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Too Late

March 24, 2014 Leave a comment
Bob Feller throwing a no-hitter on opening day, 1940, at age 21.

Bob Feller throwing no-hitter on opening day, 1940, at age 21.

[From Sports Illustrated]

Joe Posnanski has been running a series of posts on the 100 Greatest Baseball Players Ever. I gather this will turn into a book. The posts were coming pretty quickly a couple of months ago, but then he went to Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics and things slowed down, which has been fine with me. The post-every-few-days pace allows me to enjoy each new entry a little more.

Today we learned Posnanski’s choice for number 48, Bob Feller. Posnanski attempts to explain just how extraordinary a pitcher Feller was from the moment he arrived in the big leagues at the age of 17 in 1936 through the 1946 and 1947 seasons, despite missing all of the 1942-1944 seasons and most of 1945 while serving in World War II. We can safely assume that Feller’s rare level of dominance would have continued right through the war years. (See Feller’s stats here.)

One accomplishment that Posnanski highlighted caught my fancy. Before describing it, I’ll take a detour into golf.

You are perhaps familiar with the golfing notion of shooting your age. The par score for an 18-hole golf course is typically 70 or 71 or 72. Top golfers will routinely score in the 60s. On a handful of occasions, players have shot 59s in tournament play. (A list of occasions when men have done it is here.)

The best players, when in their 30s or 40s, are never going to shoot a score equal to or lower than their age. However—and this is one of the benefits of aging—once you hit your 60s you can begin to think about “shooting your age.” It’s not that unusual a feat, at least for the golfing elite.

I haven’t played a round of golf in years, but even if I had, I’m too young to be shooting my age. In a few years, who knows? I could take up the game again and at least dream of shooting my age.

Oh, I just found an article from a few years ago by the WSJ golf writer, John Paul Newport on “The Wonders of Shooting Your Age.” Doing so is more common than I realized:

Phil Schlosser has always been a determined fellow. As the founder and owner of a forging company in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., his happiest moments came in defying competitors who whispered that he’d taken on a job his facilities couldn’t handle. “Every fiber in my body started to vibrate,” the strapping 84-year-old told me recently at his golf-course home in an elite Palm Springs-area community called The Reserve. “And I thought, ‘I’ll figure out how to do her.’ ” Usually he did.

So it’s not surprising that 11 years ago, when he was paired at his golf club in Bend, Ore., with two major-league baseball players who almost totally ignored him, he grew miffed and took action. Despite having scored less than 80 only three or four times in his life, he rolled in an eight-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 73. “How’s that for an old man!” he told the players, whom he prefers not to name.

It was the first time he shot his age or better — and it was on the number. Since then, including Friday’s round of 81, Mr. Schlosser has shot his age an additional 381 times. That’s far from a record: A Minnesotan named T. Edison Smith, a retired physical-education professor, has shot his age or better nearly 2,700 times. Ed Ervasti, a member at Turtle Creek in Tequesta, Fla., and other clubs, last year at age 93 shot 72 on a course measuring more than 6,000 yards.

I shouldn’t just dream. I should do it.

Back to baseball, and the notion I was previously unfamiliar with of “striking out your age,” which Posnanski describes in writing about Feller.

He made his Major League debut two weeks later by pitching one shaky inning against Washington. He made his first big league start about month later, August 23, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15. That’s when the papers really went crazy. To sum up the coverage in one sentence: This lad, who learned to throw by pegging at a makeshift backstop in his father’s cow pasture, this boy wonder not long out of short pants, this high school boy has a future brighter than the sun.

Less than a month after that, Feller had his most remarkable day of that remarkable year. With his father in the stands, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics — an American League record. The United Press account probably described it best: “A fastball, a mystifying curve and a flare of wildness that made the Philadelphia athletics step back from the plate made 17-year-old Bob Feller today the amazed possessor of a New American League record of 17 strikeouts.”

That’s 17 strikeouts in one game at the age of 17!

Posnanski continues:

Feller is one of only two players, by the way, to strike out his age. He struck out 17 at 17. Chicago’s Kerry Wood, more than 60 years later, struck out 20 at 20.

I missed Feller’s feat but remember Wood’s. What I don’t remember is anyone making the connection to striking out one’s age.

Alas, doing so has an age upper bound. You’re not going to do it once you turn 28. Too late.

Oh, I know. It’s possible to strike out more than 27 players in a game. A batter strikes out, the ball gets away from the catcher, the batter runs to first and arrives safely. It counts as a strikeout, but not an out. (Here’s a list of the occasions when a pitcher struck out 4 in an inning. It was done just last October.) If enough players strike out but get on base, you can have unlimited strikeouts. But basically 27 is the natural limit. Or let’s say 36 to be safe, nine consecutive four-strikeout innings.

This is one rare feat, for sure. And one I can’t dream of doing. Even if I somehow defy the laws of aging and become a professional pitcher at my age, it’s too late for me to strike out my age.

No baseball when I retire. I’ll focus on golf.

Categories: Baseball, Golf, Life

The Great Inbee Park

June 29, 2013 Leave a comment
Inbee Park putting on 25 today

Inbee Park putting on 25 today

[John Mummert, USGA]

Inbee Park is poised to win the US Women’s Open golf championship tomorrow and make history. Alas, few are paying attention. I went to the NYT sports section online and couldn’t even find an article about it, despite the tournament being played in Southampton. There’s an AP article, here, which will turn up in a search. And unlike most women’s golf tournaments, whose broadcasts are relegated to the Golf Channel or invisible altogether, this one is on NBC. Yet, there’s little coverage.

We have had the great fortune over the last fifteen years to have a succession of great players on the women’s tour: Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, Julie Inkster. Since Sorenstam’s retirement, Lorena Ochoa and Yani Tseng. And now Inbee Park.

Park was the surprise winner of the US Open in 2008 at the age of 19. Her promise went unfulfilled for several years. But for the last year she has dominated. This season, she has ascended to a rare level of excellence, having won the year’s first two majors, the Kraft Nabisco and the LPGA, and three other tournaments.

No tournament is as prized in women’s golf as the US Open, which she now has firmly in her grasp. Through three rounds, she is ten under par, four strokes ahead of I.K. Kim, seven ahead of Jodi Ewart Shadoff, and nine or more ahead of the rest of the field.

Only Inbee has shot under par in all three rounds. Only Inbee shot under par today, an extraordinary demonstration of rising to the occasion, despite the pressure of trying to win the Open and the parallel pressure of making history.

What history? From the AP article:

A win on Sunday would give Park:

    • Four major championships, when you add her 2008 U.S. Women’s Open victory to the three she will have won this year. With four majors, Park would join a sorority that includes Americans Susie Maxwell Berning, Donna Caponi, Sandra Haynie, Meg Mallon and Hollis Stacy, and Laura Davies of England. Only 15 players in history have won more than four.
    • Wins in the first three majors of 2013, making her the second player in LPGA Tour history to win the first three majors in a season. In 1950, Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias won all three majors played that year – the Titleholders Championship, the Women’s Western Open and the U.S. Women’s Open.
    • Three majors in a season, making her one of four women to win three majors in a calendar year, joining Zaharias (1950), Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986).
  • Women’s golf struggles for attention. Tomorrow would be a good day to change that. Watch Inbee play. Watch as she shows us how the greats do it.

    Categories: Golf

    Ken Venturi

    May 20, 2013 1 comment
    Ken Venturi making his final putt to win the 1964 US Open

    Ken Venturi making his final putt to win the 1964 US Open

    Ken Venturi died Friday. He was one of my favorite people in sports. I wasn’t yet following golf much when he had his greatest moment, winning the 1964 US Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda under oppressive weather conditions. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame a week and a half before his death, but was too ill to attend.

    From the NYT obituary, by Richard Goldstein:

    He first gained notice in 1956 as an amateur when he led the Masters by four shots entering the final round, only to shoot an 80, losing to Jack Burke Jr. by a stroke. He was the runner-up at the Masters again in 1960, a shot behind Arnold Palmer, who birdied the final two holes.

    But Venturi’s signature moment came at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., on a Saturday in June 1964. Temperatures were approaching 100 degrees, and the humidity seemed unconquerable as the players struggled to play 36 holes, the last time the Open staged its final two rounds on a single day.

    Venturi had not won since the 1960 Milwaukee Open, had considering quitting and had been required to participate in two qualifying events before being allowed into the Open. He almost collapsed from the heat on the 17th green of his morning round but carded a remarkable 66.

    Going into the final 18 holes, Venturi was two shots behind the leader, Tommy Jacobs. After a 45-minute break, Venturi virtually staggered through the final round, trailed by Dr. John Everett, who was monitoring the players and who had warned him against continuing out of fear he would die from heat prostration.

    Everett gave Venturi ice cubes, iced tea and salt pills as he played on, instinct triumphing over the pressure and the exhaustion. Venturi overtook Jacobs and sank a 10-foot putt on the final hole to close out a 70, besting Jacobs by four shots.

    “I dropped my putter and I raised my arms up to the sky,” Venturi told The A.P. in 1997. “I said, ‘My God, I’ve won the Open.’ The applause was deafening. It was like thunder coming out there.”

    Venturi was so weak that he could not reach into the hole to get his ball, so Raymond Floyd, his playing partner, did it for him.

    “I felt this hand on me, and it was Raymond Floyd handing me the ball,” Venturi remembered. “I looked at him, and he had tears streaming down his face.”

    As Floyd later told The A.P.: “He was running on fumes. If you had asked him his name, he could not have told you. It is one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.”

    Venturi was helped off the green by the United States Golf Association official Joe Dye and was so woozy that he could not read his scorecard. Dye assured him that it was correct and that he could sign it.

    A few years later, I bought a book consisting of selected articles from Sports Illustrated, including Alfred Wright’s coverage of the tournament. The article, by far my favorite in the book, was an eye-opener, giving me my first appreciation of the human drama inherent in competitive golf. Now I follow golf more closely than any other sport, and build my Father’s Day weekend around the US Open. SI has made all past articles available in the SI Vault, so you can read Wright’s article here.

    Venturi would go on to greater fame as the decades-long analyst for CBS’s golf coverage, paired for years with Pat Summerall, who himself died just last month. Before his career in sports broadcasting, Summerall was another of my heroes, as the place-kicker for my favorite childhood football team, the New York Giants. (Goldstein again wrote the NYT obituary.) Whenever I watch CBS golf coverage, I miss them both.

    Categories: Golf, Obituary, Television

    A Day at the Masters

    May 2, 2013 1 comment
    We've arrived! On the first fairway, looking back at the tee box with the 9th and 18th greens to the right.

    We’ve arrived! On the first fairway, looking back at the tee box with the 9th and 18th greens to the right.

    [Photo by Dan Nakano]

    I have written several posts about our trip to Georgia last month, such as this one about restaurants in Athens and this one about the Georgia Museum of Art, also in Athens on the UGA campus. But I have yet to write my promised post on our day at the Masters golf tournament, now three weeks past. It’s tough. There’s so much to say, I hardly know what to focus on. In this post, I will tell part of the story. Perhaps more will follow in a second post.

    Some background first, lifted from a post I wrote last August.

    Augusta National Golf Club … runs The Masters, one of men’s golf’s four major tournaments, and for many players and observers, the best. I have had the good fortune of attending the three other majors: The Open Championship (familiarly known in the US as the British Open) at St. Andrews in 1990 and Troon in 2004, the US Open at Bethpage on Long Island in 2002, and the PGA Championship here at nearby Sahalee in 1998. But I have never gone to the Masters.

    There’s a reason. It’s just about the hardest US sports ticket to get hold of. Tickets for the other three majors are made publicly available, but the Masters is like season tickets for team sports: ticket holders can renew their subscriptions, receiving tickets for life. Since the club isn’t interested in making a ton of money through ticket sales, a modest number of tickets is sold compared to other golf tournaments, and ticket prices remain low. Thus, ticket turnover is low too.

    Ticket holders are barred by Augusta’s rules from re-selling their tickets, but of course many do, and the resulting prices are high. Once you get on the course, food prices are low. Indeed, the food is flat out cheap. Not cheap just by the standards of a sporting event, but cheap like turning the clock back a few decades.

    There used to be a waiting list for available tickets, but the club abandoned that recently. Intead, it makes a small number of tickets available by lottery. You have to set up an account, log in, give them some information, and apply separately for tickets on tournament days (Thursday through Sunday) and on practice days (Monday through Wednesday). There’s a limit, 2 tickets per day on tournament days, 4 per day on practice days. I applied for both a year ago for this year’s Masters and struck out. I applied again a few months ago for next year’s tournament, learning a month ago that I would not be getting tournament tickets.

    Now for the big news: Last night, I got an email informing me that I had won the practice round lottery. I was asked to log in for details. On doing so, I learned that I’ve won 4 tickets for Tuesday, the second practice day. Only Tuesday. I need to pay by September 15 or release them.

    Not exactly what I was hoping for. Imagine flying all the way to Georgia, finding a hotel, and staying just for one day. It hardly seems worth the trouble.

    Then again, the Masters! I can go! I can see the 12th hole at last. And the 13th. And the 14th. All of them! The holes any golf fan has memorized from years of watching the coverage on TV. (I failed to make this point — the other three majors rotate among courses. The Masters is always in one place. Players and fans come to know the course intimately.)

    As you know, Gail and I decided to go. We bypassed the problem of finding a hotel room in or near Augusta by staying 95 miles away in Athens. And with four tickets in hand, we invited our Athens friends Dan and RuthElizabeth to join us.

    When the day arrived, we awoke around 5:30, and walked out of our hotel at 6:30, just as Dan and RE drove up. First stop, Jittery Joe’s Coffee for coffee, tea, pastries, bagels. Then on to Augusta. The early morning drive through rural Georgia was lovely, with alternating woods and fields, the fields supporting a light fog layer. As it got brighter and warmer, we came to Interstate 20, then turned east for the closing stretch.

    Whenever I have pictured this day, arriving at the Masters, I have imagined horrific traffic. Nope. The I-20 exit to Washington Road, one of the borders of the club and a main street of the city, was closed. We were forced farther east, almost to the Savannah River and the bridge to South Carolina, where we exited and formed two lanes of traffic that wound around, crossed Washington Road, and entered the club grounds. This didn’t take much more than five minutes. (It was around 9:00 AM now.)

    We were directed to an aisle of parking, about nine aisles away from the course entrance. As we walked through the lot (I should say that the lot is a field of grass; I don’t know what it’s used for during the rest of the year), we found dozens of people selling lanyards at $5 apiece with plastic pockets that could hold your tournament pass. I was content to tie mine to a belt loop. And there was a strange guy holding a post some 15 feet high with signs attached containing various messages about Jesus. (Three days later, he would be arrested for saying aggressively hostile things to some of the patrons as they entered. Or maybe just removed from the grounds by the Augusta police.) Then we formed one of a series of lines leading to bag inspection, metal detectors, and finally a device that reads tickets to verify that they are real. Beyond this last checkpoint, we were in.

    But where were we? It took some more walking and map studying to get oriented.

    It turns out that there’s a long entry path. You walk in at the far end of the practice driving rang and make your way along one side of it toward the near end, the end with the players. With the range to your left, there is a bathroom building to the right. This is another special feature of the Masters. Typically, a course brings in lots of temporary porta-potties for the spectators. The Masters, partly because they spare no expense and partly because they know they’ll be hosting spectators annually, has a large permanent structure. We decided to stop there first. As Dan and I entered the men’s side, we were welcomed by a friendly gentleman, akin to a Walmart greeter. Then a young man directed traffic into two lines, depending on where you were heading. Additional people kept us moving, and another man (though I only noticed this at the end of the day) was busily wiping down the sink counter as each sink was used. At the end, yet another staff member thanked us for coming.

    As one continues to walk the length of the driving range, one reaches practice chipping greens on the left. One now has the option of walking to the end, turning left, and falling in behind the practicing players, or curving right and into a wide pedestrian area with the giant merchandise store to the right and the first food operation to the left. Again, in contrast to other tournaments we’ve gone to where the merchandise tent would be just that—a tent—the Masters has a permanent structure. They run you up a ramp with switchbacks to lead you into the store. There’s a bit of a traffic jam at the entrance, as you reach to grab a basket or bag in which to put your purchases. Beyond that, there are hundreds of customers, and the first few steps are slow, but then it opens up as people choose various directions.

    Like the entry gate and the bathrooms, the store was a model of efficiency. The key is huge numbers of staff. There are hats, shirts, what-not, available to grab in assorted places as you walk by. And there are counters with dozens of people behind them ready to help. Want a knit shirt, for instance, with a Masters logo on it? High up on the wall are 15 versions, with numbers 1 to 15. Color choices, logo choices, etc. You find one of the staff—and as crowded as the store is, many staff are free—ask for a number and a size, and he or she reaches into the shelves on the wall, grabs what you ask for, and hands it over. Not what you want? Ask for another number. We got shirts, hats, worked our way to the end, and lined up in the massive checkout area. They must have twenty lines. But each line has perhaps four pairs of people working four registers. One takes your stuff out and organizes it, the other scans it, you hand over your credit card, you get a big plastic bag with your purchase, and you’re out. What we feared would take half an hour took less than ten minutes.

    Surely you don’t want to carry all your purchases around, do you? Well, just turn left and get in one of two new lines. One line is for checking your stuff. Several more staff are ready with giant plastic bags that you put all your purchases in, then you get in line, go up to the counter, hand over your bag, and it’s checked. We joined this line first. Then we watched the activity on the second line in awe. They had boxes of every imaginable size from just a few inches square to feet, stacked up, and a few lines with scales, cash registers, and people. This was the onsite UPS Store! And there was basically no line at all. You walk up, one of several men eye your purchases, grabs a box, puts what you bought in it, you go to the counter, it’s weighed, shut, sealed, you give the woman your address, she tells you the cost, you pay, and you’re out. Six days later, the box arrives at home. Nothing to carry, nothing to pack, and no wasted time. It was faster than the line for checking purchases.

    Finally, we were ready for some golf. We walked back past the store entrance on the right and food on the left, through an open area with tables and diners, and onto the grass, sacred ground at last. To the right was a giant scoreboard with every participant’s name. To the left, the clubhouse and some other structures. In front of us, the first fairway. The tee box was back to the left, the green to the right. We decided to turn right and begin our walk around the course. (See photo above.) It was near 10:00 am by now. We would spend the next six hours walking the course in order, holes 1 through 18. The thrill of a lifetime.

    More on the course in a second post. Here, as long as I’m talking about the non-course experience, let me say something about lunch. Well, before that I’ll describe my principal discovery of the day. Then lunch.

    1. Principal discovery. How to put this? Well, keep in mind, the people who run the Masters are a pretty traditional group, “traditional” being code for a very narrow-minded group whose decisions on assorted policy matters are not always welcomed as just. Examples: their long-time exclusion of African-American members; before that, the years it took before they invited African-Americans to play in the Masters; and, until last year, the long-time exclusion of women members. Not everyone loves the members of Augusta National.

    But here’s the thing about them that I came to understand. You know about God and the Jews, right? The chosen people and all that? God gave us the Torah and asked us to follow it. In return, God promised to take care of us. More or less. Exodus 19:5:

    Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine.

    There’s an important point here. In return for God’s gift, his choice of us, we aren’t supposed to ask questions. Don’t ask why the commandments are what they are. Don’t try to make sense of the law. Just do it (as others would be told millennia later). Do it and God will provide.

    Simple, no?

    Do you see where this is leading? I’ll spell it out. The lords of the Masters are our gods. They have chosen us, the lucky few who get tickets onto the grounds of the Masters. They have rules. We follow them. Don’t run. Be courteous to other patrons (that’s what we are—patrons, not fans). Be very courteous to the players. RESPECT! Follow these rules and the lords of the Masters will provide.

    Again, simple. The greatest spectator experience in the world is yours if only you obey.

    We obeyed.

    2. Lunch. This is a case in point. Boy do they provide!

    I have never eaten a pimento cheese sandwich. I didn’t even know until recently what it consisted of. I didn’t expect to like one. But I knew one thing about them: they are a Masters tradition, priced at just $1.50. I would have to have one.

    After we walked the front nine, we headed to the food center that lies between an open spectator area and the tenth fairway. There was a large crowd. But again, Masters efficiency rules. One enters through any of perhaps five chutes. Each chute has identical food choices right or left, yielding in effect ten separate lines. First one finds shelves filled with “snacks”, such as bananas, or potato chips, or popcorn with Georgia pecans, or candy. Just past the snack shelves are the sandwiches, all pre-wrapped in green Masters-logoed paper. The pimento cheese. Masters club. Ham and cheese. Chicken breast. Tuna salad. Egg salad. Bar-B-Que. The most expensive of the bunch are the two hot ones, the barbecue and chicken, at $3.00. Beyond sandwiches are beverages, shelves again with the choices arrayed. Beer or lemonade in Masters-logoed plastic cups. Water in Masters plastic bottles. I can’t remember what else. There must have been Coke.

    I had read about their good egg salad. And about the classic chicken sandwich. And the barbecue. What to do? At these prices, who cares? Gail grabbed a banana. Me the popcorn and pecans. We took one pimento cheese to try together. We each got barbecue. I got the chicken, Gail the ham and cheese. We got two bottles of water. Beyond the food was an open area, then the cashiers. Like at the merchandise store, they were experts at moving people through. I was about to get on line when I saw a freezer case in front of them with Georgia peach ice cream sandwiches. We had to try that. This was the one place where the staff had slipped. There were boxes of sandwiches, but no loose ones to grab. Someone had to get in there and tear a box open. I had my arms filled with sandwiches. I put them on the cashier counter, dug in, tore a box open, and handed out sandwiches to other patrons, with one for us.

    Time to pay. So that’s five sandwiches, two waters, one ice cream, one popcorn, one banana. Our cashier rang it up. $19! That’s nineteen dollars! What would you get for $19 at a professional football or basketball game? Or a baseball game? I was stunned. But, see #1 above.

    Time to eat. Barbecue and chicken: great. Popcorn: great. Georgia peach ice cream: great. Pimento cheese: not my thing, but I have to say, I liked it. Some bite from the pepper. Pretty good. I was tempted to run the chute again so I could try the egg salad. But I was full, and there were nine more holes to see, the most famous back nine in golf.

    We walked them, nine to eighteen. The eighteenth brought us up to the practice green. The close proximity of the first tee box, eighteenth green, and practice green is another Masters wonder. And with no grandstands to break up the open space. I peeked over three rows of people to see what was up. There was Phil, putting and hanging out with Steve Stricker. Good timing.

    Steve Stricker giving Phil Mickelson a putting tip, on the practice green at Augusta

    Steve Stricker giving Phil Mickelson a putting tip, on the practice green at Augusta

    [Photo by Dan Nakano]

    Then we wandered past the clubhouse, the pro shop, some other areas out of bounds to us, made a right, and headed into the area between the merchandise building and the first food center we had passed six and a half hours before. Back in the store Dan and I went, so I could buy two more hats while Gail and RE got some drinks across the way. Out in three minutes. To the checkout line so Dan and RE could get the goods they had checked in earlier. Over to the chipping greens near the driving range, where Phil and Ernie and assorted others would make their way as we watched.

    I drank my lemonade, gaining a souvenir plastic cup in the process. We had another run at the fancy bathroom. Then we headed out the gate to our car, turned onto Washington Road (away from I-20, as we were forced to do), down Washington into Augusta, onto a highway that heads back north along the Savannah River, with South Carolina across the way, onto I-20, and home.

    A perfect day. Thank you Masters gods.

    Categories: Golf, Travel

    The Immortal Bobby

    March 24, 2013 Leave a comment

    immortalbobby

    I wrote twice last week (here and here) about Georgia Odyssey, James Cobb’s short history of the state, which I was reading in preparation for our upcoming trip. On finishing it Tuesday, I had two ideas for further reading directions: a book on the history of the Masters golf tournament, or a book on some aspect of the South’s economic history.

    There’s no shortage of books on either subject. For southern history, I eventually settled on three candidates, which I’ll discuss in a separate post. More difficult was coming up with candidates for Masters history, especially given my fear that many would be of pedestrian writing quality.

    A search at Amazon yields, just as a start, Steve Eubanks’ Augusta: Home of the Masters Tournament, Curt Sampson’s The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia, and David Owen’s The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament, all from around 1998. Of more recent vintage is last year’s Making the Masters: Bobby Jones and the Birth of America’s Greatest Golf Tournament, by David Barrett.

    How is one supposed to choose?

    I decided on a different tack. Why not a biography of Bobby Jones, golfing great, Atlanta native, and Masters co-founder? That might give me a better combination of golf history, Masters history specifically, and Georgia history. Alas, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an inexhaustible supply of Jones biographies as well. A more recent one is Ron Rapoport’s The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf, from 2005.

    Rapoport’s website offers reviews by two prominent sportswriters, the Washington Post’s Leonard Shapiro and then-Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski. Shapiro writes, “There’s a fabulous new biography out on Bobby Jones, “The Immortal Bobby,” by Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport. The author conducted scores of interviews and had access to previously undiscovered correspondence between Jones and some of his friends and acquaintances, … .” And Posnanski:

    Bobby Jones turned a small Southern town into the home of golf. And yet, even here, he remains a mystery. He was the greatest golfer of his time, perhaps all time. He was once as famous as Babe Ruth. He remained an amateur when there was money to be had. He was a lawyer, he loved opera, he earned a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and a degree in literature from Harvard, he made movies in Hollywood, and he designed America’s favorite golf clubs for 40 years.

    And yet, in a way, Jones remained unknowable.

    This is best seen in Rapoport’s chapter on Bobby Jones’ views on race and the Masters, the biggest issue this golf tournament has faced through the years (in 1996, when the Olympics were in Atlanta, they were going to play the first Olympic golf tournament at Augusta. The tournament was eventually pulled because of what were called Augusta’s “discriminatory policies”).

    There are those who say that Jones was a racist – the Masters, after all, did not invite a black man until after his death. There are others who say that he was a man of his time and place, a man who grew up in the American South just after the turn of the century. And there are still others who will say that Jones was ahead of his time, a good man who was always, as Rapoport says, “fair and honorable to the many black people he knew.”

    The truth is, we don’t have any idea.

    Rapoport interviewed dozens of people for his book. He scoured more than 100 golf books. He read an uncountable number of magazine and newspaper articles and letters Jones had written. And he never once heard or read a single clue about how Jones felt about race issues.

    “I just find that remarkable for a guy who was so political and such a prolific letter writer,” Rapoport says.

    These reviews appeared to confirm my impression that Rapoport’s book would simultaneously enhance my knowledge of golf history, inform me on the early days of the Masters, and provide background on race history in Georgia. I downloaded it and began reading, reaching the end this morning. Though mistaken in my expectations, I was thoroughly entertained.

    The book has three parts. The first two, which occupy 260 of the book’s 320 pages, offer a close account of Jones’ career, from his stunning 1916 appearance in the US Amateur at suburban Philadelphia’s Merion as a 14-year-old to his dramatic return fourteen years later—when Merion once again hosted the US Amateur—to complete his Grand Slam: a sweep of the year’s four major national championships (the British Amateur and Open, followed by the US Open and Amateur).

    The focus is narrow: golf, golf, golf, and the psychological toll the pressure takes on Jones. Yes, Jones studies engineering at Georgia Tech, literature at Harvard, law at Emory, ultimately joining his father’s law firm, but Rapoport mentions this only in passing. The book is not a biography, as it turns out, so much as a you-are-there report on the drama of Jones’ golfing career. Which is pretty darned exciting, so no complaints.

    Only in the final 60 pages—Jones having retired from competitive golf after his 1930 victory at Merion—does Rapoport broaden the book’s scope. Jones may have been an amateur, and a practicing lawyer, but golf remained his love and became the primary source of his income. He goes to Hollywood to make instructional videos with the stars. He contracts to make golf clubs with Spalding and become a member of their board. He writes golf books. And he oversees the construction of a new golf course in Augusta.

    Rapoport treats all this in one chapter, then devotes the next chapter to the desegregation of Atlanta’s public golf courses including the eponymous Bobby Jones course. (This would go to the US Supreme Court, which decided the case in 1955 in favor of desegregation.) This, too, is the chapter in which Rapoport discusses Jones’ attitude toward race and the long contentious issue of allowing a black golfer to play in the Masters.

    Next comes comes a chapter on Jones’ crippling spinal problems, the exact nature of which remains a mystery today. Rapoport has done some excellent research here, tracking down doctors and addressing the issue of whether Jones suffered, as he claimed, from a particular kind of spinal cord illness or whether, instead, his wondrous golf swing was the source of long-term damage. A final chapter brings Jones’ life to a close, way too soon and with way too much physical pain.

    Let me mention two unexpected cameos. Prescott Bush* shows up at the 1929 US Open as the United States Golf Association official who makes a crucial rules decision on the final day at the 17th hole, a decision that saves Jones a lost ball and seals his victory. And Charles Seaver, one of the top amateur golfers in California, appears at Merion in that 1930 US Amateur, where he makes the semi-finals, with Jones playing in the other semi. Seaver leads or is even with his opponent throughout, until the 36th and final hole, which he loses, ending the match one down. Had he won, he would have faced Jones in the final, representing the last obstacle between Jones and his Grand Slam.

    *Bush’s father-in-law, George Herbert Walker, lent his name to the Walker Cup, which is awarded to the champion in the biannual competition between a US amateur team and an amateur team representing Great Britain and Ireland. Jones’ Walker Cup matches are a central part of Rapoport’s story. Bush would go on to success on Wall Street, in business, and in the US Senate, stepping down in 1962, only to regret it when political ally Nelson Rockefeller’s case as 1964 Republican presidential candidate was weakened due to divorce. Who knows? Perhaps Bush might have got the nomination over Goldwater and run for president. Instead, he left presidential politics for his son and grandson. (See Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House for more on these fine fellows.) Seaver’s son would go on to have a pretty good sports career of his own, as a professional baseball pitcher.

    The book could have used some additional editing. Seaver is such an important character that it’s jarring, having read about him earlier, to be introduced to him anew at Merion. And there’s one passage in which Rapoport appears to forget that he’s writing about match play, not medal play, and talks about someone being seven strokes down rather than seven holes down. Still, and even though I would have enjoyed more insight into the world of Atlanta in the first half of the twentieth century, I’m happy with what I learned instead.

    Categories: Biography, Books, Golf

    Augusta National, 1934

    January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

    I know next to nothing about video games. Thanks to the kids, I played versions of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong on early Nintendo game consoles years ago. That’s about it, other than occasionally looking in on what Joel’s doing when he’s home. But now a game is coming out that I can get excited about. In March, EA Sports will release the latest edition of their golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14.

    Video golf allows you to play on representations of real golf courses, famous ones from around the world. What’s exciting about Tiger Woods 14 is that it will feature Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament. Not today’s course. The 1934 course! That’s the year of the first Masters. From the press release two weeks ago:

    For the first time ever, users will experience Augusta National Golf Club as it was when the course played host to the very first Masters Tournament — what was known in 1934 as the Inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament.

    The development of this exclusive feature was researched with meticulous detail in an effort to re-create the original 1931 design of world-renowned golf course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie and legendary golfer Bobby Jones.

    [snip]

    Game play will place players in a 1934 environment, which takes into account everything from the clothing to the equipment. On the golf course, users will discover a new way to enjoy the timeless layout, and as it would have played when the first Tournament field competed in the Club’s inaugural invitational. This includes everything from the golf course’s nines being reversed to its original green contours and speeds.

    Spend a minute watching the video at the top and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store. How about that 12th hole (starting at the 32 second mark)? Beautiful as always.

    Hat tip to golf writer and architect Geoff Shackelford for alerting his readers to the new release and the video, about which he writes, “for those of us fascinated by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones’ original Augusta National design, the attention to detail looks amazing.”

    Categories: Games, Golf, History

    Ryder Cup 2014

    October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

    Gleneagles, Scotland

    With the the 2012 Ryder Cup over yesterday, I turn from my post about it to a look ahead. In 2014, the competition will be held at Gleneagles, the Scottish golf resort about 18 miles northeast of Stirling. Our friend Carol wasted no time after yesterday’s European win suggesting that we come over and join her. Well, she didn’t put it all that politely: “Want to come and see your team get beaten (again)?” I might have said yes if she phrased it differently.

    Maybe we will. The end of September is generally bad timing for me. Some day timing won’t be an issue, and when that day comes, we’ll be there. At a Ryder Cup, if not at Gleneagles. Then again, Gleneagles in 2014 certainly sounds more enticing than Hazeltine (outside Minneapolis) in 2016. Why wait?

    —————

    A closing note: the Gleneagles website offers a tale suggesting that the Ryder Cup grew out of a competition there.

    When the Ryder Cup matches come to Gleneagles in 2014 you could say that the tournament is returning to the place where it all began. Oh sure, history remembers that the event didn’t begin officially until 1927, when Walter Hagen’s USA trounced Ted Ray’s Great Britainat Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts. But what about 1921 at Gleneagles? You don’t know about that? You haven’t heard about the first time a USA team set foot on Scottish soil to play the best we had to offer? Well, listen up, because this is a quite a story.

    In May ’21, the RMS Aquitania, built at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank and one of the Cunard Line’s grand trio of ships along with the Mauretania and the Lusitania, pointed her way out of New York Harbour and set sail for her homeland of Britain. On board were 10 golfers. Not just any golfers. Famous golfers. Legends. Some Americans and some transplanted Scots who had sought to make a nice life for themselves in the new world in the early part of the 20th century. There was Hagen out of New York and Wild Bill Mehlhorn from Texas and alongside them, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, were Jock Hutchison from St Andrews and Freddie McLeod from North Berwick.

    This was the USA team coming to Gleneagles to take on a storied British side that had at its heart, James Braid, Harry Vardon, JH Taylor, Ted Ray and George Duncan. Icons all. They had 20 major championship victories between them. Duncan was the reigning Open champion, Ray the holder of the US Open.

    Go to the site for more.

    Categories: Golf, Travel