Sports Illustrated: The Golf Book

December 15, 2009 9:34:44 AM PST
Did you know that Richard Nixon made a hole in one at Bel Air Country Club? Or, that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took a time out from the revolution to play a quick eighteen in 1959 Havana? Or, that Mac O'Grady went to Tour School seventeen times before succeeding? Or, that famed crooner, Bing Crosby, entered the British Amateur in 1950?

Having finished Sports Illustrated: The Golf Book, there is much more. It is a modest title for a hefty tome covering 500 years of golf history. With fine writing and rare photographs, the book gives each period of history its due, exposing golf's humanity, humor, majesty and mystique.

The Golf Book examines what it is about this game that brings out the best in athletes. It takes us back to the 1955 US Open, when Jim Fleck forced Ben Hogan into a playoff by making a clutch putt on the 18th. An article by Jim Murray describes Hogan's pain, struggle and endurance. In the locker room, when Hogan learned of the putt, his head dropped and he cursed softly. "I wished he'd either make a two or a five. I was wishing it was over - all over."

In a famous 1967 article called "The Bogey Man", the late George Plimpton explains every player's internal voice: "Eye on the ball!"

"Chin Steady!"

"Left arm stiff!"

" Flex the knees!"

" Swing from the inside out!"

" Follow through!"

" Keep your head down!"

Having internalized the mechanics, Pimpton finally swings. "A shank! A shank! My God, we've hit another shank!! Sound familiar? No matter what the time, place, player, or year, golf invokes the same fears.

A distinctive feature of the book is how it compares the past and present. Consider golf's social importance and image at the turn of the 20th century. A photograph from 1889, taken at St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y. shows the inauguration of a new country club life. "The general idea is to have a comfortable club house for the use of members and their families, a simple restaurant?lawn tennis grounds?music in the afternoons.". It marks the first time that lush grounds, proper attire, modern equipment and club memberships defined a way of life. What started, then, as a rich man's escape has morphed into everyman's passion.

The book even looks at fashion, and how the distinguishing theme of every era is the humble chapeau. Hats and caps define character. From Sam Snead's straw Stetson to Shingo Katayama's cowboy hat, about the only style untouched on Tour is the fez. Time will tell.

With great imagination and cleverness, The Golf Book reveals how golf remains a game unchanged by time. Clearly, two photographs on pages 30 and 31 say it all. On one side, Sam Snead hovering like Spiderman as he tries to get a topographical view of his line. The opposite page shows Camilo Vallegas doing a modern version sixty years later.

Times change. Fashions change. Equipment changes. But even after 500 years, the game is still about getting a little ball into a seemingly elusive hole.

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