The U.S. Amateur Championship is coming to a most appropriate place – the home club of Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur of them all.
From there, the story line gets a little more complicated.
The Atlanta Athletic Club, which will host the country’s top amateurs beginning Monday, long ago left the site where Jones learned the game that would make him famous.
In fact, he never played either of the 18-hole layouts – Highlands and Riverside – that will be used this week.
But Bob Jones IV, his grandson and now a member at AAC, said the golfing great does have a strong link to the club’s current location in the sprawling Atlanta suburbs.
”A lot of people don’t realize the ties my grandfather has to this property,” Jones said. ”He did come to this property in the late 1960s and see it, and he did review the initial designs for the golf course.
”This,” the grandson added, ”is a tremendous honor for the club and the legacy of my grandfather.”
The athletic club was founded in downtown Atlanta in 1898, and in the early part of the 20th century the members built an 18-hole golf course about six miles east of downtown, along a streetcar line in the East Lake neighborhood.
That’s where Jones became a member, setting up a brilliant career that would include seven major professional championships (four U.S. Opens, three British Opens) even though he never gave up his amateur status.
Of course, he is most famous for winning the Grand Slam of his day – U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open and British Amateur – in 1930, followed by his retirement from the game at age 28.
According to his grandson, the U.S. Amateur was probably his favorite event, a tournament he first played as a 14-year-old and would win five times in seven years beginning in 1924.
”I think he liked the Amateur, for one thing, because it held a lot of 36-hole matches,” Jones’ grandson said. ”He always felt that in a 36-hole match that he had a very good chance of winning.”
Jones’ record backs it up.
”In match-play tournaments, like the British Amateur, the U.S. Amateur, and the Walker Cup, nobody ever defeated him twice in his entire career,” his grandson said.
Jones’ club hosted the Ryder Cup at East Lake in 1963, but members were already plotting a move to the suburbs, following the path of many white Atlantans. The decision was opposed by some members, who would eventually form their own club at East Lake, but Jones was on board with the decision to move to a new location, according to his grandson.
In fact, just a month before he died from a rare neurological disease in 1971, Jones sent a letter to the U.S. Golf Association asking that it award the U.S. Open to his new home club.
The USGA granted his wish, bringing the Open to the Atlanta Athletic Club five years later. Tour rookie Jerry Pate memorably clinched his only major title with a 5-iron from the rough at No. 18, the 191-yard shot stopping 3 feet from the hole for a birdie that gave him a two-stroke victory.
A plaque still marks the spot where Pate struck his famous shot.
Jones IV remembered a lawsuit that sought to keep the athletic club from moving to its current location. It was handled by former club president who was a member of his grandfather’s law firm.
”The judge asked him, `Well, what does Bob Jones think about this?”’ the grandson said. The attorney replied, ”If Bob Jones was not in favor of this move, I wouldn’t be here.”
Since then, the Atlanta Athletic Club has hosted three PGA Championships and a U.S. Women’s Open. But this will be its first time hosting the U.S. Amateur.
In an interesting twist, East Lake Golf Club was refurbished in the 1990s amid a gentrified Atlanta neighborhood, held the U.S. Amateur in 2001 and is now the annual home of the season-ending Tour Championship.
Both clubs, not surprisingly, claim Bobby Jones as their own.
”My grandfather always said a club is more than just bricks and mortar,” Jones IV said. ”It is the heart and the soul of the men, and now men and women, who belong to it. He took that very, very seriously.”
Matthew Fitzpatrick of England won last year’s U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, beating Australia’s Oliver Goss in the 36-hole final.
Unlike Jones, both have since turned professional. Fitzpatrick held off until he had played this year’s Masters (a tournament that Jones co-founded) and the U.S. Open at Pinehurst (where the Englishman tied for 48th and was the highest-finishing amateur).
Seth Reeves, who grew up not far from the Atlanta Athletic Club and just finished his college career at Georgia Tech, is among those who will compete in two days of stroke play, hoping to be among the top 64 players advancing to match play starting Wednesday.
”The fact that it’s 20 minutes from my house and this will be my last amateur event, I couldn’t have scripted it any better,” he said.
Reeves realizes the impact that Jones had on Atlanta Athletic Club, East Lake and his alma mater. Jones graduated from Georgia Tech with an engineering degree and played on the school’s golf team.
These days, the Yellow Jackets play at both clubs and use their ties to Jones as a recruiting tool.
”I’ve heard a lot of the history,” Reeves said. ”It never gets old.”