Saturday, May 3, 2014

Great Sports Books: No.1

The first in a random series on great sports books. At this stage they are not produced in any specific order.

Ben Hogan: An American Life by James Dodson, Broadway Books, New York, 2004

Great American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind once wrote that golf 'had achieved the finest body of literature of any game'. While that statement is always open to debate, and clearly Mr Wind, had little knowledge of cricket while being openly dismissive of baseball's own library, he was correct in observing that golf was well served by its writers.

That point was hit home when discovering, Ben Hogan: An American Life. It had been recommended to me as an outstanding sports book by someone whose opinion I respect and while difficult to locate at short notice, a trip to one of the better annual second-hand book sales in Auckland netted the said volume in very good shape, and even better price!

While Ben Hogan's place among the greats of golf was well known and had been studied on and off over the years in various articles, the full extent of his method, success and professionalism had not been as well understood as it might have been. An on-going interest to one day take a look further into his career was to do with the writing of the man who is clearly the finest sports columnist of them all, Jim Murray. And it was he who provided the archetypal story of Hogan's greatness.

Following Arnold Palmer during a round in a tournament, Murray was on hand when Palmer played the ball into a ditch. Seeing Murray in the gallery, Palmer said to him: "Jim you are always writing about how great Ben Hogan was. What would he do in a position like this?" Murray's reply was succinct. "Hogan would never be in a position like that."

Biographer James Dodson came to the task of Hogan's tale with an impressive folio of golf writing behind him. He also had access to the impeccably kept Hogan scrapbooks. These provided a run down of every tournament Hogan played in.

But Dodson has not just provided a blow-by-blow account of Hogan's career. He has worked his contacts, made enquiries about who might have information on specific aspects of Hogan's life and has built a rounded picture of the man that is so much more than a book on golf. 

It is a lesson in life. 

Nothing came easy for Hogan. The suicide of his father when he was young left its mark on the young man and the resulting life of hardship and hard work quickly became the trademark of a life in golf.

Again, success did not come quickly. For many young sportspeople who intend a life in professional sport, the lessons of Hogan's development are a superb example of hard work maximising talent. Success was a long time coming for him and it was only when he had added the experience that he became such a hard man to beat - most often after he had been told he may never walk again after his car collided with a bus in foggy conditions.

Such had been Hogan's work ethic that there might almost have been an element of fate that prepared him for his post-accident career, where only the hard work he had already done gave him a template for recovery that left its mark brilliantly on golf's record book.

A solitary man, Hogan spent hours perfecting his game, and his swing, on the practice fairways around Fort Worth where he made his home. Sadly, an eye injury suffered as part of the crash would affect his putting in later years as he battled to get a clear picture of the lines he needed to sink his clutch putts. How much more outstanding his record could have been can only be imagined.

But the message of hard work is exemplified in his story, an example that talent alone is never enough for consistency at the top of a chosen sport. 

Hogan was described as a difficult man. Others swore by his loyalty. Some said he was shy, others that he was grumpy. But he had an honourable approach. Much like another great sportsman on the other side of the world, Don Bradman, he felt a duty to answer every letter ever written to him. Although in Hogan's case he could never understand why people cared. He thought once playing in his final Major that he would be long forgotten four or five years later.

He would learn that wasn't to be the case and while he died in 1997, Dodson's book, and those written by others, will surely ensure his legacy is never forgotten. Few will have enshrined it better than Dodson. His warts and all approach with material on Hogan's family, business life and friends, complete the picture.

Sports, sportspeople and sports writing often cop a bad deal from critics, but when quality is represented in books like that James Dodson has achieved, sports, and especially golf, literature, can, to paraphrase Herbert Warren Wind, be in a class of its own.

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