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The Match by Mark Frost: The 1956 Event Known as the Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever

the match featured

In January of 1956, a legendary match took place at Cypress Point Golf Club. Later dubbed “The Match,” it pitted two of the greatest professional golfers at the time, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, against top amateurs Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi in a best-ball match.

The event was born from a casual bet between two millionaires, organized by wealthy car dealer Eddie Lowery, who made a bet with fellow millionaire George Coleman that two of his employees, Ward and Venturi could not be beaten in match play. Lowery challenges Coleman to bring any two golfers of his choice.  Coleman accepted the challenge and recruited the two best golfers of the era, Hogan and Nelson, who had won 14 major championships combined. In front of a few hundred spectators, the foursome played an intense match that came down to the final hole.

The Match was a dream I never thought would come true. If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t believe it myself, and if you know anything about sports or the game of golf, once you pick up this book, you won’t put it down. No one will ever see an event like this again. Fiction can’t touch it.”

Ken Venturi
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Mark Frost, author of The Greatest Game Ever Played, documented the legendary golf match between two of golf’s greatest living professionals and two amateurs. He published the book (later to become an audiobook) in 2009. I read this book immediately and could not put it down, as Venturi suggested would be the case. Since then, I’ve listened to the audiobook numerous times and just started what I think is my fourth time through it. Mark Frost has three books on our Top Golf Books lists, but this is the best and most compelling. Frost captures the spirit of the times and turns the event into one of the great golf books and I cannot recommend this book enough.

In this post, we will go spoiler-free because we want you to read the book if you don’t know the story already! We’ll introduce the story of this immortal foursome, give you the background and context, and broad strokes of the story as told by Mark Frost. We’ll also discuss a lesson from the book that you can make a part of your own game and, of course, end with some recommended reading. We may not have access to the Delorean, but let’s go back in time (it’s close enough), to 1956.

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The Participants

the match participants

Almost 70 years later, The Match is renowned as one of the most significant private golf competitions ever played. It had it all: the David vs Goliath storyline, a big money wager, two of the greatest living professionals in Hogan and Nelson, a future US Open Winner in Venturi, and the swashbuckling Ward whose future was still in front of him.

Eddie Lowery was the ten-year-old caddie to U.S. Open champion  Francis Ouimet turned car salesman and tycoon.  Lowery was an avid supporter of amaetur golf who “sponsored” his employees’ amateur careers, a thread that would take a turn later in the story. 

Big bets, $100 Nassaus, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, and the classic Bing Crosby Clambake (which would become the Pebble Beach Pro-Am). Harvie Ward, the up-and-coming amateur from North Carolina – talented and brash, my favorite character in this story, winner of both the US and British Amateur titles, never reached the heights that many predicted for him.

Ben Hogan

Ben Hogan (1912-1997) is known as one of the greatest ballstrikers in the history of the game.  He had a very successful amateur career before turning professional in 1930. However, Hogan struggled financially in the early years on tour, and his career was interrupted by World War II when he served as a utility pilot from 1943 to 1945. Hogan’s breakthrough came in 1946 after the war, when he won his first major at the PGA Championship. This launched the most dominant period of Hogan’s career. Between 1946 and 1949, Hogan won an incredible 37 tournaments and was the leading money winner twice.

hogan cypress

Tragically, at the peak of his powers in 1949, Hogan suffered devastating injuries in a head-on car collision with a bus. Doctors feared he may never walk again, let alone play golf. But Hogan miraculously recovered, and his epic comeback reached its pinnacle with his famous U.S. Open victory in 1950 at Merion, just 16 months after the accident. This was considered one of the greatest triumphs in sports history.

Hogan continued his legend in 1953 when he won the Masters, U.S. Open, and The Open Championship in the same calendar year, an unprecedented achievement. Overall, Hogan won 9 major championships and 64 PGA Tour events. Considered one of the greatest ball-strikers of all time, known for his tireless work ethic, legendary concentration, and persistence. Hogan’s profound influence on golf swing theory and ball-striking techniques cemented his legacy as one of the most important figures in the sport’s history.

Hogan died at age 84 on July 25, 1997, at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after suffering from colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease in his later years. See our post “Master the Connected Swing,” where we talk more about Hogan, some misconceptions about teaching his swing, and how you can learn from him.

Byron Nelson

Byron Nelson (1912-2006) was one of the most dominant golfers of his era and is considered one of the greatest players in the sport’s history. Born in 1912 in Texas, Nelson had tremendous success as an amateur before turning professional in 1932. He went on to win 52 PGA Tour events, including 5 major championships – the Masters in 1937 and 1942, the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945, and the U.S. Open in 1939.

nelson cypress

Nelson’s most remarkable accomplishment was in 1945, when he won an astounding 18 tournaments, including an unprecedented 11 tournaments in a row. This record of 11 consecutive wins has never been matched on the PGA Tour. Nelson had an incredibly successful year in 1945, winning over half of the tournaments he entered. He won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average that year, was named AP Male Athlete of the Year, and earned the nickname “Lord Byron” for his gentlemanly behavior.

After retiring from full-time golf at age 34 in 1946, Nelson won occasionally, including the 1955 French Open. He left a lasting legacy on golf through his fluid, modern swing, which set the standard for future generations. Nelson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

Byron Nelson died on September 26, 2006 at age 94 at his home in Roanoke, Texas. Nelson had been the most dominant player in golf history, with his record 11 consecutive tournament wins in 1945 remaining unbroken over 60 years later. The Byron Nelson Award is given annually to the PGA Tour player with the lowest scoring average.

Ken Venturi

Ken Venturi - The Match

Ken Venturi (1931-2013) was a successful amateur, professional golfer, and legendary golf broadcaster. He won the California State Amateur Championship in 1951 and 1956. After the events of “The Match,” he turned professional in 1956 and went on to win 14 events on the PGA Tour, including one major championship.

At the 1964 U.S. Open. Venturi overcame severe heat exhaustion and dehydration, enduring through intense heat on the final day to claim this victory, considered one of the most corageous in golf history.

He was awarded Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year and PGA Player of the Year in 1964. Unfortunately, Venturi’s hands were plagued by carpal tunnel syndrome, which forced an early retirement from competitive golf in the late 1960s. 

Venturi embarked on a 35-year career as the lead golf analyst for CBS Sports, retiring in 2002 as the longest-tenured broadcaster in sports history. He died in 2013 at age 82. He had been hospitalized 12 days after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Harvie Ward

Harvie Ward - The Match

Harvie Ward (1925-2004) was one of the greatest amateur golfers of the 1950s. He was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, and learned to play golf at a young age, winning his first tournament at age 14. Ward attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he won the NCAA Division I individual title in 1949.

Ward is best known for winning the U.S. Amateur (twice) and the British Amateur championships. He won the British Amateur in 1952 and consecutive U.S. Amateur titles in 1955-1956. He remains one of only two golfers to win the U.S., British, and Canadian Amateurs in a career (along with Dick Chapman)  Ward played on three Walker Cup teams, going undefeated in all six of his matches. He finished as runner-up at the 1953 British Amateur and had several top finishes as an amateur at the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open.

His amateur career was derailed in 1957 when the USGA revoked his status over expense payments, but it was later reinstated. After turning professional at age 49 in 1974, Ward went on to win the 1977 North Carolina Open. He was a club pro and instructor, mentoring greats such as Payne Stewart. Ward was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1965. He died in 2004 at age 78 in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

The Background

crosby hope

Golf experienced a major boom in popularity in the United States during the 1950s, largely thanks to the emergence of television coverage and charismatic stars like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Arnold Palmer. One of the most iconic events contributing to golf’s growth was the Bing Crosby Clambake tournament, held annually in Pebble Beach, California. 

The Clambake was the brainchild of beloved entertainer and passionate golfer Bing Crosby. In 1937, Crosby invited a few Hollywood friends and golf pros to a casual tournament and barbecue at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club. This friendly event quickly became a star-studded spectacle, drawing huge crowds to the Monterey Peninsula.

Rotating among the famed courses of Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, and Spyglass Hill, the Crosby Clambake became a can’t-miss stop on the pro tour in the post-WWII years. It paired touring pros with amateurs and celebrities like Bob Hope, attracting massive galleries that were entertained by on-course antics. 

Though it began as Crosby’s laidback “get together,” the Clambake introduced golf to a broader audience and helped cement Pebble Beach as an iconic U.S. Open venue. Crosby’s star power and the dramatic seaside courses combined to make the event a smash hit through the 50s. The Crosby Clambake brought fun and prominence to the pro tour during golf’s television boom, setting the stage for today’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

The Story

The setting was the annual Crosby “Clambake” golf tournament, which was quickly becoming a signature event in the sport of golf.   On the Tuesday evening before the event, a friendly debate between two wealthy businessmen, Eddie Lowery and George Coleman, evolved into an epic best ball challenge match. Legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson versus up-and-coming amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. Lowery, who gained fame decades earlier as the young caddie for 1913 U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet, boasted that his employees Venturi and Ward could beat any golfers worldwide. Coleman accepted the challenge and recruited Hogan and Nelson in a comic turn of events that only mildly seemed to throw Lowery.

DALL·E 2023 11 18 15.30.17 A digital painting focusing on a single golfer in a cardigan and white cap on the green at Cypress Point in 1956 embodying the intimate and historic

On the morning of the match, fans flocked from the nearby Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament to witness the foursome compete at one of America’s most revered courses. Mark Frost provides a compelling hole-by-hole account of the match, describing the awe-inspiring skill displayed that day. Interspersed are the backstories of each player, chronicling their origins in the game and insights into their lives on and off the course.

The book captures a pivotal moment when professional golf emerged to dominate the sport over the amateur era. Frost vividly brings to life the long-fabled contest through his eloquent prose and intimate knowledge of the critical figures. Though merely an exhibition match, it exemplified the generational shift in golf and the torch passing from Hogan and Nelson to future stars like Venturi.

The Match offers a fascinating glimpse into a seminal event in golf history and offers fascinating background into amateur and profressional golf in the 1950s. It also provides biographical insights into the protaganists and game’s Giants who competed on that memorable day at Cypress Point.

“The Match” By Mark Frost

The genesis for The Match by Mark Frost was that the author became fascinated with the story after hearing about it from Ben Crenshaw while researching his previous book,  The Greatest Game Ever Played.  Frost was compelled by this little-known event that had become an urban legend in golf circles – a foursomes match at Cypress Point in 1956 between two of the greatest golfers of all time, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson versus top amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. He saw it as the perfect bookend to his story of Francis Ouimet’s amateur victory in 1913, showing the transition of golf into the modern professional era.

Mark Frost’s challenge was to recreate the match entirely through interviews and oral histories since there was virtually no press coverage of the event.  He spoke extensively to several participants like Ken Venturi and Byron Nelson and dozens of others connected to the players or the event. Frost was struck most by the obscurity with which the match began, with Hogan insisting on keeping it secret and only a handful watching the first tee shot. By the time they reached the final holes, word had spread, and thousands gathered to witness the dramatic finish.

Frost aimed to capture the legend of “The Match” and its four compelling personalities and the pivotal transition period it represented in golf history. He was drawn to it as a storyteller, seeing it as the perfect bookend to his earlier work on Francis Ouimet and the golden age of golf. The book brought this little-known but influential event to life for a new generation of golf fans.

Byron Nelson’s Lessons for Ken Venturi

venturi swing tempo

Before the events of “The Match,” Eddie Lowery had arranged for Byron Nelson to watch Ken Venturi play a round. Nelson invited Venturi to play with him the next day. The young Venturi shot 66, besting Nelson by a few shots. After the round, expecting compliments, Venturi was surprised to hear Nelson’s prognosis. Nelson felt that his swing would break down under pressure and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Disappointed and surprised, Venturi embraced the process, understanding that these changes would take time and be all-encompassing. He “would not win anything for a while,” which ended up being true. Through their collaboration, Venturi learned the importance of honing his grip and swing tempo to gain better control.

One of the most important things Byron Nelson taught Ken Venturi was the importance of rhythm in the golf swing. Nelson helped Venturi recognize that rushing his swing was causing inconsistent contact and poor shots. Venturi learned he needed to swing the club smoothly, in a rhythmic motion, rather attacking the ball. He worked with Venturi to develop a flowing, unhurried tempo that allowed him to generate power while staying in control.

Rhythm and Tempo in the Golf Swing

Venturi came to understand the importance of swinging freely in a tempo that suits both you and the shot at hand. Staying in rhythm prevents overthinking mechanics and allows your natural athleticism to shine. The lesson is that every golfer can benefit from finding their optimal tempo and swinging with fluidity and rhythm. Avoid rushing the swing or getting too fast. As Nelson showed Venturi, swinging in a rhythmic motion engrains proper sequencing and timing for repeating a sound golf swing.

Here are some tips from Nelson’s teachings on tempo that golfers of all levels can apply. Emulating Nelson’s flowing tempo and smooth transitions is crucial for solid ball striking. By keeping these tips in mind, you can pattern your swing after one of golf’s all-time great ball-strikers:

lesson tee
  • Initiate the backswing by allowing your right knee to move slightly towards the target. This will cause your right heel to lift slightly off the ground before settling back down as you make your backswing.
  • Focus on making a smooth transition between the backswing and downswing. Nelson advocated swinging at an even tempo back and through without stopping.
  • Don’t get caught up in swinging fast or slow. As Nelson said, “The speed of one’s swing is of little importance so long as it is smooth and unified.”
  • Use rhythm drills like swinging without a ball to groove your tempo. Nelson suggested the “Walk Through” drill of taking continuous half swings to build consistent tempo.
  • Listen to a metronome or tempo training tones to find your optimal swing speed. Research suggests tour pros swing at a 3:1 tempo ratio. For tips on swing tempo, the Magic 3:1 ratio discovered and written about by John Novosel in “Tour Tempo,” and how to incorporate it into your own game, see our post “The Science of Swing Tempo.”
  • Strive to accelerate the club gradually into impact.

Further Reading

The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever
by Mark Frost

Summary: Dive into the drama of a 1956 showdown between golf’s greats, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, and top amateurs Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. This enthralling audiobook delves into the backgrounds, characters, and the high-stakes bet that made this match a pivotal moment in golf history. One of my personal favorites; I read this one when it first came out and am now on my second listen of the audiobook.

Getting Up and Down
by Ken Venturi

Summary: Getting Up and Down is Ken Venturi’s autobiography, chronicling his life in golf as both an amateur and professional player and his long broadcasting career. Venturi grew up in San Francisco and was drawn to golf at a young age, showing tremendous talent as an amateur. He nearly won the 1956 Masters as an amateur, leading after three rounds before collapsing on the final day and finishing second. Turning pro later that year, Venturi struggled with the “choker” label after his Masters disappointment. But he persevered and famously overcame severe dehydration to win the 1964 U.S. Open, the pinnacle of his playing career.

He transitioned to a highly successful 35-year career as the lead golf analyst for CBS, becoming known as the “Walter Cronkite of golf broadcasting.” Venturi shares insightful stories about his friendships with golf legends like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, his icy relationship with Arnold Palmer, and humorous tales from the booth.

Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf
by Ben Hogan

Summary: Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf” is a classic that outlines his building blocks of winning golf. The book focuses on the five fundamentals Hogan believed were essential to a powerful and accurate golf swing. Each chapter of the book explains and demonstrates a different fundamental with clear illustrations, making it easier for readers to visualize the proper techniques and positions. The book has endured the test of time and is still relevant today.

18 Holes With Bing
by Nathaniel Crosby

Summary: In this memoir, professional golfer Nathaniel Crosby shares memories of playing golf with his father, beloved entertainer Bing Crosby, and the life lessons Bing taught him about golf and life through their time together on the course. The book provides an intimate look at Bing’s passion for golf, his friendships with celebrities, and his special bond with Nathaniel fostered through their mutual love of the game. Written as a heartfelt tribute, the book illuminates Bing Crosby’s life as a golfer and father.

The Greatest Game Ever Played
by Mark Frost

Summary: “The Greatest Game Ever Played” tells the story of the match between amateur Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon at the 1913 U.S. Open. The book provides an in-depth look at the early lives of both Vardon and Ouimet, noting their eerie similarities. Harry and Francis began playing golf early, grew up caddying at nearby golf courses, and developed an intimate, illogical love for the game. The book recounts the thrilling match between the two players, which resulted in Ouimet’s upset victory against Vardon, changing golf in America forever. Frost’s storytelling captures the match’s excitement and impact on the sport, making it a compelling read for golf enthusiasts and sports fans. It was also made into a movie, released in 2005.

The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America,
and the Story of Golf

by Mark Frost

Summary: “The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf” is a biography that tells the story of Bobby Jones and his incredible achievement of winning all four major tournaments in the same year, 1930. The book delves into Jones’ background, his introduction to golf at East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, and his progress as a junior golfer. It also explores the challenges he faced in adapting his playing style and refining his attitude toward the game to win against the best players of his time consistently. The book provides insights into Jones’ personal life, relationships with fellow golfers, and impact on the sport. Frost’s storytelling captures the excitement of Jones’ historic accomplishment and his lasting legacy in golf.

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