Most call it his best book, a few even the best on golf, but it still took me about 25 years to find Dan Jenkins’s The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. What an odd title, I never could quite make it out, and the fact that it was based on a Bobby Jones quote only further muddled the plot. I guess I assumed the book, if not the quote, was about a bunch of half-drunk Texans betting their mortgages on who could clear the local saloon with a one-iron.
And, of course, there is a section in there on that.
But the book, it turns out, is really nothing more than a reiteration of the same stories Jenkins has been telling for 50 years now, a compilation of his best, pre-1970, hits.
Regardless, it’s still worth reading, if only for the last 4 or 5 pages. He ends by describing the final afternoon of the 1960 US Open, a story I’ve read so many times I could tell it verbatim, and the sole tale Jenkins uses in the eulogy he published immediately after the death of Arnold Palmer.
Somehow though the version Jenkins recounts in Dogged is far and away the best, and in less than 500 words he better explains the man than any of the other tomes written about him.
Now I’m not going to waste time setting up that particular Open. If you don’t know about the pre-round banter in the grill room, Arnold subsequently driving the first green, the front nine 30, Hogan rinsing a wedge on 17, and a pudgy 20-year-old amateur named Jack something or other 3-putting away the championship, well, you know now.
Two things come across in the account in Dogged of that day.
First, you can stuff your Masters revisionism in a sack. The King was crowned on that front nine outside Denver, and defined, later, by his losses at Oakmont and Olympic. Arnold Palmer probably played more than a thousand tournaments, but only 3 or 4, all United States Open Championships, really mattered. And 1960 mattered most. Sometime late on that back nine out West, far from a certain course on the Georgia – South Carolina border, Jenkins recognized: Everything would be his now.
This point is muffed by most of the obits floating around, with many continuing to propel the myth that a limited invitation-only event, on a wholly unnatural made-for-TV course, held a couple of months too early in the season is an arbiter of anything.
More interestingly, in Dogged you learn what drove Arnold Palmer on the golf course. Late that afternoon the man had all but ascended Everest — similar to Tiger at, yes, Augusta in 1997. The world was about to be handed to him, he was about to recognize his life’s dream, and yet he remained fixated on an ultimately irrelevant putt that lipped out and cost him a 29 on the front nine.
And this is the crux of being a fan. The human beings in the arena are infinitely more interesting than the results of these silly events. Does anyone with any depth really care how Arnold, or anyone else for that matter, got or gets the clubface back to square? The carnival barkers on the Golf Channel, apparently, but they can stuff their fatwas on Tiger’s swing in a sack too.
Lee Trevino said he would have bet his mortgage there wasn’t a soul with greater love for the game than his own, until he got to know Arnold Palmer. Jack confirms this, sadly observing that Arnold became a bit lost, a few years ago, after his body finally gave way and golf, of any kind, fell out of reach.
Michael Bamberger, recovering from a misguided, or perhaps obligatory, Masters genuflection in Sports Illustrated’s Arnold obit, gets to the heart of the matter by recounting a tale of the once great man, well past his prime, shaking his putter with glee after a birdie brought him back into a friendly match with a 15 handicapper.
Now, the rank-and-file professional golfer, even those that make it to the top of the game, hang on to the bitter end. The senior tour, the corporate circuit, and the very nature of golf, make this possible in a way that’s out of reach for any other athlete.
There’s a different dynamic at play though for the best of the best. Their biographies are remarkably consistent, and they all end the same. The alpha loses a step, then another. And, the thought of being proven diminished is too heavy a burden. The clubs are hung up. When you were number 1, number 30 is an embarrassment. Heck, number 2 is. Jack liked to say that he had no interest in becoming a “ceremonial golfer.” The lure of the dollar might be the only thing that keeps Tiger from all but joining Mickey Wright in seclusion.
Not Arnold. He didn’t care if he was shooting 60 or 80. He was just trying to hit the ball on the center of the club and ram home a birdie.
Well, that’s the myth anyway. And even if there are less appealing sides to Arnold, as there are to any human being, there is no reason to think it doesn’t approximate the truth.