Secrets and lies about the Garbo of golf

BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: Folklore and fame on the fairways perused by Andy Farrell
Click to follow
Golf instruction books have a tendency towards hyperbole in their titles - Learn Golf in a Weekend and Break 100 in 28 Days are the preposterous claims. One book, actually a biography, could claim to help you win the US Open. A week before Steve Jones did just that, a friend sent him a copy of Hogan (Rutledge Hill Press, pounds 16.95, from Sportspages). "When I started reading it," Jones said, "I couldn't put it down."

There are fewer books about Ben Hogan than any other of the great players of the game but his is an inspiring story. Curt Sampson does a fine job of slicing through the myth and misinformation that surrounds the Garbo of golf, much of it if not encouraged then certainly not denied or corrected by the man himself during his career.

The outline of the story centres on the suicide of his father when Ben was nine years old, his work ethic on the practice range, the car crash in 1949 in which he almost died and his monumental 1953 season in which he won the three majors he entered including the Open at Carnoustie. But the detail is terrific, too. At Oakland Hills in 1951, Hogan had just won his third US Open when he was congratulated by Clayton Heafner, his main last-round challenger, who finished tied for second two shots back.

"Thanks, Clayton," Hogan said, "How'd you do?"

"Ben was only focused on himself," Jones said, back at Oakland Hills for the US Open 45 years later. "I kept telling myself what Hogan said - to focus on each shot and not to worry about the outcome. I honestly don't think I could have won without reading that book."

There are further parallels with Hogan's career. Late in 1991, Jones was involved in a bike accident which kept him off the tour for almost three years. A persistent finger injury led to him developing his reverse overlap grip. In January, Jones is favourite to receive the US tour's comeback award. It is named after Hogan.

The anecdotal style of instruction book was pioneered by Harvey Penick and his Little Green Book series. Two of Britain's foremost golfing figures teamed up to produce Golf in a Nutshell (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 9.99). The wisdom and wit of John Jacobs, Ryder Cup player and captain, founder of the modern European tour and the guru of golf gurus, was committed to paper with the help of another master of his craft, the late Peter Dobereiner.

The subtitle is "The flight of the ball tells it all" and despite its modest length and price, this book flies long and high, drawing in the browser for an extended visit. The shortest passage is headed "Hopeless cases" and reads: "The only people whose golf cannot be improved are those who won't listen." Jacobs once told a very young Seve Ballesteros to cure his "rock-and-block" action or he would develop back trouble later on.

Evidently the Spaniard took no notice and after winning three Opens and two Masters has suffered severely in the lumbar region. But had Ballesteros eradicated all the push-fades and the snap-hooks early on, we may not have been gifted with Troubleshooting (with Robert Green, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 14.99).

Here are all the old favourites - escapes from trees and bushes, left- handed, back-handed and one-handed shots. But the earlier chapters may be of more use. The fundamentals of grip, stance and alignment are stressed and learning how to play from all manner of sloping lies and from sand will aid any golf game.

Laura Davies Naturally... (with Lewine Mair, Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99) has both instructional and also biographical sections. In the former the world No 1 describes what can be learnt from watching the leading players while the latter offers details of both golf and gambling. Davies also appears as one of 50 biographies in Liz Kahn's history of the women's game, The LPGA: The Unauthorized Version (AA Publishing, pounds 16.99). Although the superstars are all covered, the strength of the book is the equal space given to the stories of the less heralded.

Helen Dettweiller was a pilot in the Women's Air Force during World War Two and became the first woman radio baseball commentator; Betty Dodd nursed Zaharias in the final years before her death from cancer aged 42; Sandra Haynie was Martina Navratilova's mentor when she won her first Wimbledon. Subjects as diverse as racism, Christianity, glamour and lesbianism are all sensitively handled.

Also recommended: A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein (Little, Brown & Co, pounds 8.99, paperback version) - the opening two chapters provide stomach- churning insight into the Ryder Cup; The Open Championship 1996 (Hazleton Publishing, pounds 14.99) - day-by-day accounts and essays on Tom Lehman's triumph at Royal Lytham; The Lazy Golfer's Companion by Peter Alliss (Collins Willow, pounds 12.99) - practical guide to getting the best out of your game; The Greatest of them All - The Legend of Bobby Jones by Martin Davis (The American Golfer, pounds 40) and Life & Times of Bobby Jones by Sidney L Matthew (Sleeping Bear Press, pounds 35) - large-scale tributes to the great amateur with evocative photography.