For more than 100 years, Coca-Cola and golf have gone hand in hand. Since I have a passion for both, this is a fun story for me to tell. Before I joined The Coca-Cola Company Archives 15 years ago, I was the Bobby Jones Curator at the Atlanta History Center.
At the time, I thought it was the best job in the world. And it was! Each day, I cataloged the collection of Robert Tyre Jones, one of the greatest golfers who ever lived and a man whose life was deeply intertwined with East Lake and Coca-Cola.
Bobby Jones was born on March 17, 1902. That same year, John T. Lupton, one of the early fathers of the Coca-Cola bottling business, became a founding member of the Southern Golf Association. The Association hosted the annual Southern Amateur, a tournament Jones would win three times during his career.
With Lupton and C.V Rainwater, secretary of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, as advocates, golf became one of the first sports featured in Coca-Cola advertising. The first ad with a golf image showed players drinking Coca-Cola after exercise in 1905, a full two years before we began our advertising association with baseball.
Jones and East Lake Golf Club grew up together. When he was six years old, Jones was on hand when the Atlanta Athletic Club opened the first golf course at East Lake, then a suburb of the city, in 1908. The course was completely redesigned to its current layout in 1913 by noted golf course architect Donald Ross.
Jones learned to play golf on the two courses. Instructed by the club pro, Stewart Maiden, Jones was a child prodigy who won the Junior Club Championship at East Lake in 1911 when he was only nine years old. Five years later, he stunned the golf world by making it to the quarterfinals of the United States Amateur Tournament at the age of 14.
After several years of near misses, Jones gave a premonition his spree of major tournament victories in 1922 when he won the Southern Amateur at East Lake. Over the next seven years, he captured 13 major titles, culminating in his historic 1930 “Grand Slam” when he won all four majors. After this celebrated feat, Jones again stunned the golf world by announcing his retirement from tournament golf.
Retirement gave Jones time to explore two of my passions, East Lake and Coca-Cola. While many people know that Jones was one of the best golfers and the founder of Augusta National Golf Course and the Masters Tournament, few know that while he was playing, he also earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech in 1922 (the year he won the Southern Amateur). Jones then received an A.B. in English Literature from Harvard in 1924 (when he won the U.S. Amateur at Merion).
He attended Emory University Law School in 1926, the same year he won the British Open and U.S. Open, and passed the bar the following year after only three semesters. Oh, and while winning the British Open and U.S. Amateur.
Jones joined his father’s law firm. As a lawyer, Jones and his father did business with The Coca-Cola Company and Robert W. Woodruff, our president. Jones and Woodruff enjoyed a long friendship, often traveling together and eventually living around the corner from each other, which made it easier to share drinks and stories on a regular basis.
One of Jones’ first legal duties for the company after his retirement was to act as the lawyer for a transaction where Woodruff and a group of Coca-Cola investors purchased the Atlanta minor league baseball team to keep it solvent during the depths of the Great Depression. Jones later agreed to allow his name and image to be used in a 1947 advertising campaign where Coca-Cola highlighted some of the great champions of sport.
During this same time period, Jones, Clifford Roberts and a group of investors became Coca-Cola Bottlers by purchasing bottling franchises in the U.S. and Latin America. We have a great document in our archives where Jones and Roberts toured some of their plants in Latin America in 1947, returning to the U.S. a mere week before that year’s Masters Tournament began. It was a busy time for Jones who, following in his father’s footsteps, became president of the Atlanta Athletic Club from 1946 to 1947.
My personal association with East Lake began while Jones was president. As I recounted in an earlier blog, my father contracted childhood polio. After his time in the “iron lung,” he did all of his physical therapy and recuperation at the swimming pool and lake at East Lake. Every time I visit the club, I walk over to the lake and think of a six-year-old boy learning to walk again.
In 1948, Jones was diagnosed with Syringomyelia, a debilitating spinal disease that causes extreme pain and eventually paralysis. While Jones’ role with the club diminished due to his declining health (he passed away in 1971), the East Lake course eventually hosted two signature events: the 1950 USGA Woman’s Amateur Championship and the 1963 Ryder Cup.
The fate of the course began to decline after the 1963 Ryder Cup as the surrounding neighborhood began to deteriorate with changing social patterns. The famed clubhouse and old course were saved when 25 members banded together to purchase them and rename both at the East Lake Country Club. By 1970, the second golf course at the site was sold to become a low-income housing project. The club just managed to survive for the next two decades.
In 1993, the fate of the Club changed for the better when a charitable organization led by Tom Cousins purchased the Club with the goal to restore the clubhouse, course and surrounding neighborhood through golf. Since that time, the East Lake Foundation had raised more than $20 million for community redevelopment and other charitable causes. Jones would be proud.
In 2005, East Lake Golf Couse was named the permanent home for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. This tournament is the concluding event of the FedEx Playoff and features the top 30 golfers (by point) for that year. Since the 2009 Tournament, the winner has also received a restored vintage Coca-Cola vending machine. We have created displays showing items from Coca-Cola’s long history with golf around the vintage machine. This year’s winner will receive a beautifully restored Vendo 44. Check out this video.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to give Brandt Snedeker, winner of both the FedEx Cup and the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in 2012, a tour of our Archives and Woodruff’s office. It was fun to be able to tell Brandt stories and show items highlighting the long history The Coca-Cola Company has with the sport of golf.
When I asked him how he likes his cooler, he laughed and said it was a highlight of his house… and that he hoped to be back in Atlanta this year to win a second one!
Ted Ryan is director of Heritage Communications for The Coca-Cola Company.
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