News & Opinion

Atlanta site hosts golf legend for eternity

This isn’t a “Where’s Waldo” experience, because Bobby Jones is pretty easy to spot in these parts, stretching from urban Atlanta east to Augusta.

Day trip two hours east on I-20 from Atlanta to Augusta in spring and ingest the spirit that Jones left with Augusta National and the Masters Tournament, his most lasting legacy even beyond his 1930 Grand Slam triumph. It’s where golf starts each year for most of the world.

084d218b-9a32-4727-89f0-564631eabbd5.jpeg
COURTESY OF HISTORIC OAKLAND CEMETERY
The Atlanta gravesite of golfer Bobby Jones and his wife attracts thousands of visitors and their token offerings annually.

COURTESY OF HISTORIC OAKLAND CEMETERY
The Atlanta gravesite of golfer Bobby Jones and his wife attracts thousands of visitors and their token offerings annually.

Or traverse into inner-city Atlanta this week and take in the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club, where Jones was raised adjacent to the course and learned golf. The revitalization story of the surrounding neighborhood once called “Little Vietnam” is inspiring. The place seemingly is all Jones, all of the time, especially the English Tudor clubhouse and its historic contents. They’re honoring Jones this year by presenting the winner with a facsimile of his Calamity Jane putter, an award first given somewhat as a side dish in 2005 but now the singular memento presented to the champion of the season’s final PGA Tour event.

There is a Bobby Jones Open golf tournament held annually at various national sites only for those with that name, a Bobby Jones Golf Course under revitalization north of Atlanta, an exhibition at the Atlanta History Center and Augusta’s Bobby Jones Expressway, among many other connections.

But perhaps the coolest place to catch the Jones vibe can be found just 4 miles from East Lake. Take Memorial Drive west toward downtown, and rising on the car’s passenger side is Historic Oakland Cemetery, 48 acres that are a bastion of history since the cemetery’s beginning in 1850. The site is so diverse that it virtually tells the history of Atlanta. It ranges from 3,000 Confederate dead and “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell to Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, and founders of Atlanta’s historically black colleges to a historic Jewish section. And the final resting place for Jones.

“A lot of places say they have a Jones-inspired course and many trophies or memorabilia, but we’re the only place that actually has Bobby,” said David Moore, the executive director of Oakland Cemetery. “That speaks to a lot of people.”

For golf fans, the cemetery is a gathering spot. Oakland caretakers approximate that 45,000 tourists visit the cemetery annually, and about 80 percent maneuver through a pedestrian entrance and toward a no-frills plot that is hard by an old brick wall on the edge of Memorial Drive. Jones and his wife, Mary, are buried here beneath a simplistic granite headstone that lists their names and time on Earth below an etched cross – with nary a golf or Masters mention. 

The leave-behinds that make this a true shrine are the golf balls that have been deposited since Jones died in 1971, numbering in the thousands, especially over the past 20 years. Moore keeps a large collection bagged in his onsite office, and the Jones family will pick them up on occasion. Visitors write messages on the golf balls and leave golf clubs and books, especially in spring. One old caddie’s dying wish 20 years ago was the delivery of a letter to the Jones family that he had passed, and it was left attached to the headstone. Many a professional golfer has stopped by in search of a good-luck charm.

But the aging property has been deteriorating, which necessitated a major Oakland fundraising campaign two years ago to restore the 1.5 acres where Jones’ grave is located. Reworked brick walkways, walls, preserved headstones, new irrigation and landscaping are planned. Particularly golf centric is the revival and planting of trees, shrubs and other ornamentals that can be found on all 18 holes at Augusta National, which is active in the effort. New experiences to honor Jones are also in the works, including signage and a cellphone tour, with the total goal at $760,000 to be reached within the next two years.

“We want to make this a first-class experience,” Moore said. “We want to showcase what Bobby Jones did in his life and why this place is important.”

To complete the journey, walk across Memorial Drive to the appropriately named Six Feet Under Pub & Fish House. A rooftop bar offers views of Oakland, and one specialty drink is the “Bobby Jones,” concocted with sweet tea, vodka and homemade lemonade.  Proceeds from the cocktail and its commemorative glass during Masters week go toward the restoration of the Jones area across the street. 

In a way, that’s like having a drink on Bobby Jones, which is a good thing.

Ward Clayton has been involved with golf communications for 30-plus years, including stints with the Augusta Chronicle and PGA Tour and currently with Signature Group and Clayton Communications. He lives in St. Johns, Fla. Email: jaxclayton123@gmail.com; Twitter: @wardclayton.