January 14, 2005
Philip Reed’s new book, In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing (Carroll & Graf; $20 SRP) is part detective story, part golf instructional, and part character study.
It’s a nicely-done blend, thanks in large part to the man at the center of the story.
Mike Austin is truly one of those folks who can justifiably be called larger than life.
At the fairly ripe age of 64, Austin qualified for the Guinness Book of World Records with a 515-yard drive during the 1974 National Senior Open. By itself, that would have been enough distinction for most of us. For Austin, however, it was just one of several remarkable accomplishments over his ninety-some years.
Reed originally sought out Austin as part of his own attempt to lengthen the results of his home-made swing. Like most golfers, Reed assumed that if he could just learn to boom the long ones, his average scores would surely drop.
Meeting Austin led to more than Reed bargained for. Like many self-made men of his time, Austin was completely untroubled by humility, and possessed as much tact as the proverbial bull in a china shop. There was no trace of touchy-feely in this tall, imposing figure, still capable of intimidating his students despite the effects of a recent stroke.
Although Reed was at first put off by Austin’s prickly personality, eventually he came to appreciate the influences that helped cause Austin to behave the way he did. He also learned to believe the frequently outrageous stories Austin would tell, whether they dealt with his coursework in anatomy, his wartime feats of derring-do during WWII, or his accomplishments on the PGA Tour.
Although the stories seemed completely outlandish, especially since they involved only one man’s life, as Reed discovered they had the benefit of being true.
Reed describes the slow process of understanding the elements of Austin’s unique yet powerful swing. I confess I had some trouble understanding how to put the pieces together, and I think a step-by-step graphic would have helped. On the other hand, Reed also points out that long-drive champion Mike Dunaway and others are now teaching Austin’s method. Dunaway is one of Austin’s pupil-disciples, and his assessment of Austin is a valuable part of this book.
One other important golf lesson provides the best explanation why, despite his undeniable talent for long, accurate drives, Austin had a relatively minor career on the PGA Tour. As he admitted, he couldn’t putt worth a darn. For example, Austin bogeyed the par-4 on which he made his record-setting drive, thanks to poor putting.
For those of us who are short-hitters but good putters, this news might provide some small comfort, even as we fight pangs of jealousy on the tee boxes.
Reed also charts his own progress toward his stated goal of making a 300-yard drive, thanks to Austin’s teaching. While I won’t give away the final results, Reed’s improvement is admittedly stunning, especially since Reed admits that his prior drives tended to hover around the 200-yard mark.
The real focus of the book, however, remains with Austin. Reed brings him to life on the pages of this slender volume, warts and all. Austin is obviously no candidate for sainthood, but he’s not really a bad man–just driven, and deeply confident in his own talents, including his self-analysis of his golf technique. He came across to me as a character I would have really liked to know, a sign of Reed’s ability to convey this impression.
The book includes several photographs and clippings, including some startling pictures of Austin wearing a bizarre outfit during a golf lesson. There’s also an amusing teaching equipment connection to “Tin Cup,” the Kevin Costner movie.
Reed’s new book is a potentially valuable guide to improving one’s swing. Even more important, however, it’s a helpful contribution to a unique part of golfing history.