Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Trials and Triumphs of Golf's Greatest Champions by Lyle Slovick – Book Review

Trials and Triumphs of Golf's Greatest Champions by Lyle Slovick (Rowan & Littlefield, 2016, 318 pages, $36.00/19.79) seeks to examine the lives and careers of six inspirational golfers and an equally inspirational caddy who, through their lives and careers demonstrated the importance of striving for excellence in the face of handicaps facing them that would have discouraged or completely disabled those of less drive, persistence, and faith. Relying almost entirely on secondary sources, Slovick explores each of his subjects with efforts to understand their problems, interpreting the degree which their force of character made their success possible.

Slovick has chosen to profile seven damaged people. Harry Vardon (1870 - 1938) grew up in poverty in England, contracted tuberculosis as a young man, and was caught in a loveless marriage. Despite these handicaps he won the British Open seven times and the U.S. Open once as well as 53 other tournaments. He invented the Vardon grip, still used in a modified form by most golfers. He was a noted teacher as well as competitor. Bobby Jones (1902 – 1971) was the only amateur to ever win all four of the then major championships in one year, winning seven majors and 25 additional championships. Despite being born to relative comfort, he lived his life in pain, due to a debilitating spinal disease. After retiring from active competition, he established the Augusta National golf club and the Master's Championship. Ben Hogan (1912 – 1997) grew up in poverty and saw his father commit suicide. At the height of his career, he was involved in an almost fatal automobile accident that severely damaged his legs, causing him to play in pain for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he won nine majors and 55 other tournaments. He became a noted analyst of the game, writing a book on the golf swing that is still a standard.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956) won eleven major tournaments and 31 other LPGA events. At the time she played golf, she was handicapped because of her gender and the economic background from which she had come. She was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest athletes during her era, having competed in basketball, track and field, and baseball before coming to golf. She had a rough and tumble Texas-poor personality. She was successful in challenging the conventional wisdom of the time regarding femininity as well as changing some of the accepted wisdom about women in sport. She battled cancer for years, but sill continued with golf until she could no longer walk on a golf course, due to the cancer assailing her body. Charlie Sifford, was one of the earliest African-Americans to seek entry into the Professional Golfers Association, which, at the time, had a Caucasians only clause in its constitution. Over time, through persistence, his own excellence, and a couple of law suits, he was able, way past his prime, to play in a few major tournaments, winning four times, in addition to 17 wins in the old Negro golf association. The book concludes with profiles of Ken Venturi, who suffered from stuttering and a distant, cold, father, and caddy Bruce Edwards, who carried Tom Watson's bag in a number of golf tournaments before being diagnosed with ALS, for which he became a national spokesman after he could no longer carry a bag.

Lyle Slovick

Lyle Slovick is a historian and golf enthusiast, having played and studied the game for over 40 years. He has an M.A. degree in American History and is a former Assistant University Archivist at the George Washington University, where he worked for 13 years amongst the rare books and manuscripts in the Gelman Library Special Collections Department. Lyle enjoys telling stories that shed new light and offer new perspective on often well-trod subjects – what he describes as “augmented interpretation.” This book is an expression of his passion for the game of golf, which has taken him to various major championships around the world, including the Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland, the home of golf. Lyle enjoys traveling, reading (especially biographies), and resides in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he currently works as a consultant for the United States Golf Association.

Slovick is, by profession, an archivist. He does his best to bring life to the athletes he profiles, but is hindered by two things. First, he has been forced to rely primarily on secondary sources for almost all his information. In many of the cases, these secondary sources were the ghost writers who “helped” the golfers write autobiographies. Many of the descriptions come across as the cleaned up writing of a professional ghost writer rather than taking on the real spirit that the athlete might have managed. By interpreting second and third hand sources with inadequate writing skills himself, Slovick sadly misses the boat. Second, in writing this book, Slovick appears to have his own agenda. He wishes to bring forth character based on the golfer's faith in God. These faith statements were, at best, formulaic and general, not indicating a fully developed faith or process of searching. Slovick is a prodigious researcher and the book is carefully annotated. Fully twenty three percent its content is comprised of footnotes and references for further reading. Much too much for a popular book about athletes.

Trials and Triumphs of Golf's Greatest Champions by Lyle Slovick (Rowan & Littlefield, 2016, 318 pages, $36.00/19.79) seeks to explore the lives of six golfers and a caddy, each of whom overcame barriers to become remarkable performers both on and off the golf course through their character and their faith. Rather than allow the stories to emerge organically, Slovick's writing is governed more by his agenda than by the actual characters themselves, who often come across as wooden caricatures. Sadly, I can't recommend the book for golf fans or other general readers. I received the book from the publisher through TLC Booktours in a hardback version.  

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