The caretakers at Oakland Cemetery started noticing the golf balls nestled against the simple granite headstone about 15 years ago.
So many balls have been left on Bobby Jones’ grave, in fact, that workers must collect them every few months so that the green grass laid over the legendary golfer’s final resting place doesn’t die.
“I think it’s a very charming tradition and tribute to a great man,” says David Moore, the executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation. “.. And of course, we love to tell them it will take two strokes off their game, if they do -- which I’m sure it does.”
Moore estimates that thousands of balls, literally, have been harvested from Jones’ grave over the years. Many are, in fact, sitting in bags in his office right now, probably 500 or so, he tells a recent caller.
“We tend to keep the ones that have the cute sayings on them, like 'Bobby Jones made me a better golfer',” Moore says.
Golf balls aren’t the only mementoes left behind, though. Ball markers, divot tools, scorecards, even a towel from St. Andrews where Jones won the 1930 British Amateur during his historic Grand Slam year have been found there.
Someone even left a Masters badge at his grave. A year ago, a media lunch ticket from the TOUR Championship, being played this week at East Lake Golf Club where Jones learned the game, was tucked reverently among the golf balls. (Hey, it was all we had!)
Cemetery workers even find an occasional golf club laid on the grass trimmed so neatly it could be – and has been – used as a makeshift putting green.
“Now whether they were left there to be picked up later figuring they would get some of Bobby’s mojo, his good putting skills somehow transferred to them or whether they were clubs that people just gave up on, I don’t know,” Moore said, chuckling.A year ago, a media lunch ticket from the TOUR Championship, being played this week at East Lake Golf Club. (Helen Ross/PGA TOUR)
“What’s charming is – I love baseball and Babe Ruth but I understand his gravesite receives Baby Ruth candy wrappers and beer cans whereas we get the golf balls and it’s very respectful when people come here.”
Oakland Cemetery is located about four miles and a 10-minute drive from East Lake, where the FedExCup Playoffs finale begins on Thursday. Moore says there’s always an uptick in visitors asking where Jones’ grave is located during the month of March (Jones was born on the 17th), in April because of the Masters and this week due to the TOUR Championship.
Beyond Jones’ grave, the cemetery is a fascinating place, a patchwork quilt of history in 48 acres full of what Moore calls “neighborhoods.” There’s a Jewish section, as well as the African-American grounds, a Potter’s field and 55 mausoleums. Some of the architecture is stunning and great care has been taken to preserve the gardens.
“We are really three things in one,” Moore says. “We are a historic cemetery, we are national historic landmark and we are a city park as the Victorians wanted their cemeteries to double as.”
The cemetery was founded in 1850 and had sold all its plots before the end of that century. More than 70,000 people are buried there, including Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the epic “Gone with the Wind” and Maynard Jackson, the first African-American mayor of Atlanta, who is among 29 who held that office interred on the grounds.
Interestingly, while people are still buried there in family plots, Oakland Cemetery hosts more weddings than funerals these days – “some very traditional and some somewhat Gothic, perhaps, unique, if you will,” Moore says. And its Halloween tours, which are “designed to enlighten not frighten,” Moore says, are sell-outs.So many balls have been left on Bobby Jones’ grave, in fact, that workers must collect them every few months. (Helen Ross/PGA TOUR)
The HOF is about halfway through a 10-phase restoration plan that includes Jones’ grave and his particular neighborhood, which spans about three acres. Among the upgrades to come are interpretive panels that will be erected on the brick walkways on the way to the grave to tell the story of Jones’ life – with winning the Grand Slam and establishing the Masters, prime among the subjects.
Signs that identify the 18 plantings that showcase the 18 holes at the Augusta National will also be added. New sod, irrigation and landscaping are also in the works.
“Everything we do here -- every event, every tour, ever part of the restoration -- is tied back to the education experience so that when people come here they learn something,” Moore says. “In this case, certainly, it’s Mr. jones and all he stood for, not just as a golfing legend but a man of high ethics to continue to teach us and our children how to play not only the game of golf but the game of life the right way.”
Moore says probably 90 percent of the 45,000 people or so who come to Oakland each year ask about Jones’ grave. The other most popular site to visit is Mitchell’s, where she lies surrounded by roses, her favorite flower, with her husband on one side and her parents on the other.
Moore stopped short of saying whose grave was more popular.
“It’s a toss-up,” he says diplomatically. “Those are the two most asked for folks, let’s say. If there was a playoff like’s going on now at East Lake, I don’t know who would win. It may be a tie.”