A Golfer’s Five-Foot Shelf
by Michael M. Thomas
Awhile back, I had a call from a bookseller friend in London. A man who – while he may know the finer points of the whole of collectible Victorian fiction – doesn’t know a mashie-niblick from a mashed potato. He had an important customer, he told me, an individual who had surfed to enormous wealth on the wake of the Great ’90s boom, who had recently taken up golf and who now wished to assemble a golf library. Indeed, my friend informed me, his client would like to have every golf book ever published! How would I suggest he go about it?
Don’t even give it a shot, I replied. To do so would be impossible. Donovan and Murdoch’s The Game of Golf and the Printed Word: 1566-1985, the game’s bibliophilic bible, lists 79,340 items – and only up to 1985! Another 10,000 or so may have been published since the Donovan-Murdoch list appeared in 1988, most of these – like most of Donovan and Murdoch’s postings – of no more than passing interest.
Then, rooting around in my shelves, I stumbled upon the 1998 auction catalogue of Murdoch’s own golf library: 1218 lots comprising what I estimate to be a minimum of 6000 volumes! How is anyone beginning today going to match that? I suppose it might be possible for a rapacious ‘collector’ armed with several million pounds or dollars to venture into the field and corner what selective market there is, the few real rarities that remain unshelved by other collectors, but at what gain to golfing enlightenment or enjoyment? Not much, I guess.
Shortly afterward, I heard that the ‘project’ had been abandoned. A Scottish bookseller, contacted as I had been, had furnished a list of items from his stock, 19th Century mainly. When my London friend’s client saw the prices being asked for titles too recondite for a person with only one life ever to get around to, he quit the field without ado.
From this false start, however, grew the germ of an idea. Suppose one sought to put together the golfing equivalent of ‘The Five Foot Shelf,’ the list of essential reading for the cultivated or cultured individual that was promulgated by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot at the turn of the 20th Century and published in fifty volumes by Collier’s between 1909 and 1917. What would constitute my own, personal golfing ‘Five Foot Shelf?’
Fewer books, to begin with. Although Eliot was able to cram the fifty slender volumes containing everything he deemed essential, from Aristotle to Walt Whitman, into five linear feet, I guessed that the golf equivalent would use up the same space at around half that number. I got out the measuring tape and checked the 30-odd feet that hold my own assortment of golf books, and found that I was close enough to make twenty-five the cut-off, more or less.
I was sure that I would find my list from books now in my possession. Two divorces and uncounted relocations have winnowed my library, but I’m ferocious about hanging on to books I deem worthwhile, and none more so than my golf books. I’ve leafed through practically every one that struck a spark of interest – whether newly published or second-hand – and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to acquire pretty much every one that struck enough of a fancy to be brought home. Even so, it hasn’t been easy, although when it comes to making lists, whether of golf books or dinner guests, it’s who’s left out that tells the tale, it’s the chop that’s the fun part.
Next question: what criteria would I use to decide who would make the cut, and who not? Presumably a list made for myself would be one I’d be prepared to recommend to others. How would I explain its makeup to them?
For openers, I decided, any list would have to represent the special enchantments golf holds for me, would help to shed light on why I in particular love the game with the passion I do. A passion that in my case has flowered without flagging for over fifty years now. What is it that I see in golf, in other words, and which books capture – for me – those qualities most particularly and effectively?
Every golfer revolves around a personal golfing axis, so to speak. We say we like the game for this reason or that; we say we play the game for this reason or that. Asked what we get out of the game, we answer this or that. A personal golf library will reflect those individual leanings.
When I started to prepare this article, I got up on the ladder and surveyed my own golf books. Looking over the titles, I thought of others that have sojourned on these shelves and their predecessors. Once upon a time, a flusher time, I set out to collect rare golf books, and there was a point back some twenty years ago when I owned things like the Rev. John Kerr’s The Golf Book of East Lothian (1896), Horace Hutchinson’s British Golf Links (1897) and Robert Clark’s Golf: A Royal and Ancient Game (1875), all titles that today command four-figure or better prices, if you can find them. In time, they left the shelves, partly out of financial necessity, partly because the market had gotten too hot for a collector of my means – but mostly because I never looked into them. Owning them was merely a form of showing off, in other words, and modern life – and modern golf – are quite full enough of showing off without my adding my own small mite. I don’t miss them. The only ‘collectible’ I miss is my 1910 first edition of that greatest of ‘course books,’ Darwin and Rountree’s Golf Courses of the British Isles (see below) which I gave to my son-in-law, a golfer as avid as I, on the occasion of his 4oth birthday.
In our Five-Foot Shelf, the focus will be on reading rather than collecting. Good reading, it need scarcely be said, originates in good writing – of which each of us will have his own definition. I prefer golf writing that fastens on the aspects of golf that make the game unique, that make its hold on me different from any of the other passions, enthusiasms and pastimes, fleeting or enduring, that I have experienced or in which I have indulged myself in a pretty wide-ranging and privileged life. In the end, what I cherish most about the game, and what I want reflected in my golf reading, is the game’s infinite variety of personality and place, the intellectual, psychological and athletic challenge it provides, its fundamental humanity and its richness as a subject for good conversation. I also prefer writing that reflects something of the same sense of the game and its values – how to play the game, how to think about the game, how to behave on a golf course – conveyed to me by those from whom I learned my golf. In this, I freely admit to being a traditionalist, to being old-fashioned. I do not like, and I do not understand Maximum Golf. That’s a profanation of the game, as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, of all the aspects of golf, there is none I cherish more than the fun it gives. It’s supposed to be fun. One of the reasons I gave my golfing heart to Tiger Woods is that he’s always seemed to be having a pretty good time out there. I think the same standard ought to apply to golf books.
Now: on to our Five-Foot Shelf. To begin with, I would want to have a sampling of the absolute best golf essays. A lot of good writers have produced millions of words about golf, have meditated to its mysteries, character and history. No other game matches golf in allusive character, which is to an essayist what a gazelle is to a cheetah: fair game and red meat!
Two names top the charts for grace and discretion of style, richness of allusion, knowledge of and respect for the game, breadth of imagination and knowledge. Patriotism compels me to begin with the greatest American golf writer: Herbert Warren Wind. Several anthologies of the pieces he wrote for The New Yorker have been published; my personal favorite is Following Through. Too much golf writing is like someone shouting in the middle of your backswing: intrusive, disruptive. Too much ‘Look at me, I’m writing!’ or a lot of boring ‘and then Jack said to me ¦’ I also strongly recommend Wind’s An Introduction to the Literature of Golf, a collection of the prefaces Wind contributed to the first thirty-seven volumes of his and Robert S. Macdonald’s (see below) reprint series, The Classics of Golf. Read this little volume through and thoroughly, and you’ll know most of what you need to know about golf books, golf writing and why the game has generated a literature no other sport comes close to. No self-respecting library will lack Wind’s The Story of American Golf, preferably in the splendid new Callaway Press edition.
Wind’s noblest predecessor was the English writer Bernard Darwin. Ask around in London literary circles and you will be told that Darwin ranks up there an essayist with Addison and Steele, Hazlitt, Chesterton, Orwell for style and intellectual quality. Like Wind, Darwin was a golfer himself, and a good one. When a British player fell ill at the inaugural Walker Cup match in 1922, Darwin rolled up his shirtsleeves, took his place and won. Skill at the game is of some importance: there is an entire school of essay-writing by people telling us how they took 110 to get around Pebble Beach that I find, quite simply, intolerable.
Darwin is the real thing. I’d suggest any two of the following: Golfing Bypaths, Golf Between the Wars, Darwin on the Green, Playing the Like. I think in these you’ll find what I have, that Darwin is to golf as a great wine writer is to the pleasures of the grape: through him, the attentive reader gleans an understanding of what it’s all about, of wherein the magic lies and is to be found. To Darwin, golf is life. That is, it is the most existential of sports – and even how to talk about these inscrutable mysteries in a manner that identifies you captivates. It’s because he brings to golf a view as broad as life permits, which lets him find a thousand pensive hooks in the game, a dozen fresh and allusive perspectives in the flight of a five-iron or the passage of a cloud across the Moray Firth. After all, when Oxford University Press wanted to get the right person to write the introduction to the Pickwick Papers for its ‘Oxford Illustrated Dickens,’ whom did they ask? Bernard Darwin.
Of the on-the-spot golf writers whose reportorial work has been collected, among the very best was the now-defunct Herald-Tribune‘s Al Laney. Laney ‘got’ golf and knew how to communicate the little wars between the ropes that he observed. The Flagstick Press run by Robert S. MacDonald, who should be knighted for services to golf appreciation, or at least chaired through the High Street of St. Andrews, has put out a marvelous collection of vintage Laney: Following the Leader. Of course one has have Dan Jenkins, who elevated ‘the good ‘ol boy’ to golf’s Parnassus with his The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate and its fictional counterpart, Dead Solid Perfect. Jenkins sounds like no one else; his East Texas goat pasture hustlers sound like ¦well, like East Texas goat pasture hustlers. You read Jenkins and you understand why golf is Willie Nelson’s obsession.
No library worth the designation can be with a spot of Henry Longhurst (The Essential Henry Longhurst) and Peter Dobereiner (The Game with a Hole in It.) Supreme, witty stylists who leave their egos in the locker room. Among the best American golf writers, a writer whose prose had the natural grace of Sam Snead’s backswing, was the late Charles Price. I recommend his The World of Golf, a thoroughly enjoyable, richly-illustrated run-through of the game from its beginnings through the 1970s. Among recent books purporting to investigate the soul of the game, only one strikes me as deserving of the appellation ‘classic’ – indeed I am quoted on the paperback jacket as saying so – and that is Michael Bamberger’s To the Linksland. Magic in a bottle, as they say. The best overall anthology of good golf writing I know is The Complete Golfer (ed. Herbert Warren Wind.)
Most other golf non-fiction is easily categorized. There are INSTRUCTION BOOKS. There are PERSONALITY BOOKS, biographies, autobiographies, ruminations about and by the game’s great figures. There are COURSE & HOLE BOOKS, which treat of the game’s famous venues. There are writings on GOLF ARCHITECTURE. There are collections of GOLF ART. Finally, there is FICTION. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
I don’t own more than a handful of INSTRUCTION BOOKS, and haven’t since, at seventeen, I gullibly swallowed the key precept of Tommy Armour’s How to Play Your Best Golf All The Time: hang on with the right hand and hit the hell out of the ball! There was a road to ruin, if ever there was one! Still, although in my prejudiced opinion, very little in the literature of golf instruction is worth much of a damn pedagogically, from older ‘classics’ by Percy Boomer (On Learning Golf) and Ernest Jones (Swing the Clubhead) through Leadbetter and Pelz, my Five-Foot Shelf does include two such works.
The first is The Little Red Book, by the late Harvey Penick and Edwin ‘Bud’ Shrake, which is full of wonderful anecdotal stuff. Penick, who coached Crenshaw and kite at the University of Texas – is just great company! The book also contains what I regard as the single greatest mystery in contemporary golf: what exactly did Penick mean by ‘taking dead aim?’ I’ve asked around, at all levels of the game, and there seem to be as many answers as golfers.
I would also put Ben Hogan’s The Modern Fundamentals of Golf on my list purely because of the beauty of Anthony Ravielli’s illustrations and the interest of Hogan’s introduction. Hogan’s book is like Rolfe’s the Quest for Corvo: a kind of a fraud, but ever so magnificent in its way! As a method for hitting a golf ball, Hogan and his ‘secret’ – pronation of the wrists at the top of the backswing – destroyed the aspirations of the thousands of golfers who attempted it but lacked the opportunity to hit 500 practice balls a day and develop the ‘muscle memory’ that Hogan felt was the key to a good swing. In its malign way, it was as influential a golf book as was ever published.
Another instruction book I should mention, although I read it so long ago I have little memory of it, is Ernest Jones’s Swing the Clubhead (1952.) Jones taught a friend of mine, G.H. ‘Pete’ Bostwick III and his brother Jimmy, who in their day were among the top Metropolitan area amateurs and can still get it around nicely, new hips and all. More important for my purposes, Jones refined his theories years before his book was published. Alister Mackenzie, who wasn’t much of a golfer until his sixties, credits Jones with making him a good late-in-life player. At sixty-five, I can use some Jones magic; I shall read his book.
I should add that at no time has a single volume promoting a pop-psych or mystical view of golf disgraced my golf library, and none is included in my Five-Foot Shelf. Almost thirty years ago, I attempted to read Golf in the Kingdom, but was unable to advance past p.5. By comparison, the Amen Corner at Augusta sticks in my golfing recollection as having been easier – and infinitely more pleasurable – to negotiate. I know that hundreds of thousands of golfers buy these books, but to me, that’s no criteria.
PERSONALITY BOOKS are also a literary minefield. I also stopped buying ghost-written ‘first-person’ accounts of their auspicious careers by the great golfers of the present day after one flat reading experience after another. I don’t know what it is, perhaps the commercializing of the game, perhaps something in the air, the same something that causes present-day movies to be so senseless, but the zest isn’t there. Once upon a time, such books were lively, insightful and worthy; the best communicated a feel for the game and its meaning and allure. I think of Gene Sarazen’s Thirty Years of Championship Golf (1950 – with Herbert Warren Wind) and Tony Lema’s Golfer’s Gold (1964 – with Gwilym S. Brown) and, of course, the champions of the category, the two volumes of recollection and reflection by the incomparable ‘Bobby,’ Robert T. Jones Jr.: Down the Fairway (1927 – with O.B. Keeler) and Golf Is My Game (1960 – forward by Bernard Darwin). In the past twenty years, reminiscences which we golf fans slavered in anticipation of, by lively, thrilling, great champions like Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, have like as not turned out to be dreary, uninsightful examples of the dire ‘And then I hit four-iron ¦’ genre, transcribed in the tiresome prose of journeymen ghost-writers. That this should be so is a terrible pity, and a considerable loss but there we are! An exception is The Hogan Mystique, by a writing and photographic team assembled by The American Golfer.
What makes golf unique is the beauty, majesty and the variety of the settings in which it is experienced. The sheer visual excitement. Only skiing competes, and possibly Yankee Stadium for the opening game of a World Series. To me, it is the courses themselves that constitute the heart of the game, and golf architecture that is its sovereign form of expression and communion. Players come and go; scoring records are set and broken; unforgettable shots become plaques – but the courses abide. I would rather read about courses and golf architecture, and look at good pictures of great or interesting venues, than about any other aspect of the game. At least half of my own golf library consists of COURSE BOOKS of one sort or another. From these, I can travel in imagination to distant links I may never play, or indulge an unslakable thirst for a favorite pastime: assembling imaginary courses, compendiums of ‘the 18 greatest seaside holes,’ ‘the 18 stupidest holes’ and so on.
Which are my favorites? Among ‘course’ books: Darwin and Rountree, Golf Courses of the British Isles– first published in 1910, Darwin’s prose remains as fresh and evocative as if written yesterday, and Harry Rountree’s watercolors set a standard for the ‘artistic’ (as opposed to merely graphic) depiction of golfing terrain that has never been matched. The World Atlas of Golf by Pat Ward-Thomas et al is an absolutely indispensable adjunct to winter dreams of golfing journeys. For usefulness, literary grace and comprehensiveness, Donald Steel’s Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland (photographs by Brian D. Morgan) better be up there, too.
I would also not be without Peter Allen’s Play the Best Courses: Great Golf in the British Isles, a special favorite that evokes terrific memories. Allen was a former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell who played the memorable courses of Great Britain and wrote pithy, useful hole-by-hole precis of each. In 1981, three friends and I began what turned into a twelve-year annual golf pilgrimage to Britain; we would read Allen aloud in the car as we headed for Montrose, or Cruden Bay (in those days, unknown) or Wallasey. It’s been ten years since I last golfed in the UK, but I’m sure Allen’s wisdom and judgment still hold – and his own ‘all-18s’ are a delight!
Among collections of great, famous and interesting holes, I’ve always liked Robert Green and Brian Morgan’s Classic Golf Holes – decent illustrations, thoughtful text – but I fear that pride of place, both for quality, accuracy and inclusiveness, must now go to George Peper’s The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes, which is that rarest of animals: a truly splendid modern picture book that presents its visual material ingeniously and offers a text that reflects a sensibility deeply grounded in traditional golfing values and standards.
The best golf picture book to be published in recent years, for capturing in photographs exactly what a British course feels like when you’re on it, is Anthony Edgeworth and John de St. Jorre’s Legendary Golf Clubs of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland (which includes inside photographs of Swinley Forest, an English club so exclusive that its members, who include the Royal Family, are said to have difficulty finding it). I also have a warm spot for Paul Daley, Links Golf: The Inside Story. Finally, there’s Daniel Wexler’s marvelous The Missing Links: America’s Greatest Lost Golf Courses and Holes, for the course none of us will ever get to play, but can mourn in imagination.
The titles of these books are self-explanatory and, inevitably, there’s some overlap in the selection process: no one leaves out Augusta, St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Sandwich, Royal Melbourne, Royal County Down. One collects course/hole books the way that one collects cookbooks: to see the small variations in recipes, in choice of ingredients. The authors of the volumes I’ve chosen are pretty original writers-selectors, so none says exactly the same thing, and few show the same view. Another reason I’ve picked these particular titles is because none of them smacks of promotion, of the veiled, lucrative touch of the golf publicist, of the travel brochure, and none is written in the dead-handed prose of the golf hack. You can pick any four or five of these for your bomb shelter with confidence.
A proper Five-Shoot shelf will include, if only as an exemplar of an important genre, a course or club history. Not of a world-famous tournament venue like St. Andrews or Augusta, but of a lesser-known place where local history figures as strongly as the local single-malt whisky. If your own club has one, and it’s reasonably up-to-date, that should suffice. Otherwise, you have a wide choice (Donovan and Murdoch index roughly 600!) There are a couple of histories of Pine Valley out there that might be worth having. There isn’t one, alas, of Seminole, which has housed such famous golfing characters. Of the histories I do know, my personal favorite is Golf on Gullane Hill by Archie Baird, the ex-RAF fighter pilot and veterinarian who founded the welcoming golf museum at Gullane, where golf has been played for over 300 years. The frontispiece, an 1888 painting of Gullane Links by the first-class watercolorist John Smart, justifies the price of the book. An alternative would be Alistair Adamson’s In the Wind’s Eye -North Berwick Golf Club, a course drenched in as much history as sea-spray. Dr. MacKenzie’s Cypress Point Club is also good value; to anyone who’s played there, it’s essential.
If you can find a copy, snap up David Goddard’s The Maidstone Links, an absolute model of close-focus golf ‘archeology,’ which traces the evolution, natural and forced, of a famous Long Island course. And then there is Tom Doak’s Confidential Guide, an outspoken, irreverent tour d’horizon of the courses of the world, sharply critical and warmly appreciative by turn. I think there’s too much punch-pulling today when it comes to golf architecture, which is why so many new courses stink, if you get right down to it. Doak provides a most welcome antidote. Unfortunately, the entry for the Durban (South Africa) Golf Club is in my copy repeated under the heading for The Garden City Golf Club, an erratum presumably fixed in later printings. If only my pitch shots could be as well-judged as Doak’s commentary. Some years ago, I was able to dissuade the greens committee at a noble venue from continuing with a disastrous policy by quoting Doak (architect of the acclaimed new Pacific Dunes Course at Bandon, OR (see T&LGolf ¦) and a man whose views have to be seriously
Now, let’s turn to GOLF ARCHITECTURE. ‘When playing golf, one wants to be alone with Nature’ was the famous adage put forward by the ‘father of American golf,’ Charles B. Macdonald in his Scotland’s Gift: Golf, a book I cannot ever be without, not least because it describes the thinking that went into, and the building of my home course, the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y. Macdonald emphasized naturalness as the key to good course design, and so did his great successors in the field, whose works should be on our Five-Foot Shelf: A.W. Tillinghast, The Course Beautiful; Donald J. Ross, Golf Has Never Let Me Down and, in many ways still the champ, Golf Architecture: Economy in Course Construction and Green-Keeping by Dr. Alister MacKenzie (I’m lucky to have the pocket-size first edition of 1920.) A good all-over sampling of their work is Geoffrey Shackelford’s The Golden Age of Golf Design. To peruse these books is to be reminded of the likelihood that when history comes to judge the effect of industrial technology on golf, it won’t be shafts or balls or clubface metallurgy that will be fingered as the prime culprit, but advances in earth-moving machinery.
Take Mackenzie, for example, and compare the following ideas to what you see when you play most modern courses: There should be little walking from tee to green ¦The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing ¦all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself ¦There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls ¦’
Like any other superb artist, MacKenzie often disregarded his own strictures – I spent a good part of my teenage years a half-century ago losing Spalding Dots at the good doctor’s Cypress Point – but generally he stayed the course (no pun intended). Along with Chekhov and (in our time) Jonathan Miller, MacKenzie must be must be the ranking example of a medical man who found his true genius elsewhere. And since I believe that a library is also an exercise in applied serendipity, that it must contain books not yet read but that may be, I think I’d take a flyer on Pete Dye’s Bury Me in A Pot Bunker, in the hope that it would illuminate for me, when I get around to it, the thinking of today’s ‘most challenging golf course designer,’ as the book’s subtitle puts it. Among wide-ranging modern studies of golf course design, you should not be without two books by Geoffrey Cornish and Ronald Whitten: The Golf Course and The Architects of Golf, These not only open magic casements, but are invaluable when settling an argument about who really designed Shinnecock. I’ve mentioned Tom Doak – cram his The Anatomy of A Golf Course into the shelf, along with John Strawn’s Driving the Green, a very useful, down-to-the-last-seed dissection of what goes into the planning, financing and building of a modern golf course.
For a pastime so immersed in natural beauty, it is odd there is so little first-rate GOLF ART. What there has been, which is mainly of historical interest rather than artistic merit, is nicely surveyed in Phil Pilley’s Golfing Art. Most contemporary ‘golf art’ stinks. Do not, for instance, mention Leroy Neiman in my hearing. Sadly, the game has never really found its Constable, its Turner, its Corot or Manet, although Childe Hassam’s paintings of golf at Maidstone have a certain interest. The aforementioned John Smart’s The Golf Greens of Scotland is wonderful, but the facsimile edition published fifteen years ago isn’t easy to find.
Most contemporary golf-course landscape painting, with the exception of Arthur weaver’s work, has a hard, art-school edge that puts me off, and nothing I’ve seen approached Harry Rountree’s illustrations for Darwin’s text in Golf Courses of the British Isles. Still, one relatively recent book does, I think, convey vividly for this golfer the look and feel of the game: The Spirit of Golf, text by Ben Wright, watercolors by Ray Ellis.
Finally, we must leave one level of reality for a higher level, for the truths of golf that only FICTION can penetrate to. Unfortunately, apart from short story forays by the likes of Ring Lardner, and some pretty if conventional good mystery stories with golf settings, most golf fiction is of the ¦Bagger Vance variety: pointless when readable, and seldom the latter. Along with Dead Solid Perfect, my favorite golf novel is Herbert Warren Wind’s epistolary Harry Sprague on the Tour. What’s worth noting is that both Wind and Dan Jenkins rate as among the finest golf correspondents ever, and when they came to compose fiction, they understood their subject from the inside.
But both Dead Solid Perfect and Harry Sprague ¦ are comparative trifles, however. We golfers crave stronger stuff, because no exercise of flesh or spirit known to man digs deeper into the mortal soul than golf, no exercise of flesh or spirit suffuses our being with despair more abysmal or with elation more winged. The historical record is unclear as to whether the author of The Fear and Trembling, and The Sickness unto Death was a golfer, but I think it odds on that Kierkegaard was an unavailing 19-handicapper at wherever in Scandinavia golf was played in his day.
That’s the sort of thing P.G. Wodehouse might have written (and probably did, had I but time to do a text scan) and it is with Wodehouse that this brief, perhaps all-too-personal survey should end. I suppose if you ask connoisseurs of the subject who wrote the most perfect English prose of the middle two quarters of the 20th Century, say between 1920 and 1970, there’s a good chance that many respondents would answer ‘Bernard Darwin and P.G. Wodehouse.’ It is not happenstance that the great subject of each was the old Scots game.
We tend to forget a great verity that Wodehouse’s golf writings remind us of: that there can be as much truth discovered in laughter as in sorrow, because the two are really only opposite faces of the same common human coin. From this flows the corollary known to all golfers for whom the game is more than an executive perquisite: that ‘the mintage of man’ (as A.E. Housman put it) is most shiningly, profoundly expressed in the game of golf. In all my library, not merely in the 20-odd feet devoted to golf, but in the other 900-plus feet devoted to writing in general, there is nothing I would be less prepared to do without than Wodehouse’s golf stories: originally published as The Clicking of Cuthbert and The Heart of A Goof (in America as Divots and Golf Without tears, respectively) and collected – together with a few later stories, but still not complete – in The Golf Omnibus. I have the two little wallpaper-patterned volumes ( ¦Cuthbert and ¦Goof) in the uniform edition published in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. I would sooner cut off my right arm than lend them out. At the thirtieth re-reading, they still make me laugh, still make me start in awe at their perceptiveness, their irony, their innocence, their silliness, their passion. Wodehouse’s characters – the lovelorn scratch players, the foozling duffers, the millionaires who play Nassaus for their butlers, the haughty girls who heretically declare that ‘golf is only a game,’ the Oldest Member lurking on the clubhouse veranda with his inexhaustible fund of stories, the Wrecking Crew crawling up the fairways, wreaking havoc and turf-destruction behind and before: slaves in one way or another to the supreme, sublime obsession that rules the heart of golfers, of we true believers in the overriding principle, the sublime truth vouchsafed, to paraphrase Morison’s remark about naval warfare, to those who do great and dangerous business on the fair green: to wit, that ‘a woman is only a woman, but a hefty drive is a slosh!’
These are to a person the kind of complete solipsists upon whom the greatest comedy is built by the greatest artists, by Moliere, Dickens, Congreve – and Wodehouse. For this is truly great comedy!
Laughter seems the right spirit in which to end this survey. So there it is. My own personal Five-Foot Shelf. Twenty-five books and then some. It certainly won’t be everyone’s, it probably isn’t most people’s. It reflects quirks and quiddities of preference that most readers are free to challenge. It’s idiosyncratic, like the 17th Hole – ‘the Alps’ – at Prestwick, which one critic has called the worst hole in golf, and which others praise with alleluias. I like my golf writing the way I like any other writing: free of cant, with flickers and obbligato’s of insight or stylistic felicity that catch the breath in the throat. I plead guilty to sins of omission. I’ve never read Rick Reilly’s novel Missing Links – it’s up there on the shelf, awaiting its moment – but while taking a break from writing this piece, I heard Peter Jacobsen, himself the author of an enjoyable inside view of the PGA Tour, Buried Lies, declare on TV that Riley’s novel is ‘one of the all-time classics.’ So it all comes down to taste, opportunity and shelf space, an equation that will differ for every golfer. When I asked a friend, a leading American golf book dealer, for his ’25,’ I found that we overlapped on only six titles.
Come to think of it, given the vast universe of golf writing, that’s a pretty remarkable consensus, considering what a great game ours is, wider and deeper than any single library, as encompassing as all the world.