Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Chasing Greatness

Chasing Greatness: Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, and the Miracle at OakmontChasing Greatness: Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, and the Miracle at Oakmont, is an almost perfect example of what is wrong with so much non-fiction written today. The book was written by Adam Lazarus, a sports freelancer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Steve Schlossman, a professor of American social and cultural history at Carnegie Mellon University. It was published in May 2010 (just in time for Father's Day!), and like most sports books these days, it features an iconic picture (this one of Johnny Miller) on the cover. I'm sure lots of dads got this book last summer, but I doubt if many of them made it to the end.

Let's start with the book's good points. To begin with, the story it tries to tell -- of how Johnny Miller, at the age of only 26, shot a miraculous 63 in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open to deny 43-year-old Arnold Palmer his last really good chance of victory in a major championship, is one of the most compelling in sports history. American golf hit its peak in the early 1970s, and one could write great books about almost every major played back then. (Dick Schaap wrote two such books himself.) But the 1973 U.S. Open may have been the best of all. There were true giants in the golf world back then, and almost all of them -- including Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, and Julius Boros -- were in contention for the 1973 Open at one point or another. That Open was played at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh, one of the most historic and dramatic courses in the United States. And the incredible drama on the last day -- where Miller went from 3 over to 5 under to leapfrog everyone and take the title -- is like something out of a movie. Many non-fiction books fail because the topic they choose is not big enough to justify 250 pages. That is not the case here.

Another good point about the book is that someone -- presumably Professor Schlossman -- did an enormous amount of excellent research. The authors seem to have read almost everything written about golf in the early 1970s, and they interviewed almost all of the principals who are still alive (for some reason, they didn't interview Miller, the only hole in their research that I could find). I know a great deal about golf in the early 1970s, and I learned a lot from this book that I had never heard before. (For example: Lee Trevino showed up drunk on the Tonight Show in 1970; Tom Weiskopf once skipped the Ryder Cup so he could go on a hunting trip; Palmer's golf game suffered in his early 40s because he sometimes refused to wear contact lenses.)

I should also acknowledge that the authors have given careful and intelligent thought to their research. Many sports books just give you stereotypes of the old heroes; these guys have original and interesting points to make about almost everyone. They capture the enormous frustration that Palmer felt over not winning any majors after 1964. They point out that Miller -- who seemed to be living a charmed life from 1973 to 1976 -- was an extremely nervous and worried player. They document how the seemingly carefree Trevino was tormented by his lack of privacy on or off the golf course, as well as his fear that failure at golf would send him back into the poverty he had fought so hard to escape.

They also clarify a lot of the myths surrounding the 1973 Open. For years, people have attributed Miller's score to wet conditions at Oakmont -- the authors show that most of the scores on Sunday were quite high, and that Miller had a long history of extremely low scores. They show that Palmer wasn't washed up at the age of 43 -- he had already won on tour in 1973, and he was a very strong contender until there were only a few holes left. They make a good case that Miller's round is actually underrated -- that it should probably be regarded as the greatest round of golf ever played. This is exactly the sort of thing that sports historians should do.

Most importantly, they bring back Jack Nicklaus in all of his intimidating swagger and glory. These days, memories of Nicklaus relate almost entirely to the gauzy and sentimental victories he scored toward the end of his career, when kids like me were rooting for him to hold off younger golfers. But in 1973, Nicklaus towered over his sport much as Tiger Woods did a few years ago. He haunts everyone in this book, as even truly great golfers like Palmer and Weiskopf are always looking over their shoulder, fearful of how he will break their heart next. Weiskopf in particular was a victim of Nicklaus, who edged out his former Ohio State teammate over and over, from the 1972 Masters to the 1993 Senior U.S. Open. In this book, Nicklaus is not an old guy trying to squeak out one more victory -- he is a titan who wins more money, wins more majors, and hits the ball further than everyone else. He's also a brilliant psychologist with a gift for the perfect sound bite to deflate his rivals. This is the real Nicklaus in his prime, and this is how he should be remembered.

Notwithstanding these good qualities, however, the book fails because the authors are simply unable or unwilling to put all of their research and their good ideas into a form that readers can enjoy. The inherent drama in a golf tournament results from the fact that so many players are doing dramatic things at the same time -- we love to watch the cameras switch from hole to hole for the latest developments. But the authors here don't come close to creating that type of drama. For each day of the tournament, they usually just work through their chosen golfers one by one. So you read about Palmer's first day, then Nicklaus, then Player, then Trevino, and so forth. Johnny Miller -- the star of the show -- doesn't turn up until page 89. John Schlee -- a fascinating and somewhat mysterious figure who beat the other big stars but came in second to Miller by only one shot -- isn't really introduced to the reader until page 175. There are only a few leaderboards given toward the end, so most of the time it is very hard to keep track of how everyone stands relative to each other. And they never take the time to give you a clear picture of all 18 holes at Oakmont, nor do they include a map of the course to make it easier to follow the action. In short, the authors don't tell you a story -- they simply regurgitate a bunch of research, and expect you to turn it into a story.

This problem also arises in their dealings with back stories. Chasing Greatness contains fairly detailed mini-biographies for all of the prominent golfers involved in the 1973 Open. If you want read about how Tom Weiskopf fulfilled his military service, or John Schlee's years at Memphis State, or the death of Julius Boros's first wife, then you've come to the right place. And a lot of this stuff is extremely interesting. But the authors don't know how to work such details gracefully into the narrative. Instead, there is simply an information dump for each character. For example, by the time you get to page 201, you are just about ready to start reading about the incredible last day. Instead, the authors dump in a 28-page chapter devoted to the complete story of John Schlee's life up to 1973. ("{Schlee's} reputation blossomed with consecutive strong showings in the National Public Links in 1962 and 1963.") This sort of thing is not merely annoying -- it completely breaks up any narrative drive and makes the reader want to move on to something else.

Also, because the book was evidently written one chapter at a time -- and no one edited all the chapters together -- the book is constantly repeating itself. On p. 45, for example, we get a reference to Oakmont's "especially difficult first hole." On p. 70, we are told about the "troublesome starting hole." So that when, on p. 73, we are introduced to the first hole as "a 459-yard, down-hill par four, widely accepted as the most challenging starting hole in all of championship golf," we have to wonder whether the authors are reading their own book.

Finally, the book's language is often awkward and uneven. To pick the most annoying example, the authors decided, for reasons that are never explained, to refer to Lee Trevino as the "Happy Hombre," as if this were his nickname. In almost 40 years of watching golf, I had never heard this term -- which makes sense, because it is a silly term with no alliteration. Trevino's actual nicknames -- "SuperMex" and the "Merry Mex" -- are much better. Not surprisingly, when I Googled "happy hombre Trevino," the only reference to Lee Trevino was their book. Again, such stylistic mistakes detract from the wonderful story the authors want to tell.

So how did this happen? These are smart guys who clearly worked hard. Why did a book with so much potential end up with so many flaws? I can't know, of course, but I can say that the authors are not alone -- many modern non-fiction books suffer from poor structure, poor editing, and pedestrian writing. In my experience, almost no non-fiction books today are written as well as baseball and football histories were written for kids back in the 1960s and 1970s. This is a real shame -- and what's an even bigger shame is that no one seems to care. If engineers, or doctors, or scientists, were plainly worse at their jobs now than they were 30 years ago, we would be outraged and horrified. But the decline in the liberal arts in my lifetime -- in the quality of political speeches, non-fiction books, long-form magazine writing, and so forth -- passes virtually without notice, except for the fact that a lot of us just don't enjoy reading as much as we used to. If publishing houses want people to keep reading full-length books in the age of the Internet, they need to spend less effort on marketing schemes (golf books for Father's Day! iconic photos!) and more effort on editing.

Not recommended.


  1. I don't know much about golf, so I found a lot of this stuff really informative--thanks. I didn't even know that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf had been teammates at Ohio State; that, too, could be the starting point of a good book that maybe even exists for all I know.

    I wonder if these people didn't want to do the narrative you're talking about because they didn't want to mimic that one Masters book that you so love. I think Dick Schaap wrote it?

  2. I don't think they were worried about mimicking the Schaap book; I think they thought it would just be much easier to take their notes, put them on index cards organized by golfer, and then turn those notes into chapters.

  3. The picture of the cover appears iconic. Looks like a good Father's Day gift to me.

  4. It is a great picture. I bought it as soon as I saw the picture and the sub-title.