headlines were full of big names in the spring of 1934.
President Roosevelt was busy trying to prevent an auto strike. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was working on a plan to increase Germany’s population. Clark Gable attended the Academy Awards dinner, but Katherine Hepburn and Charles Laughton declined to attend.
On the sports pages, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were still belting spring training home runs for the New York Yankees.
In Augusta, another big name was dominating the headlines.
Robert T. Jones Jr. – Bob to his friends – was making his return to competitive golf. The venue was Augusta National Golf Club, and the setting was the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament.
At 10:35 a.m. on March 22, 1934, Jones struck his tee shot on what is now the 10th hole at Augusta National.
Jones gathered himself and, with playing partner Paul Runyan and their caddies in tow, strode down the fairway.
For Jones, much more was at stake than his return to competition. It was about the club he co-founded, Augusta National, and a tournament, the Masters, that would prove to be his lasting gift to the game.
Jones’ journey from the 11th green at Merion Cricket Club on Sept. 27, 1930 – where he closed out Eugene Homans to win the U.S. Amateur and complete the Grand Slam – to Augusta 3½ years later is an interesting one.
Consider that Jones had not seen Fruitland Nurseries, the site where Augusta National was built, until after his Grand Slam.
Consider that Jones and Clifford Roberts, who shared a vision for a private golf club and an annual tournament that would celebrate Jones and his friends, were trying to raise money for their venture at the height of the Great Depression.
“Most golf courses during the Depression were folding,” said Sid Matthew, an attorney and historian. “What a tremendous challenge it was for them to build. And then to make it popular.”
Jones had been plotting his retirement for some time, but it still came as a shock to the public when he announced it in late 1930. After all, he was only 28.
The pressure of competing in major championship events took a toll on Jones. He was the prohibitive favorite in every event, and he yearned for the day when he could enjoy a game of golf with friends and not be surrounded by thousands of fans.
So he and Roberts set off to build his dream course. But he also had several other projects he was busy with.
Jones went to Hollywood in 1931 and made the highly popular film series How I Play Golf. He also had signed on with sporting goods manufacturer Spalding during this time and, according to Matthew, was partly responsible for such innovations as registering your club specifications and developing a “matched” set of clubs.
Jones went back to California in 1933 to do a follow-up series of instructional films, and he also did quite a bit of writing as an associate editor for The American Golfer, a magazine.
He also spent time following his friends in championship events around the country.
On July 15, 1931, The Augusta Chronicle trumpeted the news that Jones had picked Augusta for his new course.
“Bobby Jones to Build His Ideal Golf Course on Berckmans’ Place” was the large headline that accompanied a story from O.B. Keeler, an Atlanta sportswriter who was Jones’ friend and biographer.
Remarkably, course construction took less than two years. The course opened for limited play in December 1932, and the formal opening was a month later.
Getting members to join was more of a challenge, but Jones and Roberts persevered.
The final step was to stage a tournament. Initially, they wanted to bring the U.S. Open to their course, but that didn’t happen for a number of reasons. So Jones and Roberts decided to hold their own annual event.
When Jones stepped to the tee for the first round in 1934, he was still the man to beat. At least he was in the minds of the press and the public.
“It’s the Field Against Bobby” read a headline in The Chronicle’s edition March 22, 1934.
“It will be a matter of stepping back under heavy pressure for the first time since 1930,” Grantland Rice wrote in a preview of the first tournament for The American Golfer. “No one can say in advance how the nerve strain will affect him, what his mental attitude will be against the keen blades of so many stars, all after his scalp.”
In reality, no one knew what to expect from Jones. He had shot 1-under-par 71 in a practice round, and a few weeks before the tournament he had fired an impressive 65.
Whether Jones would even play was up for debate. According to the club, he wanted to serve as an official and preferred not to play. But the membership prevailed upon him to join the field.
“The final argument that persuaded Bob to agree to play, or so he said, was one I advanced, to the effect that he simply could not invite his golfing friends to play on his course and then decline to play with them,” Roberts wrote in his book, The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club.
Jones drew a crowd – The Chronicle reported that 900 automobiles representing 38 states and Canada passed through the entrance – but he didn’t thrill the gallery with his round of 76. The score left him in the middle of the pack and six shots behind a trio of leaders, including eventual winner Horton Smith.
The culprit, according to Keeler’s account the next day, was Jones’ putting. He required 35 putts, far more than he needed during his prime. His play off the tee and with the longer clubs was fine, according to Keeler.
Jones “smacked a spoon” onto the green at the par-5 fourth (now 13) and two-putted for a birdie. At the 11th (now 2), he “hit a brassie shot like a ruled line to the distant green, seven feet from the pin – and nearly took three putts.”
Short-game woes kept Jones from being a threat. He improved in the second round, shooting 2-over 74, but was eight strokes behind Smith.
Paired with Walter Hagen for the third round, Jones shot even-par 72 but lost the head-to-head battle to Hagen’s 70. The headline in The Chronicle read, “Jones Surrenders Final Chance.”
In the final round, Jones posted another 72 to finish the tournament at 6-over 294, 10 shots behind Smith. The tie for 13th would be his best showing in 12 Masters appearances.
Smith had the banner headline, but the newspapers played up Jones saying he would play in his tournament the next year.
How did Jones view his performance?
“I think in one word: relieved,” said Matthew, the historian. “Another word: proud. That the debut of his course drew what should have been the expected rave reviews from those who knew the difference between an inspiring golf course and one that was challenging to play.”
A tournament was born.
“I think Jones was satisfied he had pulled off what he had intended to pull off,” Matthew said. “And then he could go hide for a while.”