Men in Green
by Michael Bamberger (Simon & Schuster, $27, 260 pages)
Whether it’s Gay Talese profiling heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson, John McPhee describing the artistry of basketball great Bill Bradley or Roger Angell writing anything about baseball, the best sportswriting is about more than the sport that is its ostensible subject. That’s what makes Michael Bamberger’s Men in Green, nominally a book about what Bamberger calls 18 “legends of the game,” one that will appeal to more than passionate golf fans.
Less concerned with birdies and bogeys than he is with exploring the stories behind the lives and careers of his subjects, Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated for two decades and briefly a tour caddie himself, matches a keen eye for the sport that’s been the subject of two of his previous books – The Green Road Home and To the Linksland – with a knack for getting his subjects to share their candid reminiscences in revealing fashion.
Men in Green is book-ended by visits to Arnold Palmer, someone whose greatness took him to the “highest floor in the American Pantheon Building in a paneled room with an open bar,” and Jack Nicklaus, “discussing his wins and losses and opponents and friends with casual, genuine intimacy.” Though their competitive days are far behind them, one senses that the fire of some of their ancient contests still burns brightly amid the genuine friendship that exists today between these two former rivals. Contrast Bamberger’s admiration for these two legends with the somewhat less-than-flattering stories he shares about Tiger Woods, who once appeared on his way to besting Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional major championships, and whose dominance now is passing to a new generation of golfers.
Sharing the stage with other “living legends,” like Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Mickey Wright (the only female Bamberger recognizes), is Ken Venturi, 1964 U.S. Open champion and a longtime CBS golf analyst. For more than half a century, Venturi nursed a lingering resentment toward Palmer over a dispute at the 1958 Masters, when Palmer, in Venturi’s view, took advantage of a loophole in the rules and beat Venturi by two shots. Bamberger, who shared a dinner with Venturi not long before the golfer’s death in 2013, uses that story to pursue questions about the integrity that is the game’s bedrock. In the process, he tracks down Venturi’s ex-wife Conni at her modest home in Napa, Calif., a poignant encounter that casts a different light on the simmering grudge.
The men Bamberger calls his “secret legends,” people “devoted to doing a difficult thing well,” are as interesting, in their own way, as those of the more well-known subjects.
Bamberger recounts a visit to Dolphus “Golf Ball” Hull, a longtime tour caddie now living in a Jackson, Miss. nursing home. Hull overcomes his failing health to delight Bamberger with colorful stories of the caddie’s life on tour, including one about an overnight visit Hall of Fame golfer Raymond Floyd once made to his home. When Bamberger tries to confirm the story with Floyd, his differing account exposes the fallibility of memory, one of the themes of this book.
Bamberger plays a round with Neil Oxman, a highly regarded political consultant from Philadelphia, who has moonlighted for years as a tour caddie, including carrying Tom Watson’s bag at the 2009 British Open, when Watson came within a final hole bogey of becoming the oldest man ever to win a major championship at age 59. Other secret legends, like writer Jaime Diaz, retired CBS golf producer Chuck Will and lawyer and former United States Golf Association President Sandy Tatum, are examples of men without whom the playing careers of the legendary pros Bamberger profiles would not have engaged so many.
Bamberger’s companion for most of his journey (and one of his secret legends) has his own fascinating, if heartbreaking, story. Mike Donald played in 550 events in 27 years on the PGA Tour, winning one tournament and $1.97 million in that span. But his one brush with glory occurred at the 1990 U.S. Open, where he battled Hale Irwin, two-time winner of the tournament, to a tie through 72 holes of regulation play and an 18-hole playoff, only to lose in sudden death on the 91st hole, transforming what would have been a career-defining moment into also-ran status.
“Golf coursed through their veins,” Bamberger writes in summing up the one passion all 18 of his subjects share. Even at its highest levels, perhaps especially so there, golf is a complex and humbling game, its secrets grasped one day and then, mysteriously, gone the next.
When asked at the 1974 U.S. Open whether the USGA was trying to humiliate the world’s best players, Sandy Tatum, then its president, said, “No. We are trying to identify them.”
Michael Bamberger would have needed a much longer book to identify all those in and around the game who have contributed to its greatness, but he’s paid worthy tribute to the ones whose stories comprise this consistently entertaining book.