James Dodson, whose works include Final Rounds, Ben Hogan: An American Life, A Son of the Game and A Golfer's Life (with Arnold Palmer) tackles a trio of the best golfers ever in his new book out this month. American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf (Knopf, 384 pages, $27.95) traces the intersecting lives of the icons born in 1912 and measures their wide-ranging impact on the game. Golf World senior editor Bill Fields caught up with Dodson to discuss the book and the three golfers whose names still resonate strongly a century after their births.
You've written about average golfers and famous golfers before, including a full-scale biography of Ben Hogan. Why this treatment of this threesome born in 1912?
This story has been percolating in me for a long time, probably as far back as the late-1980s when I interviewed Henry Picard. He was the first to emphasize the extraordinary impact the three individually and collectively had on their era -- not only winning at an extraordinary clip but innovating practices that are commonplace in professional golf today. Picard, who played a major role in the development of all three careers, was the first of many veteran players who told me in all likelihood the exploits of Sam, Ben and Byron saved professional golf, made it a viable headline sport again as America emerged from the darkest days of the Great Depression.
If you had to choose a one-word description for each of these three golf titans, what would it be?
In doing all the extensive research for American Triumvirate, what surprised you the most?
Ben's surprising spiritual depth, Sam's financial generosity to those in need and Byron's discomfort (as he aged) with his own fame. All three things go strikingly against the prevailing images of each.
As others have, you refute the notion that Nelson didn't have to beat anyone during his unfathomable 1945 season in which he won 18 tournaments, including 11 straight. Where do you rate Nelson's 1945 in the pantheon of sports achievements?
Probably at the top of the heap. We're not talking, after all, about an extraordinary performance in a single game, match or series here, rather a sustained campaign of dominance that actually spread across two seasons (counting his success in '46 as well) in a game widely regarded as the toughest of all to master.
These three men didn't have college degrees, but they had smarts aplenty, didn't they?
Oh, absolutely. But theirs was the hard-won wisdom of survivors who beat the odds in their own unique ways. Each had a class chip on his shoulder, a motivation that ultimately gave them a winning edge. Ben was determined to rise above (and forever hide) the horrors of his Dickensian boyhood and be the best; Byron was genuinely grateful for his material success but saw it in the context of a more important inner life; Sam both loved and loathed the effects of his fame and had a hunter's refined sensibility about nature. Hogan was explicitly a creature of the mind, Nelson a force of the soul, Snead almost pure animal instinct. They were true self-educated men in every respect, forever improving. Hogan once remarked that if he'd been Sam Snead's caddie, he would never have lost a tournament. He might be right.
Hogan, Nelson and Snead, each at his particular prime, are playing 18 holes at Augusta National. You have to bet your house on the outcome. Where's your money going?
Well, based on his performance there -- as the outcome of 1954 would suggest, when Sam beat Ben in a playoff for his third Masters title -- one might easily choose the Slammer. Given the way he played on a lead -- rarely if ever faltering -- someone else could easily pick Ben. But if this were Byron Nelson's salad days, given his profound respect for Bobby Jones and Augusta National, I would put the house in Lord Byron's capable hands. Despite a nervous stomach, at his peak, as the record proves, he was nearly unstoppable. He considered his 1937 Masters title his greatest achievement.
Which of your three subjects do you think had the happiest life, and why?
Each, I suspect, would define happiness differently. Ben found his greatest happiness, or maybe fulfillment, in a routine that produced perhaps the greatest shotmaker ever. Byron's happiness was connected to his human relationships in and outside the game, including and maybe especially his club pro friendships. Sam -- the most complex, in my view -- was by nature a fun-loving and highly sociable man whose incomparable physical gifts failed to deliver the prize he most desired: a U.S. Open title. Hogan couldn't afford to let himself be outwardly "happy" in a conventional sense, though he found great comfort in his close friendships. I'd be inclined to say Byron came the closest to achieving true happiness, having secured his goals and gone on to a broader life of spirituality and service. He also found true love again in his dotage.
How many tournaments do you think Nelson would have won had he not retired so young, and what does Hogan's career tally look like if not for the 1949 car-bus accident?
If' Byron's road-weary soul would have permitted him to play another decade, I truly believe he might have come close to matching Sam's record total of 82 wins. Like Jones, his hero, Byron's game was technically perfect, or at least as close as it comes, at the moment he left the game. If Ben hadn't experienced the crash in '49, he could easily have done the same thing. In Ben's case, however, many believe the crash only made him more dangerous and competitive, granting him added motivation and urgency. His extraordinary Merion comeback -- the peak of his career -- also made him a mythic and beloved figure. That can't be discounted. Had the fates deemed otherwise, they literally could have finished the tally one, two, three.
A lot of focus on whether Tiger Woods breaks Jack Nicklaus' professional major mark of 18, but what about Sam Snead's PGA Tour victory total of 82? Does Woods eclipse the Slammer?
It's possible, maybe even likely. Tiger's physical skills remind me of Sam, and his ability to think his way around a golf course is truly Hogan-like. Tiger doesn't seem to love the game the way Sam and Byron did, though, nor need it the way Ben did. In each their own ways, the Triumvirate liberally gave much back to the game that made them living legends, providing a great blueprint to Arnold and Jack and others. I have yet to see that quality in Tiger Woods -- though, again, perhaps I spent far too much time hanging around Arnold Palmer.
Have another golf book in the works, or in mind?
Hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but the modern game seems to elude me. I love watching this new generation of stars emerge but my heart belongs to another time, I'm afraid. I've considered a book about the golden amateurs of America, and others have proposed that I take on an entire history of golf -- what a daunting thing that would be! Whatever else is true, I see myself as an Everyman of life's great social game, someone who loves the history and friendship it provides most of all. I keep threatening to someday toss my clubs into my vintage Buick Roadmaster and set off to play every hidden gem and friendly old club in America. That would make a great book, I think, and be a fitting capstone to my fortunate golf-writing life, though my wife would probably divorce me unless I took her along.