When my game is ailing, there's one place I can turn. It's the same place that keeps me warm all winter, in anticipation of spring mud oozing between my Softspikes. It's where a fifty-four-year-old Ben Hogan shoots thirty on the back nine in his last Masters; where Leo Diegel, in desperation, invents the elbows-out putting style that Bernard Darwin dubbed "diegeling."
I go to my golf books. From this inexhaustible source flows great literature in all conceivable forms: history, fiction, journalism, biography, memoir, essay and the ever-elusive answer to the question "Why do we shank?"
More ink has been spilled over other sports: There are twice as many books on baseball, for example. Yet a couple of things set golf literature apart. One is that nearly all who read it play the game, and the writing is as rich with personal experience as it is with professional triumph. Also, golf is half a millennium old, so its storehouse of characters, lore, rivalries and shots heard 'round the world is unsurpassed.
Which makes selecting the twenty-five best books that much harder. For help, we recruited a distinguished panel of players, course architects, historians and journalists. Their comments are interspersed throughout.
Which books would be eligible?We decided they should be either currently in print or available used from online bookstores or collectors' sites. (An excellent source for handsome reprints is the aptly named Classics of Golf; 800-483-6449 or classicsofgolf.com.)
In paring down from a nominating list of about a hundred titles to the final twenty-five, we had to make some agonizing choices. Our hope is that whether or not you agree with us, you will feel that wonderful itch that can only be satisfied by hunting down a certain book and curling up with it. You may even want to hold it in the manner of Ferdinand, the P.G. Wodehouse hero who, after winning a match and thereby the girl of his dreams, "folded her in his arms, using the interlocking grip."
1 BERNARD DARWIN ON GOLF by Bernard Darwin, edited by Jeff Silverman (2003)
Darwin, grandson of the naturalist, took up the game in the guttie era. He captained the golf team at Cambridge, distinguished himself as an amateur and began to realize, from under a barrister's wig, that by going into law he had made a serious mistake. In 1907, an old friend recommended Darwin to replace him as golf writer for the Evening Standard. For the next half century, until his death in 1961, Darwin wrote with such a fine eye that he is often called the greatest golf writer—some would say sportswriter—of all time.
But which of his numerous fine books is his best?The Golf Courses of the British Isles, combining travelogue, history and a discerning critique of architecture, was golf's first coffee table book. The Darwin Sketchbook is an essential selection of profiles. Mostly Golf is entirely gold. Yet none capture his incredible range.
That's where this new volume comes to the rescue. Silverman has put together the largest anthology of Darwin's writing ever—404 pages of Bernardo (as his friends called him) on topics ranging from the urge to smoke while playing to the matter of a friend who lulls himself to sleep with imaginary rounds. In his 1932 essay "New Year's Eve Cheer," Darwin treasures the frostiness of January 1, when nothing can disprove a golfer's "pleasantly fatuous belief" that he will play better in the new year. "How grateful we golfers ought to be," Darwin writes, "that our game will last us almost as long as we last ourselves, and that hope can still spring eternally in our ridiculous breasts." (The Lyons Press, $25)
2 THE GOLF OMNIBUS by P.G. Wodehouse (1980)
When Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse died in 1975 he was ninety-three years—and ninety-six books—old. He wrote with a twinkle, merrily satirizing the English upper classes from which he came. In his golf stories there is no more noble pursuit than par, which his duffers tilt at like Quixotes in argyle. Poor Rollo Podmarsh, for instance, finally breaks a hundred but is overcome by "a curious discomfort within him. He felt as he supposed Italians of the Middle Ages must have felt after dropping in to take potluck with the Borgias." But the endings are all happy, and love conquers all. In short, as panelist Charles McGrath states, "Wodehouse is nitrous oxide between hardcovers." (Gramercy, $13)
3 THE STORY OF AMERICAN GOLF by Herbert Warren Wind (1948)
In the second half of the twentieth century, Wind contributed as much to golf as the force of nature with which he shares a name. He helped Ben Hogan codify his knowledge of the swing and Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus tell their life stories in riveting fashion. (He also gave Amen Corner its name.) And, like a certain famous Englishman, he took golf reportage to a new level of specificity, insight and narrative grace, writing primarily for the New Yorker. He always saw himself as the heir and apprentice to Bernard Darwin, but in some ways he surpassed the master, translating his principles into a lively, colloquial American idiom. First published in 1948, Wind's most cohesive work traced American golf from its earliest stirrings in Yonkers, New York, in 1888. He updated the book in 1956 and again in 1975, nearly doubling its size. The Story of American Golf is just that—a great story. You can't put it down even though you know how it all turns out. (Classics of Golf, $39)