By John Coyne
If you play golf—which I don’t—you might like The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan. For my taste, too much time is spent on describing a round, the terrain of each hole, the cup placement, the club choice, etc. (To paraphrase the famous quotation attributed to Mark Twain, which is referred to in the book, all the details result in a “good book spoiled.”) For all that, and admitting that some of the description of the game contributes to character development, the story is engaging, in a predictable, melodramatic sort of way.
This is really the story of Matt Richardson, a young golf pro at a country club in a Chicago suburb that is hosting the Chicago Open of 1946, and his relationship with young Sarah Dupree, daughter of the Club president. It is to Coyne’s credit that the reader knows early on that the young couple is doomed, although the final tragedy seemed to me to be a little too contrived. And while class issues play a superficial role in the book, I felt that it missed an opportunity to really dramatize the conflict—the ogre of the piece, Mr. Dupree, Sarah’s father, was one-dimensional and cartoonish. Sarah also was something of a clichéd rich girl. On the other hand, the portrayal of Ben Hogan, who befriends the narrator (a young caddie at the Club at the time of the action), is wonderful, filled with deft touches. I found myself regretting that both the caddie and Hogan were really peripheral figures in the story (except to the extent that the plot was itself peripheral, and what the book was “about” is what the caddie learned from Hogan and Richardson).
Apart from the Hogan-caddie relationship, the book is interesting on technical grounds. It purports to be a speech delivered by the caddie many years after the fact—he’s much older now—to the current members of the same Country Club. And while the author allows for some breaks, it surely is the longest speech ever given. The book is 270 pages; at a relatively fast clip of 1.5 minutes per page to read aloud, that’s just shy of 7 hours. I can’t say I found that terribly believable. I also had a hard time believing that he would tell this particular story to this group, a group that wanted to hear about Hogan and cared little or nothing about Richardson. But often when reading a first person narrative I wonder first who is speaking, which is usually but not always clear, and to whom the narrator is speaking, which usually is NOT clear. In this case it is and I think that must have helped the author establish the speaker’s voice—which throughout was consistent, distinct and believable.