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Inside the ropes...and between some ears
on 3 August 2007
The year was 1998 and the winners were Mark O'Meara (The Masters at Augusta National and The British Open at Royal Birkdale), Lee Janzen (The U.S. Open at the Olympic Club), and Vijay Singh (The P.G.A. Championship at Sahalee Country Club). Although all four Majors are conducted under the collaborative supervision of the U.S.G.A. and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club organizations, each has its own terms and conditions for participation as well as stages of qualification to compete with those who, for various reasons, are automatically eligible. For me, one of this book's most fascinating subjects is the qualifying process to which many are called but few are eventually chosen. Perhaps only the annual process to earn a P.G.A card creates greater tension and frustration for those involved.
To the extent that space allows, Feinstein examines wannabes as well as perennial and promising contenders for each of the championships in 1998. He includes hundreds of vignettes and anecdotes about them, thus giving human significance to the names on the scoreboard. I also appreciate having historical information which creates a context for each Major, three of which have a different course location each year. Only the Masters has a permanent site.
P.G.A. golf competition is unique among professional sports in that players are essentially self-regulated, personally assume all costs of participation (travel, accommodations, caddy, etc.), and earn nothing if they fail to make the 36-hole cut. It is not uncommon for one player to prevent another from inadvertently breaking a rule as Tom Kite once did near the end of the final round when he was in contention. Later, Kite was astonished that anyone was surprised by his initiative which probably denied him victory in that tournament. (The player he assisted won it.) Feinstein skillfully captures the flavor and nuances of what can be ferocious competition but also the fact that it is (with rare exceptions) conducted with dignity, style, and grace as well as with exceptional skill.
For those who love the game of golf and especially for golfers who are eager to know what it is like to compete in the Majors, this is the book to read. It reads more like a novel than an almanac. It reveals "the joy of victory" for some and the "agony of defeat for others" while celebrating certain values which seem to have become less common each day...except on a golf course. For whatever it may be worth, over the years I have played probably 500 rounds of golf on several dozen different golf courses (both public and private) and do not remember a single "ugly" encounter with another player. Having said that, I feel obliged to point out that "golf" is "flog" spelled backwards. On numerous occasions, it really has been for me "a good walk spoiled" but my passion for the game and my respect for those who play it so well remain undiminished.
Beginning in 1960, Theodore H. White wrote several "The Making of the President" accounts. I was reminded of that as I read this book, wishing that Feinstein or another author of comparable talent would write an annual volume in (let's call it) "The Making of Majors' Champions" series. This would enable avid golfers such as I to return in time to memorable moments during past Majors competition. End-of-year DVDs featuring such moments plus commentaries among special features would also be much appreciated. Meanwhile, we have Feinstein's lively as well as informative book which recreates (to the extent a text can) stirring triumphs by O'Meara, Janzen, and Singh as well as dozens of other human subplots associated with those victories eight years ago.