Reviewed by Mike Butler
I stopped playing golf about eight years ago, about the time I started taking photography seriously again. I simply made a decision that if I had four hours of free time, I’d rather spend it driving down gravel roads than driving a Titleist.
But the game still holds power over me, luring me to the TV every Father’s Day for the final round of the U.S. Open. Will Phil Mickelson spray tee shots into the woods on this Sunday afternoon or conquer his demons and win? Even when Tiger Woods has a three-shot lead stepping up to the first tee, and I know he’s going to win like I know tomorrow is going to be Monday, I can sit back and marvel at his artistry, as even he occasionally does when he strikes an impossibly fine shot, then breaks into a sheepish grin.
The similarities between golf and photography are eerie to me. Each shot is a new beginning. You visualize and make decisions about what to do. You might be with some buddies, but they can’t help you. Good or bad, this shot is ultimately going to be about you and the story you have to tell. It’s not about the ball or the camera.
Certainly, Classic Shots isn’t going to appeal to those who’d rather spend time in a dentist’s chair than play, or watch, golf. But neither do I think that you have to be a fanatic to appreciate the way this book’s 250 photographs capture the game’s tradition, splendor, and drama.
Since the USGA formed in 1894 to promote and govern the game in America, it has been collecting photographs. In his introduction, senior director of communications Marty Parkes claims it was easy to winnow more than 500,000 images down to 400—but very difficult to cull from there. National Geographic editors helped.
A project like this could have easily turned into a boring encyclopedia or a dusty historical tome. It succeeds, I think, because it is so wonderfully subjective and eccentric. Sure, you’ll relive Payne Stewart’s winning putt at the 1999 Open at Pinehurst, but you’ll also laugh at a colorful iguana caught in the act of scampering across a green during an amateur event in Puerto Rico.
By organizing into regions, the editors allow you to open the book at any place and become immersed in a beautiful color landscape shot of Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin, or an elegant portrait of Tommy Armour taken outside Oakmont Country Club (suburban Pittsburgh) after winning the 1927 Open. Women are well represented, too, from Depression-era phenom Virginia Van Wie to present-day phenom Michelle Wie. The pictures transcend those who took them, many of whom are unknown or aren’t credited until a page in the back of the book.
In an afterword by Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist and Golf Digest contributing editor writes humorously and poignantly about how golf helped shape his character and forge a bond with his father while growing up in Minnesota. In 1970, as a 16-year-old, Friedman’s name was pulled out of a hat to caddie for one of the game’s greatest characters, Chi Chi Rodriguez, at Hazeltine in Chaska. (In those days, USGA officials didn’t allow professional caddies at the Open because it was thought they might give the pros an advantage over the amateurs.) Chi Chi finished 27th that week. Young Friedman pocketed $175 and so much more.
Twenty years later, some friends of the by-then best-selling author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner bumped into Chi Chi at a Florida golf resort. They asked if he remembered who caddied for him at the 1970 Open. "Tommy," Chi Chi said, right away. Surprised, Friedman's friends then teased the old pro a little bit. "Do you know that Tommy’s more famous than you are today?" Chi Chi pondered that for a moment and said: "Not in Puerto Rico."
Nope, it’s not about the ball or the camera.
Mike Butler is a hobbyist photographer living in Des Moines, Iowa.