The latest from novelist and golf writer Frost (The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf, 2004, etc.) examines a historic match, when legendary professionals Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson squared off against top amateurs Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi.
The author ably demonstrates how the golf landscape of 1956 differed significantly from the golf world most fans would recognize today. In the first half of the century, professional golfers were seen as more blue-collar athletes, men who had been forced to become pros to pay the mortgage. Thus, they were unable to enjoy the life of the more dignified and respectable amateur, who more likely could claim blue-blood roots and not be forced to sully the dignity of the great game for money. Frost relates how Hogan used his keen intensity and near-religious devotion to hone his skills to the point at which he was among the game’s greatest. Nelson, similarly, was a self-made man who was forced to live on a shoestring before rising to the game’s elite ranks. At the same time, the amateur circuit was not viewed as the preface to the pros, but its own entity, composed of some of the game’s most adept talents. In 1956, a pair of millionaires, Eddie Lowery and George Coleman, made a wager on who would emerge as golf’s greatest—the top amateurs (and Lowery employees) Ward and Venturi, or any pair of professionals that Coleman could assemble. Coleman, never a man to shrink from a wager, was able to tempt two of the game’s greatest champions, and the match was set. While Frost does an excellent job relating the histories of the men who played the game and the conditions of the course, wrapping each chapter in vibrant and descriptive prose, there was actually little at stake in the match. Unlike the author’s previous book on golf, which chronicled a paradigm shift in what kind of player could become champion, there was little more than bragging rights riding on the outcome of this fabled match. Hogan and Nelson were able to squeeze out a one-stroke victory, but the result was not nearly as dramatic as the book’s subtitle implies.
An intriguing tale, capably written, but lacking a greater sense of significance, either to golf or to professional sports in general.