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If you've ever seen The Sports Reporters on ESPN or read one of his myriad books, you're familiar with John Feinstein's basic style.  First, he's hysterical; every point he has to make is delivered with all the dispassion of Henny Penny shrieking that the sky is falling.  Second, his major selling point is access; he's sort of a junior grade Bob Woodward; the essential point he wants to make is not that he understands anything about the sport under discussion, but that he has spoken to those on the inside who do understand and is willing to share a scoop or two with the unwashed masses.  Third, he's less interested in the play of the games themselves than with the personal and financial details of sport, the stuff that is most sensationalized and contentious.  Fourth, and finally, perhaps because he's never really given much actual consideration to the topics that he covers, he speaks in the most cliché ridden prose imaginable.  He is really the ultimate post-Watergate reporter, focussed on process to the exclusion of substance and most interested in scandal..  Unfortunately, there is perhaps no game less well suited to his style than golf.

Starting with the 1993 Ryder Cup and continuing through the next full season, Feinstein offers a fly-on-the-wall account of one year on the PGA Tour.  He tries mightily to breathe life into extended portraits of players like Brian Henninger, Paul Goydos, Davis Love and a host of others.  He strains mightily to turn the travails of John Daly, a few inappropriate comments on black golfers by Jack Nicklaus, and such Ryder Cup tempests as the players unwillingness to meet President Clinton and their refusal to autograph menus at a big dinner into major scandals.  And he gives his best effort to wringing drama out of a season that was truly devoid of historic golfers at the top of their game.  The best player that year was Nick Price, a good but by no stretch of the imagination great golfer.

The problem with all of this and with Feinstein's approach is that golfers are all pretty much the same.  They are overwhelmingly the children of white upper middle class privilege.  They are--almost without exception--conservative, Christian and cautious. They seem like genuinely decent men and it's easy to see why corporate sponsors love them and the Tour, but they are excruciatingly boring.  There's a cumulative deadening sameness to the series of portrayals that Feinstein provides.  There's just no way of differentiating between Love and John Cook and Brad Faxon and so on--they seem to have been punched out of a particularly bland dough with the same cookie cutter.  One result, which is especially unfortunate for Feinstein, is that there just isn't much controversy to uncover or report.  He's left with just the golf itself.

When it comes to the game, he makes a decision which, though understandable from a dramatic perspective, struck me as just intellectually dishonest : he emphasizes, ad nauseum, how hard the sport of golf is.  But this is really contradicted by the experience of pretty much everyone who will read the book.  Golf is unique among major sports in that most of it's fans probably play the game on a regular basis and fairly well.  Of course not well enough to go on Tour, but well enough to have a few pars and birdies most times out and to hit some excellent shots every time out.  There is a very real sense in which the only thing that separates the Saturday morning hacker from the club champion is the number of rounds they've played over their lifetimes and some serious lessons and those club champs are separated from at least the Nike Tour by only some more lessons and a career choice.  Think about it : there is simply no way you could face a Mike Tyson punch, a Lawrence Taylor tackle, a Randy Johnson fastball or Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky on a fast break; but the best shots you've hit in golf would play on Tour.  Sure you don't know how to draw, fade or spin the ball, and you would have to learn, but the best drive, or putt, or long iron you ever hit was simply a good golf shot by any measure.

Feinstein does a competent enough job of writing about the pressure golfers face, particularly when they are at Qualifying School or trying to stay high enough on the money list to keep their Tour card and it is truly remarkable how fine the line appears to be between one of these guys is playing well enough to win every week and when they are struggling just to make the cut.  But the pressure and the fine differences are so intrinsically internal and individual that it may be unfair to even ask him to capture them for the reader.  Moreover, for most of the guys whom he shows really struggling, the obvious problems seem to trace to several factors : age; indifference; complacency; or inflexibility.  It's hard to get too worked up about the supposed difficulty of overcoming any of them--except age, and those guys have already had full and often richly remunerative careers.

Ultimately, the book serves as a reasonably thorough (sometimes overthorough, I could have done without the sections on Frank Cherkanian of CBS and Deane Beaman, the retiring commissioner) account of a year on Tour.  But mostly what it does is remind us of how completely the game tends to get taken over by the periodic appearance of a dominant personality (Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Norman, Tiger) and just how dependent the current golf boom is one one man, Tiger Woods.  Tiger's game is so much different than any we've seen before, in terms of distance if nothing else, that he really is doing things of which we know ourselves to be incapable.  And his persona, the odd melange of races and his determination to be great, suffice to make him seem interesting, even if he isn't.  It is no surprise that Feinstein has recently taken to writing about Tiger, the one player out there who provides his own drama and who is big enough that his every slip up can be blown up into a sort of scandal.

A Good Walk Spoiled is recommended only for genuine fans of the game.  It's hard to believe anyone else will be the least bit interested in learning more than the nearly nothing they know about Tom Kite.

Charlie Herzog's Review:

Most of your review is right on.  I think this is one of those books that's much less interesting now than it was when published-- a season featuring Nick Price 8 years ago loses all relevance in the current era of Tiger mania.  And Feinstein's breathless style is over the top.  It's also interesting to see how many copies of this book show up at used book sales, as I think most people who read it when it was more topical viewed it as an extended hard cover newspaper, and after reading are perfectly willing to throw it out.

However, I would argue with your premise that what a Tour pro does is replicable by any good amateur who has more time to practice.  The number of guys who make it to the Tour is infintesimal-- 125 guaranteed spots each year.  Contrast that with the 10,000 PGA pros working around the country, the thousands of top amateurs who play in county, state and regional events, the multitude of top college golfers who never sniff the tour!  Like the difference between a minor league baseball player and a major leaguer, there are many levels of ability out there that no amount of practice or dedication are going to overcome.

And unlike your beloved baseball players, the idea that these guys can maintain their standing (or lose it) within a strict meritocracy makes for some compelling stories.  You don't care about Paul Goydos or Brian Henniger because you assume with practice you can be them; having seen your golf
game, I can assure you that's a faulty proposition!  I also wouldn't recommend this book to anyone but a golf fanatic (and probably not to the fanatic anymore either, as something like Mark James' account of the recent Ryder Cup is more topical), but if you're into golf minutiae like I am, the
struggle for survival by those other than the Tigers of the world keeps the pages turning.

GRADE : B

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Sports (Golf)
Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY : The First Coming - Tiger Woods: Master or Martyr? (John Feinstein, CNN)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of A Good Walk Spoiled  By John Feinstein
    -EXCERPT : from The Majors by John Feinstein
    -INTERVIEW: John Feinstein  The SportsJones Interview (Jeremy Friedman,  SportsJones Magazine, April 4, 2000)
    -INTERVIEW: YEAR OF THE TIGER On his way to winning his first Masters, 21-year-old golfer Tiger Woods shattered several Professional Golf Association (PGA) records. His play has electrified a sport best known for its stodgy players and poor fashion sense. Following a background report by Betty Ann Bowser, Jim Lehrer discusses the Tiger Woods phenomenom with sports author John Feinstein. (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: EYE OF THE TIGER (Online Neshour,  February 8, 2000, PBS)
    -PROFILE: Sports author John Feinstein prefers inside track (Charlie Patton,  Jacksonville Times-Union)
    -PROFILE: From the Locker Room, an Inside View of Tennis (MICHAEL KORNFELD, NY Times, APRIL 14, 1997 )
    -REVIEW: of A GOOD WALK SPOILED Days and Nights on the PGA Tour. By John Feinstein (Michael Bamberger, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The First Coming  Tiger Woods: Master or Martyr? by John Feinstein A great walk spoiled (ROB GABLE, GOLFonline)
    -REVIEW: of The Majors : In Pursuit of Golf's Holy Grail. By John Feinstein (1999)(Dave Anderson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PLAY BALL The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball. By John Feinstein. (1993)(Roger Noll, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HARD COURTS By John Feinstein (1991)(Julie Cart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of FOREVER'S TEAM By John Feinstein (1990)(Helene Elliot, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A SEASON INSIDE One Year in College Basketball. By John Feinstein (1989)(Allison Heisch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A March to Madness : The View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference By John Feinstein (Budd Bailey, Book Page)
 

GOLF:
    -Books Fore Golf
    -CNN/SI : Golf
    -ESPN : Golf
    -Golf Course Locator
    -Golf Digest
    -GolfHelp : #1 Golf Search Engine
    -Golf Online (from the Editors of Golf Magazine)
    -PGA of America
    -Sporting News : Golf
    -Sports Jones : Golf
    -USA Today : Golf
    -World Golf : The International Golf Course Guide

Comments:

Golf is an interesting game although golfers may not appear to be. The reason for this is that most seek the solace of the armor that resides in their bags, complete with the spikes on their cleats. No other game offers the names of golf equipment that sounds like it should be made for Nascar, but instead is made for the subdued game of golf. Whether they fancy power and wear it is debatable, but most are content to take their golf in stride rather than going for the gold. After all, golf is not the game that it once was, given the fact that most putts are now pushes, rather than taps, and special equipment is made for distance driving to compensate for the failure of golfers to concentrate upon the physics that create great swings. The game's rigid rules seem to take the place of finesse, in most cases, to remind golfers they really are playing a game after all, and that the walk they are taking is not just a stroll. The failure of most to innovate might be due to the comfort of the tradition, and the perception that a well contoured green is adequate enough for respectable play. If it isn't, well, there is always the prospect of trying different courses to test one's true talent, but to solve that problem, golf country clubs were developed to take advantage of fixed course play where knowing the greens like the back of one's hand gives an extra edge. As a new golfer, it's still difficult to tell whether golfers really lack the personality that confines them to golf, or whether they are really suffering from lack of vision, and are easily satisfied. It's possible that golf is much like the lady's game of bridge where the challenge is in being to coordinate, and cooperate with different partners, or groups so that it is more social than skillful, but it's difficult to tell without significantly more experience. Certainly, being on tour appears to offer the advantage of making money with golf which more than a few would like to do, in which case, perhaps there should be more tournaments, not less, even if top skills are not so narrowly defined as they are in someone like Tiger Woods, or some of the others. Few can match the attitudes or the skills that players like Palmer and Nicklaus brought to the game at a time when courses weren't measured, and putts were by eye. In that sense, the game appears to have become less the sport it was, and more the show it is. Or, it's just possible that golfers are more impressed with the time, price and place of play than they are the game itself. In that case, there may be considerable range in the flexibility of prices to charge more than is done already, and the impetus to make it truly a sport of kings might find an avid crowd ready to pay the price. For most of us peons, reasonable prices and varieties of courses offer the thrill once reserved for miniature golf where the challenge of the course became more than the challenge of the pageantry. Golf trends are not in that direction, however, and for some time, the effort to make the greens as green and lush as possible contributes to the fantasy of the game, as well as its beauty, if not our own limitations of play. Ultimately, everything golf is not so much different than everything tennis, or football, but simply seems to appeal to a different sort of fellow. Isn't that how lacrosse got accepted as a game, though? To its credit, it has the ability to be a lifelong game where the others don't. Perhaps, that is the key to golf's longevity - it puts off the inevitable recognition of how youth escapes into the timeless warp of reality and few need go there. Or, maybe, it's simply soothing to be out of doors, with minimal effort, with the feel of a club, and with a decent driver, to be able to hit something beyond our own limited eyesight to see how far it can go, and then go find it. A treasure hunt confined to the beauty of self contained parameters where it is impossible to get lost in the woods without being able to find one's place back to the beginning. That is a comfort every one can enjoy, because who really wants to be lost in the woods?

- Pat R.

- Sep-08-2004, 21:44

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