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The King of Swings

"It will never happen again — a golfing fairy tale that came true. Michael Blaine didn't make up Johnny Goodman, but he captivatingly evokes the man and his times." — Bud Collins

"Michael Blaine brings Johnny Goodman to three-dimensional life, resurrecting a wrongfully overlooked star with wit, wisdom, and rare insight. Like Goodman's performance at Pebble Beach, The King of Swings is an epic triumph." — Jeremy Schaap, author of Cinderella Man


About the Book

In The King of Swings: Johhny Goodman, the Last Amateur to Beat the Pros at Their Own Game, Michael Blaine chronicles the improbable rise of Johnny Goodman from working-class caddy to the 1933 U.S. Open champion, the last amateur ever to beat the professionals at their own game. Goodman fought his way through poverty and social discrimination to shine in the exclusive world of amateur golf during the Depression, inspiring the country with his fairy tale climb to the top. An amazing underdog story that transcends sports, The King of Swings is not only the story of golf's most unlikely champion but also the story of a whole era.

An orphan turned caddy from the Omaha stockyards, Johnny Goodman was considered too small, too foreign, too poor to play the country club game. But he swore he would prove everyone wrong, and before a nation's riveted gaze, this self-taught kid from the wrong side of the tracks beat the legendary Bobby Jones, "the greatest player in the world," in a stunning upset in the nation's first national golf tournament, held at Pebble Beach in 1929.

Against the backdrop of one of golf's most majestic spots, these unlikely opponents played out in eighteen holes the class conflict that soon came to dominate American society with the onset of the Depression. Goodman's victory over Jones sent shock waves through the rarefied world of golf, disturbing its highest circles who adhered to an Eastern elite vision of the perfect gentleman, and inspired millions of working-class Joes never to lose sight of their dreams. At a time when the public's taste in heroes was shifting, Goodman's struggle to succeed in the tony world of amateur golf had just the right appeal.

Against all odds, over the next several years, Goodman clung fiercely to his amateur status, proving himself to be the most principled amateur of them all by refusing ever to cash in on his fame. (Jones, meanwhile, pursued commercial endorsements and movie deals, undermining the amateur ideal itself in the process.) By defending the old values and acting against his own self-interest, as Blaine points out, "Goodman was allying himself with the USGA despite the best efforts of its higher-ups to spurn him. In a striking irony that seems to have escaped his critics, Goodman had become amateur golf's last white knight." Goodman battled the USGA, which did its best to blackball him at every turn, ultimately winning the 1933 U.S. Open.

With a keen sense of drama and a novelist's eye, Michael Blaine brings this golfing Cinderella story to life. He also explores the closing gap between amateur and professional sports and reawakens a particular moment in American history with exceptional grace and flair. Atmospheric, suspenseful, and finely crafted, The King of Swings is an inspiring and moving tale about the possibility — and the price — of idealism.


About the Author

Michael Blaine, an avid golfer, is the author of two novels, Desperate Season and The Midnight Band of Mercy. He is available for interviews.


A Conversation with Michael Blaine

How did you get the idea to write about Johnny Goodman?

I stumbled on Johnny Goodman's story by accident. One afternoon at the golf course I asked an idle question: What was the greatest upset in golf history? One of my regular playing partners, Don Ende, responded immediately. "When Johnny Goodman beat Bobby Jones in the '29 U.S. Amateur."

I'd never heard of Goodman, but I was curious, so I began poking around. William Warren Wind, the old New Yorker writer, describes Johnny's upset of Jones, but in such limited detail that I wanted to know more. So I asked myself: Is Goodman still alive, or does he have any descendents?

How did you find the answers?

Of course I hit the Internet and quickly found out that Goodman had passed away over thirty years ago. Then I consulted my son-in-law, a reporter for Newsday, and in about fifteen minutes of trolling through the net, he discovered where John Goodman, Jr., was living.

And you just called him out of the blue?

Well, first I prepared a list of questions so he'd understand I had a professional interest in his dad. And John and his wife, Helen, turned out to be very open and gracious people. John also explained that Johnny's nephew Jack Atkins, who is now in his sixties, had known Johnny for years. Johnny had worked for Atkins' father in Omaha, so I tracked Jack down, and the whole world of Omaha opened up from there.

How did Atkins help you?

Jack Atkins is the kind of person writers dream about. He loves to tell stories, and he had plenty of them. He's also very attached to Omaha and its history, which I knew little about. When my wife and I visited Omaha, Jack gave us a sense of the rough-and-tumble world Johnny Goodman sprang from — he grew up in the meatpacking district. Then I knew I had a story that was rich and dramatic.

Did Atkins give you insight into Goodman's character?

Absolutely. He told me about Johnny's money match with Bing Crosby in 1929, when Goodman was flat broke and Crosby proposed playing for $100 a hole. He also told a marvelous and revealing story about Johnny's last round of golf, which I describe at the end of the book. Jack was a tremendous resource.

Did you interview John Goodman, Jr.?

Oh, sure. He was living in Colorado at the time, and that's where I hit the motherlode.

Do you know all those corny stories you always hear about some scholar who finds a lost poem by Shakespeare, or a lost Dickens' manuscript? Well, I had the equivalent experience in a way. Johnny's wife, Josephine, who lived for decades after Johnny's death, had kept two extraordinary scrapbooks tucked under her bed all that time. The scrapbooks told the story of Johnny's entire career, and they contained articles from papers which no longer exist, and articles that have disappeared from the morgues of some papers that are still around.

What are newspaper morgues?

Well, for instance, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is still in operation, and they have a department that holds old issues going back many, many years. Remarkably, though, Josephine's scrapbooks contained articles from the Post-Dispatch that the paper itself no longer holds in its archives. The same was true for many other papers and magazines. I might have been able to write the book without the scrapbooks, but it would have been a pale version of what finally came out. A whole world of social prejudice and social conflict ran through these pages that I never quite expected.

I thought this was a golf book?

Oh, it's definitely a golf book. I don't think you can beat the excitement of reading about Johnny's match against Jones on a Pebble Beach course that none of the big-time East Coast sportswriters had ever seen before. Or Johnny's win at the '33 U.S. Open — he's the last amateur ever to win the open. I cover these tournaments in detail. But the papers Johnny's wife was saving all those years also gave me insight into the way golf was regarded by society, and how that changed when the Depression hit. So I hatched the idea to write a golf book that was a bit different than many others, a book that didn't just tell the story of the golfer, but also told the story of a whole era.

Which characters stand out?

The book is swarming with colorful characters, Hagen, and Sarazen, in particular, but, of course, there's Goodman himself. I can't think of many sports figures who overcame so much adversity, who were so tough and dignified at the same time. As far as his talents, he had a killing short game. When he had a niblick in his hands, anywhere from one hundred yards in, he was absolutely deadly. And boy could he putt under pressure. But it's his character that really stands out. Not only did he struggle out of poverty, he also withstood all kinds of attacks on his social background — flat out discrimination from the USGA powers of the time — and he rarely complained. Now and then his anger slipped out, but generally he just put his head down and fought back.

What is Walter Hagen's part in the story?

Hagen runs through the whole book for a number of reasons. First, Johnny caddied for Hagen when he came through Omaha on one of his barnstorming tours. Johnny was just a child then, he didn't own a set of clubs yet, but Hagen impressed him so much he started dreaming of becoming a star himself. And remarkably, he did. Hagen also broke down social barriers — pros weren't even allowed into clubhouses in most clubs of the time. Although Johnny remained an amateur, Hagen blazed a trail for him in a way. And of course, the Hague was still firing away in the '33 Open that Johnny won.

And Gene Sarazen's?

Again there are parallels to Goodman's career. Sarazen was a working-class kid who became obsessed with golf, but there are contrasts, too. Sarazen had a talent for business that Goodman lacked. And he had a good feel for publicity, too. Also, there's Francis Ouimet late in his career when he's an elder statesman of the game. When Johnny plays Ouimet in the 1932 U.S. Amateur, there are a number of touching moments even as they're trying to beat each others' brains out. Johnny's recovery shot in that match was one of the greatest in match play history.

Why do you say that?

Well, he was buried in some blackberry bushes so deep nobody could see him. It was so tight in there he had only a few inches of space for a backswing. And he popped that shot through an opening about the size of a dinner plate. Even the USGA official, who was virtually Johnny's sworn enemy, said it was the greatest shot he'd ever seen.

How did a nineteen-year-old kid like Goodman ever beat Bobby Jones?

That's a story in itself. I suppose you'll have to read the book to find out.


Advance Praise for The King of Swings

"Long before Jack Fleck stunned Ben Hogan at Olympic, long before the Americans stunned the Soviet hockey team at the Lake Placid Olympics, Johnny Goodman fashioned his own remarkable upset over a famously formidable foe. Michael Blaine brings Johnny Goodman to three-dimensional life, resurrecting a wrongfully overlooked star with wit, wisdom, and rare insight. Like Goodman's performance at Pebble Beach, The King of Swings is an epic triumph." — Jeremy Schaap, author of Cinderella Man

"It will never happen again — a golfing fairy tale that came true. Michael Blaine didn't make up Johnny Goodman, but he captivatingly evokes the man and his times." — Bud Collins, Boston Globe columnist, NBC commentator, and author of My Life with the Pros

"A great read. The King of Swings confirms that the peripheral figures in history often have the most compelling stories. Blaine provides the social context — and the heart — that is missing from most accounts of American golf's formative years." — John Garrity, senior writer, Sports Illustrated

"The King of Swings — at once biography, social history, and vivid play-by-play — belongs in every golfer's library. Johnny Goodman is no longer a household name. But he was once, and reading this account is like watching a high fade, three hundred yards out, center cut." — Ward Just, author of An Unfinished Season

"Blaine breathes life into this compelling Depression-era tale of fame and obscurity." — Publishers Weekly

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