Our Top Picks For The Best Golf Books Ever & A Close Look At The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever by Mark Frost
Looking for the best books about golf? I mean not how to swing a club, but why we love the game? If you just plain love golf, then these books are for you…The Greatest Books About Golf! We are going to start off with a deep dive into Mark Frost’s book, The Match. If you want to see the whole list you can jump to the bottom.
The late George Plimpton was a renowned writer, editor and aristocrat in that order. He hit on a formula of an amateur thrown among the best pro’s in various sports. He became the Everyman, earnest and frail, wandering in a world of supermen beset by fears of catastrophic violence and public humiliation, yet gamely facing it all in order to survive and tell the tale. It didn’t hurt that the Havard and Cambridge graduate had prodigious linguistic ability and thus was able to fashion entertaining best sellers about his experiences.
In his book, Paper Lion, he regales his readers with a wonderful story about trying to win the 3rd string quarterback position with the Detroit Lions. Unbeknownst to the players, but with approval from the coaching staff, he spent a month in training camp in 1963. The players started to think something was up because he fumbled almost every snap from center and he had a great inability to throw the football more than fifteen yards.
In Bogey Man, another entertaining and humorous book, he spins a beguiling yarn about his month on the PGA tour participating in the Bing Crosby Pro Am, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, and the Lucky International. It’s an easy read with highlighting stories of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Mark Frost “The late George Plimpton was a renowned writer, editor and aristocrat in that order.”
Plimpton would box the light heavyweight champion, Archie Moore, play goalie for the Boston Bruins, engage champion Pancho Gonzalez in tennis and, of course, write about these experiences while also being the editor of the high brow literary magazine, The Paris Review. Over the years, George developed what he called the ‘Small Ball Theory,’ in which he propounded that the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature. He wrote that there were superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball, and no good books about beach ball. I think George was onto something. After reading hundreds and hundreds of books about sports, I will wholeheartedly endorse his theory.
“He wrote that there were superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball, and no good books about beach ball.”
Our topic today is The Match, by Mark Frost. It’s a superb read and easily an all-time top-5 sports story. With its combination of thought and sport, national beauty and rivalry, golf can be an ideal pursuit for a writer. In the hands of a wordsmith like Frost (a best selling novelist who wrote for the TV drama Hill St. Blues and created the cult following Twin Peaks) a book with a compelling golf story becomes a certified page turner.
At first, I was a bit skeptical when I started to read The Match. A story about a private golf match between the two greatest golfers of that era, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, and two of the best amateurs, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi, to settle a bet made by a man who at ten-years-old had been the caddie for Francis Ouimet, the first amateur to win the US Open.
Francis Ouiment and caddy Eddie Lowery at the 1913 U.S. Open.
It was such an outrageous story that I thought it had to be true, and after reading Frost’s “Notes on Writing” at the end of the book, I was sure that this was indeed a certain match.
The money men behind the contest were Eddy Lowry and George Coleman, wealthy businessmen who loved golf and loved betting on it. Lowry had the storied connection to the game being Ouimet’s caddie in the historic 1913 US Open. As a successful car dealer, he allowed amateur golfers to work at his dealership for princely salaries and continue playing amateur golf.
In the 1950’s, even the most successful pro golfer had official winnings of less than $50,000. The substantial lure of modern professional golf was still about a decade away. Amateur golfers were still highly revered in the 1950’s and the dream of the United State Golf Association officials was that another great champion like Bobby Jones, an amateur who played for the love of the game, might again dominate championship events.
Contrary to the current climate, the PGA was hardly a jet-setting, high paying profession. It was a grind that saw pros driving from tournament to tournament, staying in cheap motels, and hoping to earn enough to buy their meals and pay their backers.
The stage was set for the match during the practices in January 1956 for the Crosby Clambake, an exclusive 168 participant tournament arranged by Bing Crosby at Pebble Beach, California. All professionals and amateurs were selected by Bing…. and only Bing. An invite to the Clambake was one of the most sought after invitations of that era. While having some cocktails and dinner prior to the tournament with Coleman, Lowry touted his two golfing salesmen. He went so far as to say that his two employees, Ward and Venturi, could beat anyone in the world in a best ball foursome match.
Coleman accepts the challenge and then recruits Hogan and Nelson (in town for the Clambake) to play the next day at the exclusive, stunningly beautiful Cypress Point Golf Club. Cypress is chosen in respect for the reclusive Hogan, as most of the players, press and crowds will be at Pebble Beach to watch the practice rounds.
On this day in January 1956, Hogan was six months removed from a playoff loss to Jack Fleck in the 1955 US Open. Nelson, winner of 11 straight in 1945, had been off the tour and at his ranch for a decade. However, he still played frequently and possessed one of the best swings in golf. Ward had won back to back US Amateurs and had also claimed the British Amateur in 1952. Venturi hardly brought up the rear. Just three months after the match he came within a single shot of winning the Masters.
Frost’s description of the match is a riveting walking tour of Cypress Point, which includes detailed descriptions of each hole. His words place you at ‘the course’ for great golf, played by great golfers, while putting the events in historical context. Interspersed throughout the book are sections about the participants simply titled “Eddie,” “Ken,” “Harvie,” “Ben,” “Byron,” plus one titled “Byron and Ben” which chronicles how they drifted apart over the years. I found these sections especially rewarding by providing insight into these remarkable golfers.
“Contrary to the current climate, the PGA was hardly a jet-setting, high paying profession. It was a grind that saw pros driving from tournament to tournament, staying in cheap motels, and hoping to earn enough to buy their meals and pay their backers.”
Hogan was the late bloomer and a tireless worker who popularized practice. He overcame a seemingly incurable hook to develop control of the golf ball like no other golfer. He also returned from a life-threatening car wreck at age 36 to win 6 of his 9 major championships including 3 of his 4 US Open titles. While Hogan had a reputation of being a cold and ruthless man on the golf course, he could also be warm and generous.
While Venturi was in the army he played a round of golf with Hogan, who remarked that Venturi’s clubs were not in the best condition. Venturi replied that his military wages did not allow for the purchase of new clubs. Shortly thereafter, a brand new set of irons from the Hogan factory arrived at Venturi’s door. Hogan was quiet, hardly spoke to anyone and no one ever got to really know him. At the age of nine he witnessed his father’s suicide and his childhood ended. Family hardships, poverty and deprivation resulted in a closed and steely personality that no one was allowed to enter.
At the time of his retirement at age 34, Nelson was the most accomplished golfer of his era. He had a swing so sound and reliable that a robot used to test clubs is known as the Iron Byron. Nelson retired at a relatively young age to buy a ranch in Texas, a lifelong dream. He continued to play golf, and though not on the regular tour, he placed in the top ten six times at the Masters between 1947 and 1955. He became an ambassador of golf and had a tournament named after him. At his death in 2006, he was a beloved member of the golfing community.
“What really sets this book apart is Frost’s ability to capture the spirit and essence of an era. Sport does not exist in a vacuum; it is a reflection of a moment in time.”
Harvie Ward was the epitome of the gentleman golfer. He was a remarkable player that had no desire to turn pro. After winning two consecutive US Amateurs in 1955 and 1956, he was prevented from going for the hat trick when his amateur status was revoked by the USGA in June of 1957. Ward’s employer, Eddie Lowry, became embroiled in a tax investigation which exposed the fact that he had paid his employees’ golf expenses to participate in various amateur events. As Ward was the reigning US Amateur champ and Lowry was a member of the USGA Executive Committee, it was not a matter that could be simply ignored, as many other amateur cases seemed to be at that time.
The 1957 ban had a profound effect on Ward. His friendship with Lowry, whom he had trusted with his finances, collapsed and he left his employ. To his credit, Lowry remained an advocate of the sport and golfers throughout his life. He did not profit from his relationship with Ward (outside of a few bets) and it was unfortunate that Harvie became collateral damage in an IRS audit. Ward started to drink heavily and became something of a womanizer which led to the collapse of his marriage. He successfully sought his reinstatement as an ameteur in 1958 and was invited to the Masters, but much of his golfing spark had gone and he never really rediscovered his best.
The spiral continued with two more failed marriages, but in 1974, after turning pro, he returned to his native North Carolina. He secured employment at Pinehurst and later Foxfire and became a respected teaching pro and revered in golfing circles. His renaissance continued with a happy marriage and a win in the 1980 Senior Open. He died in 2004 from liver cancer.
The match itself was a scintificallating affair. Of course, I’m not telling you who won and neither will I go into much detail so as not to spoil all the suspense and glory. Be assured, though, that this was a round of soaring drives, curling birdies and a spectacular eagle….and Frost keeps you right there throughout. This was almost an unbelievable round of match play golf in which neither side ever led by more than one hole.
What really sets this book apart is Frost’s ability to capture the spirit and essence of an era. Sport does not exist in a vacuum; it is a reflection of a moment in time. Hogan and Nelson, children of the depression, are cast alongside Ward and Venturi, products of a generation tempered by WWII and the post-war experience. Frost relates that influence in a masterful way that is a delight to read.
A few asides and comments.
Frost sets the date for the match as January 10, 1956. Yet articles appearing in the local San Francisco papers, The Examiner, The Chronicle and Call Bulletin, on January 12th talk about the match taking place on the 11th. One should not put much credence in those accounts that differ from what Frost has written. It is highly unlikely that any reporters were in attendance that day, as the lure would have been the booze-filled party atmosphere of the practice rounds at Pebble Beach. This was still the era of athletes and writers fraternizing and never speaking a peep. Frost interviewed the two living members from the match, Nelson and Venturi, and they both said there were no reporters that day.
There is mention of 5,000 people descending on the course after finding out about the match. But this is only an estimate from the caddiemaster, Jay Solis (interviewed by Frost), who said that when he realized what was going on he called Pebble Beach and other clubs and that people raced to Cypress. Be that as it may, Venturi told Frost that the crowd was about 700-800 people.
There were some questions as to the scores of each player, and Nelson, in an interview, said they were better than those reported. Frost, in his notes at the end, said that whenever oral histories varied he went with the preponderance of opinion. In the end, the scorecard is just the background for this captivating match. It took place, and there is no dispute who won. Some have called the sub-title The Day the Game Changed Forever hyperbole, inasmuch as Palmer, Nicklaus and TV were around the corner and the pro tour was now the place to be. That is true, but I think that misses the point.
The title is metaphorical. Prior to the era of The Match, there still was hope for a brilliant amateur that would return the game to the brilliant glories of Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet, but it was now becoming clear this would never happen.
In the spirit of George Plimpton’s ‘Small Ball Theory’ I am going to recommend seven of my favorite golf reads, all captivating and page turners. None are instruction books; that’s for another day. They are not ranked, but if you enjoyed The Match, then these are books you will definitely want to read. As always, read at your peril, because once you start, you might find it hard to stop.
Faldo/Norman: The 1996 Masters: A Duel that Defined an Era by Andy Farrell
A six-stroke lead going into Sunday. He couldn’t blow it, could he? Unfortunately, Greg Norman did….and in spectacular fashion. Farrell enables you to relive the drama and agony of that dramatic duel with first-hand accounts, 18 chapters with blow by blow descriptions and epic portraits of the two rivals. Hard not to shed a tear in this vivid, worthwhile read.
The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open by Neil Sagebiel
Perhaps one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time. NBC-TV declared Ben Hogan had won the 1955 US Open after he tapped in on his final hole. But little known Jack Fleck, still out on the course, clawed his way back from nowhere and made the clutchest of putts to force a play-off with his idol. It was one he went on to win, and etch a place in history. A brilliant take of an impossible journey against impossible odds.
The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf by Mark Frost
Another page turner by Mark Frost. The story of Francis Quimet and Harry Vardon, who both overcame extreme poverty and insurmountable social barriers to play the game and later met at the 1923 US Open in Brookline, Massachusetts. The 20-year-old Ouimet beat the Englishmen, Vardon and Ted Ray, in an 18-hole playoff. His upstart victory is credited with growing the sport in the states. It is a magnificent piece of historical writing as well as storytelling
Four-Iron in the Soul by Lawrence Donegan
Quite simply one of the best golf books ever written. Donegan, a former golf correspondent for The Guardian (UK), tells the story of a summer he spent as a caddie for the Scottish golfer Ross Drummand on the European Tour. This is the inside story of the geniuses, the cheats, the gurus and the hangers-on that make up the golf scene.
Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer by Tim Callahan
One of the greatest sports writers of all time writing about one of the greatest golfers of all time….what more could you want? Callahan has written the definitive biography of Palmer, telling how a young man from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, became one of the most iconic athletes of all time and one of the most marketable also.
A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour by John Feinstein
A must read for any sports fan. Feinstein’s bestseller takes you inside the PGA tour in the years that immediately pre-dated Tiger Woods’ emergence. It provides a fascinating ‘eye on the wall’ perspective of life at both ends of the tour: for players competing for and winning championships (like Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, John Daly and Nick Price) to those struggling to keep their careers afloat. A timeless classic. A gripping and captivating read of what can justifiably be called the cruelest sport of all, whatever your level.
The War by the Shore: The Incomparable Drama of the 1991 Ryder Cup by Curt Sampson
This is the true story of the dramatic 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, which changed this competition in golf forever. The 1991 Ryder Cup began in 1985. The biennial match of all-star teams of golf professionals (from both America and Europe) was more a ceremonial exhibition than real competition, with the Americans consistently beating the Europeans. That all changed in 1985 when the Europeans wrested it away at the Belfry in England. The Europeans would go on to win in 1987, and in 1989 the competition ended in a draw. By the time 1991 arrived, the American team was looking for blood. The competition was broadcast to over 200 million people in 23 countries. Veteran writer Curt Samson chronicles this pivotal competition. He interviews dozens of players from both teams and provides historical content to explain why the tension was so high. Well-researched, engrossing, and deeply entertaining. A competition when golf lost it’s manners and mind. Read to see who won.
As golf fans, we are spoiled with a wealth of choices, but I think all these books can also be read with pleasure by general readers and certainly anyone looking for a deeper understanding of how striving for excellence illuminates character.