The Greatest Game Ever Played (Book and Movie)

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
819
1,854
I’m jumping ahead a bit in my Frost literary marathon, as Before I Wake is apparently not on Kindle, and my physical copy from Amazon took awhile to arrive. Rather than break stride, I figured I’d move on to his next book, and his first nonfiction work.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve been dreading a bit hitting this stretch of Frost’s bibliography. I’m the type of person who would have a difficult time naming anything that bores me more than watching a golf match on TV; but reading about a golf match, well, that seems potentially even duller. This is probably a big part of the reason I haven’t embarked on this read-through sooner…I’ve been meaning to read Frost’s books for awhile, but I knew that when I did it, I’d have to be all-in, because that’s just how I roll. And reading three books about golf just was not an appealing proposition.

Golf, of course, plays its role in Twin Peaks. There’s Cooper’s hypnotic zen golf monologue, which puts Jacoby into a trance and puts Harry to sleep, in Episode 10 (credited to Robert Engels). Episode 15 (written by Mark’s brother Scott) is a veritable ode to the game, with Leland practicing his indoor putting, transporting Maddie in his golf bag, and nearly braining Cooper with a club. And let’s not ignore the significance of The Return having eighteen parts, the same as the number of holes on a golf course. Coincidence? I think not. (OK, OK, I’m kidding.)

Frost’s deep and abiding love for the game was inherited from his maternal grandfather, Dr. Douglas Calhoun (for whom the hospital in Twin Peaks was named). Grandpa Doug was also the one who first told Mark the story of Francis Ouimet’s victory in the 1913 U.S. Open, which makes up the backbone of this book. The story came back to Frost decades later during a 2001 plane trip with his literary agent, the late Ed Victor. Victor (to whom Frost dedicated several of his books, most notably the heartfelt posthumous dedication in Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier) was probably the most famous literary agent in the world, perhaps best known for representing Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency)…and the fact that chronic procrastinator Adams ever got a word written down on a page is a credit to Victor (as well as Adams’s various editors, who literally had to imprison him in hotel rooms and force him to write after numerous blown deadlines). Victor repped celebrity authors from Mel Brooks to Eric Clapton. An American expatriate famed for his star-studded London parties, Victor seems to have come into Frost’s orbit during the early days of Twin Peaks, and he was involved in getting The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and the other ’90s Peaks tie-in books made, before encouraging Frost to follow his dream of becoming an author himself beginning with The List of Seven. On this occasion in 2001, Frost and Victor were on a transcontinental flight to NY, on a golfing vacation to tour several Long Island courses. Frost himself had introduced Victor to the sport in 1995. Appropriately enough to the purpose of their journey, the story of Ouimet’s U.S. Open triumph came to Frost, and he told the story to Victor as best as he could remember it: Working-class kid grows up across the street from a country club (literally named the Country Club—apparently this is the place that led to the generic term entering common parlance), falls in love with the game watching his social betters play from a distance, becomes a caddie, works for years to perfect his game (sneaking around during early morning hours, as caddies aren’t allowed to play on the course), and becomes the first amateur to win the Open, defeating his role model, right there at the Country Club, within shouting distance of his family’s front porch. It’s an irresistible feel-good story, and Victor immediately perked up and convinced Frost, who had just been making idle chit-chat, that this should be his next book.

While I did have some difficulty initially investing in the book, Frost eases the unconverted in with a few deft early passages where he reflects on the appeal of golf in a way that acknowledges many of the complaints people like me routinely make about the sport, and explains the draw he feels to the game in a way that was infectious enough to make me go along for the ride. He has described his trilogy of golf books as “social commentary masquerading as sports books,” and while this may be overstating things a bit, class inequality is certainly a major theme of the book, and that element did interest me a great deal and gave me something to hold onto in the early chapters, as I was getting to know the many personalities being introduced. In particular, it was very interesting to learn how much professional golfers on both sides of the Atlantic were looked down upon. While the wealthy class, who competed as amateurs, loved to watch the pros play at their high level, the pros were seen as entertainment and nothing more, sort of similarly I suppose to how black jazz musicians were treated just a few years later. The fact that these men excelled at the game the wealthy amateurs so loved didn’t earn the pros any respect: they were restricted from using most of the facilities at the clubs where they played. The idea of earning money from sport was inherently distasteful, evoking the notion of a seedy low-life wanderer not too different from a roving professional gambler, seemingly. (Never mind that many of the aristocrats who looked down their noses at this source of income had never actually earned anything for themselves at all!) Even to this day, apparently, as residue of this class system, amateurs’ names in tournaments are written with the honorific “Mr.” preceding their names, whereas professionals are not accorded this respect. This sort of treatment was really interesting and eye-opening to me from a modern perspective, given that things have gone full-scale topsy-turvy in the exact opposite direction, with professional athletes nowadays as some of the most absurdly overcompensated and admired people on the planet.

As the book progressed and I got to know the central characters better—particularly the charmingly guileless protagonist Francis Ouimet—it became easier to get invested in the golf stakes, since they mattered to the characters. Frost sketches Ouimet and the other figures—the unshakeable Harry Vardon (I don’t know if Frost coined the word “Vardonic” to describe Harry’s smile or if that came from the contemporary press, but it’s brilliant); unflappable rakish wisecracker (and future champion) Walter Hagen; patriotic hothead and habitual nervous wreck Johnny McDermott; and the many others—with, as Frost himself has said, a dramatist’s eye. Frost confessed that he approached the book not as an historian or journalist first and foremost, but as a dramatist. That’s not to discount the tremendous amount of research Frost did to ensure the accuracy of the book, reading every contemporary published account, as well as all the private papers of the people concerned that he could get his hands on. However, despite the painstaking research, there are moments where Frost portrays dialogue exchanges and even interior thoughts of characters that seem to be created from whole cloth, in a way that would feel more appropriate to a play or film dramatization, but feels somewhat jarring in a nonfiction book, even as it simultaneously feels welcome, helping as it does to foreground the humanity of the characters and the relationships and to aid the reader’s immersion in the scene. This is a complaint David Owen raises in his mostly positive review for The New York Times, and Frost anticipates this criticism in a short section at the back of the book entitled “A Note on the Writing,” where he preemptively endeavors to justify his approach. I agree with Owen, who admits the strategy has its merit, but wishes that Frost would have cited his sources so the reader would know where he is taking liberties. For instance, Frost has said that all the conversations between Francis and his ten-year-old caddie Eddie Lowery—in many ways the central relationship of the latter half of the book—came from Eddie’s own personal papers, which were provided to Frost by Eddie’s daughter. Citing to that kind of thing in a footnote or endnote would have made the book even more fascinating, as opposed to leaving the reader to wonder whether Frost simply made up those conversations.

Part One of the book (roughly the first third) is made up of alternating chapters tracing the early lives and golf careers of Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet, and to a lesser extent the various other pros and amateurs in their orbits. I’ll admit, I sometimes got a bit overwhelmed by all the minutiae in the backstories: the various competitions, amateur, pro, British, American, which titles had been won by whom, the various animosities and ambitions of the players, etc. Among the most effective passages in this first section is a portion where Harry insists on finishing the 1903 British Open despite a debilitating illness (eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis) that has him coughing up blood and barely able to stand except when he steps onto the course and gains the super-human strength that allows him to win the Open, at tremendous cost to his long-term health. Harry’s brother Tom is a poignant figure here and throughout the book: a passionate and talented golfer himself but of clearly lesser ability than his brother, amiable, content to always live in his brother’s shadow, always focused on helping his brother’s game, even when Tom is competing alongside him, self-possessed enough to accept his role as a supportive aid, never destined for greatness of his own.

Part Two is where the book really takes off. All the central figures having been introduced and the stage set, the 1913 U.S. Open is recounted in detail, and Frost’s passion for the game and his skillful descriptions and characterizations manage to wring enough drama from the proceedings to have me invested. The interesting thing is, unlike many of these sports dramas, there’s no real bad guy: Everyone in the competition has been fleshed out as a “character,” and as presented by Frost, they’re all likable and sympathetic in their own ways. We’re not rooting against anyone, but we’re rooting for Francis…and by the end, so are even most of his rivals, to greater or lesser degrees. While “feel-good underdog sports drama” is not even close to being my favorite genre, it’s tough not to smile when reading about Francis’s mother, sitting on the porch hearing cheers from across the street, until she finally can’t contain herself and has to go watch her son, guided through the crowd by neighborhood boys yelling, “Let her through! We got his mother here!” It’s just wholesome, sweet stuff.

While the three-way Saturday morning playoff that gives Francis his win is the climax of the story, the most effective portion of the book for me is the two preceding chapters, chronicling Friday’s gameplay in the midst of an all-day deluge. Extreme weather is always a visceral way to set an atmosphere and draw the reader into the scene, and Frost does this very effectively throughout this sustained portion of the book, making the reader feel every bone-chilling gust of wind and soggy ball-devouring patch of mud as the players (even the English who are used to terrible weather) battle the elements and try to reconsider their strategies on each hole with the drastically altered circumstances of play.

Along the way, there are also some fascinating historical interjections about everything from the evolution of the materials used to make golf balls (including an unlikely influence from Vishnu) to the strange evolution of the term “bogie,” as well as a prolonged stage-setting chapter where Frost lays out the world of 1913, including the political landscape (he clarifies that he really likes Teddy Roosevelt, so I apparently misread what I thought was Frost’s condemnation of Teddy’s imperialism in The Six Messiahs).
 
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Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
819
1,854
THE MOVIE

The film of The Greatest Game Ever Played was released in 2005 by Disney (and it tickles me that both Lynch and Frost have Disney family movies to their names). It probably didn’t hurt that the book was published by Hyperion, a Disney subsidiary. To date, it’s the only one of Frost’s books to have been adapted to screen (although both The List of Seven and The Paladin Prophecy inspired interest). Producing the movie, along with Frost himself, is Frost’s friend Larry Brezner. Frost first met Brezner years earlier when Brezner (Robin Williams’s manager) hired Frost to write the sequel to Good Morning, Vietnam, entitled Good Morning, Chicago, which was to have centered on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but the project broke down.

The film is directed by another friend of Frost’s, Bill Paxton. Frost met Paxton in the ’70s through mutual friend Miguel “Albert Rosenfield” Ferrer (Frost and Ferrer first met on the short-lived NBC series Sunshine, which for both men was their first Hollywood gig). Frost has said he lobbied for Disney to give Paxton the gig, which is his second and ultimately final feature directing credit, after 2001’s Frailty.

Frost also writes the screenplay, and comparing the book to the movie lends fascinating insight into the way Frost approaches the two different mediums. One major (and smart) way Frost condenses the story for a two-hour runtime is by focusing in even more narrowly on Francis, winnowing out most of Harry’s backstory and leaving Harry as a more enigmatic figure. This means that Harry’s battle with tuberculosis and years-long struggle to reclaim his professional powers in the aftermath—one of my favorite aspects of the book, and a great quintessential story of athletic heroism—doesn’t even get a mention. The “yips” Harry has in his right hand (a periodic twitch due to the tuberculosis exacerbating pre-existing nerve damage) are a major aspect of the book. He never publicly revealed the cause, and the world at large attributed it to nerves (which was certainly a part of it); this twitch caused Harry unfortunate difficulty landing the simplest putting shots, and was seen by the press of the time as nature or God’s way of giving the otherwise godlike Englishman’s game some flaw that kept him somewhere within humanity’s ranks. In the movie, Harry’s trembling hand is presented as completely psychological, apparently a manifestation of his own class insecurities (represented by sprectral undertaker-like top-hatted figures from his childhood who evicted his family so that a golf links could be built on their property). It’s a clever way to simplify the backstory while foregrounding the sociological elements that are maybe even more prominent in the film than the book.

Another major change adheres to an old cliché: Hollywood always adds a love story. An entirely fictional character named Sarah, played by Peyton List (Roger Sterling’s second wife Jane on Mad Men), is inserted into the story. Coming from a wealthy family, with a brother and father who are members of the Country Club, Sarah very quickly falls for Francis at a pre-Open soiree, and their Romeo and Juliet-style inter-class flirtation plays out largely as background noise throughout the film and contributes very little. I guess Frost or someone figured it would give people who weren’t fully into the sports narrative something to root for (although it’s never even resolved or mentioned toward the end of the film).

Some changes are made for purposes of increasing the drama. When young Francis goes to see Harry Vardon’s promotional appearance in a Boston department store—which actually happened—Harry invites little Francis up on stage to practice his swing, which did not happen. Frost adds essentially a bet between Francis and his disapproving father Arthur: Arthur will give Francis the money he needs to enter the amateur competition, if Francis will agree to give up golf if he loses, ratcheting up the father-son drama (in the book, Francis’s mother simply doctors the family finance books to give Francis the money secretly). After his initial failure at his first amateur tournament, the film portrays Francis as quitting golf (honoring the bet with his father), when in reality he kept plugging away in competitions with mixed success for the next two years (in the film, he only finally agrees to compete again—in the pivotal 1913 Open, vastly simplifying his competitive career during this period—when he happens to bump into love interest Sarah, and presumably decides to impress her, a rather cornball Hollywood cliché that cheapens Francis’s actual hard work and dedication during this period). A whole subplot is added to the movie, once again to emphasize Harry’s class insecurities, where Harry aspires to a club membership (something the real Vardon likely wouldn’t have even thought about as a realistic possibility).

In the movie, Francis’s comeback in the fourth round of the Open is impliedly inspired by a lucky horseshoe trinket from Sarah (conveyed by Eddie), inspiring him to regain his confidence. As someone who doesn’t even care about golf, I can’t tell you how much it annoys me that this listless love plot (no pun intended toward Ms. List) is inserted at these pivotal moments, distracting from Francis’s actual accomplishment in refocusing and turning his game around.

The actual golf play is naturally condensed and simplified quite a lot. Up until the final 30 minutes or so, the movie rarely focuses on the actual substance of the play at all, the strategy of each shot that Frost focuses so lovingly on in the book totally absent. We just see people hitting balls, hear the crowd react so we know if it was good or bad, and we see numbers and names on a scoreboard. The movie in this way becomes more like the way Frost described the book: “social commentary masquerading as sports [movie].” It’s the classism that really defines the movie’s narrative and the characters’ arcs; the actual gameplay is more or less irrelevant. What matters is what victory symbolizes, not how it’s achieved.

The film also plays a bit fast and loose with the real-life gameplay and the scores to ratchet up the drama. Francis is said to be one stroke behind Vardon and Ted Ray after the third round, when he was actually even with them. The chip shot Francis attempts on the thirteenth hole of the playoff, leapfrogging his ball over Harry’s (unsuccessfully), is not what actually happened on that hole, and I don’t recall anything like that happening in the match as described in the book…I guess Frost and/or Paxton just wanted to have a quick moment of gameplay that audiences could easily understand. More notably, in the film, Francis finally gets one-up on Harry on the seventeenth hole after a match-long tie, whereas in reality Francis was already one stroke up on Harry going into the seventeenth hole and gained two more on the seventeenth—a much more interesting slow-burn of incrementally inching toward victory, but less dramatic for a movie of this sort, I suppose. Likewise, the film’s version of the eighteenth hole (where Francis misses an easy putt, and then so does Harry, keeping Francis’s one-point lead from the prior hole intact) bears absolutely no resemblance to what actually happened on the eighteenth hole, where Francis played extremely well and gained another two points on Harry, winning the Open by five points, not by one as portrayed in the film. It is a bit bewildering that the film downplays its hero’s victory.

The movie is shot in Quebec (doubling for Massachusetts and England). Paxton applies a variety of effects to dramatize the arguably not-very-exciting game of golf, including an ample dose of that post-Matrix bullet-time CGI that was so popuar in that era, as the camera follows the balls through the air, moving around them, zooming in and out, etc. My favorite effect is the way Paxton portrays Francis’s visionary ability to project the ball exactly where he wants it to go: through a trippy digital alteration of the frame, the landscape condenses somehow, folding in on itself, and bringing the hole much closer. Also effective is the way Harry manages to tune out his surroundings, as the crowd and all other distractions besides the green and the hole turn to mist and evaporate around him. Paxton’s camera rarely settles, always dynamic and keeping a good energy to the piece.

Shia LaBeouf as Francis is characteristically likable, but I never quite got the pure uncomplicated happiness Francis supposedly exudes on the course according to Frost’s book. This is a major trait in the book (Harry realizes that he can’t get inside Francis’s head and intimidate him, a common tactic of Harry’s, because Francis—even moreso than Harry himself—just loves playing the game too much to worry or stress most of the time). Francis’s “unearthly calm” on the course is even mentioned at one point near the end of the movie, but I never really saw that in the performance. Admittedly, LaBeouf needs to sell the drama and conflict through his physicality, whereas in the book Frost could convey it through internal monologue and narration. LaBeouf understandably tends to portray Francis as concentrating and focused while playing, but the fact is, he seems to very rarely smile while playing or be enjoying himself in the moment the way the real Francis apparently did, and I missed that aspect.

Stephen Dillane (a.k.a. my favorite Game of Thrones character, Stannis Baratheon) is a marvelous Harry Vardon, likable and sympathetic but always a bit detached and unreachable, something supremely “other” about him despite his easy charm. My favorite shot in the movie is a moment when the entire crowd’s heads turn in unison, following Francis’s ball, but Harry—in the middle of the pack—stands stark still, completely disinterested in the trajectory of the ball, his interested gaze fixed solely on Francis himself (Harry in the book repeatedly thinks of Francis as a doppelganger of his own younger self, in a Peaksian turn of phrase).

The other British finalist, the physically imposing powerhouse Ted Ray, is played by Stephen Marcus (Nick the Greek from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). This take on Ray, as scripted by Frost and played by Marcus, seems a little consciously different from the version in the book. While Ray in the book has an explosive side when angered, most of the time he presents himself as easygoing and a crowd-pleasing joker, until something (generally either British dandy Wilfred Reid or his own golfing shortcomings) pushes him over the edge. In the movie, he is portrayed as curmudgeonly from the get-go, constantly muttering insults under his breath.

Peaks connection: Appearing in a small role as a Country Club official is Len Cariou, a Tony winner for the original production of Sweeney Todd and perennial favorite of Stephen Sondheim’s, who would go on to play Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon on the audiobook of Frost’s Secret History of Twin Peaks.

And, in the interest of tracking appearances by U.S. Presidents in Frost’s work, former President Taft (who was indeed present to observe the qualifying round at the 1913 Open) pops up in both the book and the movie to wish Francis well. Taft, the first President to play golf, but certainly not the last, is best remembered as the most obese American President. As Frost points out, although a mediocre President who had very little passion for political gamesmanship, Taft does hold the distinction of being the only person to occupy both the offices of President and Supreme Court Chief Justice, a fact which is rarely remembered today. (I feel obliged to point this out as Taft is an ancestor of mine.) Frost recounts that rugged man’s man Teddy Roosevelt despised golf, did not view it as a sport, and felt that Taft’s frequent golf excursions painted a poor view of the presidency, eventually leading to a feud wherein Teddy referred to Taft as a fathead and ran against him, breaking his self-imposed political exile and fracturing the Republican vote, allowing Woodrow Wilson (also an avid golfer) to be elected.

Overall, as someone with no particular interest in golf, I found the book pretty engaging, largely due to the personalities Frost recreates, as well as the dollops of historical context and insight. The movie—which I had seen years and years ago but didn’t remember all that well besides thinking it was fine—is by nature way more heavy-handed and simplistic than the book (not to mention less historically accurate), but is a visually pleasing, well-acted feel-good flick that gives you exactly what you came for.
 
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Cappy

White Lodge
Aug 4, 2022
583
573
Thanks for the impressive write-up! This is definitely a book that has been on my to read list for over a decade.

It’s funny you mention Taft — I’m currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, about the crackup of Taft and TR’s friendship. He might not fly off the page like the larger than life Teddy Roosevelt, but I am finding Taft to be a fascinating character in his own right.
 
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