There is a photograph in Golf—The Greatest Game that enthralls for reasons I can't explain. It is captioned "A grand old tee party in the American South" and shows a group of men in straw boaters and women in pleated skirts—as well as an aproned waiter—watching an old gent tee off among a grove of palms. I imagine the golfer, who is not identified, to be John D. Rockefeller or some other captain of industry, but that may be because Rockefeller appears elsewhere in this book as a 91-year-old with a golf club, seated on a chair at his private golf course in Ormond Beach, Fla.
On other pages a hat-less Ben Hogan signs autographs for youngsters next to a sign proclaiming BUY MORE WAR BONDS; a phalanx of men pushes grass mowers past the Pinehurst clubhouse in the 1930s; Fred Astaire plays miniature golf with a lady on the roof of a Manhattan hotel; Babe Didrikson Zaharias, her knee-length skirt billowing, tees off at Tulsa's Southern Hills Country Club at the 1946 Women's Amateur; and a shirtless lefthander with a grip from hell Hails away on the driving range at the Ala Wai Golf Course in Honolulu.
So varied are the nearly 400 black-and-white and color images—refracted by era, geography, race, class and gender—that one suspects the book's editors aspired to produce a social history of America's last hundred years in the vein of Ken Burns's Baseball.
But however ponderous its price ($50) and weight (five pounds), this extraordinary volume from HarperCollins soars like a Jack Nicklaus three-iron. Produced with the archival resources and financial support of the United States Golf Association to celebrate its 100th anniversary as golf's U.S. governing body, The Greatest Game benefits from its editors' understanding that golf is just that—a game—and not a museum of earthworks created for the amusement of landscape photographers. As novelist John Updike points out in his passionate introduction, "Golf is a great social bridge, and a great tunnel into the essences of others, for people are naked when they swing.... Like children trying to walk and bear cubs trying to climb a tree, they are lovable in their imperfection and then all the more lovable in their occasional triumphs of muscle and will."
The editors, Amy Janello and Brennon Jones, who were responsible for several photographic books in the Day in the Life series, have found dozens of images to support Updike's observation. A poignant two-page photograph of a little boy swinging a huge club on a nine-hole course in Iowa taps into the same reservoir of optimism as an AP/Wide World Photos shot of President Bill Clinton and a friend watching a playing partner hit his drive into the Arkansas fog. Elsewhere we chance upon the gawky young Francis Ouimet and his 10-year-old caddie at the 1913 U.S. Open, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.... and Ouimet, years later, in coat and tie, looking like a Prussian schoolmaster as he bellows swing advice at his two young daughters. Most lovable of all, though, in both his imperfections and his triumphs, is Arnold Palmer, pictured from his teens, exuding a dash and insouciance that may never be duplicated.
The book's text is by various writers, including SI's Jaime Diaz, who expound on narrow bands of the golf spectrum. In "One Hundred Years of the USGA," John Strawn unflinchingly confronts American golf's blueblood roots and racist past while commending its recent attempts to broaden its base. Peter Andrews, in "The Business of Golf," provides an accountant's-eye view of the game. Curt Sampson celebrates the clubhouse as both nexus and excess.
But it's the pictures that give this champagne its fizz. As USGA president Reg Murphy notes in his preface, "Golf is an artist's game, its palette full of dewy grass and azure sky and well-raked bunkers." And really, it doesn't matter if the bunkers are raked or not. The beauty of The Greatest Game is not so much in the eye of the beholder as it is in the beheld.