‘Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard’ edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.

The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.

The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.

Losers is published August 18 2020

‘The Hitler Trophy: Golf and the Olympic Games’ by Alan Fraser (2016)

When I went as a spectator to the Rio Olympics, golf was the one sport my wife refused to attend. Despite my protesting that the sports historic return to the Games was reason enough, she maintained that you only watch sports at the Olympics where it represents the pinnacle of that sport. Had I known golf and the Olympics had such an interesting history I might have been able to make a stronger case to go!

The Hitler Trophy tells two stories – one of a small golf tournament organised in Baden-Baden on the fringes of the Berlin 1936 Olympics and also the broader backstory of golf’s connection with the Olympics.

Golf’s official Olympic backstory is largely forgotten. The only two tournaments it appeared in, Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, were a total bust. Indeed in Paris, players were unaware that they were part of the 1900 Olympics and the first player awarded a gold medal for golf was unaware of that fact. The game quickly disappeared (officially) until its return in Rio. In The Hitler Trophy Fraser paints a vivid picture of these early tournaments and their colourful characters. Later in the book he also details the much more recent campaign which led to golfs successful reemergence as an Olympic sport.

The main focus of the book however is the little known Baden Baden tournament. Sanctioned personally by Hitler, the tournament had many of the trappings of an official Olympic event. Fraser recounts what details are known about the victory of two fascinating Englishman against a limited field. The highlight of the book is Fraser’s subsequent research tracing what happened next to the trophy and the cast of characters. Most intriging of all is his quest to determine whether Hitler really was in a car en route to present the trophy when it looked like the German team might emerge triumphant.

The Hitler Trophy is brilliantly researched and beautifully written. Fraser has spoken to probably every living descendant of the key figures. Full of fascinating characters and sprinkled with great wit throughout, it is a fascinating, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

‘The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever’ by Kevin Robbins (2019)

Payne Stewart was always memorable.  His distinctive clothes, his colourful personality and his return to major-winning form in his 40’s ensured he received plenty of attention and coverage.  When he died tragically in 1999, the golf and sporting world was shocked.

Kevin Robbins excellent book, The Last Stand of Payne Stewart, tells 3 stories. Firstly it does an incredible job as a biography of a charismatic, fascinating golfer who died before his time. Secondly, it captures brilliantly the last 12 months of his life and career as he won his third major and returned to the very pinnacle of the sport.  Finally, the book is also a meditation on the evolution of professional golf from a game of shot makers to a game of power hitters using cutting edge, scientifically designed, golf clubs.

Robbins doesn’t shy away from some of Payne’s less pleasant behaviour.  He paints a picture of a brash, talented but at times uncaring man who, with the help of his loving wife and his rediscovered faith, grew into a more rounded, loving family man.  That this maturing of Payne as both a golfer and a man comes just before his death makes it feel all the more tragic.

Robbins covers the plane crash and the reactions of those who knew Payne is significant detail. It is impossible to read without feeling intense sympathy for those who knew and loved him.

The third story, of the evolution of the game, is really fascinating.  The turn of the millennium, and the death of Payne Stewart, marked the end of the ‘shotmakers’ era as power-hitters like Tiger Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson began to drive the ball to previously un-imagined lengths changing the way courses could be set up and the way professional golf could be played.

Robbins clearly had great access to Payne’s family, friends and other golfers.  It is a sympathetic yet honest account of a charismatic yet flawed man who had a huge impact on those around him.  It’s a brilliant book which I highly recommend.

2014 Documentary on Payne Stewart’s remarkable U.S. Open win in 1999
Payne

‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’ by Wright Thompson (2019)

Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports.  His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely in Ireland at least.  It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unravelled until the excellent  ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published last year.

The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving success.  The stories collected here are mostly about the off pitch lives of those involved in sports.  It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil.  The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the ugly time of de-segregation in US education.

Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years.  Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.

The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of on of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid.  He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written.  As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner worlds of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.   

Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out.  I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:

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‘Moment of Glory: The Year Tiger Lost This Swing and Underdogs Ruled the Majors’ by John Feinstein (2010)

Moment of Glory recounts the story of golf’s major championships in 2003 – a year with four first-time major champions. From the vantage point of 2010, Feinstein looks back at the 2003 season and chronicles the careers of the those 4 champions – Ben Curtis, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk and Shaun Micheel.

In 2003, Tiger Woods began work on a complete remodelling of his swing resulting in a dip in performance to the extent that he didn’t seriously compete in any of that year’s majors.  This left a vacuum which was filled by 4 first time winners whose lives would all change.

The most fascinating part of the book was the focus on what major victories meant for the 4 and the comparison with how the runners up fared after the tournaments.  Feinstein also pays close attention to the nearly-men who came so close to winning those 4 majors – none of whom had won a major and all who would be heavily impacted by the experience of coming so close but missing out.  The insight into how a single putt could change two different golfers’ lives really helped to put the stakes at play into perspective.

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For me the book suffers from the fact I have already read, and really enjoyed, two of Feinstein’s other golf books – A Good Walk Spoiled and Q School.  In a lot of ways this felt overly similar in chronicling the challenges of professional golfers outside the very very top rung.  The book is well written and a very enjoyable easy read that benefits from Feinstein’s accessible writing and clear ability to put to interviewees at ease.  I just feel like I’d already read the book before in some ways.

Overall, I’d recommend it.  I think it actually works even better reading it now in 2018 when we have more info at our fingertips on how the players careers have progressed since 2010 as well.  Amazingly, after this book was published, both 2011 and 2016 also saw 4 different first time major winners crowned.

While it isn’t Feinstein’s best book, it’s well worth picking up as the long wait for next season’s Masters begins post Ryder Cup.

Moment of Glory

‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (2018)

Tiger Woods is the second collaboration by Benedict and Keteyian following on from their very enjoyable deep dive into US college football in The System.

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This book is a comprehensive, well researched, biography of the most famous sportsman on the planet.  Building on over 20 previous books and countless thousands of magazine profiles, the authors tell the comprehensive account of the rise and fall (and maybe redemption?) of Tiger Woods.  Woods impact on the game of golf is obvious and well known but his own personal story hasn’t before been told so comprehensively in one volume.

The advance coverage of the book focused on stories of Tiger’s notorious cheapness and rudeness.  In the book, Tiger comes across as a fascinating, if largely unlikable individual – but you get the feeling that the authors have attempted to be fair to Woods.

The book shines a light on the toxic influence of Tiger’s father Earl – the missed childhood as he focused on golf, the willingness to cut people out of his life on his father’s say-so and Tiger’s eventual mirroring of his father’s worst habits.  Tiger appears as a very intelligent introvert who would have been much better served without Earl’s constant boasting that he was going to change the world.  His difficulties with keeping long term relationships – largely through his own neglect of other’s emotional needs – makes me somewhat sympathetic for Tiger who clearly needs affection yet sabotages every important relationships in his life (bar his mother).

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Tiger’s focus and perfectionism are fascinating.  To be able to deal with the hype of being the highest rated and most scrutinised player immediately upon turning pro.  To seek to rebuild his swing almost immediately after his 1997 Masters win is the type of move a mere mortal wouldn’t even contemplate let alone attempt.  To be able to play the best golf of his life while his private life was unraveling behind the scenes was beyond remarkable.   His ability and determination to play through pain is mind boggling.

Tiger’s fall from grace has been well covered, and the stories are well told and set in context here – painting a clear picture of how Tiger managed to remain on the top even when he knew tabloids were on to his affairs.   His attempts since that fateful Thanksgiving to rebuild his career are set out in the last section of the book.  It seems that his DUI arrest and worldwide humiliation in 2017 has proved a catalyst for some actual changes in Tiger – which have coincided with improved health helping him to play golf again.  The book left me hoping that this redemption is real, and long lasting.

It was welcome to see a detailed discussion on the possibility of Woods using Performance Enhancing Drugs – no athlete with such an impressive physique and connections to dodgy doctors should be above suspicion.   There is only so much the author’s can say without any substantial evidence but it does highlight the need for better testing in professional golf.

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I was disappointed to see such little focus on team events like the Ryder Cup (less than a page) although maybe that’s a sign of how little the event meant to Tiger relative to individual honours.

Tiger’s story has always been about the golf first and foremast.  The celebrity off the course has always been secondary to the magic and drama of watching Woods at his best on the big occasion.  One passage best sums up Tiger and the world’s attitude towards him – “As a human being, he might not have been lovable – or even likable –but as a performer he possessed unsurpassed talents that he honed through a lifetime of practice .  On a Sunday afternoon, he shared his gifts with millions enabling them to forget reality and vicariously experience thrills that were more exhilarating than anything felt in a church pew.  Golf had never meant so much to so many”.

The book is well written and very enjoyable.  At times depressing, it is never anything but compelling. Highly recommended.

Chairman Hootie Johnson presents the green jacket to Tiger Woods

‘Tales from Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major’ by John Feinstein (2007)

Tales from Q School tells the story of the 2005 Q school tournament through the eyes of a handful of the 1000’s of PGA Tour hopefuls who competed that year – some famous, others less so.  The book is packed full of interesting anecdotes about the qualifying school that lower-rung golfers had to go through to get to the PGA Tour.

Q school

At the time there were three stages at Q school – first stage, second stage, and finals.  Players paid close to $5,000 for a chance to compete in the tournaments and potentially win a place on the PGA Tour – or at least get playing privileges on the secondary tour.

Since 2012, Q School has stopped offering a route directly to the PGA Tour – instead it is a qualifier for the secondary tour and a separate 4 event tournament offers a route to get to or remain on the big tour.   So while Q school might be a different beast now, the vast majority of pro players operating today will have gone through Q school as it is chronicled by Feinstein.

John Feinstein is one of the most widely read authors of books on US sports with his back catalogue covering american football, basketball, baseball and golf.  It is clear he enjoys telling the stories of the less well known professional sportsmen and women as much as he does the superstar.

Feinstein deals with the human element of the tournament – the solitary and gutwrenching journey that the players faced to try and earn a place at the top table.  As he notes, only in golf can earning half a million dollars a year be considered a failure!

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What emerges is a real sense of the importance of the mental element of the game, and indeed any top level professional sport. The margins are so fine between success and failure – one double bogey or one error off the tee can be the difference between life as a club pro or the opportunity for multiple million dollar riches.

It was a little confusing at times because the narrative jumps around. There is also repetition as players backgrounds are repeated as we encounter them again at a later stage.  While this repetition is understandable given the vast number of characters, it gets annoying if you read the book over a very short period.

Notwithstanding these points, I found the book to incredibly interesting and utterly absorbing. The stories of players missing out by one shot or one hole were heartbreaking.  Players who signed for the wrong score and missed their one big shot just like that.  Players who collapsed on the final 9 holes after playing masterfully for 13 and half rounds before then.

Feinstein, as is obvious across all his work, is a master interviewer who gets great quotes and detail from all of the golfers he covers.  Overall, a well-written, informative and enjoyable book.