Mark Frost has had a long and successful career as a novelist and screenwriter. Among his best-known creations are Twin Peaks (which he co-created with David Lynch) and Fantastic Four. But he's also a golfer and his love of the game has led him to write about the sport.
Hearing the story of Francis Ouimet during coverage of the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts (the same course where Ouimet beat the odds and won the Open) led Mr. Frost to write The Greatest Game Ever Played which he would later adapt for the screen. The success of that book led to The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf, which documents the career of perhaps the greatest amateur to ever play the game. In his latest book, The Match: The Day The Game of Golf Changed Forever, he has managed to document yet another pivotal moment in the history of the game.
"The game had always proceeded along two parallel tracks: the amateurs who were the gentleman players who played for the love of the game and not to make a living; and the pros who for the most part worked at golf clubs, who made golf clubs, gave lessons, and who kind of scratched out a living from the game," said Mr. Frost in a recent interview.
Click here to listen to the interview with Mark Frost.
The match started out as nothing more than a simple wager. Eddie Lowery, the self-made millionaire who got his start in golf as the 10 year old caddie for Francis Ouimet during the 1913 U. S. Open, had been on the lookout for the next great amateur. He would routinely hire golfers to work in his car dealerships as salesmen and help them pursue a career in golf. In 1956, when the match takes place, he has working for him two of the best amateurs of the day: Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. While at Pebble Beach for the 1956 Crosby Pro-Am he makes a boast that Venturi and Ward can beat any other pair of golfers in a best-ball match. When fellow millionaire George Coleman asks if Lowery's golfers are wiling to play professionals Lowery says yes. Coleman then goes and gets two of the greatest pros of the day to play: Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. Thus the stage is set for a golf match like no other that had ever been played up to that point or since.
"As you zero in on this day in 1956 when they play (two young amateurs against two seasoned professionals) the 'who is going to become the dominant force in the game' is still up for grabs," said Mr. Frost. "the fact that in the immediate aftermath that both Venturi and Ward nearly win The Masters in separate years, I think, gives some weight to that argument that, yes, even as late as this game occured in 1956, there were still amateurs around who could play with the greatest pros in the world, play them toe-to-toe, and beat them if necessary."
In 1956, the PGA Tour was not nearly as lucrative as it is for today's professionals, as Mr. Frost was quick to point out.
"The PGA Tour struggled through those years as a way to make a bare-bones living for club pros. I foung that it was through the hard work and persistence of people like Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan that the Tour became anything it all. It really wouldn't have had they not been such extraordinary personalities in their own right."
It is the personalities of all four of the participants that really makes up the heart and soul of the book. The golf action is, in and of itself, compelling drama but it's the players and their connections to one another that really propel the story. But as the title suggests, this match, though not well-publicized until now, marked a watershed event in the history of the game.
"Now what's about to happen in the aftermath of this day in '56 is two things: the advent of televised sports coverage and golf in particular which is going to bring a whole new level of interest to the game; and the arrival of the extremely charismatic Arnold Palmer who we now know is the king of the sport," said Mr. Frost. "When he arrived he had a very Tiger Woods-like impact on the middle clas interest in the game around the country. He galvanized people and brought them to the game like no one since [Bobby] Jones and suddenly the pro game no only became a viable way to make a living but a way to make a killing. Very soon thereafter there was no percentage at all for a gifted player like a Jack Nicklaus who was about to come along (who briefly flirted with the idea of staying an amateur) to resist the temptation to turn pro and to embrace all the financial opportunities that were to come their way."
Part of what made this match possible, in addition to the pro vs. amateur tension and lack of 24/7 sports coverage, was the Crosby Pro-Am itself, a golf tournament like no other in history.
"There was something kind of magical about that event," said Mr. Frost. "It was the first professional/amateur event in any sport, really, and golf is the only sport where you could stage something like this where because of the handicap system guys can play on an equal playing field more or less. The Crosby was a unique blend of these entertainment personalities who loved the game of golf and played with various degrees of skill and the top professionals who, through [Bing] Crosby, having a foot in either world. were able to rub shoulders with movie stars and titans of industry and for a week all those names and ranks and considerations were forgotten and everybody was thrown out on the golf course to compete. Apparently it was more fun that humans should be allowed to have."
"Over time, as Crosby stepped back from it and it became a corporate event it became less and less about the fun of the week and the camaradarie and just embracing the joy of playing this game and it became about television and getting Bill Murray to do something funny, promoting CBS' sitcom stars. The magic of the event has sort of faded over time as well and that is something I also wanted to try to recapture because it is a unique chapter in the history of American sport."
No one could have done any better than Mr. Frost in not only capturing the atmosphere of the event, the incredible action of the match itself, and the portraits of four of the greatest players the sport has ever known. Much more than a history of one of the most amazing matches ever played, The Match is a wonderful history of a turning point in the history of golf as it is on the cusp of becoming a major part of not only sports but American culture.
This article originally appeared at Blogcritics.