When Bobby Jones won his first U.S. Open he was just 21 years old. When Ty Cobb won his first batting title he was just 20 years old. Both were Georgia-born athletes with incredible skills in their chosen sports. Both became legends by dominating the fields they played on.
Cobb and Jones also shared a trait that is almost always present in the great ones – they were extremely competitive. In fact, they were so competitive that it bordered on tenacity. Harnessing that raw competitive nature, each man rose to the top of their sport. The two admired and respected each other and became lifelong friends.
Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1902, nearly 16 years after Cobb had been born in The Narrows, a rural conclave of homes northeast of Atlanta. Cobb had been a star for the Detroit Tigers for more than a decade when Jones emerged on the golf scene in 1920 after qualifying for his first U.S. Open. He would make that competition his plaything in the 1920s: winning it four times and finishing second four times. In 1930, Jones won all four majors and also simultaneously held the titles of the two major amateur tournaments. He had done it all. He promptly retired at the age of 28.
“Championship golf is something like a cage,” he explained upon his retirement at the age of 28. “First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.”
If anyone played baseball as if he were in a cage and driven to stay on top, it was Cobb. Like Jones, Cobb was clearly the best in his sport for a decade or more. From 1907-1919, a stretch of 13 seasons, “The Georgia Peach” won 12 batting titles, batting over .400 on two occasions. He also owned the base paths: driving himself around the bags with relentless ferociousness. Enemy fielders were wise to be careful where they stood when Cobb barreled into the base.
The two met for the first time in 1919, and two years later, with Jones established as the best amateur golfer in the world, they solidified a friendship when Jones visited the Tigers during spring training in San Antonio when Cobb was managing the club. Later, when Detroit trained in Augusta, Jones made it a habit to visit Cobb. The two would play golf in the fall after the baseball season, as well. In 1933, when the August National Golf Club (which Jones founded and designed) was opened, Cobb was Jones’s guest. Cobb was never a formal member of Augusta, but via Jones he had an open ticket to play there any time. Cobb was never a good golfer – he hit his drives everywhere but straight – but he succeeded in creating a competent short game and frequently defeated opponents who were more experienced and perhaps a bit overconfident when they faced him.
There’s no record of whether or not Jones and Cobb competed with each other in golf. Given Cobb’s shrewdness, I’d doubt he would enter into a match with someone he was sure to lose to. But they each had a competitiveness that was unmatched in their era. Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice witnessed them both in their prime.
“Ty Cobb was the greatest competitor I’ve ever known in sport,” he wrote. “Bob Jones wasn’t far away.”
Jones came out of retirement every spring to play the Masters Tournament at Augusta, but he never again competed at the highest level. In part because of the way he ceased playing at the pinnacle of his career, his legend grew. Cobb retired after the 1928 season, having set more than 100 records in baseball. Several of his marks were later surpassed, but his career average of .367 remains untouched.
After battling cancer for 18 months, Cobb died in 1961, and was buried in Royston, Georgia. A decade later, having been in a wheelchair for several years due to syringomyelia, Jones passed away at his home in Atlanta on December 18 – the 85th anniversary of Cobb’s birth.