‘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 Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.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

‘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!

q-school

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.