by Mark Frost
Teacher’s Comments: A good golf book, but short of Frost’s earlier work, The Greatest Game
Mark Frost’s The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf
, an account of the legendary 1913 US Open, in which amateur Francis Ouimet beat the great Harry Vardon is one of the best golf books ever written. More than an account of a tournament, it uses the event to cast a light on the era’s problems of social class and distinction. In that, it’s not just a great golf book—it’s simply a great book that has been enjoyed by everyone I’ve shared it with, golfers and non-golfers alike.
The Match in some ways picks up on that story. Years after the Open, Ouimet’s former caddy Eddie Lowry heads west, where he becomes a multi-millionaire car dealer, and a golf patron. In particular, Lowry “sponsors” a collection of outstanding amateurs by giving them jobs at his dealerships. The amateurs, including Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, work at selling cars in the morning and golf in the afternoon. In this, Lowry skirts a fine line between amateur and professional—a ruse which has tragic consequences later.
Lowry also has become friends with Bing Crosby, and it’s at a party for Crosby’s 1956 Clambake (now the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am) that he makes a bet with fellow millionaire George Coleman: that Venturi and Ward can beat anyone in the world. Coleman takes Lowry up on the bet (the size of which still is unknown) and rounds up his own pair of players: none other than Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. A private match is scheduled before a practice round of the Crosby Clambake.
It’s a concept so fabulous—so phantasmagorical—that I had, and still have, a hard time believing it. It’s one of those tales that is so outrageous it could only be true. Think about it: a private match between the teams of Hogan and Nelson, and Venturi and Ward to settle a bet made by Francis Ouimet’s caddy.
Even more amazing is that I don’t ever recall reading about it before. The Golf Blogger is very well read on the history of golf, but this was off the radar screen.
I won’t tell you the outcome of The Match, for that would spoil the suspense in the hole-by-hole account. But in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Win or lose, the Match represented the last gasp of the amateur golfer as a contender on golf’s biggest stages. As the book’s subtitle suggests, the Match was a metaphorical “Day The Game of Golf Changed Forever.” Prior to the era of The Match, there still was some hope that a brilliant amateur would return the game to the realm of Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet. It was rapidly becoming clear, however, that wouldn’t happen.
The bulk of the book covers the match itself, but Frost also offers brief backgrounds on the principals: Lowry, Hogan, Nelson, Venturi and Ward. The material on the first four offered nothing that I haven’t already read in other biographies of those players (although if you have not read their biographies, this book covers the basics well). I was more intrigued by the fate of Harvie Ward, who suffered through a series of difficulties connected to his involvement with Lowry. The background, however, does not equal that of The Greatest Game. And in that, The Match is a somewhat lesser book—and one that may not appeal as much to non-golfers.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly to golfers, and especially to those for whom the names Nelson and Hogan still carry some magic. Fans of The Greatest Game also may find it interesting as a sort of sequel. But I can’t see it reaching the greater reading audience.