The Match

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
775
1,740
This is the third and last of Frost’s golf books, by far the shortest, and, in my view, the least substantial of them. Whereas the prior two are bildungsroman narratives, this one is more an anecdotal story about four titans of the sport coming together for a friendly informal game: two older established professionals versus two younger up-and-coming amateurs. It seems to be more of a fun “can you believe this happened” kind of myth that golf aficionados would tell each other in a clubhouse than something that has much meaning to a layman like me, honestly.

The “professionals and amateurs” divide has been a major motif through all three books, and reaches its climax here. Frost has said that part of his goal with this book was to showcase “the Match” as the spiritual end of an era, the death of the “gentleman amateur” in the game of golf. As he chronicles extensively in the long “Afterward” (I’m not sure if this is an accidental misspelling of “afterword” or a deliberate pun by Frost), very shortly following the Match, the financial incentives for being a professional golfer suddenly skyrocketed (in no small part due to games beginning to be televised), and there was no reason for the talented player not to go pro once he reached a certain level of skill and success. In a few passages, Frost is rather frosty about the current (2007-era) state of pro golf (other than praising Tiger Woods), evidently feeling that the sport has suffered from the way its overpaid players are pampered and coddled, and how they lack the passion of their hardscrabble predecessors. He seems to feel that a big part of the cause for this decline in the game is the loss of the healthy competition between amateurs and pros driving one another to ever-greater heights. It’s interesting how Frost has said that his golf books are primarily about class, as I’ve mentioned in my writeups on the first two. Ironically, the underdogs and heroes of Frost’s books are traditionally the amateurs: Francis Ouimet in The Greatest Game Ever Played, Bob Jones in The Grand Slam. The Match is more balanced, giving equal time to the pros (Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson) and the amateurs (Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi), but even here, the amateurs are the young Turks and the reader can’t help but root for their victory over the old guard, and as I’ve said, the fall of the amateur (both Ward and Venturi eventually go pro following the Match) is portrayed as something lamentable. Frost always seems to be tilting the scales toward the amateur. Yet, in the eras Frost is writing about, it’s the professional who historically came from lower-class status. The amateurs were typically affluent men. Admittedly, some of Frost’s amateur protagonists come from lower-class backgrounds: Ouimet has a working-class father, and Ken Venturi’s dad sells twine for fishing nets; but Bob Jones is pretty solidly upper-middle-class as the son of a successful lawyer, and Harvie Ward’s parents own a drug store. Frost’s heavy focus on the amateurs, who are able to support themselves outside the sport of golf (Ouimet’s and Jones’s ultimate goal—which they each successfully realize—is to become successful in business), seems to undermine his “class” message. Overall, I came away from these books feeling that the fall of the “amateur” and the rise of the professional was a good thing from a class perspective, even if it ultimately hurt the game long-term in Frost’s opinion (and led to the scales tipping too far in the other direction, with wildly overpaid professional athletes who are more in it for money than for passion).

The titular foursome occurs at Cypress Point in Monterey, California, in January, 1956. The Match occurs in the orbit of Bing Crosby’s annual professional-amateur charity tournament, informally and affectionately called “the Clambake” (still played today as the much more corporate AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am). Being a fan of Bing’s music and films, I found it fun to have him as a character here, although there wasn’t much new information about him (in the Afterward, Frost does inevitably recount the story of Bing dying on a golf course immediately after completing a game). The format of the book is probably the most focused of Frost’s three golf books. It lacks the biographical buildup of the other two books and instead, after the prologue, gets quickly down to the business of recounting the main event, the Match itself. It then jumps around in time, as we advance through the eighteen holes of the Match, to go back and fill in biographical detail in chapters focusing on each of the four men. It’s an efficient approach to telling the story, and breaking it up this way helps the pacing and flow of the book. The four protagonists are all distinctly portrayed, each displaying some nuance and internal conflict, but ultimately (much like the protagonists in the prior two golf books), are portrayed as basically being worthy of sainthood. Frost clearly has a deep hero worship for all of these men, both because of their athletic skills and their actions off the course.

My favorite character is the darkest of the four (which I’m sure says something about me), Ben Hogan. Ben, the son of a blacksmith, suffers severe tragedies (his father’s suicide; a car accident that nearly cripples him when he instinctually shields his wife from danger) which shape him into a reticent, cautious, guarded guy who has to work inordinately hard to get everything that seems to come easily to others, ultimately becoming the greatest and most respected player alive for a period of time. Byron Nelson is a deeply religious monogamous teetotaler who’d give a stranger the shirt off his back, to whom the game of golf seems to come naturally, much to the aggravation of his hard-working fellow Fort Worth native Ben Hogan. The childhood friendship, and eventual falling-out, of Hogan and Nelson as they each scale their way to the highest peaks of their game in turn, and then each walk away, is an interesting and sad story and one of the more affecting parts of the book. Harvie Ward is portrayed as a himbo dude-bro, a perpetual frat boy from South Carolina who’s happy to booze and whore it up, who charms everyone he meets, gets everything he wants, and—like Byron Nelson—finds that the game of golf comes incredibly easy to him with very little practice (his sole warmup consists of listening to Count Basie albums to loosen him up). I’m pretty sure I’d want to punch this guy in the face if I knew him. Ken Venturi honestly feels like the least distinct of the four main “characters” to me, which is somewhat odd, since he is the one Frost became closest to while writing the book (Frost met Byron Nelson for one day—Ben Hogan and Harvie Ward were already deceased when Frost started writing—but he met Ken Venturi several times and came to consider him a friend). A chronic stutterer and shy withdrawn child who eventually became a beloved golf announcer on CBS (the longest-running lead analyst in sports broadcast history), Ken has a really inspiring story, but his personality never really came into focus for me. Both Harvie and Ken are humanized moreso in the “Afterward,” when they both hit hard luck in their careers and their marriages, and spiral into alcohol-fueled self-destruction, before each finding peace and redemption in their own ways; that ending portion was honestly the most I felt invested in either character.

Also prominent in the story is Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet’s ten-year-old caddie in The Greatest Game Ever Played, now a 53-year-old car dealership owner, a USGA official and a combative braggart. It’s Eddie’s bet with titan of industry George Coleman that spurs “the Match” in the first place. Eddie’s slightly fast-and-loose approach to USGA guidelines when it comes to financially supporting his protégés Harvie and Ken is foreshadowed throughout the book, and ultimately in the Afterward leads to the downfalls of both Eddie (when he’s kicked off the USGA board) and Harvie (who gets a one-year suspension that ends up derailing his career). Frost highlights the hypocrisy of the USGA’s ruling, as amateurs would routinely fudge the rules in terms of accepting financial help, because otherwise no one besides the super-rich would be able to afford the travel expenses etc. required to play as a touring amateur.

The book has several epilogues. First is the aforementioned “Afterward,” a very long summing-up of everyone’s lives following the Match (The Greatest Game Ever Played has a similar “Afterward”). There is also an “Appendix” which tells the backstory of the creation of the Cypress Point golf course on which the Match was played, an impressive location overlooking the Pacific Ocean, almost in the style of the original seaside Scottish “links” courses where the game was born. The Appendix briefly touches on the geological origins of the area, the Native population and the early Spanish settlers who displaced them, up through the two individuals most responsible for creating the course: course architect Alister MacKenzie and trailblazing female golfer and entrepreneur Marion Hollins, an interesting figure with a tragic ending.

In between the Afterward and Appendix is an extended “Postscript,” added to the book in 2013—six years after its initial publication. Here, Frost recounts a charity event in late 2012 when Ken Venturi was honored at Cypress Hill, and then the Match was recreated by four golfers from the current era effectively playing the roles of the original men; due to his role in popularizing the story of the Match with his book, Frost was part of the exclusive small group invited to this event. Frost recalls meeting Arnold Palmer and former President George W. Bush at the event. In keeping with the congenial all-audiences-welcome tone of his golf books, notoriously vocal liberal Frost shows restraint by avoiding taking any major digs at Bush in this passage. He favorably describes Bush’s demeanor as “disarmingly present and affable,” and notes that Bush thanked Frost for a reference to Bush’s grandfather in The Grand Slam (in 1921, George Walker, the then-USGA president, donated the Walker Cup that gave the tournament its name). Frost does note that Bush says with a rueful smile that he read all three of Frost’s golf books while he was in office, adding in a parenthetical, “So, yes, he’s heard all the jokes”—presumably a rather oblique reference to the cliché of Bush spending a lot of time on the course, I guess, although he actually played far less golf than many other Presidents, including his successors Obama, Trump and Biden. The charity is for a youth development organization, and Frost notes that it’s easy to put politics aside for such a cause.

President Eisenhower, a famous golf-lover, gets a few mentions throughout the book, his second appearance in a Frost book in 2007, after surviving the attempt on his life in The Second Objective.

In the section entitled “Notes on Writing,” Frost says that he spent time with Venturi and Nelson, as well as Ward’s widow and a close friend, and Eddie Lowery’s daughter provided access to his papers (as she had on The Greatest Game Ever Played). Frost says that all the dialogue is “either verbatim or reconstructed from their various accounts.” He also says that he had a dream about playing golf with Harvie Ward, and the next night, Harvie’s widow, not yet aware of Frost’s dream, dreamt about Harvie telling her that he’d enjoyed meeting Frost, an appropriately Peaksian scenario!
 
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