Beginning at the age of five, Bobby was stricken in succession with whooping cough, measles and "other juvenile ailments," as he later put it, so his parents removed him for the summer to East Lake, a resort area six miles out of Atlanta, where they hoped the country air would relieve his distress. The Atlanta Athletic Club, founded in 1898, had purchased property in East Lake for a country club in 1904, and when the Jones family moved out there, a new golf course was under construction. The popularity of the game had increased dramatically after the turn of the century, and Bobby's father and mother were both enthusiasts. A friend of theirs gave Bobby a cut-down cleek (two-iron), and he and another boy, Frank Meador, soon developed a game of their own using a red-clay road and a drainage ditch as back-to-back holes.
"It is a matter of general opinion," wrote Jones in Down the Fairway, "that I never made a hole in one until 1927. [Actually] I made this hole several times in one shot, before I was six years old."
He soon became a golf prodigy, winning his first children's tournament at East Lake when he was six. At nine he won the Atlanta Athletic Club Junior Championship over a boy seven years older. At 13 Bobby won an invitational tournament at Roebuck Country Club in Birmingham, in which his father also competed. And a year later, at the Merion Cricket Club outside Philadelphia, came his remarkable performance at the U.S. Amateur—he reached the third round before losing to the defending champion, Bob Gardner. Barely a freshman at Atlanta Tech High, Bobby astonished the fast-growing world of golf. He was a bit astonished himself.
"By this time the golf writers were paying me a good deal of attention, and some of the things they wrote made me feel extremely foolish," he wrote years later. "They wrote about my worn shoe and my dusty pants and my fresh young face and other embarrassing personal attributes.... I never had thought much of my face, for example, and it seemed sort of indelicate thus to expose it in print, not to mention my pants."
Bobby had never taken a golf lesson. He learned all he needed to know by watching the East Lake pro, a dour Scotsman named Stewart Maiden. Bobby copied Maiden's flawless swing, off a 90-degree hip pivot, so faithfully that he and Maiden were often mistaken for each other on the course. Like Maiden, an impatient man, Bobby wasted little time contemplating his shots. He simply walked up to the ball and hit it, wrote Price, "with the nonchalance of a man about to lop off the head of a dandelion." He never understood why others required three hours or more to complete a round of golf when he himself spent no more than nine minutes on any hole.
Ah, but his swing. The British golf writer Bernard Darwin called it "pure poetry." Jones didn't so much strike the ball as sweep his compact body through it with—Darwin again—"an easy grace." The swing was so effortless, in fact, that newsreels of Jones in play look as if they were being run in slow motion. But with this relaxed, long-sweeping stroke he could drive a ball, when he chose to, 300 yards or more. Sam Snead, a legendary big hitter, recalled playing Jones in a friendly match years after Jones's Grand Slam and easily outdriving him on par-4 holes, only to find himself 15 yards in arrears on the long par-5s. Jones didn't attack a golf course in the modern mode; he absorbed it.
Less smooth was the young phenom's temperament. As a teenager Jones was a famous club-flinger and, like his father, tantrum-tosser. His temper reached its zenith in the British Open of 1921 on the hallowed Old Course at St. Andrews. Trailing the leaders by only four strokes at the start of the third round, the 19-year-old Jones shot a dismal 46 on the front nine in atrocious weather and then, in a fury, picked up his ball and tore up his scorecard on the 11th green. It was, he said later, "the most inglorious failure of my golfing life." It was also a turning point. Thereafter, though he may have seethed inwardly—and Jones did suffer from terrible nervous tension in championship matches—he played with all the outward emotion of a man thumbing through a seed catalog.
"It was part of my golfing education to learn that these outbursts, however much they may have offended others, were in fact harmful only to me," he wrote later. "I think I began to realize that the cause was not only partly anger at myself for having missed a simple shot; the other part was a childish effort to make known publicly that such a misplay was not to be tolerated by a player of so much ability. Inevitably, the sense of guilt and shame immediately ensuing would affect my play for an important interval thereafter."
Apparently his play was affected, for although he was already considered the game's greatest shotmaker, Jones did not win a single national championship in his first 10 tries. Then came the historic breakthrough at the U.S. Open in In-wood, N.Y., in the summer of 1923. Jones was 21 and never to be headed. He won the U.S. Amateur in 1924 and '25. In '26 he became the first player to win the British Open and the U.S. Open in the same year, a feat that earned him his first ticker-tape parade. He won the British Open again in '27, as well as the U.S. Amateur. He won the Amateur again in '28 and the U.S. Open in '29. Then came the Slam.
Jones had first considered going for it as early as 1926, but he didn't make concrete plans until '28, when, weary of the strain of competition, he began contemplating retirement. He knew that in 1930 he would be representing the U.S. in the Walker Cup, so his travel expenses to England would be paid, and he would have the luxury of staying there long enough to play in both the British Open and the British Amateur. Jones was not a wealthy man in his playing days (although he was generally thought to be), so money was always a consideration. And, he thought finally, what better way to close out a career than by winning every major tournament in sight?