Bobby Jones was golf's fast study
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Bobby Jones was a child prodigy who became The Man.
A short-tempered, club-throwing youth, Jones turned into an even-dispositioned and unruffled champion. In the Golden Age of Sport, Jones took his place alongside such giants as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange and Bill Tilden. From 1923 to 1929, the Georgia gentleman dominated golf, birdieing his way into this country's heart by winning nine major championships.
First, Jones conquered England, winning the British Amateur and Open. Then he conquered this country, winning the U.S. Open and Amateur. No one else has ever won a Slam (for years, the two major amateur tournaments have been replaced by the PGA Championship and the Masters, which Jones helped design).
Adding to the Jones myth was his retirement from competitive golf less than two months after completing the Slam. He was 28.
Starting at the age of 14, Jones spent seven lean years conquering himself. Starting at the age of 21, he spent eight fat years conquering everybody else.
At 14, when he first entered a major tournament, he was considered a sure shot for greatness. When he hadn't achieved it by the ripe old age of 20, many were considering him a failure.
Of this period, Jones said, "I was full of pie, ice cream and inexperience. To me, golf was just a game to beat someone. I didn't know that someone was me."
Robert Tyre Jones Jr. (he was named after his grandfather) was born on March 17, 1902 in Atlanta to well-to-do parents. A sickly child, he was 5 before he could eat solid food. In an effort to add some robustness to his frail frame, the family bought a summer house next to the fairways of Atlanta's East Lake Country Club.
At 6, Jones was swinging sawed-off golf clubs. At 7, he was mimicking the swing of Stewart Maiden, the country club pro. "He was never lonesome with a golf club in his hands," Maiden said. "He must have been born with a deep love for the game. He was certainly born with the soul of a perfectionist."
At 11, he shot an 80 on the old course at East Lake. His father looked at the card, then his son, and with wet eyes hugged him. At 14, with high hopes and lots of national press, he played in his first U.S. Amateur, winning two matches before being eliminated in the third round.
But for the next seven years, Jones missed many shots and struggled with his temper. His low point came during the third round of the 1921 British Open, when, at the 11th green, he committed the unpardonable sin of picking up. He had already taken 50-some shots.
"It was the most inglorious failure of my golfing life," he said some 40 years later.
Finally, at the 1923 U.S. Open at Inwood Country Club in New York, Jones conquered his demons and broke through. But it didn't come easy. He looked like a champion with three holes left, but went bogey-bogey-double bogey, opening the door for Bobby Cruickshank to tie him. "I didn't finish like a champion," Jones said. "I finished like a yellow dog."
In the 18-hole playoff, the two were tied going into the par-4 18th. Neither drive was in the fairway. After Cruickshank laid up, Jones had a decision to make. His ball was 190 yards from the green, resting in loose dirt at the edge of the rough, and water on his next shot was a possibility if he went for the green. Jones liked to describe a dangerous shot that only a golfer with real guts could pull off as a shot that required "sheer delicatessen." Perhaps no shot in his distinguished career was more "sheer delicatessen."
With his 2-iron, he drilled the ball over the water and to within eight feet of the pin. Two putts later, Jones had won his first major. That 2-iron started Jones on his magnificent eight-year run against the best golfers in the world.
While many of his championships were won easily, he almost gave away the 1929 U.S. Open. With six holes to go, Jones led by six strokes. While Al Espinosa played the final six holes in 2-under par, Jones bogeyed the 12th and triple-bogeyed the 15th. He missed the green on 18 and needed to make a 12-foot putt for a tie. He stroked Calamity Jane, his famous putter, and the ball slowly worked its way toward the hole. It hesitated at the cup, and dropped in.
The next day, Jones won the 36-hole playoff by a whopping 23 strokes, shooting 3-under 141 to Espinosa's 164.
While Jones' driver and putter were his two best clubs, his best weapon was his will to win. He performed at his best when the pressure was at its peak.
The first stop for the Grand Slam in 1930 was St. Andrews, site of the British Amateur. Of his eight winning matches in the tournament, he won three of them by the slim margin of 1-up. That's how close his Slam hopes came to being slammed in his face at the start.
Two weeks later, he teed off in the British Open on the links of Royal Liverpool at Hoylake. He won his third British Open in five years, winning by two strokes.
At the U.S. Open at the Interlachen Country Club in a Minneapolis suburb, Jones appeared to have the tournament won with two holes left. But a double-bogey on the 71st hole cut his lead to one. On the final hole, looking to two putt from 40 feet, he stroked the ball home for birdie and his fourth U.S. Open championship.
He won his fifth U.S. Amateur, which was played outside Philadelphia, in a breeze. Several Marine bodyguards protected Jones from idolatrous fans after he completed the Slam.
"In the clubhouse, after a talk with his father, he began to digest the reality that the Grand Slam was factually behind him and with it the ever-accumulating strain he had carried for months," Herbert Warren Wind wrote. "When he appeared for the presentation ceremonies he looked years younger."
Jones retired with 13 majors, a record that would stand for more than 40 years. "There were no worlds left for him to conquer," Wind wrote.
Jones, who had graduated from Georgia Tech and Harvard and was a lawyer in Atlanta, played lots of friendly golf, but he emerged from his retirement only once a year to play The Masters.
In his last years, Jones was confined to a wheelchair because of syringomyelia, a fluid-filled cavity in the spinal cord that caused him first pain, then loss of feeling and muscle atrophy. The illness became a slow death for Jones, who weighed somewhere between 60 and 90 pounds when he died on Dec. 18, 1971 in Atlanta.
"As a young man, he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which is not easy," Wind wrote, "and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst."