There is a certain timbre to the voice of golf. You have to be a player to hear it. Baseball shouts. Football rumbles. Basketball bellows. Even tennis, the other country club sport, shrieks. Maybe that's the way our game should be, too, in this new century. But golf's voice has always risen above the others. When you want to be heard, they say, whisper.
The whisperers of Golf Digest are the magazine's columnists. They are charged with explaining the game and the players while keeping it all in perspective. Humor and empathy come easy to them; after all, they're golfers.
One who wrote more words, traveled more miles and took more X's in pursuit of golf was the great British columnist, Peter Dobereiner, who was distinguished from the rest also by having an ego the size of a ballmarker. He viewed every other writer as his superior. He described himself as "a dust-bin collector next to Charley Price," "not good enough to carry Dan Jenkins' 7-wood," and "an abject failure compared with Henry Longhurst." Of course, it was all hogwash.
Dobereiner, much to the good fortune of his readers, was a Zelig-like character who always seemed to be standing inconspicuously beside the golfer making history. Nicklaus and Palmer considered him a trusted friend. Ballesteros said he could make him laugh and cry in the same sentence. Who else but Dobers would have stumbled into Greg Norman in the Augusta National locker room on the eve of his final round in the 1996 Masters, with a six-shot lead and a green coat within his grasp. Dobereiner gave his old mate a bear hug and uttered the now-infamous refrain, "Greg, even you can't muck this one up."
Peter was one of a stable of star writers who ushered Golf Digest into a new era of reporting and interpretation of the game. Sometime beginning in the mid-1970s, the magazine stepped up its feature writing and commentary with the addition one by one of these wonderful eccentrics who had no equal as writers on golf. Occasionally a Herbert Warren Wind or Alastair Cooke or John Updike would join their ranks, but every month the magazine published the ruminations of this murderer's row: Longhurst, Dobereiner, Price, Jenkins, Frank Beard, Dave Marr, Peter Thomson, Peter Andrews, Nick Seitz, Frank Hannigan and, in later years, Tom Callahan, Dave Kindred and David Owen.
That stretch through the 1980s into the 1990s was a Golden Age of Golf Writing. Readers who took Golf Digest in that period were as lucky as the golfers of Fort Worth in the 1920s who found Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan in the same caddie yard.
Longhurst was elected to Parliament with Churchill. Price lived with Walter Hagen. Dave Marr was the pro from 52nd Street. Jenkins was the son Hogan never had. Thomson won five British Opens in the morning and wrote his own newspaper accounts in the afternoon. Hannigan officiated at national championships for 20 years. These were rollicking writers with widely diverse backgrounds sharing one common trait: they knew golf.
The traditional job description of a columnist is to hunker down on the sidelines until the battle is over, then go out and bayonet the wounded. But these writers prided themselves only to pick on the giants, the commissioners, the superstars, the Augusta Nationals and Greg Normans--it was Jenkins who wrote of Greg, "He looks like the guy they always hired to kill James Bond." How were we to know it was Norman's fate to fall off the funicular at the end of every major?
Some columnists never left any blood on the victim. Whenever I as editor would get a call of complaint about a Callahan column, I would listen sympathetically and explain: "Oh, no, I'm sure he meant it as a compliment." With Jenkins, that line never worked. Dan could offend everyone with such versimilitude and wit that only a tour pro could take umbrage.
Some writers put their future at risk by never compromising an opinion. The column by Frank Beard chosen for this chapter criticized the Masters sufficiently that it cost him a career as a network television broadcaster.
Others were simply great raconteurs. Who else but Dave Marr would recall that a syphon used to steal gasoline in the early days of the tour was known as "an Oklahoma credit card"?
But for sheer elegance, the style of Charles Price belonged on a Paris runway in an earlier time. He believed in never using a metaphor or analogy that wasn't at least 50 years old. "I want my stuff read for generations," he'd say. "The latest Spielberg flick might not be around so long."