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'Golf' and 'Downhill Lie' capture joy and suffering on the fairway

Golf is the greatest way to lose a day, and it's always worth noting when the best writers turn their literary skills loose on the links.

Novelist John Updike (Golf Dreams), high-society humorist P.G. Wodehouse (virtually every other short story), Zen-centric Michael Murphy (Golf in the Kingdom) and first tee philosopher Harvey Penick (Little Red Book and others) have all done heavy lifting in creating the golf canon.

Hoping to join that mighty foursome are two very different authors.

Alistair Cooke, who hosted PBS's Masterpiece Theatre for 22 years and sent his weekly "Letter from America" radio report to the BBC for decades longer, has his golf essays collected posthumously in Golf: The Marvelous Mania.

Carl Hiaasen, whose over-the-top South Florida mysteries are a subgenre unto themselves, enters the fray with The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport.

Both authors write of their midlife experiences with golf. Cooke picked up his first club at the age of 55. Hiaasen, who played fairly well in his teens and 20s, abandoned the game in 1973 and decided to try again at the age of 52 in 2005.

Cooke and Hiaasen express their respect for the purity of golf, its intrinsic frustrations and its ephemeral rewards. One does it beautifully, like an unexpectedly long tee shot down the center of the fairway. The other does it, well, like a squibber that rolls into the nearest hazard.

Cooke's collection begins with a piece from 1973 called History of Scottish Torture, which opens ominously: "They have been playing golf for eight hundred years and nobody has satisfactorily said why."

He hazards an answer to his own question, stating with prophetlike wisdom that golf is surely "a penance for original sin."

He fully understands the futility of chasing a small white ball across an immense landscape with the irrational hope of putting it into a small hole a very long way away. And, you quickly understand, Cooke loves the challenge and the people who have devoted their lives to tackling it.

Cooke's Golf, with a foreword by Jack Nicklaus, sports a series of lovely profiles of:

• Bobby Jones, the gentleman champion, with whom he shared correspondence and then a deep friendship.

• Walter Hagen, who was equal parts John Daly and Tiger Woods, and cut a fierce and fun-loving path from tee times to high times.

• Gary Player, the multiple majors champion from South Africa, who won the 1965 U.S. Open Championship thanks to a rigorous regimen of push-ups, yoga, diet and sleeping without a pillow, which he claimed would have made it "more difficult for my heart to pump blood to my brain.''

But Cooke is best when he is writing about his own travails on the 18 holes of torture that comprise a golf course. He writes that "humiliations are the essence of the game." That "no man in his right mind would ever play golf." But then, ultimately, golfers are people who understand that "life is unconquerable but endurable."

Hiaasen's The Downhill Lie is more about Hiaasen than it is about golf. Hiaasen isn't good at the game, something he confesses over and over again. He isn't good at writing about it, either.

Hiaasen warns the reader that his decision to resume the game in his mid 50s "would be the beginning, I knew, of a weird and self-pulverizing journey. Like a true masochist, I kept notes."

Those notes come off like the droning of every 19th hole dullard who thinks someone else needs to know every bad shot (and the very rare good one) committed during a round.

Hiaasen alerts the reader to these passages by putting them in italics. It begins on "Day 1," where he buys ill-fitting used golf clubs at a secondhand store.

Hiaasen's golf journal extends to 577-plus days, and all we learn along the way is that he's easily frustrated by his own poor play; he likes to name drop (sports pundit Mike Lupica and golf commentator David Feherty serve as the Greek chorus); he got started playing golf with a dad who died too young; and that his own 5-year-old son is probably better at the game than he will ever be.

Hiaasen could take a lesson from Cooke, who does his share of shot-by-shot recounting, too, but with a tone of restraint and wonder.

"Do you want to hear about my 39 on the tough back nine at Noyac?" Cooke writes in a 1971 piece called Make Way for the Senior Golfer. "Well, you're going to.

"It was the kind of round that I play every night on the pillow but never, at any other time, on a golf course."

And there's the difference between the authors' perspectives. For Cooke, golf is a dream to delight in. For Hiaasen, it is a nightmare to be endured.

Logan D. Mabe is a freelance writer and an avid golfer.

Golf: The

Marvelous Mania

By Alistair Cooke

Arcade

Publishing, 216 pages, $24.99

The Downhill Lie:

A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport

By Carl

Hiaasen

Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $22

'Golf' and 'Downhill Lie' capture joy and suffering on the fairway 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 10:13am]

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