'Miracle at Merion' by David Bartlett

By: Bob Spiwak

When Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open, his prize money was $4,000. When Rory McElroy won the Open in 2011, his take was $1.44 million. Different eras.

Whereas Hogan, not fully recovered after his car was hit head-on by a Greyhound bus, struggled through two 36-hole rounds and an 18-hole playoff with elastic tape on both legs and a yet unhealed broken ankle, Tiger Woods has limited his play because of problems with a knee. Different people, different eras and different rewards.

This is not to say that money was the only, or even the most important factor in attaining the stature of an Open winner, but there is little doubt with millions in the bank, the incentive is there to lay back and heal properly. Barrett's chronicle is about the early days.

This said, it was with some dubious feelings that I began the book. I am easily bored with play-by-play, hole-by-hole recaps of golf matches, whether on TV, in books or in magazines. I got a very fine surprise.

Barrett is a sterling talent, and contrary to the title (MIS-titled in my opinion), he has examined the world of professional golf in the years leading up to Hogan's climactic victory in 1950, reaching into golf's annals and giving a lot of ink to names familiar to most golf fanatics, certainly Depression era and early Baby Boomers, to whom the names of Mangrum, Ghezzi, Fazio, Middlecoff, Snead and many others are familiar.

But it is not only the names standing alone. He ties the entire story leading to Hogan's fantastic finish to people and events that led to the victory. And there is much to be learned here other than names. For example, Hogan may not have beaten Lloyd Mangrum had the latter not gotten a two-stroke penalty for marking, lifting and cleaning his ball - on the green! This puzzled me until reading further the author explains that in 1950 there were different rules adhered to by the PGA and USGA. In this case, Mangrum was playing by the PGA rules and the USGA forbade lifting and cleaning.

As a writer I have the greatest admiration for Barrett's unfailing giving of named attribution to quotes derived from magazines, newspapers and books. Lesser writers will forget from whom the quote came and merely record the publication.

In similar fashion, Barrett goes to great lengths to describe and explain the making of Hy Peskin's iconic Ben Hogan photo for Life magazine. That picture is on the cover of this book and hanging in who knows how many golf clubhouses.

Hogan's head-on with a Greyhound bus and his subsequent healing a year or so before his Open win are explained in broad strokes. They are not limited to the protagonists in this drama, but include events and personalities peripheral to the two events.

And by virtue of narration and quotations, Barrett argues that whatever reputation Hogan may have had before his accident, he was a warm and responsive person during interviews and relations with others. Though his responses were short at times, he was not rude. So much for "The Wee Ice Mon" nickname.

I think a different title might well lure more readers. Maybe something that reflects the era, the people and the thrilling climax. But I leave that task to the publishers: this book to me is a winner in every way.

"Miracle at Merion," by David Bartlet, $24.95, Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN 978-1-61608-082-2

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. Though suffering a four-year lapse, he's back to being a fanatical golfer. Now a contributing editor for Cybergolf, Spiwak has written articles for almost every golf magazine in the Western world. Bob's most treasured golf antiquity is a nod he got from Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit. Spiwak lives in Mazama, Wash., with his wife and several pets next to his fabled ultra-private Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club.