Forty-five years ago this month – a week before the Masters, as it happened – I arrived in the city of Atlanta to start work at The Atlanta-Journal Constitution as one of the youngest writers at the oldest Sunday Magazine in the nation, where Margaret Mitchell had worked when she wrote “Gone with the Wind.”
I hadn’t been on the job more than a day or two when legendary Journal sports editor Furman Bisher, who was preparing to shove off to the Masters, summoned me to his office to say hello and point out that since we were the only North Carolinians in the building, he felt obliged to keep a sharp eye on me lest I embarrass myself and our home state.
“I understand you’re a golfer,” he said at one point.
“Yessir. I brought my clubs.”
Eager to impress this sports-writing legend, I mentioned that I’d also read just about every book written by or about Bobby Jones, and even had a couple vintage Spalding Bobby Jones wedges in my bag.
“Good for you,” barked The Legend. “Maybe I’ll take you out to East Lake someday. In the meantime, you should check out the Bobby Jones Golf Course. Good place to start on a rookie reporter’s salary.”
That weekend, I dutifully found my way to BJGC, Atlanta’s first public golf course, built in tribute to Jones in 1932, two years after he achieved the Grand Slam and retired from competition. I recall hoping to find a public version of Augusta National. What I found instead was a weary golf course that looked as if it might be prepared to give up the ghost.
Despite this disappointment, I played with a couple older regulars who dearly loved the course and claimed to have actually known Bob Jones, an unexpected bonus. But I never went back. Two weeks later, in fact, I carted my clubs home to Carolina and left them in a corner of my bedroom where they more or less sat gathering dust for the next six years. Sad to say, due to all work and no play, I managed to hit a golf ball only a handful of times in the hometown of Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. With borrowed clubs, no less.
Longtime Jones family lawyer Marty Elgison smiled when I told him this sad little tale of woe on a recent gloriously golden spring morning in my first journalism stomping ground. Ironically, I was in town to do research for a book on Bobby Jones and welcomed Elgison’s invitation to come have a look at the new Bobby Jones Golf Course complex that opened to great acclaim in late 2018.
Simply put, what a difference four decades and a lot of visionary thinking makes.
Gone is the poorly maintained public course I remembered from 1977, replaced by a masterfully sculpted reversible nine-hole golf course designed by Atlanta’s late golf renaissance man, Bob Cupp, with a surrounding practice facility that rivals anything I’ve seen in the world of golf.
The complex’s two-story, six-bay, state-of-the-art Bandy Instructional Center, for example, presides over one of the most beautiful – and busiest – practice ranges in the Southeast, home to a thriving junior program that boasts 1,800 kids and counting, including the largest Junior PGA program in Georgia and 13th largest in the nation after just a year or so in operation.
At the heart of the modest 128-acre property, echoing the Age of Jones, stands gorgeous Murray Golf House, a 23,000-square foot, neo-gothic wonder ship inspired by the classic clubhouses of East Lake and Atlanta Athletic Club (with a touch of Hoylake thrown in for seasoning), designed by famed Atlanta club architect Jim Chapman. In addition to a full-service restaurant with a top chef and a veranda that arguably boasts the best views in the city, with interiors designed by a cadre of gifted students from the Savannah College of Art & Design, this soulful house of Jones is home to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, Georgia State Golf Association and the Georgia Section of the PGA respectively, not to mention a splendidly curated Bob Jones Room sponsored by the USGA.
Even the facility’s charming starter hut and Dan Yates putting course (designed by Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp’s son, Bobby, where kids under age 17 play free) are inspired by their antecedents at St. Andrews’ Old Course, where Jones became an immortal serenaded by the grateful citizens of the “Auld Grey Toon.”
Scarce wonder the national golf press heaped lavish praise on this beautifully reimagined facility when it fully opened in 2020, hailing the $30-million-plus renovation project as nothing less than the model for growing urban golf in America, a place where tradition meets tomorrow. Indeed, at least a dozen major cities are currently studying the BJGC story in hopes of replicating its runaway success, including the West Palm Golf Park, currently under construction in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The transformation story of “The Bob,” as regulars have come to affectionately call the place, is a fitting tribute to the most revered name in golf.
Its seed was planted in 1986 when the late equipment impresario Eli Callaway stepped into Marty Elgison’s office at the downtown Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird (Bob Jones’ old firm) to share his belief that the golf world deserved an equipment line worthy of golf’s greatest name. Elgison, who was a newly minted partner specializing in intellectual property, agreed to take on the task of representing the Jones family heirs to protect and license the Bobby Jones trademark and intellectual property rights in perpetuity.
“I never met Bob Jones. I was really just in the right place at the right time,” Elgison modestly insists. “But representing the Jones family turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.”
During his work for the family over the next three decades, Elgison became increasingly disappointed about the poor state of the Bobby Jones Golf Course, which was dangerous, out of date and unworthy of the Jones legacy. Upon official retirement in 2011, he pursued discussions with designer Bob Cupp and other select Atlanta supporters about renovating the golf course, clubhouse, and the Atlanta Memorial Park where the course shares space with the Bitsy Grant tennis complex.
“I think Bob Jones would be very pleased about what so many generous and forward-looking people in this city and around the state came together to create.” – Marty Elgison
By 2014, a master plan was in place that included either an 18-hole course with no driving range or a nine-hole golf course with a driving range, and new parking deck with relocated tennis courts on top of the deck. Within a year, local attorney Chuck Palmer had the idea to bring the Georgia State Golf Association and Georgia Section of the PGA onboard and the decision was made for a nine-hole course with a driving range to support junior and adaptive programming and teaching. The revised plan also included a permanent home for the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and a multi-purpose clubhouse earmarked to become the “Home of Golf in Georgia.”
“Bob Cupp initially designed a conventional nine-hole golf course,” Elgison remembers, “but called me up one morning to say he’d been thinking about St. Andrews and had an epiphany. The Old Course is occasionally played in reverse and is famous for its double greens. That gave him the brilliant idea to create a unique golf course that could be played exactly like that, and to create 18 new holes instead of just nine.”
Cupp’s solution was an innovative design that employs double greens, two sets of flags, and multiple teeing areas – not to mention amply contoured greens that echo the auld sod – to create a pair of very distinct nine-hole playing experiences, called Azalea and Magnolia. “It was exciting to watch the course come to life on paper, looking at the numerous routing plans and figuring out how to make it work. But Bob did it,” says Elgison. “A remarkable design achievement, his last great triumph.”
Among the course’s many thoughtful touches, Cupp created eight different yardage levels ranging from 3,200 to 7,430 yards, with tees numbered 1-8 instead of colors like blue and red. “There are women and juniors playing here who are reaching greens in regulation for the very first time because they’re playing from the right tees,” Elgison points out with pride. “He truly created a golf course for everyone from beginners to veteran players.” The designer – who worked pro bono on the project – also equipped every bunker and green with zero entry points in order to support BJGC’s adaptive golf program for handicapped players of all skill levels.
In 2020 and 2021, the course hosted back-to-back National Adaptive Golf Championships.
Sadly, Georgia Hall of Famer Bob Cupp passed away in August 2016, and it fell to his son, Bobby Cupp, to oversee the renovation. The renovation began on November 1, 2017, and the new golf course opened on November 1, 2018, exactly one year later.
During this phase the driving range, a five-hole short course known as the Cupp Links (a clever play on the designer’s name), sumptuous practice areas, and the Bandy Golf Instructional Center were also completed, now home of the Grand Slam Academy that keeps seven full-time instructors and club-fitting staff fully engaged. Both the men’s and women’s Georgia State University golf teams currently call the Bobby Jones Golf Course home. Half a dozen local high school teams regularly practice there, too. The renovation included the creation of a 5.5 million-gallon irrigation lake that serves as both the source of all the irrigation water as well as a critical water feature for the course.
Murray Golf House opened in August 2020, and completed the bold vision Elgison, the Jones family and its many corporate partners and generous benefactors – including the likes of Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, PGA Tour Superstore and many other donors – had hoped for. The course’s well-stocked “non-traditional” golf shop favors the fashion tastes of golf’s emerging generations and even features the industry’s first golf ball and accessories vending machine.
“I think Bob Jones would be very pleased about what so many generous and forward-looking people in this city and around the state came together to create,” says the visionary fellow who put this remarkable transformation into motion.
“Augusta National has the Masters for the greatest players in the game,” Elgison, 71, adds. “But Bobby Jones Golf Course is where the game begins for thousands of kids and ordinary people who are falling in love with golf every day out here. I think that would make Bob Jones very proud. We are helping keep his legacy alive for future generations of golfers.”
As our early morning tour of the ingenious Magnolia and Azalea courses winds down and the day’s first dew-sweeping players appear on the links, my host glances at them and smiles. “This place has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The numbers keep growing. I just wish Bob Cupp were here to see it.”
Before heading off to find Jones’ birthplace in Grant Park, I walked up the hill to the spectacular practice range where more than half of the 42 practice mats were already occupied by a variety of different types warming up, confirming something my host told me earlier. “When you look at the range, you’ll see an incredibly diverse group of players – from members of the private clubs in town to guys in blue jeans. And a good number will be women and girls. We’re introducing thousands of people, young and old, male and female, into the world of golf. That’s a true indication of what this place means to the future of golf.”
I strolled over to a trio of fresh-faced millennials who were getting range balls from the dispensing machine. All three are relative newcomers to the hometown of Robert Tyre Jones Jr., young management consultants who became golf buddies over at the Charlie Yates public course at East Lake before learning about the Bobby Jones Golf Course and migrating across town to check it out.
“Didn’t know that much about Bobby Jones, quite frankly, but heard this place was something special,” explains Sean Callahan. “We’ve been regulars here ever since.”
“It’s actually been game changing for me,” Stephanie Vogel volunteers with a sunny grin. “Before we moved to Atlanta, Sean and I were golfers back in Chapel Hill. But my game has gone to a new level since we’ve been coming to Bobby Jones to practice and play.”
The reason, she adds, is BJGC’s “incredible facilities” and “super coaching from Jason Kuiper,” director of the Grand Slam Academy.
The third member of the triumvirate, a New Yorker named Pete Graham, is a relative newcomer to the game. He nods in agreement as his range bucket fills with bright yellow balls.
“I wasn’t a golfer until I moved to Atlanta two years ago,” he admits. “But finding Bobby Jones has been an incredible experience for me. I’m getting hooked on the game real fast. We’re out here almost every weekend.”
Somewhere, you have to think, as springtime returns to Georgia, a couple of golf legends named Bob – and maybe even one named Bisher – must be smiling at this news.
Photos: Dave Sansom Photography
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?