Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2012

Book Review: Morality Tale Plays Out On The Links

Historical novels pose special challenges for authors. It is by no means easy to incorporate real people and events into a work of fiction in a way that is at once believable while not overshadowing the story one wants to tell. Author Richard O’Connor has previously demonstrated his interest in both history and sports through the publication of two non-fiction books, “Francis Ouimet and the 1913 U.S. Open,” and “Wooden Baseball Bat Leagues in America.” Now in his first novel “Honour,” O’Connor has succeeded in spinning an engaging tale of a lifelong friendship against a background of the initial growth of golf in America in the first decades of the 20th century.

Opening in 1909, “Honour” centers on high school pals and avid golfers George Riley and Johnny Scranton, growing up as neighbors in Newton, Massachusetts. Scranton decides to take a stab at the nascent professional game, while Riley is content to remain an amateur. While those decisions inevitably set them on different courses, their paths repeatedly cross over the course of the next decade that is at the heart of the novel. The two boys become young men and eventually husbands while playing the game they love. They remain best friends until an incident in the middle of a match challenges the integrity of both and appears to irrevocably rip the relationship. The surprising resolution to this rift serves to remind the reader that things are not always as they seem; and an obvious conclusion may not always be the correct one.

The backdrop for this story is a period of time when golf was enjoying its first great growth spurt in this country. In the late 19th century there were fewer than 100 golf courses in the U.S. and the total number of golfers would not be enough to sell out a modern NFL stadium. Within a quarter-century more than two million Americans played golf on more than a thousand new courses. One aspect of this rapid growth that is little remembered was the struggle by old line traditionalists to preserve the game in amber. While that struggle extended to the evolution of equipment and the rules of the game, nowhere was it more pronounced than in the efforts to block the rise of professional golfers. The traditionalists viewed golf as a gentleman’s game, played solely for the love of the sport. They railed against those who would make money from the game. Club pros were treated as hired help, often banned from the clubhouse proper and forbidden to address members by their first name. Severe sanctions were threatened for clubs that agreed to host professional tournaments. It was, in short, a far different world than the one we now live in, where every weekend fans can tune in to catch the action at that week’s stop on the thriving PGA Tour.

O’Connor captures all of this by introducing Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of England’s early professional greats; and Walter Hagen, the first truly dominant American professional golfer whose eleven major championships is third behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. He also makes Francis Ouimet, the Massachusetts amateur who stunned the golf world by besting Vardon and Ray in a playoff at the 1913 U.S. Open, a friend of the novel’s two protagonists. He tells the exciting story of that memorable Open; but O’Connor also relates the true tale of the USGA stripping Ouimet of his amateur status in 1916 on the absurd basis that he was using his celebrity to promote his sporting goods business and was thus profiting from the game. It was one of the most benighted acts in the old guard’s desperate and ultimately futile struggle to halt the rise of the professional game; one that was quietly rescinded two years later.

O’Connor’s mixing of fiction and fact succeeds because he uses the real life characters and events as background, making them complementary to his central story rather than allowing them to overwhelm it. He also does a very effective job of placing the reader in the time period of the novel. Whether describing the features or operation of the then newly popular automobile, or the challenges of making telephone connections through operators in a time long, long before smart phones were ubiquitous, he paints a consistently believable canvas. A competitive golfer for more than half a century, he accurately and engagingly depicts the action on the course in the many matches that take place through the book’s 396 pages. In the end this is crucial to the novel’s success. Many books and movies about any number of sports have foundered on descriptions or depictions of the actual games that were unrealistic or simply unbelievable. But O’Connor writes like a veteran sports writer in describing golf matches in the age of hickory shafts and stymie putts.

The two interwoven threads of “Honour,” the account of true events in the growth of golf and the story of two friends whose relationship is sorely tested, are in the end both object lessons in integrity. Members of an old guard willing to go to any lengths to protect the game from change lose theirs even as they lose control of that game; while a fictional golfer learns that his status as an amateur doesn’t give him exclusive claim to integrity on the course, or in life. The book is available from Amazon or from Huntington Park Publications.

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