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a good walk spoiled

23 May 2005

John Feinstein's A Good Walk Spoiled, regarded by many as one of the best books about professional golf, is now in mass-market paperback from Little, Brown. Any topical book that continues in print after ten years is unusual; for an account of a single unremarkable year on the PGA Tour to merit reprinting "with a new afterword" a decade later is beyond unusual. A Good Walk is a very good book, though naturally not for those who'd rather watch Rust-Oleum dry than read about golf. Its greatest strength is that it conveys a vivid picture of a culture of excess that commands passionate devotion from the powerful. What orgies were to Rome and potlatches to the Kwakiutl, golf is to contemporary America.

If you fly over the United States, you observe that the salient features of the landscape we've built are its golf courses: enormous, unnaturally green, snaking around our living spaces like turfy emerald boas. We sacrifice water, land, and ecosystems to the "good walk." Millions and millions of dollars are spent on golf, and the sport burgeons exponentially. The top golfers in 1994, when Feinstein followed the Tour for a year to compile his book, made hundreds of thousands of dollars; half-a-dozen topped one million. This year, with the U.S. Open still weeks away, 31 pro golfers have already earned a million dollars on the Tour alone.

Americans tend to resent big money earned by sports stars, but almost no-one resents big purses won by golfers. Partly, our complacency with golf winnings comes from illusions. If Allen Iverson shoots 5-for-25 or Gary Sheffield takes the collar and drops a fly ball, we sense that they are drawing a hefty paycheck for doing sweet damn all. But if a pro golfer does sweet damn all, he doesn't make the Friday cut, and he earns absolutely nothing. There's an appropriateness there that justifies distributing multi-million-dollar purses among those who make the cut.

There's also the relative apparent difficulty of the sport. Every fan in the cheap seats thinks they can strike out Richie Sexson: throw one low and outside to the big galoot and he will flail at it. That's because very few baseball fans actually play baseball. But when you, a weekend golfer, see Phil Mickelson routinely make 15-foot putts, and you realize how excruciatingly unlikely that is in real life, you have to step back in awe. Who can begrudge Mickelson the $4 million he's won on tour this year?

The constant theme of A Good Walk Spoiled is how very difficult golf can be: how the games of even the best players abandon them at key moments, and how some of the best golfers in the world scratch and claw for years with very little reward just to cling to the lower echelons of the professional tours. After we spend 600 pages in the company of men who face impossible challenges and persist through relentless frustrations, how can we not admire them?

And of course, one admires all professionals who do their best; a strong work ethic is never to be derided, even when one's work consists of propelling a golf ball around a lawn. But for many readers, the impression made by Feinstein's absorbing study of golfers is that these guys are simply not like us.

For instance, Feinstein, in creating characters for a book (rather a different task than just reporting who did what), must confront the popular notion that Tour golfers are interchangeable upper-middle-class white guys with names like Corey and Davis and Craig and Matt. Illustrations bound into the middle of the paperback don't help much here, as they show a monotonous series of beardless white guys with good teeth and conservative haircuts.

Virtually all of Feinstein's characters are married with children, and every wife in the book is deferential and endlessly understanding. Every golfer is torn between the Tour and his regret that he can't spend more time with his kids growing up. (A common solution is to fly wife and kids around to Tour events in one's private jet.) Every other golfer has a brush with illness or death – his own, his caddy's, his wife's, his parents' – which makes him realize what a small thing golf is compared to mortality (whereupon he tees up next Thursday anyway, realizing that though golf is a small thing, it's part of our elemental vitality in the face of tragedy). Who are these guys? How can you tell Curtis from Fred, and what sinister factory in Middle America produces them?

Feinstein is reduced, at one point, to distinguishing Tour grinders Paul Goydos and Mark Henninger anecdotally. When Goydos decides to take a working family vacation to Hawaii and invites Henninger, his friend demurs. "Instead of playing golf and snorkeling for a week on Maui, [Henninger] headed off into the snow in Oregon with his brother to hunt elk. Who says golfers are faceless clones?" (586)

Fascinating here is a distinction that seems so extreme in one context and so perfectly nugatory in others. Yes, what could be more different than snorkeling in Maui and elk-hunting in Oregon? Yet, if you're a lowly-paid English teacher in the suburbs, the two extravagant recreations might as well be the same thing. Only in a sphere where privilege (signally expressed as privilege over the environment) is taken for granted does the choice of exactly how to assert that privilege come to seem a distinguishing character note.

If you're a golf fan, or if you simply have an inexhaustible capacity for discriminating Billy from Jeff from Bruce on the basis of golf-shoe color and taste in steaks, you will absolutely enjoy A Good Walk Spoiled. And even though my patience wore thin at points and my eyes incipiently glazed over, I enjoyed it too. At the heart of all sport literature is some kind of game during which politics – even the globalized economy that flaunts golf as one of its most conspicuous consumptions – ceases to matter. Golf literature works because golf is a very, very exciting sport to read and write about, with a rhythm that mixes leisure and suspense and an archetypal quality that lends itself to word-pictures. Whenever Feinstein has a good tournament story to tell – and there are several in A Good Walk – you can't put the book down till the winner has been decided.

Feinstein, John. A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and nights on the PGA Tour. 1995. New York: Little, Brown, 2005 (with new afterword).