My shelves are littered with what seems like the most popular golf book concept — take a single event and write 250 pages on it. It was surely popularized by Mark Frost’s The Greatest Game Ever Played,but since that point I have books on Hogan’s win at Merion, Hogan and Nelson playing at Cypress, John Feinstein’s take on Rocco Mediate’s play at the U.S. Open, Mike Weir’s success in 2003, etc. Some of these are quite good — I’m fond of Frost’s work despite questions about its historical accuracy — but increasingly I’m wondering whether we’re running out of events that last four days but warrant 16 chapters.
There are several issues with Tom Clavin’s One for the Ages, a book that focuses on Jack Nicklaus’ historic win at Augusta in 1986, when the Golden Bear, at the age of 46, had been written off by most. One of the issues is that places like the Golf Channel have endlessly aired the one-hour special on Nicklaus’ win, showing all the shots and all the interview clips. All the detail is there on video, so it is hard for anyone to add more to it.
Clavin has done his best at trying to cover the subject — he interviews a significant number of people involved in that year’s Masters, names like Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Lee Trevino. The problem is the book increasingly uses secondary sources — autobiographies of the likes of Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros — to contextualize the events that occured the week of Nicklaus’ win. And by the time I was near the end, I began to get annoyed at the references to all the reporters that covered the tournament — from Dan Jenkins to James Achenbach of Golfweek. These sorts of books need to offer really significant insight if they are to capture the reader’s imagination, and a series of clips from old newspaper accounts doesn’t cut it. Where this is most clear is in Clavin’s writing on the first two rounds. Few expected Nicklaus to be competitive, so little was written about his first two times around Augusta that week. Since Clavin is relying on secondary sources — and without access to Nicklaus — those early chapters are perfunctory and bland, often relying on comments about other golfers (ie. Nick Price) than on Nicklaus. It is a shortcoming that means the first two rounds all but disappear amidst commentary on the origins of the Masters and discussion of other golfers.
But the biggest issue — one the book can’t overcome — is the lack of Nicklaus himself. Nicklaus wrote the foreword for a competing book on the 1986 Masters, which probably explains why Clavin has to rely on exerpts from other Nicklaus books to get the Golden Bear’s voice into this one. That’s really the main issue with One for the Ages — it simply doesn’t rely enough on primary interviews and accounts, anecdotes that could add life to the story.
In a book where everyone knows the ending before they start, it is the details that will make the journey engaging. Clavin’s work falls short, meaning One for the Ages limps to a close a bit like Greg Norman or Ballesteros did in that fabled Masters.