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The corpus of contemporary golf literature (All Fore Revenge and The Swinger being two notable players in this niche) attempts to fuse the masochistic game of inches with the human experience.
Whatever worth you might place on, for example, Golf in the Kingdom, know that it has literary links (hehe!) to works on par (hah!) with the green jackets (HA-HA!) of the canon. In honor of the summery pastime, here’s a list of some classics that feature the game of grass and iron.
“Winter Dream” – F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald, known for his scathing descriptions of the upper elite in the jazz-infested 20s (to the chagrin of every single high schooler ever), wrote on the subject before The Great Gatsby ever saw publication. Dexter Green is a middle-class youth who falls in love with the can’t-quite-reach-her-status Judy Jones and plans to win her with immense wealth (sound familiar?).
He starts in the story as a caddy for Mortimer Jones, meeting Judy upon employment. When Mortimer wants Dexter to be her caddie, what do you think he does? He quits. He can’t stand the thought of being under her. So begins Dexter’s yearning for a different kind of green.
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner: More caddies here. Faulkner’s epic on the demise of the aristocratic Compson family involves a foray in golf in Part 1: April 7, 1928. Benjamin Compson, otherwise known as “Benjy,” is an embarrassment to the Southern pride the Compsons have established. His older sister and protector, Caddy Compson (wait for it), provides him not only security in his debilitating mental state, but an incentive to hang around the old Compson golf course, where the golfers yell out “caddie” over and over again (there it is!).
This triggers a particular memory of Caddy from 1898 that entrances Benjy with the thought of his long-gone sister, banished from the Compson home for possible marital indiscretions and her divorce. Oh Southern aristocrats.
The Murder on the Links – Agatha Christie: A backstabbing? At a golf course? And the guy is found in a freshly dug hole-for-one? Sounds like the start of an exciting PGA match, though golfers never usually have to worry about grave hazards.
In typical Christie style, this novel, depicting for the umpteenth time that short and stout detective with the pink nose and pointy mustache Hercule Poirot, braces the reader through so many twists and swings you might think it were a golf club gone divot-crazy. That aside, the fictional Merlinville-sur-Mer links have a delightful seaside charm!
Goldfinger – Ian Fleming: Since Fleming is the master of espionage fiction, which defines luxury at its most dangerous, and was once considered for a position of club captain at the Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Kent, James Bond’s golf match was inevitable. At the fictional Royal St. Mark’s (based on the Royal St. George's Golf Club) Auric Goldfinger, German industrialist and over-the-top super villain, has a $10,000 wager with Bond.
Like one of my father’s old golfing buddies, he cheated through all 18 holes, dropping his clubs during a shot by Bond and even attempting to play the wrong ball on the last hole. Bond catches him here and wins the match (and the wager) in his typical British suavity. Though the novel is more of a subtle look at grandeurizing tyrants, you can’t spell Goldfinger without Golfer...kinda.
“Autopsy Room Four” – Stephen King: A modern take on Louis Pollock’s “Breakdown,” this is a golfer’s nightmare (other than taking a 12 on a Par 3, which I have done). Howard Cottrell finds himself on an autopsy table in paralysis, attempting to convince the doctors that he is not dead before they take a sharp scalpel to his chest. How'd he get here?
On the golf course, a rare (and fictional) snake called a “Peruvian boomslang” bites Cottrell and aces him into a death-like stasis with its paralytic venom. To overtly add to the phallic motif of golf clubs and serpents, the head doctor, Katie Arlen, incidentally examines and holds Cottrell's penis on discovering that he's alive.
A Month of Sundays, “Farrell’s Caddie” – John Updike: Updike is arguably the champion of golf fiction, as he was an influential player and diehard enthusiast himself (though his plentiful bogeys would tell you otherwise). One of his stories in particular, “Farrell’s Caddie,” describes a rigid businessman on a golf outing in Scotland who plays with a weathered and disagreeable caddie named Sandy.
I wish I played with Sandy myself; after Farrell unifies with Sandy’s vision of the course, his game improves tenfold.
While Sandy predicts Farrell’s failing marriage and intuits that the MiniCorp deal is quite a destructive idea, the story unfolds into an examination of camaraderie most golfers strive to enjoy. Updike also wrote A Month of Sundays, where the Reverend Thomas Marshfield (think of an unapologetic Arthur Dimmesdale) is caught adulterating and is sent west, where he undertakes a magical golf regimen in Death Valley…among other, more important plot points.
While Updike passed in 2009, his writing can be remembered, Golf Digest describes, as much like golf: “For Updike…the game was a window onto things both laughably small and unnervingly large.”
Bonus: Golf in Poetry: T.S. Eliot, whose poem “The Wasteland” perfectly describes a shoddy golf course not too far from my hometown, had a sense of humanity’s affinity for excess and tendency towards dilapidation when he wrote “Choruses of the Rock.”
In the poem and the following excerpt, he describes a postworld as viewed by our descendants, imagining what they will think of our legacy’s spherical artifacts.
“And the wind shall say: ‘Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.’”
Alex Grover (@AlexPGrover) writes in New York. He stood eighth position on his high school’s six-position golf team. He played only twice—for the better.