Writing a golf novel these days seems akin to choosing the right club on a windy par-3. Five-iron or six-iron? Golf as the ultimate search for truth, or golf as the riotous pastime of gamblers and drunks?
Two new works of fiction—one splendid, one merely memorable—build on these familiar themes. In Steven Pressfield's The Legend of Bagger Vance (Morrow, $20), we are introduced again to the idea that golf is played a foot or so from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the player at every turn. This time the setting is Savannah, where, in the spring of 1931, the legendary Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen meet in a big-money exhibition on a barrier-island resort course. Sucked into the vortex of this historic match is 10-year-old Hardy Greaves, who, as the adult narrator more than half a century later, reminds us that a third competitor joined the clash of titans: local amateur and war hero Rannulph Junah, attended by a remarkable caddie-spiritual counselor named Bagger Vance. It doesn't reveal too much to disclose that Vance, when he isn't raking traps, can predict the future, heal with a touch and deliver lines like, "Before Time was, I am."
As a page-turner Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense. But Pressfield, a Hollywood screenwriter who also has written action films for the likes of Steven Seagal, burdens his narrative with every convention imaginable. Roy Hobbs in The Natural had a bat named Wonderboy, so Junah has to have a driver called Schenectady Slim. Shivas Irons in Golf in the Kingdom pursued True Gravity, so Bagger Vance must extol the Authentic Swing. Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi counseled Luke on the use of the Force, so Vance introduces Hardy to "the Field"—a grid of invisible forces and auras surrounding the golfers when they swing. There are even echoes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when a frightened Hardy keeps asking Vance, "Who are you?" (He should be able to guess; the caddie has just stilled an Atlantic storm with a wave of his hand.)
Believability is strained, as well, by the too often overcooked prose. "The sound was like a bomb," the narrator says of a drive by Junah that goes 30 yards past one by Jones. "The gallery gasped as the ball exploded off the clubface, low and hissing fire...." In the end the reader may prefer Golf in the Kingdom's Burningbush, where the mysteries are barely glimpsed, to Pressfield's Krewe Island, where they end up obliterating most of the landscape.
From the other swollen tributary of golf invention comes Fast Greens (Softshoe Publishing, $8.95), a self-published novel by television writer-actor-stand-up comic Turk Pipkin. As in Bagger Vance, Pipkin's tale has a since grown boy telling the story of an epic golf match, only now the setting is Austin in 1965, and the opponents are two Texas oilmen who have feuded for a lifetime over land, money and a woman. And instead of a caddie-guru, this match has a gun-toting referee, who is described as so honest "you can shoot craps with him over the phone." No supernatural swings in this bunch. "When he lurched at the ball," Pipkin writes, "Roscoe looked like a guy trying to fly cast a frozen turkey."
Hooked by the bawdy humor, we gradually glean that this is a coming-of-age story in which a fatherless boy measures his forming values against the codes of flawed, disillusioned men. The Pedernales Golf Course is not a miracle ground, but a hardpan crucible where character is exposed. The golf ball? "[T]his cratered pellet, like a palette of paint, is really no more than a measuring device, an indicator that registers the degree of perfection of a golfer's every swing, not neglecting, unfortunately, the golfer's thoughts in making that swing."
Profane, lyrical and charming by turns. Fast Greens proves it doesn't take a one-iron to reach the heart—or a miracle, either.