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.

Price becomes a member of Fox Chase, a swanky club that is concealed from public view: ‘the hidden gem of the golfing world, a club where men waited ten years for the chance to mortgage their homes to pay the initiation fee, and did it with a smile’. He soon feels out of place, blackballed by the snobs on the course – ‘here comes Jim with his clubs tied to one of those squeaky pull-cart contraptions they use at the municipal courses. Mr Parker asked him if he was playing golf or driving a rickshaw’ – and by their perfumed wives in the clubhouse; self-satisfied conversations at the club revolve around Ivy League schools and the choice of Scotch on Concorde. Price is appalled by the smugness of this moneyed crowd and keeps to himself. Timmy Price inherits his father’s indignation, but not his golf swing. Timmy is an 11-year-old beanpole and a natural at golf, a one-off who swiftly becomes a curiosity at the club: ‘I launched ball after ball out of the shadows. A sweep of air pulling my shoulders, the hum of iron tearing soil in my hands, the hollow click of steel smashing into Surlyn that made a white-haired woman oooh, made her leather-skinned husband whistle.’ Timmy is invited to join other precocious golfers at a training camp in North Carolina which hothouses talented kids. He is chary of the cost for his parents – ‘the price was more than my father had planned to spend on our entire family vacation’ – but they put money down on the nail, determined that he should go.

The camp turns out to be even nastier than his club. The children at Pine Acres are disobliging and aloof; they think they have it all: ‘where have you been? . . . We fly around the country playing, bro. It’s kind of sweet, I’m not gonna lie to you. Hotels, sweet-ass courses, planes, sponsors giving you all sorts of free shit.’ Most of these players have lost their enthusiasm for golf; spoon-fed by the same group of coaches, there is something stale about the way they play. They tease Timmy, puffing their privileged backgrounds to make him feel uncomfortable. But his devil-may-care approach on the course stops the whickering of the other boys. Timmy has the natural balance that distinguishes great players – famously, a six-month-old Tiger Woods could stand upright in his father’s hand – and he shows them up as soon as he hits a ball: ‘I stood with shoulders full of balance and, with swing after swing after swing, it all slipped away, leaving me alone and content . . . I turned around to see some of the younger players gaping, the older ones behind them with doubt and competition and sweat rolling down their foreheads.’

Whitman Carlsby is the only boy who doesn’t look winded; he walks off ‘like he had just watched nothing, the first of them back to work all the harder’. Pine Acres is a golf factory, but Whitman had always been treated as something special by the mass-produced players; he had enjoyed the attention of winning the two previous camp championships and had come back for more of the same. As he gets to know Timmy, doubt seeps in. A Gentleman’s Game winds up with Whitman’s underhand triumph on the final day of the championship. Whitman loses his ball in some trees on the 17th hole; desperate to cement victory, he substitutes a second ball in the hope that he can hoodwink the other players. He takes almost everyone in: Timmy twigs, but says nothing. For as long as he had played golf, Timmy had caddied to earn money. Carrying the clubs of liverish golfers could be awful – ‘it made you bend putters and piss in golf bags’ – but he felt that it was important: ‘gentlemen take their game seriously, and one thing that won’t be tolerated is a caddy who doesn’t take his job seriously.’ Timmy leaves Pine Acres soon after Whitman’s success; he no longer has a fantasy of the impeccable courtesies in golf. He returns to Fox Chase to work in the small caddy room beneath the clubhouse. But Coyne draws a final, clumsy comparison – ‘gentlemen are honest, courteous, classy and bright. My friends in the hole were all of these’ – that seems only to foster another of the game’s illusions.

Bo Links takes a hard-nosed attitude to the hassles of the caddie’s life; he makes caddies’ shortcomings the nub of his new novel. Harrison Tweed ‘wasn’t exactly looking for a career’ when he took up caddying. He knew that he didn’t want to follow his father into the shoe factory: shouldering a golfer’s bag seemed like a profitable stopgap until he could find a better job. Tweed picked up his nickname early on. He began to ‘tote the mail’ for a promising young golfer and looked forward to the first fruits of their partnership: Dillard Clay was ‘a regular prospect and I figured if we hit it off, he could be my ticket to the big show’. The pair went into the final round of their first tournament with victory sewn up. But the tension increased and Clay’s game began to see-saw: he sliced four balls into the river as he grew more and more angry. There is no opportunity in golf to let off steam. In contact sports, it is not essential for emotions to be contained – a player can run faster or tackle harder to release frustration – and even supposedly well-mannered games allow for the odd temper tantrum: yelling at an official or breaking a racket often helps to calm the nerves. There is no outlet for the golfer’s many miseries. In The Bogey Man, a duffer’s guide to the professional tour, George Plimpton hints at the bottled-up woes that undermine golf’s reputation as a staid game played by colourless men: ‘professionals invariably trudge phlegmatically around the course – whatever emotions are seething within – with the grim yet placid and bored look of cowpokes, slack-bodied in the saddle, who have been tending the same herd for two months.’ Clay doesn’t remain po-faced for long: ‘the man was so messed up he didn’t know what to do . . . he was going to hit that fairway even if it killed him . . . he never made it to dry land.’ Clay is too wound up to play on and walks off the course; Tweed ditches his golf clubs in the river.

The plot of Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins does not focus on Clay’s shortlived career. Tweed provides a potted account of the good times he enjoyed with Jenkins, a raddled older caddy with bloodshot eyes that resemble ‘a grid of city streets on an auto club handout’. But their relationship is fudged because the narrative moves from one thing to another with heedless assurance. In one chapter, Tweed and Jenkins caddy for a pair of off-duty priests who try to gull each other during a round of golf: Father Casey kicks his ball from behind a tree, Father O’Conlan lies about his score. In another, a hustler feels the pull of an old rival’s frosty challenge and puts on a blindfold before he attempts to sink a 12-foot putt. The novelist’s method has its drawbacks. The brief chapters that look at golf’s lighter side have the feel of after-dinner anecdotes: the plotting is thin and secondary characters are ciphers. The prose can be awkward. Roadmap has a talent for gauging a golfer’s distance from the pin, but the garnished description Links provides make his tips seem ridiculous: ‘in no time at all, he’d take a gander and then, like punching a button on a computer, the information shot from his lips as if he were firing a pistol.’ And the structure is weak: the stories don’t converge and by the end of the novel, little seems to have fallen into place. Roadmap makes a vaporous exit: ‘He stopped showing up at the usual clubs, and when I hadn’t seen him around for a couple of weeks, I began asking . . . where he might be. No one knew. It was like he just walked off and never came back.’

Brian Schwan, the puppyish narrator of Spikes, never uses ‘spear-carriers’; like most of the middle-of-the-road golfers on his piddling tour, he knows that a caddy is a luxury enjoyed only by cushioned pros. Brian is 26 and at the fag-end of his career. It seems almost impossible to turn a profit from golf – he has netted $19,000 in three years – but what is the alternative? ‘Living at home full-time, football on the tube, a pull-start lawnmower, a kid or two underfoot.’ He had never expected to find himself in a slump; it was true that he hadn’t gone all-out with his studies, but it hardly mattered when golf could help him cut corners on the way to college: ‘Georgia had a solid tradition, good practice facilities, a well-organised, hands-off coach . . . if they happened to have a library equipped with books . . . that was gravy as far as I was concerned.’ But early success is cancelled by his failure to qualify for the PGA – ‘I trickled all the way down to the Snapper/Gold Club Tour, water finding its own miserable level’ – and he remains at the heels of past glory. Brian is forced to play on bad courses surrounded by the junk of modern life, but golf retains its dismaying power:

There’s no escaping the game. The courses are packed cheek by jowl, and they advertise like Vegas casinos – billboards, magazine spreads, even tip-ins with rental-car keys, all including package-deal prices. They have preposterous rococo names, tile-roofed condos, streets named after indigenous trees or the shrines of golf, pricey landscaping, gates like walled cities.

Michael Griffith’s appealing novel centres on the Ile de Paris Golf and Beach Club in Charleston, another of the tacky courses on the tour. With shameless self-advertisement, the club has constructed a sixty-foot Eiffel Tower out in front; to Brian the replica looks more like an old oil derrick. The Charleston tournament is his last chance; Rosa, his wife, feels that she has ‘thrown good money after bad golf’ for too long. She wants him to quit touring to start a family. Rosa had taken a second, part-time job at a Christian bookshop to pay the bills; for Brian, her faith is a bugbear – ‘every time I go anywhere she manages to stash three or four morsels of godly wisdom into my luggage, maxims tucked into my shoes, homilies scrolled around my toothbrush’ – and he is certain that something is up: ‘I unknotted a pair of socks and a fortune-cookie sliver of paper fluttered to the floor . . . It read: “There is no sight so precious to the Lord as a child.”’ His father comes to Charleston to tell him to be a good sport and go home. Brian tries to convince himself that the time has come to give up his one-tracked life: ‘At 18 shake Dad’s hand, tell him it’s been a nice run, a good long childhood, but you know it’s over. Then go home to Rosa. What could be simpler?’ He knows that salad days out on the golf course are more straightforward.