The course is waterlogged, the greens are a mess or else the wind is fierce enough to blow the freckles from Tom Watson’s face. At this time of year there aren’t too many incentives to play the game, even if you did get a new driver from Santa so we golf fanatics have to take refuge in television, magazines or books to fan the embers of our passion for the game. We are fortunate in the quality of golf writing we can access but therein lies the rub – there are so many good books out there that it can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. So here is my very personal guide to the best golf books you can add to your library.
A note of caution, though, because the most popular genre – instruction – will not be included. Larry Nelson, who won three majors, says he learnt the game by reading Ben Hogan’s Modern Fundamentals of Golf, but that just makes him a freak. The book is often referenced as the best instruction tome ever but that’s the opinion of golf pros, who are really saying that Hogan was one of the greatest players ever. Most amateurs can’t make head nor tail of it. Tom Watson’s Getting Up and Down is a great short game manual but as I don’t know what your golf swing or game is like, it would be presumptuous to recommend a teaching manual.
The Rub of the Green by William Hallberg
Many, including Peter Alliss, have tried writing golf fiction and almost all their efforts are dire, including those by Peter Alliss. This novel, however, starts with the sentence: ‘At first golf was only a green shade protecting me from the gathering white heat of my mother’s death,’ and you immediately realise that you are safe in the hands of a proper writer. He tells the tale of a tour pro who ends up in a minimum-security American prison and is charged by the warden to build two golf holes in the prison swamp. The story, and its rich, not always attractive characters, take you into an alien world that is drawn with precision and beautiful prose.
The Greatest Game Ever Played by Mark Frost
An unknown American amateur, Francis Ouimet (pronounced: ‘We met’), took on two of the game’s greats – Harry Vardon and Ted Ray – in the 1913 US Open; matched them for 72 holes and then beat them in the playoff. It remains the greatest upset in major championship golf and this account is so well-written (by a man who really knows his craft, he wrote for television’s Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks, among others) and absorbing that you forget you know the ending. Almost as good is his follow-up, The Grand Slam, which tells the story of golf’s greatest ever player, Bobby Jones, in his greatest ever season. But Ouimet’s win was the one that convinced America it could compete with the world, and it hasn’t looked back since.
The Bogey Man by George Plimpton
It has been done by others but not as successfully as Plimpton – putting a reasonably talented amateur in among the pros to sink or, far more likely, sink without a trace. Plimpton is self-deprecating, gently ironic and all too aware of the momentous task he set himself by seeing how he would cope by spending a month on the PGA Tour. He mixes with and records the views of everyone, from pros to caddies, fans and officials but really he is delving into the psychology of one of the greatest games ever invented.
Nice Jumper by Tom Cox
As Neil Sedaka almost said, growing up is hard to do. But if you become obsessed by a nerdy game, which means that everyone else at school thinks you’re the un-coolest thing since permed hair for boys, adolescence becomes a torturous journey in which all you do is play with your balls. The difference is, all your mates are doing it in the privacy of their bedroom while you’re out in public, striding the fairways. Not, incidentally, to be confused with Cox’s follow-up book Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia, which is pants.
Bud, Sweat and Tees by Alan Shipnuck
The story of the 2002 US PGA champion Rich Beem, never knowingly confused with a mild-mannered, teetotal, sexual hermit, and his even more outrageous caddie, Steve Duplantis. It’s Tin Cup made real but without the irritation of Kevin Costner. Beem has now settled into the TV studio as a commentator and is almost a match for Butch Harmon with his insights, wit and warmth of character, but he could play. This he demonstrated in the 2019 US PGA Championship when, at age 48 in his only tour outing of the year, against all odds and predictions, he made the cut, which is more than can be said for Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Tiger Woods…
Strokes of Genius by Thomas Boswell
How could you resist a man who says: ‘I may be the only golfer never to have broken a putter – if you don’t count the one I twisted into a loop and threw into a bush.’ Thoughtful, beautifully-written essays on the enduring and eternal appeal of golf, the landscapes over which it is played and the people who play it at the highest level. What more do you want? Okay, the stars he writes about are from an earlier generation – Nicklaus, Player, Palmer, et al, but it’s good to be reminded of their contribution to the game.
Fairways and Greens by Dan Jenkins
Another anthology, this time by the best golf journalist of his generation. Jenkins was seemingly always old, irascible, bad-tempered and very funny. He cut his teeth writing about Ben Hogan for a local Texas newspaper and followed the miserable bastard for the rest of his glorious career, taking in every Major and big star since. No respecter of reputation, he tells the truth and can be forgiven anything – including his love of playing golf from a motorised buggy. It will be a surprise if you don’t immediately start quoting him, viz: ‘The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting, just as an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow.’ Jenkins died in 2019 but his genius lives on.
In Search of the Perfect Golf Club by Tom Wishon (with Tom Grundner)
Golf equipment is too technical, we’re all baffled by bullshit and manufacturers shovel it towards us by the bucketful. The net result is that we spend far too much money on clubs that are ill-suited to our swing and game, persisting in the delusional belief that we can buy better scores. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can improve with the right equipment and this book tells you exactly how to find it. The author has credentials and inside knowledge up to here but most importantly, never forgets that he’s talking to technical morons, and therefore makes the study of equipment easy and understandable. You should never spend more than £20 on a piece of golf equipment without first reading this book.
Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
There have been too many books on Tiger to count but this is the definitive, and currently most recent of them all. Both authors have journalistic credentials that would make Woodward and Bernstein jealous but neither specialises in golf, so they don’t have to pull their punches for fear of meeting their subject at next week’s tournament. In consequence we have a thoroughly researched and readable account of an extraordinary life. Woods’ agent and spokesperson, Mark Steinberg and Glenn Greenspan respectively, reacted furiously to publication, citing ‘egregious errors’ and ‘careless mistakes’ but neither has issued a lawsuit for libel.
Decisions on the Rules of Golf by The R&A and USGA
No, really, this is truly an excellent book and one that will give you hours of harmless fun. We all find the Rules incomprehensible but this at least helps understand not only the laws themselves but the rationale behind some of the dafter things we can and cannot do on the golf course. It is astonishing the sort of questions that people ask our legislators. For example, someone enquired (before the 2019 rules changes): ‘If an opponent or fellow competitor is asked to attend the flagstick and refuses, do I have any redress?’ (which I interpret to mean: ‘Can I thump him?’) and was told ‘No’. It conjures up images of feuding golfers having a bad-tempered match to the point where one asks his club secretary to write to the governing body for a ruling – wars have been fought over less.
The Golf Omnibus by PG Wodehouse
The master of all humorous golf writers, Wodehouse has been oft imitated but never bettered. He has introduced us all to the idea of a golfer being disturbed by the uproar of butterflies in an adjoining meadow; that a man can hold in contempt only three things – slugs, poets and caddies with hiccups; and of another folding his beloved into his arms, using an interlocking grip. The language is a delight and this is a rarity among golf books in that it can be dipped into and re-read time and again with no loss of pleasure, to be reminded, among other things, of the group of golfing rabbits who held another player in high esteem because he once broke 90.
Getting’ to the Dance Floor by Al Barkow
The past is a different country and they did things differently there, as this enjoyable book so vividly tells us. It describes the earliest days of the US PGA Tour, where it was a struggle for even the best to simply survive, by the simple expedient of talking to them. Many of the names – such as Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen – will be familiar but many others – Bill Spiller, Errie Ball and Leo Fraser, less so. Nevertheless, they all had fascinating stories to tell about life on Tour before endorsements, sponsorship deals, courtesy cars and golf groupies had been invented.
Harvey Penick’s Little Red Golf Book
It could be argued that this is an instruction book but I beg to differ – although it contains hints and tips that might help your game, it is mostly a book of philosophy and ideas, of wisdom and common sense. It represents the distillation of decades of teaching experience from one of the best instructors there has ever been – who taught Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, among others – but has little direct instruction. Rather, it is full of homilies about taking your time, not being target-obsessed or drills to perfect a certain sensation or feeling. And like Wodehouse, it’s a book you can re-visit for the rest of your days, learning something new every time.
Tarbuck on Golf by Jimmy Tarbuck
No, of course not – just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.
‘Shome mishtake shurely,’ Sean Connery.
And to be avoided
Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy
If you are a fan of pretentious, hippy-dippy, claptrap in which people search for the meaning of golf, and therefore life, by embarking on a mystical journey of discovery, led by a grizzled, wise and transcendent guru, then this is for you. For normal people it should be avoided like the yips. It tells the story of an American golfer who spends 24 hours in Scotland under the tutelage of golf pro Shivas Irons and learns about so much more than golf. The author is co-founder of the Esalen Institute in California (where else?) which aims to ‘support alternative methods for exploring human consciousness,’ which tells me all I need to know. There are those who regard this as a piece of classic golf literature, which proves yet again that you can fool some of the people all of the time.