Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: The Magnificent Masters (2014)

By Gil Capps

Think of golf as something resembling boxing, where there is a champion and several contenders for the title. They slug it out at the major championships to see who will retain that description for the time being - with the difference being that more than one contender can be battling at the same time.

As golf historians will tell you, Arnold Palmer was the King until Jack Nicklaus came around. Nicklaus stayed on top for years and years until Tom Watson finally became the man to beat at crunch time.

That's not to say Nicklaus wasn't challenged, and the 1975 Masters was a particularly vivid example of that. That's why "The Magnificent Masters" more than qualifies for a look back at something of a milestone event, and why Gil Capps - who works on golf broadcasts for NBC and the Golf Channel - picked a good tournament to review in depth.

Nicklaus was still great in 1975, but there were a couple of other players who had shown they could play with anyone. Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf both had streaks of greatness in the preceding months, and even won a major each. But could they slay the Golden Bear with the golf world watching? That was the question.

As the cliche now reads, the Masters doesn't really begin until the back nine on Sunday, and in this case the three best players in the world were the only ones who were contenders. Nicklaus had let a big 36-hole lead slip away, Weiskopf had charged to the front after 54 holes, and Miller after a slow start went through the final two days sort of like Sherman went through Atlanta.

Who would win? Spoiler alert: Nicklaus isn't on the cover of the book for no reason.

Capps put in plenty of time doing his homework for this one. Golfers can be very articulate at this sort of project, and Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Miller all had plenty of interesting things to say about their careers and this particular tournament. Each gets a chapter here, and it's fascinating to learn from Weiskopf and Miller why they think their careers didn't turn out better. Miller was such a natural that he didn't even practice much at times, and found that he didn't have the desire to put in the hours on the range - particularly once he got a house and family. When he decided he wanted to live up to his potential, it was almost too late. Weiskopf had a ton of talent but was something of a perfectionist and had some problems with the bottle. His father was an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Nicklaus was Nicklaus, who knew he could play with anyone and loved to compete with the world's best on the biggest stages.

The author also is well aware of how history's eras can collide in a particular golf tournament. In this case, Nicklaus' initial playing partner was newcomer Curtis Strange, who was stunned to find out his opening day assignment. Strange learned some lessons, winning two U.S. Opens way down the road. Another partner of Nicklaus later in the tournament was Palmer, contending in a Masters essentially for the last time before fading. That doesn't even include Nick Faldo, finding inspiration while watching the tournament as a boy in England. His trips to Augusta later proved fruitful too.

Capps has uncovered enough small details to make the story relatively fresh, and doesn't get too bogged down in golf play-by-play along the way. The narrative moves along quite nicely.

Books like these obviously have a target audience of those who remember the event and want to learn more about it. "The Magnificent Masters" hits the target nicely. Those in the proper demographic - golfers of a certain age - will enjoy this greatly. In other words, it's not for everyone, but those looking for a Father's Day present for Dad can put this high on their list of possible gifts.

Four stars

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