Reading most books about golf is like being fed intravenously: You never taste anything, but eventually you feel a kind of ghostly satiation. The exception is P.G. Wodehouse’s Golf Omnibus, a British Open of loopy links stories first published in 1973. Wodehouse confected a cloudless never-never land in which butterflies loaf languidly, plots tangle exquisitely, and love (”He folded her in his arms, using the interlocking grip”) invariably triumphs over a 15 handicap.
The backwash of Tigermania has spawned more new golf books than Wodehouse could shake a mashie niblick at. Yet his remains the standard by which all should be measured. The most Wodehousian is John Updike’s Golf Dreams. Updike took up golf only after taking up Wodehouse. His own collection, published in 1996, covers everything from four-foot putts to Scottish caddies. Fluid, stylish, eminently detached, it’s infused with a Wodehousian sense of the elegant and the absurd — golf in a nutshell.
In a P.G.-rated world, everyone is slightly ridiculous but never contemptible. That pretty much describes CBS golf commentator Gary McCord. On TV, McCord establishes a rapport with his audience by combining impudence with affability. On the page, his shtick seems flaccid, desperate. McCord’s Just a Range Ball in a Box of Titleists is so full of dead stretches that gravestones seem to sprout before your eyes, complete with epitaphs.
Zachary Tobias, the navel-entranced hero of Anne Kinsman Fisher’s novel The Masters of the Spirit, suggests one of Wodehouse’s minor characters (Stiffy Byng? Hermione Brimble? Galahad Threepwood?). Which is fitting in that this self-assembling Fairway of Dreams is such a minor book. When golfing greats magically appear to impart the game’s ”spiritual secrets,” you start wishing on Tobias the same fate Celia intended for her beau in Wodehouse’s The Salvation of George Mackintosh: death by mashie.
Earl Woods’ Training a Tiger is a rudimentary instructional book gussied up with shopworn parental advice. Does anyone really believe Earl’s fathering accounts for Tiger’s success? As Wodehouse noted, ”Like some capricious goddess, [golf] bestows its favours with what would appear to be an almost fat-headed lack of method and discrimination.”