A Leveling Game
Much of the sports world, or at least the couth part of it, turns next week to the U.S. Open golf championship. The scene is the west course at Winged Foot Golf Club north of New York. It is also the acreage where Claude Harmon served as head professional for more than 30 years, beginning in the mid-1940s. He was that rarity, a teaching pro who could play and a playing pro who could teach. In 1948, Harmon won the Masters at Augusta National by five strokes. At Winged Foot, he gave thousands of lessons. Among his students were his four sons, all of whom went into golf themselves.
The most hailed was Claude "Butch" Harmon Jr. His The Pro: Lessons from My Father About Golf and Life (Crown, $24.95), written with Steve Eubanks, is a reverential look at an athlete who put his family first by declining the nomadic life of a touring pro. Butch Harmon offers enough stories to keep the 19th-hole taproom going halfway to midnight. Golf tales are here aplenty: about Claude Harmon and Bobby Jones, about Harmon and Ben Hogan, about Harmon as the teacher of kings, presidents and those whom P.G. Wodehouse called "top-notchers" and "foozlers."
Now in his early sixties and having played the PGA tour for three years, Butch Harmon himself has had star students: Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Davis Love III. Harmon's accounts of helping Tiger and other guns hit it far and straight are ably told but are sideshows to his memories of his father's personal warmth and grace.
I had a glimpse of those qualities in 1959, when I played an exhibition match with Claude Harmon at Sands Point Golf Club on Long Island. Every summer, he and another pro -- usually Shelley Mayfield -- came to Sands Point to play its pro and its club champion, which, that year, thanks to a lucky bounce or two, was me. I was only a college boy in the amateur ranks, but to Claude Harmon, for those 18 holes, I was a fellow golfer. As the son notes, "Whether you had everything or nothing, whether you had come from privilege and fallen into poverty or come from nothing and risen into greatness, the game treated you the same, and so did my father."
Up From Drudgery
Among those who did rise from nothing to greatness through golf, few bucked greater odds than Johnny Goodman. The son of Lithuanian Catholic immigrants who settled near the hog pens and slaughterhouses of Omaha, Goodman was orphaned at 14. His mother died after delivering her 13th child. Soon, his father, a lush and a lout, fled. On his own, Goodman found work caddying at the Omaha Field Club. Of the stuffy members at the swankiest playground in town, how many would have guessed that a reserved, impoverished kid in their own caddy yard would win the U.S. Open only 10 years later?
In The King of Swings: Johnny Goodman, the Last Amateur to Beat the Pros at Their Own Game (Houghton Mifflin, $26), Michael Blaine offers not only a well-crafted biography of a resilient athlete but also a honed sociological portrait of Midwestern life in the 1920s and '30s. "The Omaha Field Club," Blaine writes, "must have seemed like a glorious oasis to Johnny Goodman. The city's most distinguished and affluent citizens drifted in and out of the lavish clubhouse. Johnny also caught glimpses of holiday activities, charity affairs, and tea parties for women who flounced around in the latest fashions. Among themselves, the caddies gossiped about the faster, younger women who sneaked a smoke or had a taste for strong spirits or didn't mind flashing an ankle."
Blaine dug into varied archives to capture the flavor of the 1920s, when hickory shafts, plus fours and hardpan fairways were the rule. He traces Goodman's first hint of greatness to his victory in the Omaha caddy championship. The same year, playing with cast-off clubs, he won the city title. Four years later, after scores of days spent hauling rich people's golf clubs and practicing on caddys' day, he rode a grubby mail train to the 1929 U.S. Amateur tournament at Pebble Beach. In the first round, the 19-year-old kid from the servant class bested Bobby Jones, a country club boy and darling of the upper class. Four years later, Goodman won the U.S. Open against a field that included Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Tommy Armour. In 1937, Goodman won the U.S. Amateur. No one since has won both tournaments, and no other amateur has won the U.S. Open.
It's been a while since I have so relished a biography of an athlete. Always refusing to compete for prize money, Goodman chose not to cash in on his fame. Blaine explains it well: "Johnny Goodman's values became a relic of a lost time. In our money-driven moment of American history, the idea that amateur athletes have an innate purity that is lacking in professionals sounds so quaint as to be incomprehensible. Today, scouts crawl all over talented junior high school basketball players, and we think nothing of it."
Goodman died in 1970, at age 60. I recently heard from a friend who served drinks at the Omaha Field Club that a favorite spot for current members is the Johnny Goodman Room.
Golfer in Residence
Amateur -- from the Latin amator , lover -- is at the core of George Peper's Two Years in St. Andrews: At Home on the 18th Hole (Simon & Schuster, $25). Sagging shelves of sports books hold the story of the Scottish links that nearly everyone ranks as golf's most sacred shrine. I'm not among the worshipers. Take away the six centuries of encrusted lore and subtract the profundities forever being spouted by canny St. Andrews caddies, and the course is not much more than a few hundred acres of tricked-up fairways, overly large greens and treeless terrain marked by bedeviling humps and hillocks.
Peper disagrees. Fair enough. He admired the Old Course at St. Andrews so much that he took radical action. In July 1983, he paid an excessive $65,000 for a townhouse bordering the 18th hole. It took many years of fixing up the place and renting it out to students before he and his wife moved from their New York suburb to settle in.
As a seasoned golf journalist -- he's written more than a dozen books on the game, plus spent 25 years as the editor of Golf Magazine -- Peper had no trouble finding material for these 43 chapters of fast-paced prose. The stories range from his becoming a dues-paying member of St. Andrews -- you don't join, you're elected -- to figuring out how to fit in with the town's codgers, who are ever wary of outsiders, especially burly Americans. Although it would help to be mildly rabid about golf to savor all that's here, Peper offers enough cultural and social commentary to draw in others, too.
A Course for the Ages
If nothing else, Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes (Algonquin, $24.95) takes us into the mind of Mike Keiser, a golf lover who had millions with which to speculate. Stephen Goodwin, a former director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, combines reportage and commentary in describing Keiser's successful drive to build a world-class golf course on Oregon's Pacific coast.
After majoring in English and making the golf team at Amherst, Keiser went into the greeting-card business and specialized in 100-percent recycled cards. Environmentalism came along, and by the mid-1980s, annual sales at Keiser's company -- Recycled Paper Greetings -- were nearing $100 million. "I'd made enough money to do what I wanted," Keiser reports, "and I wanted to build a golf course that people would be playing five hundred years from now."
If globally warmed rising oceans don't submerge Oregon's shoreline, that may happen. To his credit, Keiser built a course open to the public. He kept the greens fees low, separating him from egomaniacs such as Donald Trump who ransack the land to build private clubs for the wealthy few. Further credit is due to Keiser: At his Bandon Dunes course, which opened in May 1999 and has been hailed by golf writers as rivaling the natural beauty of Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Shinnecock Hills, no cart paths and no golf carts desecrate the landscape. With the help of caddies -- as endangered a species as the grey wolf -- golf at Bandon Dunes has a quiet purity. Goodwin writes, it's "just men and women walking side-by-side, playing an ancient game by the sea, making a little journey together."
The technology of hopped-up golf balls whacked by oversized club heads is cutting off golf from its past. But as long as writers like these keep coming forward with worthy accounts of what the game was and the finest who played it, no one should worry. ·
Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace, is the author of "The Pleasures of the Game." He has played in several PGA tournaments.