AT FIRST BLUSH, golf doesn’t appear to be a nuanced sport; in fact, walking after a small white ball surrounded by acres of grass and trees, swinging at it with a club wood or iron and counting the stokes needed to get from tee to green, seems fairly straightforward. Even a bit tedious.
But wait. The magic of John Coyne’s work of fiction, The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, is that it reveals the game to be not only subtle, but wonderfully challenging and not one you can muscle your way through. His compelling story is about a young 14-year-old caddie, Jack Handley, who works at a country club just outside of Chicago, and is a well-versed student of the game. For Jack, life is golf and golf is life. The year is 1946, a time when the Chicago Open soon will be played on the links where Jack caddies.
By chance, one late afternoon, Jack spots Ben Hogan and his wife arriving at the club Hogan wanting to play a round and get a feel for the course. Jack volunteers to carry his bag. And so begins a marvelous story about a boy who has just lost his father in World War II, and this iconic figure who was already a legend when they met.
But what is remarkable about this novel is how Coyne manages to balance the development of interesting characters and long, descriptive passages about the game. One of the most challenging aspects of writing is to write well about a sport, bringing to life the endlessly intricate aspects of the game. No matter whether the reader has even a glimmer of how the game works, Coyne’s superbly parsed language and his intimate knowledge of the game carry the narrative forward at a pace that allows reflection while generating genuine excitement. He even interjects into the plot a nice love story between the assistant pro at the club, Matt, and the daughter of the club president. Socially, they are miles apart, she upper crust, Matt from far more humble roots. How this is all sorted out as the club anticipates the arrival of professional golfers from all over the country adds a nice tension to what is already a fine read.
You don’t have to love the game of golf to thoroughly enjoy reading The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan. In fact, if golf is a game on the periphery of your vision, all to the good, for then this book will be a revelation. And how better to enjoy a novel than to have your perspective shifted, and a new and interesting world revealed.
Clearly, this is not a game of simply swinging away at a small, pitted, white ball as you walk across beautifully manicured acreage. It’s far more interesting and complex. Endlessly so. No lie is ever the same, no day like the one before.
Of course, as Hogan eventually points out to Jack, golf is a metaphor for life. But then what great sport isn’t? All of the structure is there in golf: you play the ball as you find it; sometimes it means hitting out of the rough; those who persevere will prevail; never yield; practice, practice, practice; and on and on. It’s wonderful what can happen to individuals on the field of play, no matter the size or shape of the ball.
If you have never come across a Coyne book, then this novel will be a wonderful introduction. He is the author of some 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, and lives in Pelham Manor, New York, with his wife and son.