A look at the lives of three golfing greats

Alfred A. Knopf
Alfred A. Knopf
Posted: April 07, 2012

American Triumvirate

Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf

By James Dodson

Alfred A. Knopf. 368 pp. $28.95

James Dodson set himself an ambitious agenda, like one of those grueling 36-hole Saturday finals in the olden days of pro golf, in creating American Triumvirate. It is basically a birth-to-death biography of three of the greatest golfers of all time, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, and Sam Snead, who were all born in 1912.

Like a linkster who fails to work out the kinks on the practice tee before setting out, Dodson hacks it up for the first few holes of his literary journey, going to absurd lengths and eyelid-weighting detail to justify his title. As if very many readers even care whether Hogan, Nelson, and Snead are analogous to the Great Triumvirate, the British turn of the (20th) century's dominant golf trio of Harry Vardon, James Braid, and John Henry Taylor.

Eventually, the author settles down, despite some shanks and sculls, to a solid round.

He explores how his subjects' early lives influenced their competitive play and goes behind the scenes with them in their later years.

The best thing about the book is the portrait it paints of the early days of modern golf, shown through the exploits and experiences of the three men who thoroughly dominated the game from after World War II to the first years of the Eisenhower administration. At least one of them finished among the top three in more than 60 percent of pro tournaments between 1945 and 1953, Dodson writes.

He makes the case that Nelson's record 18 tournament wins in 1945 (including a mind-boggling 11 straight) were not as tainted by lackluster competition as many golf historians claim, and he points out that No. 2 and No. 3 in the seasonal winning standings are Hogan (13 in 1946) and Snead (11 in 1950).

Money earned is a very different story.

Amid the detailed stories of key tournaments between the late 1930s and 1960, Dodson traces the exploits of the three men, describing the difficult lives of most pro golfers, driving thousands of miles a year on bad roads, sleeping in cars and cheap motels, almost all unable to eke out a living without club jobs, selling merchandise, and teaching.

In 1939, Nelson had the lowest stroke average of all the pros and won three "major" championships, Dodson writes. One was the U.S. Open. Dodson doesn't tell us what he considers the other two. But for all that success, Nelson didn't take home $10,000 in purses all year, Dodson writes. Last week at the Houston Open, Ted Potter Jr. tied for 70th and earned $12,060. Winner Hunter Mahan Jr. pocketed $1.08 million.

The tournaments themselves were disorganized. At the Hershey Open in 1939, a woman in the clot of fans in the fairway at the 15th picked up Nelson's ball and put it in her pocketbook. With a two-stroke, lost-ball penalty, the man credited with inventing the modern golf swing finished fourth. He had been leading the tourney when the ball disappeared.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey play key roles in the lives of all three golfers. Nelson was club pro at Reading Country Club, and Hogan held the same job at Hershey Country Club, where Nelson edged Snead at the 1940 PGA Tournament. A week later, Snead returned the favor at the Anthracite Open at Scranton Country Club. Two years later, Snead captured his first major, the PGA tournament, at Seaview, a few miles from Atlantic City. The Philadelphia Inquirer Invitational at Llanerch Country Club was site of the seventh win in Nelson's 11-tournament, 1945 winning streak.

Dodson argues that Snead's disastrous triple-bogey eight on the final hole in the 1939 U.S. Open on the Spring Mill Course at Philadelphia Country Club haunted him for life, and, along with his years-long unfair treatment by USGA executive director Joe Dey, who saw Snead as a womanizing hillbilly unfit to carry the championship of the highfalutin game, kept the most prolific winner pro golf has known from ever winning the Open.

There is a long discussion of the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. Sixteen months after being crushed and critically injured in a car accident, Hogan won in a playoff after hitting one of history's storied shots, a one-iron on the final hole of regulation. (Standard yuk-yuk golf advice for a lightning storm: Hold a one-iron over your head, because even God can't a hit a one-iron.)

There's a picture, among the book's 24 pages of them, of the shot, identified as the most famous photograph in golf. The book would have benefited from a few pages of charts and scorecards, too. It can be difficult keeping up with the chronology of the events described. Maybe that's why Dodson, later in the book, sets the Merion Open in 1953.

The book contains several glaring reporting errors. Dodson places the 1939 Open at Spring Mill Country Club, a completely different facility from the course at Philadelphia Country Club named Spring Mill. There are scoring errors from the 1951 Open at Oakland Hills and the 1953 Open at Oakmont. Together, these gaffes undermine the book's authority. Dodson also has recurring, annoying problems with dangling modifiers.

American Triumvirate may not be up to the level of the golfers whose lives it chronicles, but it's worth the time of anyone who has an interest in the history of the game.

Former Inquirer TV critic Jonathan Storm is a longtime golfer. One of his goals in retirement is to return to shooting consistently in the 80s.

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