Along with another boy in the colony I scraped some holes in the common lawn and began to chip or putt the ball around this decidedly miniature course. In a short while, a few weeks, perhaps, my friend and I moved to the dirt road in front of our domicile and began to plunk balls back and forth over the hundred yards or so of clay thoroughfare between our house and the ditch alongside the East Lake golf course.
The next step was to tag along when my mother and father played. And from this, logically, slowly, but inevitably, I began to play golf. There was nothing very conscious or contrived about the whole procedure. The game was there, I liked it, and I kept on playing. I do recall that as I became aware of the general object of the game, and that some people played better than others, I began to swing my clubs as nearly as possible the way the club professional, Stewart Maiden, swung his. I was fortunate in that Stewart was a good model. His method was simple. He was a direct man, whose eye always went to the basic point of disturbance. It seemed that he merely stepped up to the ball and hit it, which to the end of my playing days was always a characteristic of my play.
Almost as soon as I could be trusted to play a round of golf, I began playing regularly with Perry Adair, the son of one of my father's good friends, who was three or four years my senior. Perry, quite naturally, came along faster than I did, and by the time he was 15 he was one of the best amateur golfers in the South. But I grew physically faster than Perry, and by 1915, when I was 13 years old, I could hold my own with him quite well. We were then among the most favored competitors in the invitation tournaments around the South. In the Montgomery, Ala., Invitation in 1915 I lost in the finals of the second flight to a left-handed player—which I considered the ultimate disgrace at the time—and Perry won this tournament. Later that year, however, I beat him in the second round of the Invitation at Birmingham and went on to win.
The following year, 1916, Perry beat me again at Montgomery, but I won from him in the finals of the Invitation at East Lake, and won a couple more tournaments in which Perry had been beaten by other players. At the end of the season we found ourselves opposed in the final of the Georgia State Championship at the Capital City Club in Atlanta.
This was the tournament that set me off into national competition, and I think it marked the beginning of my taste for and appreciation of really competitive golf. I was always an ardent player of the game. I was somewhat of a student or analyst too, I suppose; mainly, however, I liked to play. But I am sure that I had never given even one thought to playing in a national championship. I remember waiting on the front steps of our house in East Lake for my father to bring home the evening paper so I could learn how Francis Ouimet had come out in his playoff for the National Open with Vardon and Ray, but it never occurred to me that I might one day be playing in tournaments of this kind.
Despite the fact that I had won two out of the three matches in which Perry and I had met, I still considered him the better golfer. I looked up to him and thought I had won from him mainly by accident. In the morning round of the final for the Georgia State I must have been tense, overanxious and perhaps a little resigned. At any rate, I played some pretty sloppy golf and came in for lunch three down. While I was having a few practice putts prior to the start of the afternoon round, the tournament chairman came up to me and asked that I play out the bye holes, with the obvious inference that Perry would beat me several holes before the finish, and he wanted the gallery to have the privilege of seeing a full 18 holes of play.
I replied that I would, without calling his attention to what I considered to be a rather unpleasant implication, and began the afternoon round by hooking my tee shot out of bounds, losing the first hole with a scrambling six, and thus becoming four down. But at this point my whole attitude changed. I began to play hard, aggressive golf, hitting the ball with all the force at my command. Instead of being defensive and uncertain, I tried to win hole after hole, rather than avoid mistakes. After halving the second hole in three, I drove to the edge of the green on the 3rd hole, something I had never done before. From that time on I hit the ball as hard as I ever hit it in my life. I played the 18 holes in 70, with the beginning six, and won the match on the last green, two up.
A few days later my father told me that Mr. Adair had come to him to say that he planned to take Perry to the National Amateur Championship at Philadelphia and would like to have me go with them. It must be admitted that golf in those days was very little like golf today, especially in big-time competition. When the Southern Amateur Championship was played at East Lake, for instance, the two ultimate finalists tied for the medal with 81. It was revealing of the quality of golf that Perry at the age of 16, and I at the age of 13, should be among the top competitors for the Southern Championship. Granting all possible precocity on the part of us both, one had to admit that we were so prominent because most other competitors had learned to play golf as adults. In the same manner most of them had perforce learned to drive automobiles after reaching maturity, and few of them ever attained the facility with a motor car acquired with relative ease by the members of my generation who more or less grew up at the wheel.
I won in the first round of the Amateur at Merion from Eben Byers, a former champion, and from Frank Dyer, the Pennsylvania champion, in the second round. Dyer had been considered by many to be a possible winner of the tournament, so when I met Bob Gardner, the defending American champion, in the third round, the match attracted quite a bit of interest. Gardner was a tall, handsome, athletic young man who looked every bit the champion he was. He had even held the world record for the pole vault a few years before when he was at Yale. Gardner was a good six feet tall. I was a pudgy school kid of 14, a bare 5 feet 4 inches, playing in my first national tournament, wearing my first pair of long pants. I was having the time of my life, with nothing to lose, and thinking of nothing except playing golf. And I was doing that about as well as anyone in the tournament. In fact, I had already become a bit cocky because of my golfing success in play against older men. I have often thought how little I should relish playing against such a kid as I was in a National Championship, and I have since developed admiration for the gallant and courtly way that Bob Gardner met and handled what must have been a very difficult situation.
We had a good match; not flawless golf, exactly, but good and bad. In the afternoon round I was one down as we stood on the sixth tee. Then through the next three holes I experienced as much excitement as I can remember on a golf course. Here is the way Grantland Rice described what happened: