Obituary: Stuart "Emperor" Jones had no regrets

By Anendra Singh

It was this month in 2005 when Stuart "The Emperor" Jones agreed to give me a comprehensive interview at his home in Frimley, Hastings.

Grinning from ear to ear before acknowledging it'll be a "very long time before I give another interview", the unassuming golfing great said he had little to offer to the media but as the interview took its course he delivered some gems days before his 80th birthday celebrations at Hastings Golf Club on July 17.

A life member at Bridge Pa since becoming a member in 1947, the seven-time New Zealand amateur champion reflected on the halcyon days with 100 guests, predominantly his illustrious golfing mates and club members.

Jones' achievements in the code are mind-boggling, considering he represented his country from 1953 to 1975, including seven Eisenhower outings - the pinnacle for amateur golfers before the transition to lucrative professional careers.

"I pretty much travelled the world playing golf as an amateur while all my mates turned professional," he said of players such as New Zealand's first major winner, Sir Bob Charles, and Ted MacDougal.

Admittedly, Jones had the best of both worlds. His father, the late James Jones, ran a general store, Bon Marche, in Hastings, retailing predominantly in clothes. That meant Jones could get away from it to play tournaments.

"Somebody once asked my father about how much time does he (Stuart) have away from golf? - and he said 'Not much. Anyway, we figure it's a poor firm that can't carry one waster'," he had said, throwing his head back in laughter.

Three other brothers - the late Ross, Bryce and former Hastings district councillor Richard Jones - ran the business when his father died.

His memorable but flirtatious victories in two pro-am tournaments - where he beat eventual five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson, of Australia, in the 1965 Wattie's Classic on his home turf, and eventual US Open runner-up Kel Nagel, also an Aussie, in the 1970 Spalding Masters in Tauranga - offered a tantalising glimpse of what Jones could have been in the pro circuit.

"Golf's a wonderful game when it's going well. But when the wheels come off it's a game you want to keep away from."

Having played the game competitively for more than 60 years from the age of 23, he felt he was still learning.

He highlighted the one opponent that even the greatest sports people inevitably surrender to - age.

He championed the handicap system as a godsend compensator, turning his card into match his age later in his life several times.

"If you can play to your handicap you can play anyone in the world and that's why it's a wonderful game."

His disarmingly simple philosophy evolved around effort and reward in the mould of Fijian professional Vijay Singh.

But he felt more comfortable sinking a 3m putt to delivering a speech to an audience.

It's was a game that took him to the dizziest of sporting heights but for Jones it all came down to the lowest common denominator - people.

"I think the greatest thing that I found are people. You know, the wonderful thing in life is to be accepted by other folk," Jones said when taking stock of a "selfish game".

He didn't discriminate among people. There are those whose names are not necessary such as the many prime ministers, Lords and Ladies, and the Queen from whom he received an MBE in Wellington on December 31, 1976.

Then there are those whose names are not so readily forthcoming - like the person who shared the golf cart with him in Hawaii and the American country singer who tucked his hair in the back.

He first recounted the story that never failed to make former Tall Blacks coach Tab Baldwin break into fits of laughter.

They were no other than basketball legend Michael Jordan and fellow American and country singer Willie Nelson, who owned his own golf course.

"Michael, Michael Jordan, that's his name. He had a seven handicap and I was one under," Jones had said. "I didn't know who he was."

Of course, there was the home-grown talent Kapi Tareha.

"Kapi was a real gentleman. If he had the equipment these guys have today he'd hit much farther than Tiger Woods can. I don't know how old Kapi was but he used to have a bottle of beer for lunch most of the times."

But the most interesting person he ever met in golf was the man who won the inaugural grand slam (in those days the US/British amateur and Open championships), Bobby Jones, "because he'd done everything". Jones met him after the first Eisenhower in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1958 where the American, battling arthritis, was the non-playing captain marshalling his troops with the help of a golf cart.

The meeting was awe-inspiring with The Emperor confessing his father had one of Bobby Jones' clubs - a putter called Calamity Jane. "I told Bobby I couldn't putt with it. And he replied that, neither could he," says Jones, who has also met legends such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

It was after a rugby match one Saturday in July 1947, the unsuspecting 23-year-old Hastings Rugby Football Club player sightseeing in Taupo fell victim to an ill wind when a Wairakei geyser belched its scalding contents over him, curtailing his promising career as a centre.

While wife Shirley had no qualms about raising their two daughters, Andra and Susanne, as Jones scorched the greens and fairways, she drew the line at Jones becoming professional.

"She said Stuart, 'you go professional and I'll be leaving ya'," he said, a decision he never regretted.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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