Although I drive past the Ouimet museum every day on my way to work, have contributed to the Ouimet Scholarship fund for caddies for many years and thought I knew all about the 1913 Open, this book was an eye opener for me. Almost everything I thought I knew was incorrect in some important detail, and the best parts of the story were unknown to me until I read this well researched and exciting book.
While I'm not sure that the 1913 Open was the greatest game ever played, I do know that The Greatest Game Ever Played was the best sports book I read in 2003. I heartily recommend it to any golf fan and those who love to read about the underdog rising to the top.
Before discussing the Open, let me comment that this book has a format that most will find unusual. There is extensive background on the origins of golf, the backgrounds of the players, the development of golf in the United States and the social history of the time, as well a lengthy section on aftermaths of the players and individuals involved. You will learn about unexpected subjects, such as how tuberculosis was treated before there were antibiotics.
The story-telling style is in the best tradition of fictional dramatizations. Some of the dialogue is invented. The author indicates that "in employing dialogue to bring these scenes to life, I used source material for direct attribution whenever possible. In its occasional absence I attempted to infer intent from prose or reportage . . . . In rare exceptions, with a dramatist's license, and in the utter want of an eyewitness, I took the liberty of elaborating on those perceptions beyond what I could absolutely verify." It's impossible to know which dialogue material is a quotation and what is invented, so don't take the dialogue too literally. It's like watching a made-for-television movie about the Open. One of the strengths of the dramatization is to capture the psychology of the event in what read to me like realistic terms.
During the matches, there's a tremendous amount of detail about the shots that were taken. I was impressed by the amount of research that went into capturing the drama of the occasion.
If you don't know the story, Harry Varden was the greatest star of his day. He was touring the United States with Ted Ray to earn money and to establish British superiority over the Americans by winning the Open. Before he was done, he would win six British Open championships despite having lost many years due to World War I and his illness with tuberculosis . . . and its permanent effects on his putting. Varden was Ouimet's idol, in fact. Their backgrounds were very similar in coming up as caddies from poor, working class families. Golf had been a game for the privileged rich until a small class of professionals rose up. Ouimet's victory was exceptional in that he played as an amateur and because he was so inexperienced. His victory had large ramifications for the sport in encouraging its further development in the United States and in attracting future stars to the game like Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones.
The venue for the competition was The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ouimet lived across from the 17th hole and learned to play on three holes that he and his brother built in their backyard. Ouimet got his first golf club by trading used balls he found on the course. Golf fans will be delighted to know that the 17th hole has been important in three major tournaments at TCC, the most recent being the long putt that Justin Leonard made there to win the Ryder Cup in 1999.
To me, one of the most delightful parts of the story involved tiny 10-year-old Eddie Lowery caddying for Ouimet after the first day of qualifying. Eddie was no taller than the bag and had to dodge the truant officer to get to the course. He had injured his foot before the Open and the wound bled through his bandage every day. Anyone who has ever had a young caddy will be reminded of the pleasures of working with a youngster and how that joy adds to the fun of playing.
Mr. Frost is an exceptional story teller, and I hope that he will write other historical dramatizations in the future.
As I finished the book, I realized that I should be sure to look for well researched versions of historical subjects to test my understanding of those events. Otherwise, my beliefs will often be wrong . . . and I will miss out on the drama of the real story.
on October 5, 2003
It would be hard to come up with a more obscure topic for a book. The 1913 US Open? Are you kidding? Who wants to read about that? It was only because I heard a positive review of this book over the radio that I even considered picking it up. I am most gratified that I did.
The first section of the book, which discusses both the rise of Harry Vardon to golf superstardom and the childhood of Francis Ouimet, is riveting. Two individuals, raised half a world apart (although in similar economic circumstances) make their way through their respective worlds. It seems totally unlikely that their two paths will ever intersect.
The second section of the book, which covers the qualifying & final rounds for the US Open, was to me a little less engaging, at least until the final playoff round between Ouimet, Vardon, and Ted Ray, where the 20-year-old Ouimet shocked the golf world by defeating the seasoned British professionals. His victory announced the arrival of American golf, and ranks as one of the great upsets in sports history. Ouimet was the first US amateur to win the US Open. The stroke-by-stroke description of the final round is a true page-turner.
The book only bogged down when the author attempts to describe the era in which the game is set. He gushes over Teddy Roosevelt & castigates William Howard Taft, whose term he describes as one of the most disastrous in history. This section not only seems unnecessary, but clearly shows that Frost is not exactly a student of US history. Taft may not be one our great presidents, but his term was not exactly a fiasco. Why Frost spends as many pages ripping into Taft is a mystery to me.
All golfers should read this, if for no other reason than to be humbled by the description of the equipment & conditioins under which these golfers played. In a day of graphite shafts & over-sized heads, where duffers can launch the ball great distances, it is almost inconceivable that men could play with any accuracy with wooden shafts & gutties. One is left with the impression that Harry Vardon would massacre most modern-day professionals if given half the chance. It is very depressing for hackers such as myself, but then one has the example of Francis Ouimet, who reminds us why we love the game so much.
on August 8, 2003
One of the things that impressed me the most about this book is how the author succeeded in practically making a novel out of this non-fiction story. This added even more depth and drama to a story that had plenty to begin with. I mean let's face it--one has to assume that 99% of the dialogue had to be invented out of whole cloth. There is no reason to suspect that much more than that would have been recorded for posterity. And yet all of the dialogue seemed completely realistic. The author not only accounted for their difference in ages (ranging from Eddie Lowery at 10 years old on up), and their difference in nationalities, but also for the fact that this was 1913 and people presumably spoke a bit differently back then. I was also impressed by the extreme detail as to the actual golf matches themselves, not only at the 1913 U.S. Open itself but also at a number of tournments that preceded the Open. Is it possible that every single shot which Frost describes in such detail had been recorded somewhere in the contemporary records of the era? That seems just a little too hard to swallow. And if so, it makes his writing all that much more impressive. In any event, a great read.
on March 1, 2003
After sober reflection, I state my conviction that, if I lived the length of a dozen lives, I should never again be the spectator of such an amazing,
thrilling and magnificent finish to an Open championship.
-Bernard Darwin (1876-1961), The Times of London
Mark Frost has already proven himself a terrific writer, with such television series as the great Hill Street Blues and the innovative Twin Peaks to his credit,
and a few successful novels, including the excellent Sherlock Holmes homage, The List of Seven>, and a sequel, The Six Messiahs. But I don't know that
anything can have prepared even his fans for this book, which, though one must have some reservations about its form, is quite simply one of the best golf
books ever written.
To begin with, Mr. Frost has chosen his topic wisely. Harry Vardon (1870-1937) and Francis Ouimet (1893-1967)--both of whom came from working
class families, had difficult relationships with their fathers, and learned to golf as boys at the local courses where they caddied, Ouimet in Massachusetts, Vardon some twenty-plus years earlier on
the Isle of Jersey--are thoroughly compelling heroes. In 1913 their similar stories converged at The Country Club, in Brookline, MA--the very club at which Francis had caddied--in the United
States Open. Harry Vardon was at that time probably the best golfer in the world and in previous visits to America had been instrumental in marketing the game here. But it was to be the young
amateur Francis Ouimet's playoff victory over the professional Vardon and countryman Ted Ray that, or so Mr. Frost argues, gave birth to the modern golf era in America.
The book starts with extended biographical sketches of the two men and the events that brought them to the tee for their face-off. Numerous other characters are on hand to lend color--two of
whom stand out, and will be the star-making roles in the inevitable movie: the dashing young American professional Walter Hagen (golf's eventual answer to Babe Ruth) and Eddie Lowery,
Ouimet's preternaturally self-assured ten year old caddie. Digressions inform us about changes in rules and equipment, the professionalization of the sport, and its popularization. But it is the
tournament itself that forms the bulk of the book, particularly the final day, the Monday playoff, when the little known twenty year old, playing before large and enthusiastic hometown galleries, on a
course across the street from his own house, had to fend off two of the world's best.
Mr. Frost's prose gets a tad purplish at times, but personally I thought that gave it the feel, of old time sportswriting. Besides, the story is so improbable that the reality seems like a clich?, so why not
write it like a sports movie? More troubling is that Mr. Frost has chosen to provide dialogue and to ascribe thoughts and feelings to the various players even though he has had to create some of it
himself, without ever differentiating which is which. Although it serves his purposes as a storyteller well, fleshing out the characters and letting us see them interact "naturally" with one another, it
actually becomes distracting because you can't help but wondering which thoughts and words come from people's memoirs and contemporaneous accounts of the event (which are apparently
sufficiently extensive so that much of what's here is genuine) and which are purely made up. It also--though we've seen experiments of this kind in recent years, like Edmund Morris's
Dutch--seems more than a little unfair to attribute imagined words and emotions to real people who don't have an opportunity to dispute or confirm them. It would, I think, have been preferable to
simply call the book a novelization, in the tradition of Michael Sharaa's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels. At the very least, there should be footnotes to indicate where
truth ends and fiction begins. From an author or publisher's point of view there may be reasons not to do these things--just in terms of the sales and marketing of novels vs. nonfiction and reader
dislike of footnotes--but from a standpoint of intellectual rigor it's somewhat disconcerting.
Once you get past these considerations--and take my word for it, the writing and the story are so exciting that you will get past any questions--you're in for an unbelievably thrilling tale. It's
especially recommended for golf fans, who will find the tangential stuff about the clubs and balls they used just as interesting as the championship, but it should really appeal to everyone, in much the
same way that Seabiscuit reached past horse race fans to a wide audience. It's a marvelous read and seems certain to make for a great movie.
on January 8, 2003
I'm still entranced by this work. It ties the game many of us are passionate about with two key individuals: Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet.
From their confrontation at The Country Club emanated modern golf era in America and Bobbby, Jack, Arnie, Tiger et al.
That's just one of many points that struck this reader, the amazing influence Vardon and Ouimet had. The grip, the ball, the fame, the book. Francis taken in by all this. Harry finally taken in by this young golfer from across the street.
The first half is just superb history telling by a master writer who has done the research so well. Amazing chapter on what was going on historically in 1913. Context makes this so riverting reading!
The second half is the Open that started the U.S. modern era.
Parallels abound between Harry and Francis and their love for the game, start and family interest.
From a growing sizeable personal golf library, this will be a most treasured volume, to be reread fondly. Those who follow golf will want to know this heritage which runs from Morris to Vardon to Ouimet to Sarazen to Jones to Venturi to you and me. What a book! What a game!
on December 4, 2002
This is easily the most exciting work of non-fiction I have ever read.
The natural elements for a great story were always there--the young underdog vs. the steely veteran; the conquering of a leisure class pastime by the lad with a hardscrabble past; the ferocious contest between two competitors with vastly different styles, but an identical will to achieve. All against a backdrop of a young nation beginning to discover and assert itself.
These elements were always there, but it was author Frost whose keen eye identified this seminal moment in the birth and growth of golf in America. And it is Frost who has woven a story of the 1913 US Open that is at once engrossing, riveting and precision paced. The final chapters of the book provide as much drama as any top fictional thriller, yet Frost manages to intersperce his narrative with lovely descriptions of the game and of living in America during its formative years. The book is a great read for lovers of the game, but also for those who appreciate the historical parallel that America was as vital and raw and explosive as the duel that catapulted golf into the mainstream of American sports culture.
on November 9, 2002
Mark Frosts first novel, The List Of Seven, was so meticulously researched, had you not known it was fiction you would believe it to be fact. His latest work, The Greatest Game Ever Played, is so well structured and vivid in its description of characters and events, had you not known it was fact, you would embrace it as a novel. It is a wonderful, captivating, heartwarming yarn. And every detail is true.
It took me nearly two weeks to read The Greatest Game Ever Played - not because Im a slow reader nor because the book is that long - but, because I savored each chapter, internalized its characters, and then proceeded to go out and shoot a terrific game of golf. Frosts historical novel actually taught me to play better by inviting me inside the hearts and minds of golfing greats Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet. I simply didnt want the experience to end.
Frosts gift for storytelling is at its best as he tackles a subject he clearly loves. His fascination and enthusiasm are contagious. The Greatest Game Ever Played is a book you will read more than once and want to share with your friends: golfers, golf-widows, and all those who simply think golfers are crazy.
on December 26, 2002
This is a very well written history of players in the 1913 US Open. I enjoyed the history behind each player and the turns their careers made after the historic win by Ouimet. The author does an excellent job of describing the play of the qualifying rounds and the actual tournament. The descriptions of the shots and the play of significant players was like being there. I did not understand or appreciate the significance of the 1913 US Open until I read this book. The history of the English golfers and their golf makes one wish we could meet them today (Harry Vardon and Ted Ray). The golf rules of 1913 also are very well outlined and illustrate the style of play during that time in history. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the game of golf and I feel it helps one appreciate the test that golf has each time we step on the course. Wonderful book and a very well written true story!
on December 7, 2002
Mark Frost takes you back to the beginning of the American golf boom. The inspiring detailed account of Francis Ouimet's 1913 US Open is just one part of this wonderful historical book. Frost takes you through Harry Vardon's career and Francis Ouimet's childhoods, with background of all the great British golfers at the turn of the century. He then traces the growth of American golf, with the stories of John McDermott, Long Jim Barnes and a young Walter Hagen. All participants in the 1913 US Open.
Until reading this book, I never understood the impact of Ouimet's win on the careers and lives of Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Francis' caddy, Eddie Lowery, and American golf in general. This book belongs in the hands of every young golfer, just as Francis Ouimet grew up with and was inspired by Harry Vardon's "The Complete Golfer".
on November 28, 2002
Well, I'm not much of a golfer, but I gotta say that this book rocks. I'm guessing this author combed every damn newspaper clipping and reference available from 1913....he must have lived in a library, cause he does a terrific job of recreating what these guys might have been saying and thinking. It made me feel like I was actually there....does a great job of capturing the tension of both the moment and the times.
By the way, the story is unbelievable. This 20 year old kid, Francis Ouimet, a amateur golfer from Boston, takes on the best two golfers in the world and kicks butt....wins the U.S. Open! Unbelievable. I was shocked that I'd never even heard of this guy.
Anyway, if you like an underdog versus the world story....sort of like Rocky or Hoosiers, this book is for you. I can't wait to see the movie.