Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: The First Major (2017)

By John Feinstein

Sometimes, the golfing gods are with you. Sometimes, they are against you.

Sometimes, the ball kicks off a hill in the rough, and puts your ball firmly in the fairway. Sometimes, your reward for a perfect drive is a landing spot right in the middle of a big, ugly divot.

John Feinstein knows all about the golfing gods, having written about the sport for several years. When he decided to write a book about the 2016 Ryder Cup, he certainly had hopes of a close or at least memorable finish. After all, the book figured to be released about a year after the competition between the United States and Europe was finished.

Feinstein didn't catch a break in terms of the match. You probably remember that the United States won convincingly in the 2016 version of the biannual match. But that only takes a little away from "The First Major," an always interesting book on the Ryder Cup and the qualities that make it a unique sporting event.

The Ryder Cup used to be a nice little event featuring the best of the United States and Great Britain/Ireland. The problem was that the United States almost always won. So in 1979, the GB/I team became the European team - and it was more than competitive. Europe had had the upper hand in the matches overall leading up to the 2016 clash in Hazeltine - winning six of the previous seven events. Meanwhile, the fans on both sides took the enthusiasm level to another level, making seem more like a Michigan-Ohio State football game than a pleasant golf match among gentlemen.

And what does that mean? Pressure on all concerned. Golfers usually play for themselves and their bank accounts. They are used to that, and we see great performances all the time during the year. (Those who don't measure up almost never appear on the Sunday television broadcasts.) But the Ryder Cup adds the team concept to the equation for one of the few times on the golfing calendar. When the golfers have a bad day, they go home early and practice for the next week. But golfers in the Ryder Cup are playing for their country. Everything becomes magnified in such a setting - good shots and bad ones, which come up at a surprisingly high rate. 

That history and intensity received much of the focus in the book. Feinstein does a good job of tracking down everyone involved, including those who had taken part in events in the years leading up to the 2016 matches. No one does too much ducking when it comes to questions about controversial events from the past. Even better, there are some good and unexpected stories about the players and captains. Who knew that Matt Kuchar was so funny?

Feinstein's books are always thorough, and that reporting skill certainly shows up here. There are plenty of times when he describes events that were private or that happened behind closed doors - such as deliberations over pairings, thoughts at key moments in particular matches, team gatherings, etc. As usual - I've read about all of Feinstein's work for adult audiences (he has written some for kids) - it's a fun, easy read. The longtime author seems very comfortable writing about this subject.

It's a little tough to decide if this book is very good or exceptional. Perhaps it can be best summed up this way - it's tough to picture a treatment of the Ryder Cup done any better. Golf fans, then, probably will call "The First Major" exceptional, and zip through it while enjoying almost every page.

Five stars

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Dennis Maruk (2017)

By Dennis Maruk with Ken Reid

Nineteen players have scored 60 goals in an NHL season. There's little doubt about who are the two most anonymous members of that club.

Even Dennis Maruk, who is one of the answers to that question, knows he belongs there. He also knows that Bernie Nicholls is the other surprising answer. They may not be household names, but they are linked with named like Gretzky, Hull, Lemieux, Bossy and Lemieux.

That 60-goal season might be the reason why Maruk wrote this self-title autobiography. Fans of hockey from the 1970s and 1980s might want to know a bit more about him.

The NHL struggled at times during the 1970s, and Maruk was part of the ride by playing on some bad teams. He was the last of the California Seals (Oakland) in the NHL, and moved on to be a Cleveland Baron, was shipped to Minnesota, was traded to Washington - where he did his best work for his best teams - and then returned to Minnesota. The forward only came reasonably close to a Stanley Cup once, reaching the semifinals before running into a powerful New York Islanders team that was in the midst of a dynasty.

He was one of those guys who did what it took to score, and was very successful at it for a couple of years. Maruk had that 60-goal season in 1981-82, and had 50 the other year before. But he dropped to 31 in 1982-83, and never got about 22 after that. Still, Maruk finished with 356 goals, and that's not a bad career's work.

This book is broken into 60 chapters, which is an interesting gimmick. But in a story that takes relatively very little time to tell, I'm not sure it works so well. Maruk mentions what should be big moments in his life throughout the book, but is quick to say that he remembers absolutely no details from them. He even did a little searching of YouTube, but didn't find much. Mix that in with a lack of stories about good teams and players, and it takes less than two hours to get through this.

Since retiring from hockey, Maruk has been a little lost. He has had a series of jobs in and out of hockey over the quarter-century plus. At one point, Maruk announced to his wife in Minnesota - who had a good professional situation of her own there - that he had taken a job in Louisiana and they'd be moving. Period, end of discussion. That didn't go over too well. It led to a divorce, and puts the reader squarely in the ex-wife's corner.

To be fair, Maruk had bigger problems than that during his pro-hockey days, to the point where he came close to suicide. He's better now, and you hope he will stay on the right track for the rest of his days.

Dennis Maruk's story might have made for an interesting television feature or magazine articles, as he's a reminder that a midlife career change doesn't always turn out to be seamless. The book version probably won't work for most.

Two stars

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