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Twenty Over Par

A celebration of the great American game that began in Scotland.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By BYRON YORK
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The Golf Book

by the editors of Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated, 288 pp., $29.95

Like any sport, golf has its sacred relics. There's Bobby Jones's putter, Calamity Jane. The four-wood Gene Sarazen used to hit the shot heard 'round the world. John Daly's bar tabs. Golfers love that kind of thing, no matter how esoteric. For example, Ben Hogan had a couple of extra spikes custom-drilled into his golf shoes. He said it gave him more stability when nailing those one-irons that came to rest eight feet from the flag. Studying the soles of Hogan's shoes is enormously fascinating for the true devotee.

But you can take things too far. And in The Golf Book, the new coffee-table offering from Sports Illustrated, we are presented with a reliquary that includes a photo of a 1950s-era bottle of paraffin oil, a noxious fluid then used to treat irregularity. Its connection to golf immortality is that it came from Nicklaus Drugs, the Columbus, Ohio, shop where owner Charlie Nicklaus, father of Jack, made the money that allowed his son to learn the game at Scioto Country Club. Perhaps one could argue that if Charlie hadn't sold that very bottle of laxative, the boy might never have gone on to win 18 major championships. But does paraffin oil really rank up there with Hogan's spikes?

Still, that's a quibble. These days, with Tiger Woods in the scandal sheets and a new president trying to become the golfingest chief executive since Eisenhower, The Golf Book is a broad and pleasant introduction to the game's legends. Even if a golfer has seen much of it before, he probably wouldn't mind looking at it again. There are excerpts from SI's greatest golf writing: Herbert Warren Wind's report on the 1958 Masters, in which he gave the name "Amen Corner" to the fateful intersection of the 11th, 12th, and 13th holes. Byron Nelson's 1997 eulogy for his friend Hogan: "He was a peculiar person, and I'm a peculiar person, so it's no surprise that ours was a peculiar relationship." Jim Murray's lovely 1955 report on Hogan's weary, whisky-sipping locker-room banter with fellow players when it appeared he had won what would have been a record-setting fifth U.S. Open--only, in the end, to find out that the unknown Jack Fleck had caught up with him, forcing a next-day playoff that Hogan would lose.

There are classic photos, too. There's a great shot of the press tent at the 1951 Masters--a real tent, with plank floors, bare-bulb lighting, and a chalk scoreboard, and reporters in argyle socks and press-guy hats pounding on big Underwood typewriters. A shot of the bag-drop at the '54 Masters: The players' bags were skinny, beat-up, plaid cloth-and-leather affairs, nothing like the garish, logo-covered steamer trunks that caddies carry today. And there's a swimming pool shaped like a sand wedge, featuring "a hot tub at the hotel," courtesy of John Solheim, of the Ping golf equipment family.

The centerpiece of The Golf Book is its ranking of the top 20 players in history. Although it promises the results "are sure to start arguments," there's not much to argue about; would anyone dispute that Nicklaus, Woods, and Jones are the top three? The only remarkable thing is that there is only one player active today (Woods) who is in the all-time top 20. In 1950, three of the top 20--Hogan, Nelson, and Sam Snead--were active. In 1965, four--Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Billy Casper--were active. In 1980, five--Nicklaus, Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, and Seve Ballesteros. Now, there's just Woods. More than anything, the list shows how today's players, apart from Tiger, don't measure up to history.

Perhaps in a decade or so, when the next big coffee-table golf extravaganza comes out, things will be different. Certainly we will have some new relics, perhaps including the nine-iron (or maybe it was a lob wedge?) that Elin Woods allegedly wielded as she allegedly chased her allegedly cheating husband Tiger around the garage of their Florida mansion before his fateful SUV ride into a tree.

Until then, The Golf Book will do just fine.

Byron York, chief political correspondent at the Washington Examiner, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of the Democrats' Desperate Fight to Reclaim Power.