In 1956, millionaires Eddie Lowery and George Coleman made an off-the-cuff bet on a golf match and inadvertently set up one of the sport's most climactic duels; this one casual game has become the sport's great suburban legend. Frost (The Greatest Game Ever Played) diligently covers the two pros slightly past their prime, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, who squared off against two top amateurs, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. It happened in the last hours of Hogan's playing career, and ten years after Byron had left the stage, but at the near pinnacle of the amateurs', whose personalities couldn't have been more diametrically opposed (Venturi the classic up-and-comer, and Ward the inveterate playboy who performed hungover on two hours' sleep).
The match itself, scrupulously teased out by Frost for maximum drama, is less interesting than the people involved and the historical backdrop. The match happened near the sport's great cusp, as it transitioned from something for amateurs to a professional career, from a pastime for wastrel aristocrats and entertainers (and Bing Crosby, with his annual booze-soaked Clambake charity matches) to a mainstream suburban obsession. Frost has a penchant toward the florid, but as he writes, Because he was Ben Hogan, and it was just past twilight, and his like would never pass this way again, he captures an elusive magic in this improbable matchup and what it meant for those who played and witnessed it.
A CONVERSATION WITH MARK FROST
A CONVERSATION WITH MARK FROST
YOUR LAST TWO NONFICTION GOLF BOOKS, THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED AND THE GRAND SLAM, WERE ENORMOUSLY SUCCESSFUL. WHAT INTRIGUED YOU TO WRITE ANOTHER BOOK ABOUT THE WORLD OF GOLF?
Mark Frost: Realizing that what I've set out to do is chronicle the history of American golf in a series of books, I went looking for a single, crystallizing event that would move the story forward from the 1930s to the 1950s. I found that event in The Match.
WHAT INITIALLY DREW YOU ABOUT THIS LITTLE-KNOWN MATCH? HOW DID YOU ORIGINALLY HEAR ABOUT THIS MATCH AND HOW DID YOU COME TO MEET KEN VENTURI AND BYRON NELSON?
MF: I heard about it initially from Ben Crenshaw years ago, after writing The Greatest Game. I got to know Ken Venturi at about that same time, and with his help was able to go about recreating this extraordinary, almost unknown event. I was lucky enough to meet Byron Nelson shortly thereafter through a mutual friend, and sat down with him to draw out his memories as well.
THIS IS YOUR THIRD NONFICTION GOLF BOOK. ARE YOU PARTICULARLY DRAWN TO THE SPORT OR DO YOU JUST FIND THAT THERE ARE MANY FACETS TO WRITE ABOUT?
MF: Golf is my favorite sport to play, but it's also a wonderful sport for storytelling for a number of reasons. Its history is populated by remarkable people, and the rhythms and nature of the game itself reveals character in a way that lends itself particularly well to the written word. Much of the real action of the game is interior, psychological, even occasionally spiritual, and illuminating the human experience involved in any endeavor is the goal of any good writing.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE INTERVIEWING KEN AND BYRON. YOU WERE ONE OF THE LAST, IF NOT THE LAST, TO INTERVIEW BYRON BEFORE HE PASSED AWAY LAST YEAR.
MF: The book couldn't have been written without the cooperation and participation of Ken and Byron. Ken was extremely generous with his time and we were able to meticulously recreate the events of that day largely through his memories, fifty years to the month after it happened. Byron Nelson may well have been the greatest athlete of the 20th century who actually deserved the hideously overused modern title of "role model." Being in his presence made the whole experience worthwhile.
WITHOUT GIVING AWAY THE BOOK, WHY DO YOU THINK THIS PARTICULAR GAME HAD SUCH AND IMPACT ON THE SPORT OF GOLF?
MF: It marks the great divide between the end of the period when pros and amateurs played the game as relative equals, and the beginning of the modern era, which has been thoroughly dominated by professionals and, increasingly, by market forces that have transformed it, for better or worse, into a billion-dollar industry.
IN THE GREATEST GAME, YOU FOCUSED ON WHAT YOU CALLED "THE BEST UNDERDOG STORY I'D EVER COME ACROSS," AND IN THE GRAND SLAM YOU CONSIDERED THE THEME OF THE BOOK TO BE "A STORY OF GREATNESS IN HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT." WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE UNDERLYING THEME IN THE MATCH?
MF: Friendship, loyalty, the real meaning of pride, and the high price paid for idealism and integrity in the real world.
WHO DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE GREATEST PLAYERS, OR THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PLAYERS, IN GOLF TODAY?
MF: Tiger Woods, more than any man in the game since Bob Jones, stands alone. And he's barely set foot into the second act of his journey.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU?
MF: I'm beginning research on a book about baseball, focusing on one particular game in a spectacular world series, that sits astride a similar dividing line between the sport as it existed in America for close to a hundred years, and the game as it's played today.