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Monday, July 4, 2022
Home Sports GOLF Author John Coyne looks at modern golf literature

Author John Coyne looks at modern golf literature


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By John Coyne

GOLF-inspired SCRIPTURES ARE NOT LIKE one of Tiger Woods’ driving forces: tall, tall and very deep. The sport misses the language that changes golf from a game to a source of literature.

George Plimpton, who wrote about baseball and golf in his 1968 best-selling book The Bogey Man, said that although baseball has yielded some interesting books, golf books have been better written, due to the sport’s “popularity among the educated classes.”

John Coyne

If so, where are golfers? The Natural? Who is our Bernard Malamud?

Golf, I would say, has a long life. While its beginnings as a game were lost in Scottish antiquity, we have a reference to the sport as early as 1457 in a Scottish law of Parliament [the authorities wanted to ban golf as it was taking time away from archery practice, a much more needed skill to defend the Highlands].

While golf yielded countless books on rules, manners, and how to play, beginning with the 1857 The golfer’s manual, written by “A Keen Hand,” where was the great Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott? In his million words about Scotland, there are no words about his national game.

Daniel Wexler, author of The golfer ‘Library: A reader’s guide to three centuries of golf literature, and one of America’s leading golf historians, names three writers who have raised the bar for writers. They are Bernard Darwin, Charles’ grandson, and longtime correspondent for The times of London; Henry Longhurst, a Sunday Times columnist who wrote about the sport before, during and after World War II; and in America the masterful New York resident magazine writer Herbert Warren Wind. But these three journalists reported, not wrote literature.

Other good writers have written about the game they love and play.

To name a few: Michael Bamberger, James Dodson, John Feinstein, Geoff Shackelford, John Paul Newport, David Owen, Bud Shrake, Rick Reilly, Upper Left, Don Wade and Curt Sampson, who played on the PGA Tour before they are a full-time golf writer. And our very own Neil Sagebiel, who wrote two wonderful golf histories, The longest shot and Draw the dunes. These players / authors write books about how they play the games, biographies of great golfers, history of famous championships, and stories about legendary golf courses.

Other writers, known in other genres, are also attracted to golf in search of peace, mystery, humor and self-awareness. These include AA Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse, Ring Lardner and his son, John Lardner, Ward Just, Ethan Canin, Ian Fleming, Michael Murphy and Dan Jenkins.

That said, what is missing in these long lists of writers are literary novelists.

While F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, John P. Marquand, JD Powers, Richard Ford and John Updike all used golf in their novels to comment on their contemporary society, golf was never the core of their conspiracies. O’Hara wrote From the terrace not Of the Thirteenth Green. by Michael Murphy Golf in the Kingdom, seemingly a novel, is actually an exercise in self-help, not in golf literature. And Dan Jenkins’ very funny books are easily put on the shelf with a collection of long stories told at the 19th hole bars of any club.

Golf reading by the Caddy Yard

The truth is that to find the pathos, the great characters, imposing themes and captivating narratives, readers can be wise to look in the caddy yard, not the clubhouse, and look for Sancho Panza, not Don Quixote.

Anyone who plays the game knows why caddies keep popping up: In real life, as in these novels, they function as coaches, psychologists, cheerleaders, and, increasingly, as the protagonist of the novels themselves. This shift of focus and point of view is a fairly recent fictional phenomenon, making caddies the Nick Carraways of golf fiction.

The first of these “caddy novels” was 1995’s extremely successful The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield. While the novel relies on golf history, the real focus is the mysterious African-American caddy who leads an upset, rich, white war hero through a game against Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.

In 2002, A Gentleman’s Game by Tom Coyne [no relation] strung a poor caddy against wealthy members at a club near Philadelphia. The class theme returns in Peter Dexter’s Train (2003), where a gifted black caddy / player walks by an exclusive Los Angeles golf course.

And novelist / lawyer J. Michael Veron has his popular Bobby Jones trilogy (including The greatest player who has never lived and The biggest course that has never been) with 2004s The Caddy. His hero: a carriage named Steward “Jones” who leads a young pro to victory and wisdom.

In my first “caddy” novel, The Caddy Ben Hogan Knew, victory and wisdom are gained by both Hogan and Jack Handley, the caddy / narrator. The young teenager helps Hogan navigate a golf course and gets advice for his life from the masterful golf professional and iconoclastic Hogan.

The winner of the National Book Prize, Norman Rush, says the novel is “a lens through which aspects of Midwestern daily life in the 1940s, of thwarted love, of social class, are revealed with sharp and disturbing clarity.”

Like Nick Carraway, young Jack has a story to tell. So, the next time you get up, remember the kid carrying your suitcase might just write a novel about you in his head.

John Coyne is the author of three “caddy novels” and has edited three books on golf education. He has also written and edited a dozen other fiction and non-fiction books.



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