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A great book re-telling a great game
on 15 October 2011
My daughter, a flautist, once asked me in her teenage years to take her to a great flautist's concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London; on the journey back, she asked how I had enjoyed the concert. I told her before asking her the same question. What followed was a detailed description of the music's complexity and the instrumental skills required to play it. I wondered if we had attended the same concert - her flautist's eyes and ears had been aware of so much more.
So it is with Mark Frost's 2002 book. Although many readers may enjoy it just as a story, only a golfer will understand and appreciate it fully.
Frost is a skilful story-teller who knows how to keep readers in suspense and often, while striding down the narrative's fairways towards a long, straight drive out of the screws, he leaps into the rough and just as annoyance begins to fester, a brand-new, once-hit golf ball appears. At the risk of more mixed metaphors, Frost tells his tale but tangentially throws facts, people and events in which become fascinating in themselves: in the build up to the 1913 Open, we read a succinct description of the ways in which golfing standardisation and terminology developed, e.g. par, bogey and standard scratch (P 177-8); the first press tent was erected at the 1913 Open (P 194); in 1913, plugged balls had to be played as they lay until 1960 and pitchmarks on greens could not be repaired.
He describes all the events in great detail and breathes vivid life into the characters of all the players; he looks into their eyes then reads their minds in the crucible of competition at the highest levels.
"Walter, (Hagen) throughout his life always came off as a bit of a rogue. Not in the dishonest sense; more in the style of an adored, risqué uncle, who'd spin tall tales about exotic ports of call while he dazzled you with effortless sleight of hand magic tricks, the tang of peppermint on his breath not quite camouflaging the three whiskey sours he'd downed at lunch." (P 186 He is not portrayed very favourably in the film "The Legend of Bagger Vance" either.)
However, it is for Harry Vardon and Frances Oimet that he retains his fulsome praise, players he obviously admires greatly; his descriptions of Vardon do not ignore his less admirable traits but they are mentioned with the delicacy, subtlety and prudence typical of the press of his day. His meticulous portrayal of Oimet gradually builds in intensity until he fills the pages. Their match is described in minute detail, obviously after comprehensive research.
For anyone interested in the modern advance of this great game, the national rivalry still under-pinning the Ryder Cup's friendly meetings, the names which fill the Royal and Ancient's history, the development of the golf club and ball and the nature of the game itself for the players who play it in national competitions and on the lowliest of fairways today, Frost has written a wonderful book. It is difficult to believe my copy made its way from America in three days, for less than the price of a decent golf ball; what a bargain and it will certainly live longer!