Iron Tearing Soil

James Francken

  • A Gentleman's Game by Tom Coyne
    Atlantic, 264 pp, £15.00, July 2001, ISBN 1 903809 05 3
  • Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins: Tales from the Caddie Yard by Bo Links
    Simon and Schuster, 302 pp, £15.00, May 2001, ISBN 0 684 87362 1
  • Spikes by Michael Griffith
    Arcade, 258 pp, £17.00, February 2001, ISBN 1 55970 536 1

A golf course takes up an enormous amount of space, but the anger this creates among paid-up protectors of the countryside is nothing to the rage it can provoke in a ropey golfer. Golf is not the only pastime in which the object is to hit a small, distant target with accuracy. In rifle shooting, the central ring is around fifty yards away; in archery, it is about one hundred yards to the target – from where the archer stands, it looks no bigger than the head of a drawing pin held at arm’s length. But the distances in golf are greater, and on the vast courses that conservationists think are eyesores, the targets are often not visible at all. Even on the humdrum course which remains the venue for next year’s Ryder Cup – the Belfry was developed on the fringes of Birmingham, in fields where Golden Wonder grew potatoes for their crisps – the pros will often have to clobber the ball close to three hundred yards to be in with a chance. There is no hope for the second-drawer golfer: most players try to buy distance, and golf shops sell longer clubs with graphite shafts and large titanium faces which come with a promise to add a few yards off the tee. Some golfers go further still. Alan Shepard, overlooked for the original Moonshot, commanded Apollo 14 and became the first golfer to play in outer space. After three hours on the Moon, Shepard had collected all the samples of rock and soil he needed; he decided to make the most of weak lunar gravity. In front of the TV cameras, he attached the sawn-off head of a six-iron to the handle of his sample collector and formed a makeshift club. Shepard dropped a golf ball in the Moon dust and took a short, deft swing that sent it into the firmament. ‘Beautiful,’ he crowed to colleagues in mission control: ‘there it goes! Miles and miles and miles.’

Shepard had a golfer’s knack for exaggeration; on the Moon, gravity has only a sixth of its force on Earth, but even with this advantage his ball went no more than two hundred yards – on Earth, his stroke would have been a thirty-yard foozle. Embroidered stories and far-fetched claims play a part in the journeyman’s game. In Tom Coyne’s sharp first novel, the narrator’s down-in-the-mouth father depends on tall tales to keep in with the better players. The father, James Price, is a cautious, trustworthy accountant working in a small town in Delaware, but the lies he tells when it comes to his golf handicap are brazen. For Price, a round of golf will always be a losing battle of muffed drives and stifled putts, yet his obsession with the game goes unchecked. In his office

the shelves were filled with books . . . There were history and horticulture books mixed amid all the green spines – golf instructional books, golf meditation books, golf books by doctors, golf quote books, golf joke books, golf coffee-table books, even a golf cookbook called Living on Greens. There were thin golf novels about sage Scottish caddies and miraculous, redemptive rounds.

A Gentleman’s Game is a more convincing golf novel. The genre doesn’t promise much and Coyne can’t avoid all the constraints it imposes: the novel takes us lengthily through rounds of golf that upset expectations more often than seems plausible. The ups and downs out on the course can be dull; there are too many crunch moments and the anticipation feels contrived. But Coyne’s prose is rarely inert; his characters are drawn with precision and he has a good ear for the anxieties of settled, middle-class life.

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