Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Men in Green" by Michael Bamberger

If you are a golfer, watch professional golf on television, or if you're just a golf nerd who  appreciates the history of the game, I cannot recommend to you highly enough that you read "Men in Green" by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger.  As teenager in the 1970's, when the PGA Tour was, and he puts it, in it's "Sansabelt-and-persimmon heyday", Bamberger fell in love with the game. He supported himself through college and in his early sports writing days as a Tour caddy, and went on to write about the game in various newspapers, as a freelancer for golf magazines, and, now, with Sports Illustrated.  He has also written a number of books on the subject.

For "Men in Green", he drew up a list of nine of golf's Living Legends, and nine of what he calls his own Secret Legends.  The Living Legends are whom you would expect - Palmer, Nicklaus, Venturi, Watson etc.  The Secret Legends are some folks you may never have heard of - a couple of caddies, a TV executive, a retired USGA official, an instructor, a sportswriter, and one golfer, Mike Donald.  He then sets out to interview all of these legends to try to find what he calls the soul of golf.  He is accompanied for most of his journey by Secret Legend Mike Donald, who he characterizes as the ultimate Tour grinder.

A word or two about Mike Donald.  Golf nerds will remember Donald as a thirty-five year old guy who came out of nowhere in 1990 to finish in a tie for the lead at the US Open.  He lost in an 18 hole playoff with a 19th sudden death hole to Hale Irwin.  It was the highlight of Donald's career.  In a career that spanned thirty-some years, Donald played in 550 PGA Tour events, made 296 cuts, won once, and earned $1.97 million (or about what Jordan Speith earned in any two given weeks on Tour in 2015).  He played thirty to thirty-five events every year and never finished higher than 22nd on the money list.  As Bamberger put it, while players like Tiger and Phil and Rory can drop in and drop out on tour events as it suits them, it is guys like Donald who are at the very heart and soul of the Tour, and Donald's insights are very much a key part of this book.

Two members of Bamberger's Legends list emerge as the featured players in this book.  One of them, as you might guess, is Arnold Palmer, and the other is Ken Venturi, whose careers managed to intertwine on the twelfth hole of the final round at the 1958 Masters.  Palmer invoked a rule that allowed him to play a second ball when he felt tat he was not granted relief from an embedded ball.  (As is often the case with the sometimes arcane Rules of Golf, the details are too lengthy to go into here, so just trust me on this.) The invocation of this rule, which was ultimately upheld by the Masters Rules officials, allowed Palmer to score a three rather than a five on the hole.  He finished ahead of Venturi by one stroke in winning his first Masters.  Venturi thought that Palmer was wrong and that he, Venturi, got jobbed by the Augusta National officials.

Palmer went on from that first Major Championship win to become, well, Arnold Palmer, and while Venturi went on to have pretty good life (multiple tour wins, a US Open win in 1964, a storied career as broadcaster on CBS, and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame), he never had the life that he envisioned for himself, the life that that Masters win would have brought him, and he became a pretty bitter guy over it.  Bamberger interviewed him not long before he died in 2013, and the anger and bitterness towards Palmer and the folks at Augusta National (which stems from something that happened to him at the 1956 Masters, but that is a whole 'nother story, as they say), was with him to the very end.  And that same story ultimately came up with many of the other "legends" that Bamberger encountered in gathering material for the book.  He even spoke to Venturi's first wife, and that was one of the more eye-opening parts of the book.

Another part that I found interesting was Palmer talking about "the edge" that all top level golfers have to have in order to continually succeed on the Tour.  Palmer himself says that winning a US Open was an obsession with him, and that after he won it in 1960, he was never the same. "After you win it, you have to stay aggressive, stay the way you were when you won it.  And it's difficult to do."  In other words, he had lost his "edge".  Strange when you consider that after that 1960 Open, Palmer went on the win dozens of other Tour events, including two British Opens and two more Masters.  However, he never won another Open, although he seriously contended for the Championship five more times over the years, and lost two of them in playoffs.  

In speaking about the hard to define edge, Palmer went on to say "It's so fine.  You have to get in there and you have to stay in there, and once you get out, it's very hard to get back in.  It's happened to every golfer. Hogan, Nicklaus. Every golfer. It's just a question of when."

Interestingly, when Bamberger talked to Jack Nicklaus about that 1960 Open, a tournament that Jack, then a twenty year old amateur, led for a brief point during the final round, Nicklaus said that not winning that Open was the best thing that ever happened to him. He was too young and had he won, he would have felt that his game was ready for anything, when, by not winning, he knew that it was not.  The rest of the Nicklaus Story is history.

Anyway, I would say that this book is 260 pages of must reading for any golf fan.  Really good stuff that I could write on and on about, but read it, because, trust me, Bamberger is a much better writer than I.  However, I will leave you with one more comment about Palmer, this one from the guy who may know him the best, Jack Nicklaus.  Nicklaus, who says that "Arnold is as close a friend as I've got" was making a reference about how good Palmer is in a crowd  and at golf course openings, something with which both of them have spent much of their post-playing days doing.  This is Nickalus' quote:

"I don't want to cut the ribbon or do the cocktail party. Arnold wants to cut the ribbon. He wants to do the cocktail party. We were always different that way. I'd invite Arnold to dinner, but Arnold would rather go to a party with forty people he didn't know than go to dinner with one friend. That's the difference between the two of us. I'm not criticizing Arnold. We're just different."

Terrific book.

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