In January of 1965, I received a letter from the famous Grand Slam golfer, Bobby Jones.
I will, of course, always admire Jones in his own right. Yet, for me the great man will be forever connected with Will Jackson.
It all began in December of 1964. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Notre Dame working on the railroad at Christmas break. Well, not exactly out on the tracks with a pick and shovel, but close to the rails on the frozen mail platforms of historic Union Terminal in Cincinnati, transferring bags of Christmas mail from one train to another. It was a cold, 8-hour shift, but it paid well at $2.68 per hour back in the day.
Working beside me on the platform was 60-year-old Will Jackson, a somewhat hobbled Black man who could spin some yarns that I enjoyed listening to.
When Will learned that I was a golfer, he said he was one, too. Indeed, he was a pretty good player in his youth back in Atlanta in the 1920s. He said he and his buddy, “Beauty” (called that for his splendid golf swing), were so good that they were often called upon by the “bosses” to play money matches against local white players. For their services, Will and Beauty were paid the handsome sum of $10. Surely the “bosses” made much more off of their high-stakes wagers on Will and Beauty.
Now I quizzed Will quite a bit to see how much he truly knew about golf.
“Will, show me how you gripped the club back then. Did you ever have an interesting ruling for or against you? What do you think I ought to do to correct my duck hook?”
In each case, he answered in a way that testified to his knowledge of the game.
Jones and Hagen
Since Will was 60 years old in 1964, he would have been born in 1904, two years after the birth of Bobby Jones in 1902. That would have put both Will and Bobby in their prime playing years (the mid-20s) in the 1920s. Of course, we know that was a fact for Bobby Jones.
Since both were in Atlanta, I thought I would go for the unbelievable and ask Will if he had ever heard of Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen, the latter being a friend and frequent competitor with Jones.
Stretching it even further, could it be possible that a match had ever been arranged between he and Beauty versus these two famous golfers?
Will came back in his usual soft-spoken way saying that he “might have heard of them or played them in a match, but he couldn’t remember.” And, he added, “Beauty and I, you know, weren’t allowed to play on the white golfer’s courses.”
Not remembering Bobby Jones or a match with him might cause one to be even more suspicious about the validity of Will’s purported golfing prowess. But I thought to myself: “Why would Will and Beauty care who Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen were?” They had no familiarity with the white, aristocratic, golfing elite of Atlanta; and they couldn’t play at the all-white private clubs where they might have had a chance to encounter such players. So, Jones and Hagen would have been just another couple of pigeons they didn’t know but were more than happy to make 10 bucks off of!
So, with my data in hand, I dashed off my best 1964 freshman-in-college letter to Bobby Jones to ask him the same questions, starting with: “Had he ever heard of two black golfers named Will Jackson or Beauty back in the 1920s in Atlanta?”
When I returned to school in January of 1965, a letter was waiting for me with “Augusta National” in the return address. After running around the dorm saying I had received a letter from the great Bobby Jones, I opened it and read his reflection that stated that he (Bobby Jones) had never heard of Will Jackson or Beauty, and that he found it amusing that Will “thought they (Will and Beauty) might have heard of him (Jones) and Walter Hagan and might have even played them.” Jones went on to say that, “If Will and Beauty had played Walter and me, I would have thought it an occasion not so easily forgotten.”
Still undeterred, I thought to myself, “Why would Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan remember them?” Will and Beauty would have been just two young black guys in an arranged match, and Bobby and Walter weren’t going to strike up a long-term relationship with them in the 1920s South.
In fact, the match would have probably been staged very privately, if it happened at all.
So, to me, the fact that Bobby Jones did not remember them did not totally negate the possibility of a match having occurred. That is, neither pair might have felt it important enough to remember the other pair, and this was now 40 years later for both of them trying to recall.
Needless to say, I kept the letter in my golf scrapbook with “Augusta National” engraved on the letterhead inside, along with Bobby Jones’ priceless signature. I thought it a nice memento, but in reality this was much more than just an autograph – it was a personal letter that gave the reader a glimpse into the mind and personality of Bobby Jones.
Some 35 years later, I showed the Jones letter to my friend Eason, who was a bit more savvy than me and exclaimed something along the lines of: “Tommy! Are you out of your mind? This is a valuable letter, and you have it stuck in a scrapbook slowly deteriorating!”
Getting the message, I then had the letter hung in a frame behind light-resistant glass under museum quality conditions. Fortunately it had been in the dark for 35 years, so it had not deteriorated much, if any.
Also, 50 years ago I thought about making a movie of a match between Will Jackson and Beauty vs. Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. Of course, I procrastinated about the idea for 30 years, and in 2000, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” came out and was close enough in concept to dash any aspirations I might have had about winning an Oscar.
In 1994, I did start an annual golf tournament with a large permanent trophy I called the “Jackson-Jones Trophy,” a tribute to two golfers who probably never knew each other. But maybe they should have, and would have, in a different world from the time in which they lived.
Dr. Tom Dorsel is professor emeritus of psychology at FMU and a former member of Florence Country Club for a quarter century. He now lives on Hilton Head Island and can be found on Facebook at “Sport Psychology of Hilton Head,” as well as at Dorsel.com. His latest book is “GOLF: The Mental Game.”