2006.06.05: June 5, 2006: Headlines: COS - Ethiopia: Writing - Ethiopia: Sports: Golf: : An Interview with John Coyne
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2006.06.05: June 5, 2006: Headlines: COS - Ethiopia: Writing - Ethiopia: Sports: Golf: : An Interview with John Coyne
An Interview with John Coyne
"I did grow up on a small farm across from a golf course, as Jack did, so I have that knowledge which I used in creating the character. I was the youngest of six children, and we all grew up working at Midlothian Country Club, south of Chicago, Illinois. My sisters were waitresses in the dining hall or worked in the clubís office. My brothers and I were caddies. I was also the caddie master for several years, beginning when I was 16. So, I knew the caddie shack and pro shop life pretty well from working in them."
An Interview with John Coyne
Why did you write a novel that features Ben Hogan?
In the long history of professional golf, Ben Hogan is one of the most charismatic and enigmatic competitors to ever play the game. In his day - the late í30s, í40s and í50s - he was as famous as Tiger Woods is today. The late golf pro Dave Marr said that Ben Hogan was to golf what Fred Astaire was to dancing. He was the man by whom everyone else was measured. Hogan approached golf as if he were in competition with the game itself and not with other players in the tournament. It was always Hogan against the golf course.
And Hogan was more than a great golfer. He was in many ways an enigma in the golf world. Very little was known about him off the golf course. He did not grant many interviews; he did not seek out publicity. He played the game of golf when it was a true sport, and not just another part of the entertainment business. As he said at the time, he let his clubs do the talking.
Did you ever caddie for Ben Hogan?
No, I was not that fortunate. I never even saw the man in person. I grew up in the Midwest in the last years of his career, after his famous car accident, but as a caddie I knew, of course, who Hogan was and followed his career in the sports pages and the golfing magazines.
How much of the "Hogan material" in your book is true?
All of the stories in the book about what Hogan said, his career and how he conducted himself are true, or true to the best of my knowledge based on my research. I have had friends of Hogan read the book and theyíve confirmed that the tales are true. It is interesting to note that the influence of the man is still felt today and youíll find professional golfers, especially on the Champions Tour, still telling stories about Ben Hogan.
What do you think was so special about Hogan?
Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald has famously said that if you begin with an individual, before you know it youíve created a type. Begin with a type, and you find you have created - nothing. Hogan was an individual. A number of pros attempted to emulate him in manner and dress. Gardner Dickinson comes to mind. He copied Hogan in many ways, right down to the Hogan cap and the Hogan swing. Other players tried to swing like Hogan. Of course, no one could master his swing.
What I find so special about Hogan was his ability to hold himself apart from the scene. He was part of the action, a central part, but he was contained within himself. I think thatís the reason so many stories are still told about him. Golfers are still trying today to discover the secret of who he was. Jack Nicklaus said that Hogan was the best shotmaker the game has ever seen.
Hogan was considered a very intimidating player during those years, wasnít he?
Yes he was. Sam Snead had a great line where he said the only thing he feared on a golf course was a downhill putt, lightning, and Ben Hogan.
Snead wasnít the only one. Lloyd Mangrum said that Hogan was the only golfer in the world that he was scared of.
And even the great players from the era before Hogan were awed by him. Gene Sarazen said that Hogan was the most merciless of all the modern golfers, and Hogan played with the burning frigidity of dry ice. It is not surprising that when Hogan went over to Scotland to play in the 1953 British Open, he was quickly nicknamed the "Wee Ice Man."
Has Tiger Woods ever talked about Hogan?
I can recall one quote. Tiger said, "Ben Hogan won so many tournaments itís scary. He was incredible. He played at a level that not too many players could ever attain."
Do you have a favorite story about Hogan?
Yes, I do.
Ben Hogan was playing with a new pro who took great satisfaction in out-driving Ben off the tee. Hogan didnít mind because while the young pro was long, he always hit his drives in the wrong place to attack the pin. Well into the round, on a par 4, Hogan did out-drive the other pro, placing his ball on a flat spot in the fairway, 280 yards from the green. The young pro played first, and just managed to reach the green with his second shot, leaving a thirty foot putt. Ben played next and right after the impact, he said, "youíre away."
Hogan was right. He drove his fairway wood to within 4 feet of the cup, proving again that he was not only a great hitter, but he also knew how to manage himself around a golf course. And he also was able put this young pro in his place.
If you were writing a novel about Hogan, why did you include the love story between the assistant pro and the daughter of the club president?
I wanted to write about Hogan, tell a story about him, but I wanted to expand the narrative of the novel and have more of a story than just a golf match. The idea of a young kid going up against Hogan is a naturally dramatic situation and could play out in a number of ways. One idea led to another. And as most writers will tell you, characters tend to have a life of their own once they are imagined and committed to paper.
Also, I knew that my young pro needed a life beyond the golf course and that led to the romance. But it had to be a love story in the context of the time, and that allowed me to develop the setting and atmosphere and the culture of country club life in the summer after the war.
Finally, I wanted to make a larger point about how golf reflects life. Ben Hogan always said that he had discovered the secret of golf. That comment has resulted in numerous articles and books about his golf swing as players and writers try to define that "secret," but I flipped the question and had Hogan show that the secret of life comes from golf, and it is knowing that what matters in golf [and life] is always the next shot, the next step, that one has to keep moving forward in life. It is my attempt to be philosophical, to place the game of golf in a larger context than just a simple match between two players.
How close in personality are you, the author, to the narrator, Jack Handley?
Well, I was never as good a player as young Jack was when I was his age, nor was I as cocky and sure of myself as he was as a caddie. I think Jack and I, however, share a similar sense of humor, and the same intense love for the game, as well as our knowledge of golf.
I did grow up on a small farm across from a golf course, as Jack did, so I have that knowledge which I used in creating the character. I was the youngest of six children, and we all grew up working at Midlothian Country Club, south of Chicago, Illinois. My sisters were waitresses in the dining hall or worked in the clubís office. My brothers and I were caddies. I was also the caddie master for several years, beginning when I was 16. So, I knew the caddie shack and pro shop life pretty well from working in them.
My father never went to war. During World War II he worked the farm, and he was employed for almost thirty years at the steel mills in Indiana Harbor, Indiana.
Was there ever a PGA tournament called the Chicago Open?
Yes, in Chicago from 1937 to the early-forties there was a Chicago Open. In the í40s it was renamed because of the war. In 1942 it was called the Hale America Open and Hogan won it and always considered it to be his first "major" because the U. S. Open was not held that year but all the top golfers played in that tournament. Afterwards it was called the Chicago Victory National Open and Hogan won that tournament in 1947. All told, he won the Chicago Open three times, in í41, í42 and í47. I believe the last event was in 1948.
Why did you decide to have the central match of the tournament a practice round and not the Open itself?
I did that for a number of reasons, mostly so I would not have as the obvious final climax the last round of the tournament. I liked the idea of Hogan and Matt in single combat with Jack as the "go between." I wanted the match "off stage" so to speak. It appealed to the novelist in me.
Also I find, even as a golf fan, that an endless accounting in prose of a tournament does not work dramatically. Youíll see in golf movies how the director will speed ahead, compress and telescope 18 holes into a few dramatic moments.
So, while I needed to be true to an event like a 4-day golf tournament, I didnít want every hole and all the rounds of golf. The match between Hogan and Matt is just nine holes. I then focused on the back nine of Mattís opening round.
Who do you see as your readers?
Golfers obviously, but also anyone who loves a love story and likes sports. I tried to make the book both entertaining and informative. The reader should come away from the novel with a knowledge and appreciation of tournament golf and country club life, and with a sense of having been treated to a tense love affair that took place in the heat of summer in the Midwest in the nineteen forties.
How much research did you do? How many books did you read?
I have read all the books on or about Ben Hogan, and several dozen have been written. I have read the collections of stories and remembrances of Hogan, and I have interviewed players and friends who knew Hogan. I also did research in the archives of the United States Golf Association headquarters in Fair Hill, New Jersey.
How do you think Hogan would measure up against the pros of today?
Oh, he would do just fine if he was able to use the same clubs and golf balls, and also - and this is very important - be able to play on the same courses as todayís pros. Everything about golf has improved and changed since Hoganís day, and Hogan would have taken into todayís game his determination and his skills - and this is very important and key to his successful career - his determination to win.
Hogan was often written about as being cold and unfriendly. You show a warm and human side to the man. How much of that is true?
No doubt towards the end of his life Hogan was much more accessible to the public than he was during his playing days. Still, he was always shy and distant with strangers, and had only a few close friends. For example, when Hogan was in his last years of active competition, he built a ten-room mansion in Fort Worth that had only one bedroom. He wasnít inviting anyone to stay overnight. That was Hoganís way. However, in many of the books Iíve read, Hogan was always warm, friendly, and outgoing with children, so his attitude towards the caddie Jack, one of the central elements of the novel, is, I believe, very true to his personality.
How realistic is it that a young pro like Matt would by-pass the pro tour and settle for a club pro job in the 1940s?
The majority of professional golfers in the í40s made their living by working private country clubs in the Midwest and Northeast during the summer months. In the winter they would take jobs at country clubs located in the south. There were just not that many PGA tournaments, nor enough prize money, available to play the game full time, unless you were a very special player like Hogan or Snead or Nelson. While Hogan eventually was able to get a job as "playing professional" representing a country club, he did work for a number of years at a country club in Texas, and at Century Country Club in Westchester, New York. But for the majority of PGA golfers, having a country club job - as it still is today - was the only way for them to earn a living from the game of golf.
Is there another story that youíd like to tell about Hogan?
Yes, there is a wonderful story told by Al Barkow in his book, Golfís Golden Grind: A History of the PGA Tour that sums up what Hogan was really like.
When Hogan was at the top of his game he met a driving-range pro at a tournament event and the man asked Hogan for some swing help. Hogan took one look at the playerís swing and told him to go back home to Chicago and get into the driving-range business or find a club job, and to give up trying to play the tour. Hogan also promised to help the young pro out in the future if he could. Well, the pro did what Hogan suggested and went back to Chicago and bought a small interest in a new public golf course. Several years later he called Hogan and asked him if he would dedicate the opening of his course by playing an exhibition. Hogan made the trip to Chicago and played eighteen holes, cutting ribbons on each tee of the new golf course. Hogan had made a promise to help the man and he kept his promise.
That was Ben Hogan. He never forgot who he was, where he had come from, or what he had given as his word.
Whatís your favorite Hogan quote?
"As you walk down the fairway of life, you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round."
Hogan knew what it was all about, on and off the fairway.
What other books have you written?
Brothers & Sisters [Dutton, 1986]
The Legacy [Berkley, 1979]; The Piercing [G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979]; The Searing [G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1980]; Hobgoblin [G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1981]; The Shroud [Berkley, 1983]; The Hunting Season [Macmillan, 1987]; Fury [Warner Books, 1989]; Child of Shadows [Warner Books, 1990]; plus numerous shorter pieces included in collections.
Getting Skilled: A Guide to Private Trade and Technical Schools, with Tom Hebert [Dutton, 1972]; This Way Out: A Guide to Alternatives to Traditional College Education in the United States, Europe and the Third World, with Tom Hebert [Dutton, 1972]; By Hand: A Guide to Schools and Careers in Crafts, with Tom Hebert [Dutton, 1974]; Penland Book of Pottery [Bobbs-Merrill, 1975]; Penland Book of Jewelry Making [Bobbs-Merrill, 1975]; How to Make Upside-Down Dolls, with Jerry Miller [Bobbs-Merrill, 1977]
Better Golf [Follett, 1972]; New Golf For Women [Doubleday, 1973]; Playing with the Pros: Golf Instruction from the Senior Tour [Dutton, 1990]
Peace Corps (edited):
Going Up Country, Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers [Scribner's, 1994]; Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers [Curbstone Press, 1999]
Why did you abandon horror novels to write one about golf?
Well, it is true that most golfers have, from time to time, "a horrible round of golf," what is not clear is how a "horror writer" ends up writing a golf novel!
In the 1970s and í80s I wrote a series of horror novels (The Piercing, Hobgoblin, The Shroud, The Legacy) and others, several of which made best seller lists across the country. While golf courses were never a scene for my horror novels, golf really wasnít that far from my mind.
In fact, during those years one side of my brain was writing magazine articles about golf and editing golf instructional books (Better Golf, New Golf for Women, and Playing with the Pros). Also during those years I kept nurturing the idea of writing a golf novel. Golf has been a passion of mine since I was 12 years old and first began to caddie.
Through the years, Iíd seen best seller golf novels; Dan Jenkinsís Dead, Solid, Perfect about the pros on the PGA Tour; Steven Pressfieldís The Legend of Bagger Vance, a fictional account of a match between Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, and dozens more, but none about the player who dominated my childhood years: Ben Hogan.
There are hundreds of stories about Ben Hogan. As a kid caddie Iíd listened to club members swapping tales of Hoganís intensity and mysterious ways of tournament play. And Hoganís photos were constantly on the sportís pages as he won one golf tournament after another.
Still, it wasnít until a few years ago, after Mark Frostís The Greatest Game Ever Played came out, and after those Little Red Books on golf instruction by Harvey Penick were published, that I decided to write a novel about golf myself. Perhaps it was Tiger Woods who finally made me do it. Everyone said Tiger would rewrite the record books, breaking all of Jack Nicklausís and Arnold Palmerís records. But what about Ben Hogan? Why had his name slipped off the list of golf legends?
Someone had to bring back to life my childhood hero, and I wanted to do it by making Hogan a character in a novel. And what a character this "Wee Ice Man."
Hogan was, as the cliché goes, right out of central casting. A poor Texas boy, slight of stature, without a high school education, he was raised by a single mother after his father committed suicide. Turning pro as a teenager, he failed three times to make it on the PGA tour, but in the 1940s he came roaring out of Texas to dominate professional golf. In 1946 he played in thirty-two events. He won thirteen times, finished second in six, and finished third in three. Among the tournaments he won was his first major - the PGA Championship - and if he had made some putts on the final holes, he might also have won The Masters and the U.S. Open. A year later he led the tour again, winning seven times, and in 1948 he added ten more victories, including his second PGA Championship and his first U.S. Open. Eight months later he nearly lost his life.
In the winter of 1949, after a terrible automobile accident on a Texas highway, Hogan was told he might never walk again, but he did walk again and, with extraordinary determination, managed to return to golf 19 months later to win the U.S. Open, a victory that even today is called one of sportís most inspiring performances.
Hogan would go on to win the Masters, another U.S.Open, and the British Open within a span of twelve weeks, and when he returned from Great Britain in 1953, he became the first golfer since Bobby Jones to get a ticker-tape parade down lower Broadway in New York.
A movie of his life called Follow the Sun was made with Glenn Ford playing Ben, though Hogan was his own stand-in when it came to making the famous golf shots.
So, in my small attempt to save Hogan from the dustbin of history - and fully engaging my golfing muses - I typed a title into my Dell laptop in 2003: The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan. This novel, I decided, would be about a kid caddie growing up after the war as much as it would be about the great Ben Hogan. Then I wrote an opening sentence: Memories are magic.
But this book would not be just pages of nostalgia for "the good old days."
As a novelist, I knew I had to engage readers who did not play golf and the only Hogan they knew was called Hulk. I wove into the narrative a love affair between the young assistant golf professional and the daughter of the country club president, using my fictional and exclusive club setting as a lens into the social fabric of Midwest society in the 1940s. With literary nods to John OíHara and J.P. Marquand, both writers of the í40s who used golf as a way to comment on the social stratification of the age, I let the love affair between the beautiful young woman and the golf professional be the focal point of class and society of the times.
I let my caddie tell his own story from the vantage point of forty years later when, now a retired university professor, he returns to the country club of his youth and recalls, for the assembled sons and daughters of the members he once knew, that time in America when life was simpler and heroes like Ben Hogan were truly great men, or so we wished to believe.
But life was not simple, nor were men finer in those long-ago days, as the narrator remembers, and that, with plenty of good golf in between, is the story I tell in The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan.
As a novelist, have I abandoned my "horror" roots? Iím not sure. In researching Ben Hoganís life, I came across a story told about Al Geiberger, a gentle, soft-spoken, golf professional, who once played with Hogan in the final years of Hoganís career. Asked what it was like to play with Hogan, all Geiberger could think of to say was "it was spooky."
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