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The Great American Golf Novel

I once broke my collarbone in a golf tournament.

Technically, I suppose, the injury was more of a gin-drinking accident than a golf accident, but it still says a lot about my relationship to the game that it's my fondest golf memory. I bring this up because I played in another golf tournament yesterday — a shortened Ryder Cup style match with two teams. (My team got killed. In my defense, I'm not really much of a golfer. To me, golf is like karaoke: the only thing more pathetic than being bad at it is being good at it.)

But as I was getting my clubs out yesterday, I started wondering if there was a great American golf novel out there. There's a fairly rich tradition of baseball literature (and movies) and some great writing on basketball, but for some reason golf hasn't lent itself to that kind of treatment. There are some classic short stories that feature golf, John Cheever's "The Brigadier" and "The Golf Widow," for instance, but it's not really about golf. It's about bomb shelters and infidelity. Walker Percy's novel The Second Coming begins with a nice golf scene, but again, the novel is not really about golf. In fact, when golf appears in fiction it's usually just shorthand to signal that a character has lost touch with his or her youth and has settled into a life of moneyed emptiness.

There are apparently a number of British mysteries set around golf and in the United States. Roberta Isleib writes delightful mysteries about golf with cool titles (Final Fore, Fairway to Heaven) but she’s not really trying to use the game to tell us something about the human condition.

Of the "great writers," John Updike probably writes about golf more than anyone. He understands "the bliss and aggravation of the game," which sounds a little like the human condition to me. And in this cool interview with the Wall Street Journal, he talks all about the game and claims that the cornerstone of any golf library are books by P.G. Wodehouse.

In Updike's later Rabbit novels, golf plays a big part in Harry Angstrom’s life, but it always seems like he settled into the game, that it was a kind of compromise he made with age. I prefer to think of Rabbit the basketball player, soaring in that great scene with him playing the kids in the beginning of Rabbit, Run.

When asked what connection writing has to golf, here’s what Updike said: "It's contemplative. You kind of think your way out of corners. Often you find yourself both in plotting and in golf in an awkward situation of your own making and you try to get out of it."

Or you get drunk, fall down, and break your collarbone.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jess Walter is the author of eight books, including Beautiful Ruins and We Live in Water. He's been a finalist for the National Book Award and PEN/​USA Literary prize and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Beautiful Ruins (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. We Live in Water: Stories
    Sale Trade Paper $10.49
  3. The Second Coming Used Trade Paper $9.50

  4. Everyman's Library #0214: Rabbit... Used Hardcover $19.95
  5. Rabbit Novels, Vol. 1: Rabbit, Run... Used Trade Paper $6.95

Jess Walter is the author of Beautiful Ruins (P.S.)

10 Responses to "The Great American Golf Novel"

    Brockman September 26th, 2006 at 9:25 am

    How about The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield?

    I confess I've never read it, but I hear it spoken of in fond terms -- it's said to be much better than that hideous movie version.

    KyleRanger September 26th, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    Well, it's a movie, not a book, but let's not forget one of the best sports films of all-time. No, not Raging Bull or Bull Durham (hey, what's with all the bulls?): Caddyshack. Or was that really just about gophers?

    Jonathan September 26th, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    That's right, Walker Percy's characters are often falling down on fairways, too. There's a great scene in Love in the Ruins where a sand trap is on fire and a minor character stands there with a garden hose trying halfheartedly to put it out.

    The best golf scene in Updike, though, is in Rabbit, Run -- where Rabbit plays golf with an episcopalian priest named Eccles. The game becomes freighted with a quirky sort of theological symbolism.

    Jess September 26th, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    I agree that Caddyshack is a great movie. Ironically, it was savaged by reviewers. After the bad reviews, one of the three screenwriters, National Lampoon founder Douglas Kenney (who also co-wrote Animal House) fell into a deep depression and died when he fell off a cliff in Hawaii in a booze- and cocaine-fueled stupor.

    Tim September 26th, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    Speaking of sports in books... I just started The Zero last night and I marked a great passage:

    The relief pitcher winced. "That sucks."

    "Yeah," Remy said to the genial reliever, and he thought about how nice that would be: relief, a guy in the bullpen waiting to take over when you run out of gas. Go to the left-hander. Life would be much easier if we all had a coach watching us, looking for any sign of fatigue or confusion, specialists waiting just down the foul line to stride in and save our work, to salvage what we've done so far, make sure we don't waste the end of a well-lived life. A good reliever might've saved his career, his marriage--what else?

    --really enjoying the book so far. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I'm looking forward to the rest of the week, reading your book and posts.


    Dave Whitney January 17th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Just read "Helpless Little things" in Playboy and really liked it. May have something to do with living in the Willamette Valley and having run that same I-5 route for the past several decades. I would suggest "Dead Solid Perfect" by Dan Jenkins as a notable golf novel. Looking forward to acquiring and reading your previous published works. Will keep my eye out for a reading or appearance in Oregon.

    dj lane March 20th, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Mr. Walter neglects to mention another appearance of golf in American literature: the character Jordan Baker, in The Great Gatsby, is described at the beginning of the novel as a champion golfer--but she carries a hint of a scandal about her over an incident during competition that might well have been cheating. As Fitzgerald knew, golf is a sport that even today is concerned with personal honor, so even the hint of tarnish is a terrible stain. Baker's past hints at the pasts of all of the other characters in the book, and indeed at the corruption that underlay the Roaring Twenties. It is a small, but nice touch on Fitzgerald's part, and Fitzgerald's elegance illustrates George Plimpton's remark about sports writing: "the smaller the ball, the better the writing." I would say that, simply put, there isn't a sport aside from baseball better chronicled than golf. Plimpton himself, with The Bogey Man, contributed well to the literature, which is not even to speak of British writers like Bernard Darwin. Admittedly there is a certain kitsch level, all descended from the awful Golf in the Kingdom, twin to that maudlin wretchedness inspired in baseball by the movies of The Natural and Field of Dreams. Jenkins is a great tonic for that sort of dreadful mawkishness. The great thing about golf, and here it is better than baseball, is the extent of the archive, for it is fair to say that golf is the oldest of the stick and ball games. Herbert Warren Wind, anyone? Not to speak of the matter of architecture, and architects have their own wing, so to say, within golf writing. But I am sure Mr. Walter must be declining to mention these writers out of respect and not ignorance--because who could forget F. Scott Fitzgerald's best novel but someone almost wholly illiterate? Mr. is clearly not illiterate, since as far as I can tell he can put the letters in his name and various other words in the correct order.

    marlinspear March 21st, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Great article in Playboy Jess. You are an interesting writer, and I look forward to reading the rest of your stuff.

    Steve Prekker May 5th, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I have more than 275 golf novels/murder mysteries/short story anthologies in my personal collection,rangeing from Wodehouse's humor to McInerny's gravitas. Just how much golf constitutes a "golf story" is each individual's own unique perception of what makes something a "golf" story. I recomend to you McCullough's "Golf In The Year 2000 or What We Are Coming To" (1892) or, perhaps, Mitchell's "Match Made In Heaven" (2004)

    Bali Golf Course October 13th, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I have more than 275 golf novels/murder mysteries/short story anthologies in my personal collection,rangeing from Wodehouse's humor to McInerny's gravitas...

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