BEN HOGAN: An American Life
By James Dodson. Doubleday. 528 pp. $27.50
CADDY FOR LIFE: The Bruce Edwards Story
By John Feinstein. Little, Brown. 300 pp. $25.95
One of golf's greatest pleasures is its solitary nature. When it comes right down to it, it's just you, the ball and the hole. On the other hand, at least at the tournament level, golf can also be a team game. A good caddy is a consultant, a cartographer and even an amateur therapist. Two new golf books -- James Dodson's Ben Hogan and John Feinstein's Caddy for Life -- highlight these opposite poles of the sport.
There's probably never been a golfer better able to strip the game down to its bare essentials than the immortal Ben Hogan, winner of nine major titles between 1946 and 1953. Dodson's exhaustively researched biography argues that much of Hogan's legendary aloofness was merely a manifestation of the almost otherworldly focus that made him a champion. Dodson, author of the best-selling Final Rounds, illustrates this point with a stranger-than-fiction anecdote. During the Masters, Hogan's playing partner, Claude Harmon, hit a hole-in-one on the treacherous 12th hole at Augusta, but Hogan was so focused on his own play that he was totally oblivious of his partner's ace. "That's the first time I ever birdied that hole," Hogan said without a trace of irony.
Given his subject's private nature, Dodson had his work cut out for him. "Hogan was emotionally hard-wired not to really give a damn what people thought of his silence on any subject," he writes, "including, and maybe especially, his acquired ability to hit a golf ball better than anybody." The author's way around Hogan's wall of silence was a series of in-depth interviews with relatives and friends. "He was such a sweetheart to both me and my kids," recalls Hogan's niece Jackie. "But he always seemed a little embarrassed by the formality of how they lived."
Although Dodson deconstructs the key moments of Hogan's personal life -- his father's violent death, his near-fatal automobile accident -- he was first and foremost a golfer, so it's appropriate that this biography is first and foremost a golf book. Dodson lovingly recreates classic shots, often unearthing new eyewitness accounts. Setting the scene for the 18th hole at Merion, site of the 1950 U.S. Open and Hogan's gritty post-accident comeback, Dodson draws a virtual map of the course. "Now he faced the toughest tee shot on the golf course, a blind drive that required players to carry 220 yards over the snarling rock lip of the old quarry to a heaving bosom of turf, that would leave the average tour player demanding a long iron or fairway wood to the slightly elevated hogback putting surface of the home hole." Throughout, Dodson's prose is as smooth as Hogan's swing, and his attention to detail will impress even the most persnickety golf fan. Reading Ben Hogan is tantamount to being out on the course without having to replace your divots.
Washington Post contributor John Feinstein's Caddy for Life is really a love story, albeit one with a tragic end. It's the story of Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson's longtime caddy, who died of Lou Gehrig's Disease on the opening day of this year's Masters. Feinstein chronicles the decades-long friendship between Edwards and Watson, the Oprah-worthy relationship between Edwards and his wife, Marsha (they were married only days after his diagnosis), and, of course, Edwards's love of the game.
Feinstein's unflinching reportage follows Edwards, a long-time friend, as he deals with the hardest days of his life. "Bruce had savored the idea of walking into the house, introducing Marsha, and saying 'Mom, Dad, I want you to meet your future daughter-in-law,' " Feinstein writes. "At some point that night he was [also] going to have to tell his parents that he was dying."
But leavening these three-hanky moments is a wealth of remarkable inside-the-ropes anecdotes, like this one about Watson's legendary hole-out chip in the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
" 'Come on, Tom, get it close,' " Edwards exhorted.
"Close would be near-miraculous. And yet Watson's answer was direct and firm: 'Close?' he said. 'Hell, I'm gonna knock it in.'
"It was part bravado, part self-pep talk, and, remarkably, part logic. 'I knew that my only real chance to get the ball anyplace close to the hole was to hit the flagstick,' Watson said."
And that kind of more-than-meets-the-eye banter was at the core of the relationship between Edwards and Watson, even in moments far more trying than any triple bogey. "It could have been worse," Edwards deadpanned, as he broke the news to Watson. "I could have had a disease named after Liberace or something. At least Lou Gehrig was a great athlete."
Reading Feinstein's testimonial to his friend's indomitable spirit, it's natural to wonder what Ben Hogan would have made of Bruce Edwards. Hogan, after all, was a man who once said to his caddy, "I want you to carry my bag, son. Keep the clubs clean and your mouth shut. Is that completely understood?" But as an athlete who knew something about golf, and something about overcoming adversity, he would surely have taken Edwards's sage advice on club selection and other important matters. *
Allen St. John is co-author with Christopher Russo of "Mad Dog 100: The Greatest Sports Arguments of All Time," newly released in paperback.