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Golf Literature: The Greatest Game Ever Played

It was a mismatch for the ages. At the 1913 U.S. Open twenty-year-old Francis Ouimet, an amateur with a ten-year-old kid for a caddie, went up against Harry Vardon, the British champion who towered over his era. The scene was The Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts, across the street from the house where Ouimet grew up—and still lived with his parents. The result would change the game forever.

"I think of it as the Big Bang, the event that started American golf," says Mark Frost, whose new book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, chronicles the Ouimet-Vardon duel and the quirky game they played. America's first golf craze found 350,000 U.S. players—up from 50,000 a decade before—smacking gutta-percha and wound-rubber "bouncing billy" balls. Golfers wore plus fours, knickers that reached four inches below the knee. They swung hickory-shafted mashies and niblicks and played by cruel rules: If you found your ball plugged an inch down in a wet green, you hacked it out with an iron.

The great Vardon had invented the modern swing and the overlapping grip. Nobody believed he could lose to Ouimet. "Vardon had a Tiger-like relentlessness," says Frost. "He won seven majors at a time when there were only two. He won six British Opens, which no one else has done. He could have left Nicklaus's record of eighteen majors in the dust. That's why Ouimet's performance was the best comeback in sports history."

Frost is an unlikely Boswell for Francis Ouimet. An Emmy-nominated story editor for Hill Street Blues, he went on to help David Lynch create Twin Peaks, the TV freak show that starred golf nut Kyle MacLachlan. "We'd talk golf between takes," he says. "In one scene the killer had a body in his trunk, right beside a set of clubs. While everyone else set up the scene with the corpse, Kyle and I took the clubs out and practiced." Post-Peaks, Frost wrote three novels, then remembered a story he'd heard as a boy—the tale of a self-taught Boston kid who stunned the world at the 1913 Open. To research a book on Ouimet, Frost ransacked The Country Club archives and the USGA library at Far Hills, New Jersey. After weeks of work he realized he had two protagonists. "For me," he says, "the real discovery was Vardon, another great hero of the game."

Born to poverty in Jersey, England, in 1870, Harry Vardon spent three years in virtual slavery—bound over by his parents to be a rich doctor's houseboy—before earning his freedom at age seventeen. He became the world's best golfer only to be struck down in his prime by tuberculosis, which almost killed him. The disease ruined nerves in his right hand, leaving Vardon with a case of the yips that would bedevil him ever after.

Did Harry's frayed nerves change history?Did fate bring the 1913 Open to Francis's front porch?In Frost's hands an eighty-nine-year-old match plays out with more suspense than this week's Tour event. Marred only by a few grammatical shanks ("Too excited to feel nervous, the prospect didn't daunt him"), The Greatest Game Ever Played is one of the best golf books ever written.

Next up for Frost: the movie. "I just finished the screenplay," he says. He won't say who might star in the film but guarantees that the auditions won't be easy.

"The golf swing is the hardest thing in the world to fake," says Frost, wincing at the thought of the stabs he has seen in golf movies. "One thing I can promise you—we're going to get someone who has a real swing."

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