Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.
One of those books is Men In Green (Simon & Schuster, $27), a smart tome by Michael Bamberger. The cover photo features a young, cherub-cheeked Jack Nicklaus shaking hands with a youthful Arnold Palmer. They’re laughing it up so much that Palmer’s eyes are squinted close and the bridge of his nose is crinkled. They look like two fraternity brothers partying, except for the fact that each is wearing a green jacket, presented to Masters champions and Augusta National Golf Club members.
The cover photo is from 1964, when Palmer won his fourth green jacket. Of course, it just as easily could have been from 1963, when defending champ Palmer slipped the jacket onto Jack, the new winner. Or it might have been 1965, when Palmer returned the favor to Nicklaus again. Yeah, these giants in the game traded Masters titles in the ’60s the way kids swapped baseball cards of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
The cover shot and the title tells you right up front what this book is about -- legends, heroes and old-school golf traditions. It’s more than just Arnie and Jack, though. It’s a close-up look at golfing names that Bamberger idly jotted down while dining at a Chicago restaurant in 2012. He created two categories -- living legends and secret legends, the latter being individuals who were in the golf business but weren’t necessarily in the public eye.
They all fall into the same category in one regard, however. They are authentic. Bamberger is a colleague of mine at Sports Illustrated, so I confess to being a bit biased. He is smart, insightful, self-aware and remarkably observant, sometimes to the point of making me feel inept at my job. When I see his byline on a story, I’m excited to read the piece because I know he’s going to have an engaging viewpoint or some new reporting, if not both.
Bamberger’s legend list turned into a road trip. He is a close friend of former Tour player Mike Donald, a golfer best known for losing a 19-hole playoff to Hale Irwin at the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah. Donald was always a good go-to guy for golf writers. He’s smart, insightful and observant, like Bamberger, but in a different way, and Donald has always called ’em like he has seen ’em. I interviewed him on many occasions in the ’90s, and I’ve played golf with him once or twice, accompanied by Bamberger. Donald lives golf, which I admire and respect. He’s a guy you want to hang out with because you hear stories, you learn.
So Mike and Mike began an odd couple-style journey to visit legends on the list. There is behind-the-scenes reporting into the lives of Arnie, Jack, Ken Venturi, Hale Irwin, Mickey Wright, Sandy Tatum, the poignant tale of an aging caddie known as Golf Ball and the rest. The subjects and the odyssey serve as mirrors for Donald and the author, illuminating them as well. They are every bit as authentic as the legends. In fact, Donald may be the break-out star of the book, even though that in a career covering two-plus decades he had just one PGA Tour win and two defining moments: the Open at Medinah and his first Masters of two Masters appearances, when he opened in 1990 with an eight-under 64 and followed it with an 82. He is as real as it gets, warts and all.
For instance, when he takes umbrage at comments made by Irwin two decades after Medinah about Donald’s making mistakes in that playoff, you not only understand, you’re ticked off too. Men in Green makes you wish you had a weekly game with him. More Mike Donald? Yes, please.
Any authentic golf book, of course, should have 18 chapters. (Technically, this book has 24.) It’s a golf thing. The second chapter is must-read. At 25 pages, it’s the longest in the book, and it’s Palmer as you’ve rarely if ever seen him -- relaxed at home, open, wistful, charming, imperfect, candid. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
Not to give too much away, but after Palmer gave the Mikes a tour of his Latrobe, Pa., home and warehouse of memorabilia, he said that if he hadn’t won his first U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in 1960, he probably would have won at least four more Opens: 1962, the playoff with Nicklaus at Oakmont; 1963, the playoff with Julius Boros at the Country Club in Brookline; 1966, the playoff with Billy Casper at Baltusrol; 1967, Nicklaus again, at Baltusrol; 1972, Nicklaus again, at Pebble Beach; and 1973, when Johnny Miller blitzed Oakmont with the 63.
“If I had had the same psychological approach I did at Cherry Hills, I could have won all those years,” Palmer mused. “I lost my edge.”
Every great player loses that edge, Palmer says, it’s just a matter of when. Heavy stuff.
Later, when the two Mikes met Nicklaus, they were regaled by stories of Jack’s early years on Tour when he’d fly with Arnie to play exhibitions. Palmer was at the controls, Jack at his side, with their clubs in back.
The PGA Tour used to allow players three weeks to play exhibitions, and as a tandem, Arnie and Jack could rack up as much money in those shows as they could all season in official earnings.
How was Arnie as a pilot? “Well, I guess I trusted him,” Nicklaus replied.
The 18 legends feel like 18 holes at a major championship venue. They stand on their own and reveal themselves as you play on. The subjects are completely different, yet at the same time are inexorably entwined.
Bamberger connects with the reclusive Wright, who some say owned the finest golf swing in history. The reporting was by mail and by phone and, later, through Wright pal Rhonda Glenn, an engaging golf historian. She helps paint a portrait of a Greta Garbo-like individual who just wanted to move on and be left alone once she finished competing.
To get a full view of the complicated Venturi, who famously won the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional and went on to a long career in broadcasting, Bamberger tracked down his first wife, Conni, now living in a trailer in northern California. He gets as close to the truth as you can about the Venturi-Palmer rules controversy at the 1958 Masters. There is Venturi’s truth and there is Palmer’s truth, and even in the final days before his death in 2013, Venturi couldn’t cross the bridge between them. Likewise, the author finds Ben Crenshaw’s first wife, Polly, for an illuminating look at the affable Gentle Ben, who declined an interview request.
It was revealing that one of Bamberger’s other secret legends, fellow golf writer Jaime Diaz, once told Tiger Woods a line he’d first heard from Johnny Miller. “It’s not what you accomplish in life that matters,” Miller said. “It’s what you overcome.” Years later, the humbled, post-scandal Woods repeated the line in his apology speech. Tiger didn’t credit Diaz or Miller, of course, but he had been listening, after all. Until then, Diaz hadn’t been sure.
Nicklaus supplies some heady philosophy near the book’s conclusion. (The work is a modest 260 pages, which I read in one morning session because I couldn’t put it down).
“Your character comes through in golf,” Jack said. “If you’re pissed at the world the whole time, you really can’t enjoy your wins and in many ways you can’t really understand the meaning of your defeats. To get beat is very healthy.
“If you win every time, you don’t learn anything about yourself. You don’t learn anything about the other person. You don’t learn anything about the game. You don’t learn anything about life.”
Some of the language in Men in Green is colorful. There is the occasional four-letter word because authentic people -- even Arnold Palmer -- sometimes use them.
Bamberger addresses the foul language after a Donald rant, writing: “I’m not trying to shock anybody. I am trying to capture people as they actually are. I assume that’s why you’re here.”
Exactly. The author pulls back the curtain and captures these legends as they actually are. The Palmer chapter will all but grab you by the back of the neck and never let go. I can’t think of any higher praise other than to say that Men in Green is as authentic as the Masters itself.