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American Triumvirate, II

Two months ago, I wrote about Jim Dodson’s upcoming book American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf. A year ago, I had read his 2005 biography Ben Hogan: An American Life, writing about it a month later and quoting from that post in January. As I explained in January, “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.” My one concern was that having just read the Hogan biography last year, I would find this book repetitious. But with the Masters approaching, another historical golf excursion would provide a good warmup.

The Dodson book was due out a week ago today. The week before, I was reading Jim Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (which I have written about here and here). When I finished it two twelve evenings ago, I had to decide whether to start another book or distract myself otherwise for five days while waiting for American Triumvirate to appear. Remembering that I had pre-ordered it on Amazon, I checked but failed to find evidence of that. This reprieve led to the creative idea that I could actually wait before buying it, allowing myself to read another book (or more) first and turn to Dodson at my leisure.

So it was that I downloaded Orlando Figes The Crimean War: A History, one of the books I was trying to decide among two weeks earlier before selecting Baggott’s quantum mechanics history. (And by the way, what do you make of that subtitle? Might I have thought the book was a comedy without that little tip? Or should I take this as a sign of the perceived ignorance of US readers? The original title in the UK was the more useful and informative Crimea: The Last Crusade.) I will write about it separately. It’s superb. Also long, and dense. As I made slow progress, I realized that I wouldn’t be ready for Dodson for a while.

And then a funny thing happened. On Monday night, eight days ago, the eve of American Triumvirate‘s publication date, I got an email from Amazon informing me that American Triumvirate was now being sent to my Kindle. But I didn’t pre-order it! Then I remembered that my Kindle account purchases aren’t listed together with my book purchases in my Amazon account information. When I checked a few days earlier to see if I had pre-ordered it, what I found was that I hadn’t pre-ordered the book. But I had pre-ordered the e-book, which I now owned. Curious, I picked up my Kindle, got out of The Crimean War, and found American Triumvirate as promised. I went back to The Crimean War, finished chapter 2 (60 pages in) so that I would be at a good pausing point, then began reading American Triumvirate.

Dodson sure does draw the reader in. He’s an excellent companion when proctoring a final exam, as I did Wednesday morning. Unfortunately, he’s also an excellent companion when trying to grade said final exams.

The conflict between reading Dodson and grading felt familiar. Checking, I discovered that sure enough, I had read the Hogan biography at exactly the same time last year, finishing it the weekend I needed to get my final exams graded. And this year I did the same, finishing American Triumvirate late Saturday afternoon, grading tests the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday.

I should explain that the logic behind publishing a book about Snead, Nelson, and Hogan now is that they were born months apart in 1912, making this a centennial year. Yet, as Dodson’s subtitle (“the modern age of golf”) suggests, he aims to tell us a wider story than that of these three contemporaneous golfers. A Prologue plunges us into the middle of the 1954 Masters, but Chapter 1 takes us back to 1912 for an overview of life and golf in America at that time. Soon we go back farther, to 1900 and golfing great Harry Vardon’s visit from Britain, then still farther, to the 1840’s, St. Andrews, golf pro Allan Robertson, and his assistant Tom Morris. From here, time moves forward again, as we return to the turn of the century and the original Great Triumvirate of Vardon, John Henry Taylor, and James Braid, learning about the development of new golf balls and clubs, the growth of the game and of golf courses, andy the births of our heroes-to-be.

Eventually Dodson narrows his focus to our boys, but with the growth of the American pro game a continuing theme. I should note that these aren’t just three of the century’s greatest golfers. They are three absolutely fascinating men. It is a continuing wonder that the Hogan and Snead families both settled not far from the same golf club in Fort Worth, with Byron and Ben heading over just two weeks apart to find out about caddying, eventually to compete in the club’s annual caddy golf tournament. As happened again and again in the coming years, Byron got the upper hand, edging Ben in a playoff. Only after Byron’s miraculous year of 1945, his early retirement a year later, and then Ben’s stunning recovery from the February 1949 accident in which he and wife Valerie collided head on with a Greyhound bus would Ben finally become the unquestioned greatest golfer in the world.

There’s Sam too, but it becomes clear where Dodson’s heart lies. He is, after all, the official Hogan biographer. Despite my fear that I would find the book repetitious, I happily read again of Hogan’s recovery, his peak golfing years of 1950-1953, his painful defeat in the 1955 US Open, and his success as a businessman. He is a towering figure, his story a great piece of American history. However much I admire many of today’s golfers, I don’t see an equal. By all means read American Triumvirate, but even better, read Ben Hogan: An American Life.

Categories: Books, Golf
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