secret_history (2006-30)

Boy Wonders

The week little Bobby Jones came to town

by Jack Neely

Like automobiles, jazz, and all new things in 1916, golf was most popular with the young. When Cherokee Country Club sponsored a major invitational golf tournament, a large number of those who qualified were teenagers—“schoolboys,” as the papers called them. Cherokee was arguably a “country club” in 1916, three miles past Knoxville’s western city limits, even if its setting was no longer exactly rural; an electric streetcar whined by regularly. It was surrounded by upscale houses and, down in the bottom by the train tracks, some industry and the beginnings of a tourist trade catering to the developing Dixie Highway along Kingston Pike.

Over 130 contestants had qualified to compete, according to their scores, in seven “flights.” It was an amateur contest. The American Professional Golfing Association was just in its early planning stages, still a few months away from mounting its first tournament.

Perhaps half of the golfers at the Cherokee Invitational were Knoxvillians, many of them sons of the rich and prominent: Rogers Van Gilder, son of a former mayor; hardware heir W.W. Woodruff, Jr.; and 27-year-old McGhee Tyson. A Princeton graduate, Tyson was heir to his famous father’s business concerns, and a locally famous golfer and chairman of the greens committee; he had reportedly taken a hand in the design of the course.

Others came from around the South: Simpson Dean, a teenager called “the Roman,” perhaps just because he was from Rome, Ga., and Scott Probasco, of a well-known Chattanooga family, were in the first flight. A middle-aged literary celebrity, John Fox, Jr., author of Trail of the Lonesome Pine , qualified for the tournament, but only for the third flight.

Much of the newspaper attention went to A.P. “Polly” Boyd, the 16-year-old “boy wonder” from Chattanooga; to George Adair, “one of the premiers of Southern golfdom,” former president of the famous East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta; and to his talented son Perry, the only entrant featured in a sidebar profile, for which he was asked, “How does one feel to be the best-known golfing youngster in the United States?”

Along with them was Perry’s even younger pal, a 14-year-old kid listed as R.T. Jones. At five-foot-four, 155 pounds, he struck some as a little stout for an athlete. If Knoxville sportswriters knew he’d just won the first Georgia State Amateur tournament, they didn’t mention it. Here he was still best known as famous Perry Adair’s sidekick. No one then suspected he’d be remembered by some as the best golfer of the 20th century.

That summer, as Europe was wheezing through another of its ancient blood feuds, Knoxvillians were hearing about the horrors of Verdun, where 600,000 men died in battle. To many Americans, it seemed horrific and irrelevant. The Knoxville Journal remarked that the war was a matter of German militarism versus British greed. War seemed an old-fashioned thing, something America had outgrown.

The Cherokee Invitational drew a crowd, even though there were plenty of other things to do in town. A controversial movie called The Evil Thereof , banned in Chattanooga, was showing at the Gay Theatre; children were permitted only with parents. Down the street, at the Grand, was live boxing. And the Friday of the tournament, there was a big parade downtown featuring the rousing Gazaza Band, and the annual Drummers’ Picnic drew 17,000 to Chilhowee Park, which featured, among other things, the return of the Prophet of the Smokies, who appeared to offer extravagant predictions about the future of Knoxville, comparing it to imperial Rome; and the Monkey Speedway, which featured “Racing Cars Driven at 90 Miles an Hour by Live Monkeys.”

It was quieter on the west side. Friday, Boyd outshot the elder Adair; all eyes were then on young Perry, until he was beaten by Dean in a close 20-hole shootout, what the Journal called “one of the best matches ever seen.”

It was not considered quite as big a deal that Bobby Jones beat R.T. Wilson handily. Later that day, in the quarterfinals, Jones faced local golf hero McGhee Tyson, almost twice his age. Jones beat Tyson by a narrower margin, three and two in match play. “Tyson entered the match with the Knoxville gallery pulling for him to win, but the Atlanta lad proved a Tartar,” quipped the Sentinel —adding, “Youth has held the day.”

Three of the four contestants who made it to the semifinals were 17 or younger. In between matches, the minors may or may not have been tempted by any of six extravagant dances the country club held each day of the tournament at 4:30 and

Maybe folks should have started paying attention. But in the semifinals, as Bobby Jones was beating the famous Polly Boyd, the match didn’t draw nearly as big a crowd as the Van Gilder / Dean match, Knoxvillians’ last chance to root for a local boy. Van Gilder lost. The championship of the great Cherokee Invitational turned out to be a rivalry between two Georgia teenagers.

The Journal’s subhead would go, “Atlanta boy’s Drive, Approach, and Puts [sic] Perfect, While Dean Yields to Gallery Fright From Very First Tee.”

On that first drive, the nervous Dean sent his ball into a sand trap. By contrast, “Jones, young and handy with the stick, teed up carelessly and with an easy swing drove his ball onto the green.” Sportswriters recorded only one error, when, on the third hole, the wind caught his drive, sending his ball down toward the railroad tracks, out of bounds and lost.

Though Jones awed spectators, no one was calling the Jones-Dean match one of the best matches ever seen. It was over after just 13 holes, and Dean, six holes behind, was ready to quit. But he kept playing, just so Jones could go for the course record of 72 strokes. The 14-year-old didn’t, but came close, with a 73.

It was the year that Bobby Jones became a household name, but some of his other competitors would make names for themselves.

Polly Adair and Simpson Dean would later be national champs at the collegiate level, at Dartmouth and Princeton respectively. George Adair, one of the early promoters of Southern golf, has a trophy named for him. But after that summer, his son Perry was no longer the best-known golfing youngster in the United States.

Meanwhile, America joined the European war. Two years after the Cherokee Invitational, McGhee Tyson joined the navy as an airman; days before the Armistice, he was killed in a crash in the North Sea. We named an airport after him.