What made these writers excel was their ability to let the event tell itself. There was no need to embellish or use hyperbole, and while the prose of some of golf’s best writers seems lyrical, it’s also never forced.
That is where Jim Moriarty excels in his new book. Playing Through: Modern Golf’s Most Iconic Players and Moments (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $34.95; 274 pages) puts the reader inside the ropes and in the heads of some of the best golfers of the past 35 years. Moriarty was a contributing writer and photographer for Golf Digest (1985-2001) and Golf World (2001-2015), so he saw some of the top players of what he terms “modern golf.”
Moriarty put together 12 essays for Playing Through, starting with a piece on the 1982 U.S. Open that featured Tom Watson’s iconic chip-in at Pebble Beach that sealed his victory and further cemented his rivalry with Jack Nicklaus.
It was a match played with wooden clubs, steel shafts and forged irons, Moriarty writes, and “two of the game’s all-time great champions … took each other’s measures one final time.”
In between, there are stories about Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart, Juli Inkster, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Phil Mickelson and Nicklaus. He also writes about today’s emerging stars, like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
Here are some fun facts I found about Spieth, from the MoneyNation website. Spieth’s net worth is $77.4 million. Count endorsements, and since 2012, the 23-year-old Spieth has made more than $147.5 million. He makes in one day what most Americans make in three years, the website.
But before you lament how golfing greats like the late Arnold Palmer did not make as much money on the tour as newcomers like Spieth — and that’s a fact — understand that Arnie’s endorsements and golf design companies made him worth more than $675 million. That’s nearly nine times more than Spieth.
But I digress. Moriarty’s writing takes the reader into the nationalistic pride that bubbles over during the Ryder Cup. That international exhibition between a U.S. squad and a team of Europeans really resonated with me, since I covered the 1983 event at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (Moriarty refers to the course as being in West Palm Beach, but that was incorrect — one of the few glitches in the book). That was the exhibition that showed the European team on the verge of breaking through and ending the United States’ stranglehold on the Cup.
What was memorable — and Moriarty recounts it perfectly — was Ballesteros’ shot out of the sand trap at No. 18. Using a 3-wood, Ballesteros hit his shot to the fringe of the green and then got up and down to halve his match with Fuzzy Zoeller.
The Europeans lost the competition 14½ to 13½, but the outcome was in doubt through much of the weekend and Ballesteros’ shot kept the final result tenuous until the final match.
It was a fun trip down memory lane.
Moriarty’s prose is crisp. He notes that Nick Faldo’s critics complained that while he had won three majors, “he hadn’t done anything special to merit any of them other than hang around like a vagrant on a lamppost.”
Or this: Scott Hoch “spent so much time looking over his putt at the tenth, it was like he was reading Atlas Shrugged instead of a two-footer.”
“Few players ever squeezed so much out of a golf game,” Moriarty writes about Inkster, “and fewer still ever made the game of golf so much better for it.”
Moriarty’s longest essay is about Woods, and he devotes a mere four pages to Daly. But his final story served as a bookend to the Watson-Nicklaus duel at Pebble Beach that opened Playing Through. He writes that McIlroy, Spieth and Jason Day were players who had “outsized ability” and “candid honesty.”
“They were humble in victory, dignified in defeat, and formidable in competition,” he writes. “The torch had passed into generous hands.
“And more were on the way.”
Moriarty has provided a neatly presented look at golf since the early 1980s, writing about the sport’s triumphs and tragedies with passion and nuance. It’s a valuable reference and an enjoyable read for golf fans.