March 9, 2001
Good golf novels are hard to find.
Most golf literature is focused on instruction, biography, and coverage of the sport’s famous events and courses. Dozens of new golf books enter the market each year, but precious few are works of fiction.
It’s not as if the audience is too limited. After all, millions of people play golf. Instead, with so many active participants a very real problem is that any fictional treatment of the sport must pass a stringent test of veracity.
An additional problem for the budding golf novelist is that golf is strongly appealing for the self-absorbed. For many golfers, what possible works of fiction could compare to their personal stories of golfing adventures?
J. Michael Veron’s first golf novel, The Greatest Player Who Never Lived (Broadway Books, $12.95 SRP) largely passes these two tests. It’s sold very well in hardbound, and is now out in paperback.
It helps that Veron chose to write a mystery, since the game itself is an enigma. He also came up with an interesting question: suppose there was a player who was the equal of all of the golfing heroes of the 20th Century, but no one knew who he was?
Veron is a trial attorney, and wisely chose to stick to an area he knows well. The narrator, Charley Hunter, is a first-year law student who snags a summer clerkship with Butler & Yates, an old-line Atlanta, Georgia law firm. It happens to be the place where Bobby Jones practiced law for many decades.
Hunter is assigned to catalogue and organize Jones’ old files. The normally dull routine of shuffling legal papers becomes far more interesting when Hunter stumbles across some personal files concerning a young golfer named Beau Stedman.
Old letters and news clippings give hints that Stedman is a remarkably good golfer, beating Jones and several others. His promising career is cut short, however, by the murder of a club manager’s wife. Stedman disappears and is quickly accused by the police and the local district attorney.
From the files and letters it’s clear that Jones can’t believe his young friend is guilty. For Hunter, it’s not so obvious.
At the same time, Stedman’s promise as a competitive golfer is likely to be extinguished, unless he can find a way to hone his talents and find an outlet for his skills. Jones and Stedman devise a system of assumed names. Although Stedman manages to compete, and often with major players, his system has its risks.
The matches between Stedman and well-known golfers such as Hogan, Sarazen, and Hagen are well written. Overshadowing the surreptitious competition, however, is the continuing question of whether Jones misread Stedman’s character.
Hunter decides to see if he can clear Stedman’s name after all these years. At the same time, Hunter is convinced that Beau’s golfing “record” should also be recognized. These two goals form the narrative thread for the entire novel.
When Veron stays on the story, it’s a fine read. Unfortunately, the flow of the book bogs down a bit during the biographical segments on Stedman’s competition.
For those with little or no knowledge of golf, these diversions are helpful. For those who already know the basic history of Jones, Hogan, Snead, and the others, these parts will slow down the story.
Veron also makes several characters seem fully developed. Hunter is believable as a young law student who is drawn into the mystery behind the dry files. Veron’s treatment of Jones takes him beyond the iconographic treatment most often given to the Grand Slam winner. It’s not easy to humanize a famous person successfully, but Veron mostly succeeds.
Most intriguing is Veron’s ability to make the reader care about Stedman, with little to go on beyond what Hunter can deduce from the clippings and letters.
Veron makes good use of his own background to devise a believable resolution to the twin mysteries. The finish is not wholly predictable.
Might make a good movie.