How Do You Sell A Golf Legend? Very Carefully

The heirs of Bobby Jones walk a fine line between propriety and profits -- at least most of the time

Maybe it's just coincidence, but the actor who portrays Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ now has top billing in a movie about another famous figure whose followers can be pretty fanatical themselves. Their religion is golf, and the movie starring Jim Caviezel is Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, opening on Apr. 30.

To golfing purists, Jones is the epitome of the game as it was meant to be played -- with mental acuity, physical grace, and immeasurable class. So when he dropped in his last tournament putt 74 years ago, Jones probably never dreamed that someday his signature would be on a bottle of shower gel and his image would be the engine of a thriving little empire. And the business of Bob Jones figures to get even better after the feel-good movie hits theaters.

The film depicts a sensitive Jones as he swings to victory in golf's major tournaments -- the coveted grand slam -- in the magical year of 1930. A career amateur, Jones captured 13 titles in the 21 major championships he played, a record even Tiger Woods must envy.

In 1986, his descendants formed Jonesheirs Inc. to cash in on commercial products. Decisions are now made by seven surviving grandchildren (Jones's three children are now deceased) who meet about once a year and kick around proposals via e-mail. "Not only does there have to be a tie-in to Bobby Jones, it has to be a product of great quality," says Bob Jones IV, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta.

It's true that some offers do get a thumbs-down. Recently, Jonesheirs said no to PGA Tour golfer and vintner David Frost, who wanted to put the Jones name on a wine label. Also nixed: a shotgun, comic strip, and computer game.

For clothes hounds with golf bags full of money, though, slipping on the Bobby Jones image is easy. In his prime, Jones seldom played in anything less formal than a dress shirt and necktie. In death, he has become considerably more laid-back. This year, sportswear maker Hickey Freeman (HMX ), a licensee since 1988, will sell over $30 million worth of pricey Jones duds for men and women. Kids' clothes are on the way. In Beverly Hills and Atlanta, you can even pop into a Bobby Jones store -- Las Vegas and Honolulu outlets open next year -- and pick up $325 silk golf jackets, $158 cotton golf shirts, or $85 swimming trunks.

If that hasn't maxed out your credit cards, the new Bobby Jones Golf Co. is introducing titanium drivers ($600-$650) and fairway woods ($400-$450) in May. It's not the first equipment deal: A line of Jones clubs in 1985 helped launched Callaway Golf Co. (ELY ). That deal ended in 2001.

Bob Jones toiletries and a $549.99 Bobby Jones Trophy Edition Motorola (MOT ) cell phone (now discontinued) may smack of hucksterism -- "you don't think of cell technology being associated with Bob Jones," notes Bob IV. But the family approved because the deals were presented as ways to lift clothing sales. The phone came with $150 certificates for apparel.

Stroke of Genius is certain to spread the legend. And who knows? It may sell a few more Bobby Jones bathing suits.

By Mark Hyman

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