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10 timely—and timeless—golf books to help take your mind off the real world

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March 20, 2020

The late George Plimpton—a renowned writer, editor and aristocrat—once developed what he called “A Small Ball Theory,” in which he posited that “the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature.” He wrote that “there are superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball and no good books at all about beach balls.”

Who are we to argue?

So now that we are hunkered down without tournament play to satisfy our voracious appetite for televised golf, it is a good time to turn to golf literature to fill the void, while testing Plimpton’s small-ball theory.

This then is an arbitrary list, in no particular order, of interesting, entertaining and informative golf books worth reading, most from this century, two of them recent. (Disclosure: One from this list is one of my own, included here not as a shameless plug but at the suggestion of an editor noting golf’s role at another time our nation was united in facing down a scourge.)

There is a surfeit of books on Tiger, some better than others. This one, by a long-time Sports Illustrated writer and a senior writer for Golf magazine, falls into the better category. It is a no-holds-barred, rise-and-fall-and-rise account of Woods’ career and life, including an interesting, though entirely inconclusive (as Bamberger himself points out), section on rumors of performance-enhancing drugs.


This was published last fall, on the 20th anniversary of Stewart’s death. A sad note, to be sure, but Payne Stewart, a bonafide character and exceptional player, needs to be remembered — for all of it, his golf, his life and his death. The United States Golf Association agrees. The book won its Herbert Warren Wind Book Award, the second for Robbins.


In these somber times, an infusion of humor is a blessed intrusion, and the late Jenkins has provided it in this timeless fictional account of life on the PGA Tour, culminating with “the 87th Open Championship of the United States Golf Association” at Heavenly Pines. It is bawdy, to be sure, and politically incorrect on many levels (“a good 1-iron shot is about as easy to come by as an understanding wife”), but it is laugh-out-loud funny, even on a 10th reading.


A co-creator of the early '90s hit television series Twin Peaks, Frost is also an avid golfer who has written three books on the game. This one recounts a match conjured up when a wealthy businessman, Eddie Lowery (better known for having caddied for Francis Ouimet in the 2010 U.S. Open), who was willing to wager that two amateurs who worked for him, Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, could beat any two players in the world. Another wealthy man stepped up with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and the match took place at the Cypress Point Club.


An acclaimed Canadian golf writer, Lorne Rubenstein, spent a summer in the village of Dornoch in Northern Scotland, home to the renowned Royal Dornoch Golf Club. This is his account of the golf and the quirky assortment of people he encountered, including American Don Greenberg, a former sportswriter (and a former colleague of mine), who at the same time was a member of Royal Dornoch and a caddie there.

It is the remarkable story, recounted by noted Boston writer (Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated), of an enigmatic character, John Montague, “the world’s greatest golfer,” as Grantland Rice called him. He seemingly showed up in Los Angeles out of nowhere, moved among Hollywood’s elite, and played golf only in club championships in an effort to avoid bringing unwanted attention to himself. For good reason. Hence, armed robbery showing up in the book’s title.


The genesis of the idea came from a book, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure. It got me wondering what was happening in golf during World War II, when professional golf, as it has today, was on hiatus to focus on more important issues. Turns out, a lot was going on, including the roles Hogan, Sam Snead and Bobby Jones played in the war effort, Jones, in fact, a captain in the Army Air Corps who went ashore at Normandy on D-Day Plus One.


This is unlike any golf book you likely have read, the story of J. Douglas Edgar, a British golf pro who came to America in 1919 and mentored Bobby Jones. Edgar won the Canadian Open twice, lost the 1920 PGA Championship to Jock Hutchinson in the final match, and was murdered on an Atlanta street in 1921, still an unsolved mystery, though an affair with a married woman might have played a role.


Any list of golf reads would be incomplete without a book on the Masters. Hard to beat this one by David Owen, a New Yorker writer and a Golf Digest contributor, who was given access to Augusta National’s archives, a treasure trove unavailable to anyone else.


The title alone is enough enticement to read this book, this being Palmer’s life and his stories. Co-authored by Golf Digest contributor Dave Shedloski, it is a a series of stories, told in three parts — Golf, Life and Business — with a fourth, The Final Lesson, explaining how he prefers his legacy to be, that of “a caretaker of the game, just the way my father was before me.”


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