MARK FROST knows golf history. He is the author of The Match, a book about the fabled challenge match between legendary professionals Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and amateur golden boys Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward.
Mark is also the author, screenwriter and producer of The Greatest Game Ever Played, a bestseller that became a Disney movie. Between The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Match, Mark authored The Grand Slam.
I spoke with Mark in late March about The Match and other golf topics. Following is the first part of our conversation.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: As you researched and wrote The Match, what were some of the biggest surprises along the way?
MARK FROST: I think the biggest that I didn’t know about was the long and involved and complicated history between Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. I knew that they had known each other since they were kids and had caddied together, but the extent to which they had been very close during the early days of the tour and then the forces that drove them apart as they both became successful, was a revelation. That was one big aspect. The other was really the whole Harvie Ward story, which I didn’t know much about at all. I’d only known that he had been a great amateur player and never thought to question beyond those years what had happened to him. I think in many ways his story is the most tragic of the foursome.
AG: One reviewer said the star of the story, besides the players, is Cypress Point. What was most striking to you about Cypress Point and did you play it?
MARK FROST: I’ve played it a number of times now. I don’t think I could have written about it the way I did unless I had played it and gotten to know it as a player. The thing that just immediately strikes you is how stunning that ground is and how effortlessly it seems the course lays into the ground. And the way in which walking the course, which is really the only way to play it, takes you on a kind of journey that very few courses can top. By the time you reach those climactic holes along the ocean, it moves you in a way that I don’t think many golf courses have the capacity to do.
AG: From what I’ve read, you spent a lot of time with Ken Venturi, and a pretty short time with Byron Nelson, maybe a day or so. How did their memories of this match compare?
MARK FROST: Byron’s were a little less sharp, but he was 96 when I spoke to him. The thing that made this an event that etched itself into Ken Venturi’s mind –- there were two elements. One, he’s the youngest member of this foursome. Ben and Byron are both his heroes, and have been since his boyhood. So, to be 25 years old and playing these guys in this setting under these circumstances, burned the whole event into Ken’s hard drive, I guess you could say, in a way that it didn’t probably for any of the others. For the others, it was a good round of golf and a good experience, but for Ken it was a life-changing experience and I think, as a result, he remembered it more vividly than the others. Over time, as we were able to talk about it again and again, he really did literally remember every shot.
AG: It comes out in your narrative. I can only imagine that a lot of those nuances and touches that you were able to put into the narrative must have come from him.
MARK FROST: The book couldn’t have happened without Ken. He’s the one who for so many years had told the story most effectively. And as the suburban legend about that match had grown, it was largely due to Ken remembering it and telling people about it. It was in many ways his story. And through his cooperation, I was able to translate it into this form and preserve the memory. It had been an oral tradition prior to this and now I’m grateful we have it on the page.
AG: I think I read that you said that just being in Byron Nelson’s presence made the whole experience worthwhile. What was it like for you personally to sit down with him, and how did Byron Nelson in person stack up to Byron Nelson the golf legend?
MARK FROST: There was really no difference whatsoever in the things I had heard about Byron and how I found him to be face to face. He’s every bit as humble and as gentle and as generous and kind as you’d always heard. The thing I didn’t expect was, in spite of those great qualities, those saintly qualities, there was the memory of the really tough competitor in there as he started to recall the match and could recall shots. He took a lot of pride in the fact that he was as great a champion as he was. There was one moment in particular when I asked him, “How do you think you’d do today?” He got this look in his eye –- I describe it in the book as like an old western sheriff –- and he said, “I think I’d hold my own.” You knew that he would have been able to back that up. It was neat to see that steely quality of the competitor, the guy that won all those tournaments still living in him.
AG: He was a great champion. I think a lot of people don’t realize just how good he was.
MARK FROST: I think had he played another five or seven years, if he had the will to do that –- but it was an exhausting process to go out on tour in those days and the returns were good for the time but nothing remotely like they are now.
AG: Everything I’ve read about Byron was he won enough to save up and buy that ranch. But during the period he played he won. Hogan took a little bit longer to develop, but he owned Hogan.
MARK FROST: You really can say he [Nelson] was the great player of his generation, I believe.
AG: You got to sit down with Byron, which was a great treat. I thought about all these great champions you’ve written about through history. If you could talk to some of these past champions who are gone, who would you want to talk to?
MARK FROST: Gosh, there are so many, having written about the game from its inception. There’s Francis Ouimet, there’s Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour would have been a hoot from what I know about him, Bob Jones, obviously, having written The Grand Slam. I felt like I really got to know him very well. Sarazen would have been a kick, Byron and Ben would have both been interesting, although Ben wasn’t a particularly gifted conversationalist. I think Demaret would have been fun to meet. The list goes on and on.
These were real characters who had been forged in the early years of the tour where life was hard and they had a pioneering spirit about them and devil-may-care attitude that was really refreshing. I think it embodied a kind of particular American quality of let’s roll up our sleeves and go to work against all odds. That’s something I really admire.
We don’t have the same mix of colorful people we used to have and we don’t have the same group of champions who loved nothing more than going out and just beating each other. It was more about that than it was about the money. It was about the fun of winning, the will to win and, in many cases, the necessity of winning for financial reasons.
(To be continued. Read the final part of our conversation tomorrow.)
−The Armchair Golfer