All golf tournaments are equal. Some are more equal than others.*
Golf fans who attend the Honda Classic or the Los Angeles Open usually see some great golf. Nonetheless, these fine events just aren’t the same as the four tournaments known as The Majors: The Masters, The U.S. Open, The British Open, and the PGA Championship.
The fans know it. The media know it. Most important, the players know it. The majors let us watch the world’s best golfers when their desire to perform well is at the highest. John Feinstein now gives his readers a chance to understand and appreciate the mental and physical effects that these four events produce on the participants. It’s great stuff.
Feinstein returns to the story-telling method that worked so well in A Good Walk Spoiled. He picks a dozen or so golfers and follows their progress in the four majors in 1998. He describes the history of these tournaments and some of the legendary stories they produced in the past. Along the way Feinstein visits again with some of the golfers that readers came to know and appreciate in his earlier book, such as Paul Goydos and Jeff Sluman.
The readers learn the biography and playing history of Mark O’Meara, Lee Janzen, and Vijay Singh. These are three very different men, whose approaches to the game and life histories could not be more varied. They now share a common history, and the stories behind their 1998 triumphs are a great bit of sports writing. For each there was an amazing bit of luck along the way. O’Meara’s “lost and found” ball in the British Open, Janzen’s ball falling out of the tree at just the right time in the U.S. Open, and Singh’s ricochet off a tree at the PGA Championship were unexpected incentives to victory. That doesn’t mean their wins were flukes. It just reminds all golfers that chance helps determine who wins and who loses.
Feinstein also gives an “up close and personal” look at several other golfers. Fred Couples, Brad Faxon, and John Daly all had personal problems off the course, some more publicized than others. Feinstein shows how their games were affected by their home life with great empathy. Readers also become acquainted with Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, and Brian Watts, among others. Good people are worth reading about.
The stories of Payne Stewart and Justin Leonard were most intriguing. Feinstein makes it pretty clear that Stewart had some growing up to do well after he turned 21. Feinstein describes how Stewart succeeded at this task with the help of others, especially his wife. His performance at the U.S. Open and the way he responded to his finish at Olympic was impressive and instructive.
Justin Leonard is very young, but usually acts much older. His maturity is evident in his style of play and in his dealings with the press. It was an eye-opener, therefore, to see that under certain conditions he could become sufficiently rattled to show his age. Leonard played with 1997 U.S. Amateur winner Matt Kuchar at the Masters and the U.S. Open because of Leonard’s own triumph at the 1997 British Open. Feinstein describes Peter Kuchar’s ill-timed cheerleading of his son Matt’s performances. Leonard’s inability to keep Peter Kuchar’s antics from affecting his play was a bit surprising. Jeff Sluman did Leonard a favor that Feinstein recounts here, and one hopes that Leonard will appreciate it eventually.
John Feinstein is good for golf. His past books on the subject (A Good Walk Spoiled and The First Coming) were bestsellers, with good reason. He can tell a great story about the game so many love.
More than any other tournaments, the majors can produce great character studies. Feinstein did a great job in bringing them to his readers in this book.
Review date: April 4, 1999
*With apologies to the late George Orwell.