California Literary Review

The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan by John Coyne

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April 10th, 2007 at 9:28 am

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The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan
by John Coyne
Thomas Dunne Books, 288 pp.
CLR Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

An Uninspired Stroll Down the Fairway

At the risk of being cold-hearted, though after reading this book I don’t seem to care all that much, there are times I wonder why people who are at least reasonably accomplished authors make the effort to write certain books, not to mention why these less-than-stellar titles ever see the light of print. Such is the case with The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan by John Coyne. This novel makes shameless use of weak artifice (as opposed to crafted artifice which every writer falls back on now and then) to advance the most superficial and banal of plots involving the ancient game of golf.

This avocation, pastime, sport and perhaps, art form, has a legacy that is centuries old regarding quality literature including The Art of Golf by Sir Walter Simpson in 1887, Scotland’s Gift: Golf by course architect Charles Blair MacDonald – 1928, Following Through: Herbert Warren Wind on Golf - 1985, The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield – 1995, and hundreds, maybe thousands, more.

Then we come to The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, which might better have been titled The Caddie Who Knew Nothing of Golf’s Literary Tradition. The plot, possibly a bit of generosity using this term, revolves around the return of Jack Handley who remembers caddying for Ben Hogan in the summer of 1946 during the last Chicago Open at Midlothian. Jack recounts to assembled sons and daughters of members he once knew, the match between Hogan and the club’s young assistant pro. This could possibly work if the writer displayed a touch of passion and forethought, but as written, the entire novel told before an audience that was probably passed-out from too many cocktails or from abject boredom by the fourth hour (288 pages as a public speech must take quite awhile in real time), is predictable and the anecdotes supposedly steeped in links history are mundane.

I grew up playing golf. I was hooked, impassioned, addicted and became very good for a swing of four youthful years before transferring my affections totally to fly fishing. I learned on old and revered courses like Onwentsia in Lake Forest, Illinois that held one of the first U.S. Opens a century ago, and from an old pro named Gunnar Nelson at venerable Rockford Country Club in northern Illinois, and was lucky enough to play The Chicago Club (hosted U.S. Open 1897, 1900, 1911), Butler, Medinah and Midlothian. I was fortunate as a youth, privileged in this respect. The traditions, honor and history of golf meant something to me and to a certain degree shaped my life. When I see haphazard writing on any subject that I care about, I become angry. Perhaps too easily. This novel is a case in point.

Coyne is the author of 11 books including three on golf instruction, and horror novels with titles like The Searing, The Shroud and Child of Shadows. He’s also edited two collections by Peace Corps Writers. Perhaps his greatest horror novel is this one about golf.

I found this on the book’s website:

“The author fills his narrative with true-life anecdotes about Ben Hogan and this golden age of golf as he profiles an assistant club pro who loves the game as much as he loves the beautiful daughter of the president of this private club. At the end of a magical summer, the club pro will win and lose at golf and love, and the teenage caddie will learn lessons for life taught to him by one of the great gentlemen and players of the game, Ben Hogan.”

I really must have missed something. Coyne said this of Hogan and the book in a recent interview, also from the book’s website.

“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 ’30s, ’40s and ’50s — 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.”

None of this came through for me in the novel. I even reread long passages to see if I had overlooked qualities in the story line, diction and syntax. My conclusion, “No I didn’t.”

I would have preferred to like and enjoy this book – good books on golf, especially those dealing with the history of the game in Scotland fascinate me. But I was unable to sink into The Caddie especially in light of the constant reminders/interruptions by Coyne as he makes overly sure that the reader is involved with a narrator speaking to a captive audience at a banquet room of a well-to-do country club.

“Now on that note, perhaps, we might take a short break. I see Doug nodding in agreement. You know when you get to be our age, you can’t be to long between rest stops, so to speak…”

And…

“…but there is the out-of-bounds to the left that troubles players who hook, as some of you in the audience know.”

And…

“Let’s pause here for another short break before we reach the heart of my tale…”

And on and on and on.

In the end, this book fails for many reasons including obvious superficiality. The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan adds little if anything to golfing literature.

  • Tim

    I agree completely. This book lacked depth and felt gimicky the whole way through. The ending was lame as if the author had to hurry off to do something else. I put the book down upon completion feeling like I do when I watch a bad movie and think “that’s 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”. I almost want my money back.

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