For one lucky student, Sidney Matthew’s world- renowned trove of golf treasures is just a short walk away
Words by Jay RevellPhotos by Kevin D. Liles
Light / Dark
If the journey from my workplace at 300 East Park Avenue to Sidney Matthew’s law office were a golf hole, it would be a short and sharp dogleg left. Beneath the dense canopy of live oak trees for which Tallahassee, Florida, is known, I walk to the west for one block, followed by a turn to the south and then a brisk few hundred yards up the hill. For a building located in the heart of downtown, with both the state Capitol tower building and the gothic spires of Florida State University in view, Matthew’s office is as inconspicuous as any roadside strip mall. Yet it houses a shocking collection of golf memorabilia and archives renowned throughout the world.
Sure, the World Golf Hall of Fame is a few hours east, in St. Augustine, but the treasures in Matthew’s office—and the stories he tells—rival anything over there. I smile every time I arrive at the bronze sign with his name emblazoned on it. Perhaps it’s because as I ring the door buzzer and wait for his secretary to usher me in, I know most people driving by have no clue that the world’s pre-eminent Bobby Jones historian is behind the next door. Even inside, the items scattered about his barely organized office may look like garage-sale junk to some, but the myriad golf clubs, books, photographs and other artifacts of the game serve as a warning to anyone who thinks this is merely a casual interest. The collection is far from curated—some, like his wife, might even call it messy—but therein lies the charm.
Matthew grew up playing the Dunedin Golf Club outside of Tampa. The small-town course, a Donald Ross design, is the former home of the PGA of America. He got hooked early, learning the game while soaking up the stories from old players and golf pros who had lived through the age of Jones.
Matthew became a trial lawyer, and in the 1980s his profession dealt him a life-altering twist of fate. While embroiled in litigation over a deadly female contraceptive device, Matthew found himself in the Atlanta law offices of Alston & Bird, which sprang from the firm of Jones, Bird & Howell. The Jones, of course, was Robert Tyre Jones Jr., better known to the golf world as Bobby. While conducting depositions, Matthew became enthralled by the shrine the firm had built to its famous former colleague. Through the years, Matthew built relationships with peers who worked alongside Jones. Between his billable hours and other caseload commitments, Matthew began to record the conversations he had with those who knew Jones best. They became the foundation for what evolved into the most thorough repository of Jones information and artifacts in the world.
Matthew has authored 12 books on golf, eight of which feature the details of Jones’ life on and off the course. In the early 1990s, Matthew began work on a Jones documentary he constructed from a decade’s worth of research and interviews. The film was originally to be narrated by famed golf announcer Ben Wright—until the CBS broadcaster went off script with his infamous remarks about the LPGA Tour and women golfers. It proved another fortuitous twist for Matthew: The second choice turned out to be 007 himself. Sean Connery went on to deliver a stirring performance in his voicing of The Life and Times of Bobby Jones, which first aired on CBS just before the final round of the 1996 Masters. Matthew will sometimes point to one of the photo albums of the two playing golf and fire off his mean impression of the legendary actor, who has become a good friend: “Shhhidney, you can take that mushhhtache and put it in your pocket!”
Somehow, through all this work, along with the acclaim for it, Matthew has remained a committed litigator and father. Mixed in with the endless shelves of golf paraphernalia are poster boards from courtroom presentations, stacks of legal pads with densely scribbled notes and even a barrister’s wig from cases tried in more-formal courts abroad. He’s quick to say, “A writer must be willing to burn the midnight oil.” Matthew’s children still fondly recall the many nights and weekends their father spent working on his projects with the spirit of a man they knew as “Uncle Bobby.”
Acknowledging his expertise on one of the game’s grandest gentlemen, along with more than a passing interest in many of his contemporaries, many scholars have made the trek to Tallahassee to open the treasure trove and learn from Matthew’s life’s passion. He is always happy to oblige and to help however he can. He’s been sought out by the likes of Jim Nantz and Mark Frost, and calls from historians at clubs like Augusta National and Carnoustie are frequent. He certainly looks the part: With his meticulously curled mustache and rounded glasses, he appears like one of the characters in his boxes of relics from the 1920s.
I first met Matthew after a friend gifted me a collection of his Jones books. I’d seen him around town many times, often riding down College Avenue in his 1990-something Lincoln Town Car—a Jack Nicklaus signature edition painted green-jacket green, of course—but I had yet to muster the courage for a proper introduction. Eventually I found a reason to officially make his acquaintance.
I was helming a project on the history of Capital City Country Club, and who better than Matthew to act as a guide? Local golf legend Marcus Beck, a fellow member and the winner of pretty much every event within 100 miles of Matthew’s office, set it up. What was intended to be a brief meeting turned into nearly four hours as Matthew regaled me with obscure golf stories that if not for him would likely vanish from the Earth forever.
I am now lucky to have an open invitation to his office, and learn something new every time I go. With the rabid, rational approach of his professional background, Matthew continues to pursue the tangible evidence of one of golf’s most important eras. Next to his conference table sits a barrel full of original Tom Stewart cleeks—similar to the set Jones used to win the Grand Slam in 1930—each with Matthew’s handwritten tag. He has a variety of putters made by the mystic Scottish club-maker Robert Condie, father of the original Calamity Jane. On one visit I noticed a signed portrait of Francis Ouimet lying on the floor. Thousands of black-and-white photos of Jones and his contemporaries litter the other tables in the room.
Another time he showed me a twin of the spoon used by Gene Sarazen for his double eagle known as the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” at the 1935 Masters. Then he produced a photo of the Squire in full safari gear sitting among a tribe of bare-breasted women from, he said, “somewhere on the other side of the world.” There are handwritten notes from Connery, personal correspondence from Jones and a sea of golf trinkets, aging texts and 19th-century golf balls that hold both real and sentimental value. Matthew’s R&A blazer hangs on the back of the door; its buttons are the same 24-karat fasteners from Jones’ jacket.
He likes to proclaim that “the journey is the goal.” Often this has meant jumping on last-minute flights, hustling through train stations in Great Britain or harassing gray-haired librarians halfway across the globe. He has personally interviewed many of the people in his stories, and their memories live on through him. He has a lengthy sit-down with Sarazen on tape that still has yet to see the light of day.
His collection of Jones’ photos, papers and other artifacts became so voluminous over the years that they spilled over from his office to the house. His wife gave him an ultimatum, and rather than see priceless items tossed into the trash, he wisely donated them to the research libraries of Jones’ alma mater, Emory University. Matthew has supplied irreplaceable relics to the clubhouses of East Lake Golf Club and Carnoustie, and to some places he prefers not to name. His research is solely responsible for the recreation of the original Havemeyer Trophy, awarded to the winner of the U.S. Amateur; the USGA now has one, and so does East Lake (where the original was lost in 1925 to a clubhouse fire, while Jones held the title). He still hangs on to much of what he calls “the good stuff,” and when the opportunity to comb through his collection arises, I always hustle back down the street.
There are choice stories that he enjoys revisiting—like how he discovered the long-lost film of Jones receiving the Freedom of the Borough award in St. Andrews in 1958, then nearly lost it in Herbert Warren Wind’s broken VCR. But really I’m there for when Matthew veers off into the lesser-known deep cuts, like when he tracked down the man who caddied for Jones in a local match at Carnoustie in 1927, the day after he won the Open at St. Andrews. Once he told me how he’d convinced Augusta National to let him have a look at Jones’ clubs when they had to change the lightbulb in the sealed cabinet where they are kept. I now know why Sean Connery won’t take a caddie when playing the Old Course, but it’s best to keep that to myself.
Remarkably, Matthew considers nearly everything in his office as part of an ongoing project. He is still drafting books on Sarazen and Walter Hagen to match his acclaimed pieces on Jones. There is always a club history in the works, and he claims that someday there will be more documentaries.
After a recent ramble down golf’s never-ending rabbit hole of history, I left Matthew’s office marveling at his balance of personal life, career and passion as much as at the stories. The sun was setting over downtown, and I looked at my phone: a message from my wife that yet another box of golf memorabilia I’d ordered had arrived.