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American Triumvirate

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

When I got my first Kindle in October 2009, I had to decide what books to put on it for our trip to France and Italy. It occurred to me that I always wanted to know more about Ben Hogan; maybe I could find a biography with a Kindle version. A search through Amazon and I found myself looking at Jim Dodson’s 2005 biography Ben Hogan: An American Life. At 500+ pages, maybe more than I had in mind, but I downloaded it and “carried” it around Europe. I didn’t get to it on that trip, or on a few more, but last March its time came, as I wrote in a post in April. Here’s what I said:

I’ve read so much about the period from late 1930s to mid 1950s during which Hogan, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson dominated the US golf tour. I had never, however, developed a coherent understanding of those years. In particular, I knew of Ben Hogan’s near-fatal car crash in 1949 and his miraculous return to golf in 1950 (he wasn’t even expected to walk again), culminating in his US Open victory that year at Merion. And I knew of his amazing 1953 season, winning the Masters, the US Open, then heading over to Scotland to appear for the lone time in his career at the British Open, winning at Carnoustie. But the details had eluded me. Now was my chance to learn more.

Dodson’s book is the ultimate in breeziness, a style of writing to which I needed to adjust. Especially when I stumbled into errors such as the one early in the book in which Herbert Hoover is described, “during the long hot days of 1921″ as “Cal Coolidge’s new secretary of commerce.” Surely I’m not the only reader who knows that Coolidge was the vice-president in 1921, not the president. Warren Harding (War Harding?) would have had to do the appointing.

No matter. Dodson has quite a story to tell, and he’s quite a storyteller. We can breeze on by such errors (Dodson also has FDR serving as president in 1932) when there’s so much else to hold our interest. If I were still reading the book rather than having finished it four weeks ago, I would have so many incidents to retell. At this point, I’ll just say that it’s a rich tale, with highlights such as Hogan’s Texas forebears, his early relationship with Byron Nelson at the club where they were both caddies, his marriage, his multiple narrow losses in major golf tournaments in the mid 1940s, his victories, the crushing playoff loss to Jack Fleck at the 1955 US Open, his battle with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at the great 1960 US Open, his later years. And in the background, the story of the growth of Fort Worth during the twentieth century.

Since finishing the book, I have thought that I would enjoy reading more about the golfers of that era. A biography of Byron Nelson perhaps. You can understand, then, how pleased I was to read a month or two ago (I don’t remember where) that Dodson would have a new book coming out on Hogan, Nelson, and Sam Snead.

One of the best ways to keep up with the golf world is to listen to the incomparable Peter Kessler each weekday morning on the PGA Tour radio station on SiriusXM satellite radio. Since I have satellite radio only in my car, I tend to catch just snippets of the show, provided I’m actually in the car driving to school between 8:00 and 9:00 am. If I hear even ten minutes, it’s a good day. Kessler is an immensely talented interviewer. He has that warm voice, and the uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re at home with him listening in on a chat among friends.

Today I got in the car, tuned in Peter’s show, and found myself listening to a guest talking about Hogan, Nelson, and Snead. It didn’t take too much imagination to guess that the guest was Jim Dodson and the topic was his forthcoming book on them. Unfortunately, I had stumbled on the end of the conversation. In another two minutes, the interview was over, with Peter identifying the guest as Dodson and urging us to read the book. I would gladly have heard more of the interview.

From the way Peter talked, I might have imagined the book has appeared already. When I got to my office, I looked it up on Amazon. No, not yet. On March 13, American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf will be published. The Random House website for the book has the following description.

In this celebration of three legendary champions on the centennial of their birth in 1912, one of the most accomplished and successful writers about the game explains the circumstances that made each of them so singularly brilliant and how they, in turn, saved not only the professional tour but modern golf itself, thus making possible the subsequent popularity of players from Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods.

During the Depression, after the exploits of Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones’s triumphant Grand Slam in 1930 had faded in the public imagination, golf’s popularity fell year after year, and as a professional sport it was on the verge of extinction. This was the unhappy prospect facing two dirt-poor boys from Texas and another from Virginia who had dedicated themselves to the game yet could look forward only to eking out a subsistence living along with millions of other Americans. But then lightning struck, and from the late thirties into the fifties these three men were so thoroughly dominant—each setting a host of records–that they transformed both how the game was played and how it was regarded.

In the interview’s tail end, Dodson spoke about Nelson’s love of life as a club pro and Snead’s never-ending pain at failing to win, by his count, the seven US Opens he could or should have won. (He never won any.) I have many wonderful stories to look forward to.

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