Friday, June 5, 2015

Review: The Secret of Golf (2015)

By Joe Posnanski

There's a certain aura of heavyweight boxing champion that surrounds the world's best golfer, at least to the public. Usually there's one player who is the person to beat in a given major tournament.

This might have started with Arnold Palmer, who came along in the late 1950s just as the television age was arriving and the sport was exploding. They didn't call Arnold "the King" for nothing. But soon someone came along, younger and better. Jack Nicklaus proved to be tough to push off the mountain. Plenty of books have been written about the dynamics involving Palmer and Nicklaus.

Jack's reign was a long one, and he had some challengers over the years who eventually fell by the wayside. It took until Tom Watson came along in the late 1970s before there was a new No. 1.

The trees needed to chronicle that change of command have mostly stayed in the ground, but finally we have a book on the subject - and it's a good one. "The Secret of Golf" is about their relationship.

Joe Posnanski is the author here, and he's well suited for the job. He got to know Watson when he worked in Watson's home of the Kansas City area. Posnanski's first two books about the Reds of the 1970s and Buck O'Neil were nostalgic and sweet. Then he started working on a book on Joe Paterno, and, well, you probably know what happened to the ending of that story - an unexpected curve ball that was anything but sweet.

Here Posnanski is back writing about mythical figures from the past, who have the ability now to put their relationship into perspective. The book mostly focuses on Watson, who was a little unheralded when he arrived on the PGA Tour but quickly became one of its most promising young players. His problem was, he couldn't close the sale at first. The phrase "you have to learn how to win" may not have been invented for Watson but it was close. Eventually, though, he figured things out and won eight major titles. The moment that torch was passed probably was the 1977 British Open, when Watson and Nicklaus played magnificent golf for four days and left the world's best golfers in their dust. And Watson won by a stroke. Winner, and new champion.

Watson stayed number one for quite a while, and some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with what Watson lost that title. His swing changed a little at the age of 35 or so, and he stopped drilling nearly impossible putts into holes at opportune times. Watson was still good, but rarely good enough to win. A side-effect comes across as unexpected - this golfer who had such discipline to hit practice balls until his hands bled, apparently had a little too much alcohol a little too often. It didn't help matters. Watson found his swing eventually and lost the desire to quench his thirst, but the putting stroke never came completely back.

The main story is divided into 18 holes, and between chapters is a short section devoted to a "secret" of golf as told by either Nicklaus or Watson. You may think you're reading a golf book at the beginning of these sidebars, but you may be reading about life in some cases. For example, when Watson hit a bad shot - these guys do hit bad shots once in a while, because golf is difficult - he tried to remember not to overcome it by trying to hit a spectacular shot. Watson preferred to hit a safe shot, get back in the fairway, make a par, and move on. There's something to be said for that approach to life - don't let the mistakes snowball.

Posnanski is always enjoyable to read, and here he makes the pages flow by quickly. It's not a long book, and it certainly doesn't take long to get through it. But the publication still feels fulfilling, along the lines of an extended short story.

Admittedly, stories about 1970s golfers aren't for everyone. Maybe someone will write a book about Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth like this someday, which today's 20-somethings will enjoy. But the publisher certainly had a thinking cap on when it decided to release "The Secret of Golf" within a couple of weeks of Father's Day. It's a fine June present for the older golfer on the gift list.

Four stars

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