Book review: The power of three

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer

It is widely accepted that Arnold Palmer popularized golf for the masses with his swashbuckling playing style and off-the-charts charisma. James Dodson, who helped Palmer write his memoir, certainly has a soft spot for The King, but insists we not forget three legends – Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan – who all were born in 1912 and set the stage for Palmer’s generation and those who followed.

As Dodson recalls Snead growling, “You tell Arnold if it hadn’t been for me and old Ben and Byron, hell, nobody would’ve ever heard of him!” There’s no doubt a touch of overstatement there, but it’s clear that Dodson is sympathetic to that argument, as was Palmer, who told the author, “We all owe them a big debt of gratitude.”

The three giants dominated tournaments in the 1930s and ’40s, and in their own ways drove the game forward. Nelson, prodded by his first wife Louise’s pointed reminder that it’s the Indian, not the arrow, stopped toying with his clubs and started his “five-year transformation plan” that would reshape the modern golf swing. Snead’s sheer power and athleticism overwhelmed his opponents when he emerged from the hills of southwest Virginia. And Hogan’s doggedness, technique and precision set the standard for how to play the game at the highest level. It would be fair to debate their lasting impact on the game’s popularity. Even after the first Big Three, the second Big Three (Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player) and all who followed them, American interest in golf still lags far behind that of several sports. Only 8 percent of Americans play the game, and a far smaller percentage play it avidly.

There is, however, no debating Dodson’s skill in telling this story. Over the years, he spent extensive time with Nelson, Snead and Hogan, whose biography he authored, and his familiarity with these men and their shared history makes for a compelling read.

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