The Grand Slam

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
775
1,740
This middle book in Frost’s golf triptych is essentially a biography of Bobby Jones—or Bob Jones, as Frost starts calling him midway through the book, in deference to Jones’s desire to switch to a more adult nickname at a certain point in his career, although all of his contemporaries ignored his wishes and always continued to call him “Bobby.” One neat thing to realize is that up to this point, all the books published under Frost’s own name have progressed chronologically: from The List of Seven set in late 1884-early 1885, to The Six Messiahs in 1894, to The Greatest Game Ever Played covering a wide span of time but primarily focused on the buildup to and the events of the 1913 U.S. Open. After the brief flash-forward prologue, The Grand Slam starts out almost as a sequel to Greatest Game, picking up more or less immediately after the events of Francis Ouimet’s 1913 Open victory, with Frost describing Francis as a “kind of secular stand-in for John the Baptist” to Bobby Jones’s soon-to-be-revealed messiah. Harry Vardon’s later career post-1913 also receives a fair bit of attention as the book progresses. Also, resolving one of the key class conflicts presented in Greatest Game, we see Ted Ray’s 1920 win of the U.S. Open lead to a domino effect of U.S. country clubs, and then British clubs, slowly allowing golfing professionals to finally enter their premises.

Bobby Jones’s story, at least at the outset, is on paper less compelling than that of Greatest Game protagonist Francis Ouimet. While he suffered from a mysterious and debilitating illness in early childhood, and a literally crippling disease that ravished his body in later life, Bobby doesn’t seem to have faced much adversity during the main period of his life that the book primarily focuses on…at least not externally. Although Frost has described his golf trilogy as “a story of class,” the class commentary feels much more like an incidental background element here than it did in Greatest Game. Bobby’s upbringing is thoroughly middle class, with an attorney father (who represents Coca-Cola among other clients). His family are members of a country club and all avid golfers, and in stark contrast to Francis’s father, Bobby’s dad (lovingly nicknamed “the Colonel” due to his Southern manners), after being discouraged from pursuing a baseball career by his own father, is always incredibly supportive of Bobby’s golfing endeavors. The hook that Frost finds to solidify Bobby Jones as an interesting character on the page is stated early on: the realization that his struggle is not about outside adversity, but rather about “man against himself.” Out on the fairways and greens, Bobby’s biggest challenge for years is to stand up to his own impossible standards of perfectionism for himself, and to stifle the violent rage that occasionally bubbles to the surface when he inevitably falls short. Even after Bobby eventually learns to master his temper and seems to come to some understanding with himself about just playing each hole to the best of his abilities in the moment and accepting the result, Frost describes Bobby still suffering from stress-related physical effects before and during championship matches to a degree that causes great concern to those closest to him (including vomiting and extreme weight loss with each match), as if his former bouts of club-hurling anger have become inwardly directed at his own body.

Like Francis Ouimet, Bobby competes as an amateur and never plans to go professional. As an amateur, he can never win money at competitions or profit off his celebrity in any way; he’s competing solely for love of the game, the pursuit of perfection, and perhaps to some extent, because he likes the adulation. Although Frost portrays Bobby as an extremely modest private guy who is caused great stress by the trappings of fame and the pressures of public scrutiny of his game, it also seems clear that Bobby likes the praise on some level. Bobby is quoted as writing, “Instead of regarding my game as a pleasant diversion and a fine sport, I was thinking of it as a possible means to championship; not so much because I wanted to be a champion as because everybody seemed to have concluded I ought to be one.” His goal ultimately is to be a successful businessman and a reliable breadwinner for his wife and kids, a goal which is very easily within his grasp, making his obsession with mastering the game of golf and reaching some sort of pinnacle of unmatched accomplishment (even to his own mental and physical detriment) all the more enigmatic. In one memorable passage, when asked what he would do if he played golf poorly, Bobby responds that he would probably get a lot more fun out of the game. Ultimately, after setting many records and being widely acknowledged as the best player alive, the final goal he sets for himself is to win the four major titles (British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open, and U.S. Amateur) all in the same year, 1930, allowing him to finally feel satisfied enough to retire from championship play (at age 28!) and focus on his family.

The other major theme of the book, besides “man against himself,” is the idea of destiny. Bobby’s best friend and biggest cheerleader, sports writer Oscar Bane “Pop” Keeler, is the second most prominent figure in the story. Portrayed as a roguish hard-drinking skirt-chaser, but also an inveterate intellectual who consistently sells himself short in life, Pop is a firm believer in fate, and Bobby resultantly becomes a believer as well, not just in his amateur golf career but in his private life as well. Yet this belief clearly did not cause him to become complacent; he never expects to be handed anything, and is always fully aware that we never know whether fate will cut for us or against us in any circumstance. All we can do is try our best; but this idea of fate seems to give Bobby some small degree of mental peace, accepting that not everything in his game or his life is within his control, and allowing him to let himself off the hook to some extent when things do not go as he had hoped.

Although The Greatest Game Ever Played is at its core Francis’s story, that book benefits from having in essence Harry Vardon as co-lead. The first third of the book alternates chapters focusing on each of the men, and that back-and-forth handoff helped to keep me engaged and lent a sense of anticipation for their eventual fateful meeting. Grand Slam, being more hyper-focused on its sole subject, dragged a bit more for me. It doesn’t get to the main event, the titular Grand Slam, until about two-thirds in, and the long buildup recounting hole-by-hole detail of Bobby’s many matches throughout the 1920s started to bleed together (as I admitted in my post on the earlier book, I’m not exactly the target audience here). That being said, Frost’s descriptions of the various courses and their component holes skillfully give a real sense of geography and immediacy to the various matches that kept me in the moment, even if the details of who all the many competitors were started to blur.

Frost does attempt to break the book up by interspersing the descriptions of the various matches with pages of historical background detail giving the lay of the land on the post-Reconstruction South (Bobby is from Atlanta), the buildup to WWI, the politics and presidential succession of the era, pop culture and other sporting events outside of golf, the rise and fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Scopes trial, and of course the onset of the Great Depression. Frost had previously utilized this technique in one concentrated chapter of Greatest Game that was solely focused on the historical and cultural background of 1913. But here, the background material is spread throughout the book, appearing in nearly every chapter as rather jarring interludes. The idea, I guess, is to explore the rise of Bobby as the first American superstar athlete (along with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey around the same time) in a broader context, focusing on how the onset of modern American celebrity culture in its infancy was the result of not only advances in technology, but the need of the working class to have heroes to look up to during trying times. However, very few of these historical events and cultural phenomena ever seem to be of much consequence to our protagonist. He is too young to fight in WWI, doesn’t take part in Jazz Age debauchery, and his family is financially secure enough to avoid being heavily impacted by the Depression. This leads to a weird sense of dissonance when ping-ponging back and forth between the “historical context” narrative and the “Bobby Jones” narrative, where the two never really seem to intersect in a meaningful way.

(Speaking of Babe Ruth, in a rather amusing/unfortunate coincidence, Frost writes briefly about the famous Curse of the Bambino, noting that “[t]he Red Sox haven’t won a World Series since.” It appears that The Grand Slam was released just six days after the Sox’s historic 2004 win, making this passage immediately quaintly out of date.)

Ultimately, Frost’s portrait of Jones is that of a gentleman, a man so gracious and humble that pros and amateurs and British and Americans alike couldn’t help but love and respect him, a clear-eyed guy who was tough on himself but always maintained that he was retroactively grateful for his mistakes because he learned more from them than his victories. Frost holds Bobby up as an example our modern-day narcissistic athletes should be emulating, and says so. The final chapter, detailing Bob’s later years of illness when he couldn’t walk, paint a moving portrait of a man who, as Frost tells us, learned from the game of golf to accept the shots he was given and to make the most of them, using whatever abilities he did still have to enact good in the world and to befriend and mentor young up-and-comers. There’s almost a religious element to the way Frost writes about golf exorcising Bobby of his demons and purifying him into his best self.

In one memorable passage, Frost heralds the birth of the “participatory,” “you-are-there” style of sportswriting, supplanting the previous more clinical reporting of pure numbers. He highlights the two approaches from this early transitionary period, the “breezy cynicism” of Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, and the more wide-eyed mythmaking “Gee Whiz!” school of Grantland Rice. While Frost praises both methods, it is fairly clear that he is unabashedly a student of the Rice school (and “Granny” Rice himself is a not-insignificant character throughout this book).

Frost’s golf books remain shockingly wholesome in comparison to most of his other work. He even amusingly refers at one point to someone uttering an “unprintable oath”; in Frost’s fiction books, there don’t appear to be any known English-language words that are “unprintable.” However, the infamously tempestuous presidency of Warren Harding does allow Frost to briefly go to a slightly darker place with his writing, and to engage in a little of his trademark conspiracy theorizing, à la The Secret History of Twin Peaks. In referring to Harding’s “long extramarital affair with his best friend’s wife, which produced a stunningly inconvenient illegitimate daughter,” Frost appears to be conflating two different relationships. The friend’s wife (who successfully blackmailed Harding) was Carrie Fulton Phillips, but I’ve never read of anyone claiming that her daughter was Harding’s (the affair seems to have started several years after the daughter was born). Harding’s supposed illegitimate daughter was with a different woman, Nan Britton, who published a tell-all book immediately after Harding’s death. Although Frost treats the claim of Harding’s illegitimate daughter as fact, Britton’s account remained contested and controversial at the time Frost was writing in 2004; Britton claimed that she had destroyed all of Harding’s correspondence, so there was no evidence beyond her word. In 2015, a DNA test by Ancestry.com finally proved that Ms. Britton had been telling the truth, vindicating her nearly a century late. Frost also promulgates a fringe theory that Harding’s “domineering” wife Florence may have poisoned her cheating husband (based largely on the fact that she refused to consent to an autopsy).

As in the previous book, Frost continues to keep us updated on the incumbent Presidents’ feelings towards golf: Harding a big fan; Coolidge not a fan, played “poorly and reluctantly”; Hoover definitely not a fan, he had better things to do (like his own sport, Hooverball!).

Other tidbits about the evolution of the game of golf are sprinkled throughout the book, such as: the beginning of the use of manufactured pegs for tees (as opposed to the previously-used mounds of dirt); the introduction of steel shafts as opposed to hickory for clubs; the beginnings of the international Walker Cup and Ryder Cup competitions, as well as the Masters (founded by Jones himself post-“retirement”); and the start of admissions being charged for golf matches (it began with charity games in support of the WWI effort, and promoters were shocked to find that people would actually pay).

As with Greatest Game, Frost closes the book with a short section entitled “A Note on the Writing,” but this time, in contrast to the prior book, he attests that all the dialogue comes directly from primary sources written by the men in question. One wonders if he had rethought the “dramatist” approach he took on Greatest Game after receiving some criticism, or if the change was strictly utilitarian because he had more available first-hand material to work with.

Frost’s son Travis was born as he was writing this book, and the dedication is to Travis as well as Mark’s dad Warren.

Peaks connection: “Father of professional golf” Walter Hagen, a memorably colorful prominent supporting character in both Greatest Game and Grand Slam, is mentioned as staying at the Great Northern, an historic Chicago hotel that was demolished in 1940.
 
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