"Harpo, Gummo and Zeppo were delightful people," Gardner Dickinson tells us in his new book, Let 'er Rip! ($20, Longstreet Press), "but Groucho was a miserable man."
The ratio seems about right. In Dickinson's memoirs of a life in professional golf, the saints outnumber the slugs about three to one, and it's only because rips are more quotable than reverence that we get the opposite impression. Like an earth-based St. Peter, Dickinson excoriates teaching gurus ("non-playing ignoramuses"), USGA officials ("stuffed shirts and novices") and all golf-course architects named Dye ("they've butchered more good ground than Sherman did marching through Georgia"). Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman is "a tragic example of egomania leading to excess and waste." Today's young people are "the worst-dressed generation in the history of America." If Let 'er Rip! leaves a Dickinson score unsettled, it's not for want of trying.
That Dickinson's lengthy rant is not just readable but for the most part pleasurable is largely due to the irony of its authorship. Although he won seven tournaments in a career that began with the 1945 Atlanta Iron Lung Tournament, Dickinson was often dismissed as an unsmiling, chip-on-his-shoulder runt with a bad putting stroke and a sycophantic devotion to his mentor, Ben Hogan. These days, however, Dickinson has found his smile and is often seen doting over his second wife, LPGA player Judy Dickinson, and their five-year-old twin sons, Spencer and Barron. The disparity between the two personas is delicious. It's a hoot to read a man who describes himself as "40 miles to the right of the John Birch Society" rage at General Motors and Nabisco for not supporting women's golf.
Let 'er Rip! benefits as well from the absence of a ghost writer. Dickinson wrote the book himself, on yellow legal pads with a pencil. (A golf pencil, apparently—the kind with no eraser.) The amateurism shows when he insists on quoting a clutch of inspirational poems by the likes of Edgar A. Guest, or when he bizarrely reprints a 28-year-old newspaper column by Jim Murray chastising boxer Muhammad Ali for refusing the military draft. But when Dickinson starts spinning golf yarns, he produces in a few paragraphs what some golf historians can't deliver in a whole volume: the ring of truth.
In one memorable passage the author and Arnold Palmer sit on the floor of Dickinson's living room, getting drunk and discussing why Arnie is a champion and why Dickinson is not. ("It's too important to you," Palmer says. "And you need the money too bad.") In other chapters Dickinson provides revelatory glimpses of Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Doug Ford, hustler Titanic Thompson, Tommy Bolt and a score of other golf legends.
Hogan receives the most space. Dickinson is as awestruck as one would expect: In a bit of weird science, he calls on testing methods he learned while studying psychology at Louisiana State University to support his assertion that Hogan has a supergenius IQ of at least 180; elsewhere he claims that Hogan, if he had been a decent putter, would have scored in the 50's "almost every day." But Dickinson doesn't sugarcoat the Hogan personality, pointing out that the great man could be mean and petty. "With few exceptions," he writes, "the most successful players are selfish, egotistic, combative and utterly indifferent to the well-being of their fellow man, and care even less about the well-being of their fellow competitors."
The tragedy of Gardner Dickinson is that he thought he could achieve greatness by aping Hogan. "I didn't know enough to copy the strongest points of his technique," he writes. "Instead I copied many of his mannerisms, which didn't really help me." The triumph of Gardner Dickinson is that at 69, he is bright enough—and has lived long enough—to emerge from Hogan's shadow.
The book is called Let 'er Rip! It could just as well have been titled Let It Be.
Dickinson bared his soles in 1957.