Just in time for Father's Day, two new books inspired by golf: In the memoir "Driving Lessons" by Steve Friedman, golf becomes a unifying experience for an estranged father and son. And "Golf Stories" collects stories on golf from writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, P.G. Wodehouse and John Updike.
‘Driving Lessons: A Father, a Son, and the Healing Power of Golf’
by Steve Friedman
Rodale, 128 pp., $15
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edited by Charles McGrath
Everyman’s Pocket Classics, 331 pp., $15
Someone once wrote that golf books are like putts — the shorter, the better. There also is the old George Plimpton observation about sportswriting: The smaller the ball, the better the writing.
“Driving Lessons” comes close to meeting all these standards. It’s short, good and “sort of” about golf, but more about a complicated father-son relationship.
Steve Friedman is a 49-year-old writer who leaves New York for a trip home to St. Louis to try to understand his golf-obsessed father. He agrees to take three days of lessons from his father and then play nine holes with him.
Friedman, writer-at-large for Runner’s World, Bicycling and Backpacking magazines, bares himself in this memoir. He is lonely, overweight, struggling financially, and his girlfriend has dumped him. He considers himself a near-failure and admits he has come close to a nervous breakdown.
Sentimentality is conspicuously absent in this short nonfiction page-turner, arriving on shelves in time for Father’s Day. Friedman has spent much of his life not really liking or understanding his father.
His dad is a long-ago jock, now on his third marriage. His vocabulary is full of sales and golf clichés, and his mind grabs at fantasies such as his suggestion that his son call up actress Nicole Kidman and ask for a date because she reportedly has read something he wrote.
In the end, Friedman realizes what an oasis golf provided his father from business pressure and personal pain. He also appreciates his father’s accomplishments, though you don’t get the feeling they are about to schedule a fishing trip together.
The biggest mystery to me was how someone coordinated enough to play varsity basketball in high school and pickup hoops as an adult can remain as incompetent a golfer as Friedman is after three days of tutoring.
He admits to taking seven putts on one green during the nine-hole outing that culminates the visit. Oh, well, this book isn’t really about golf. It’s about a father and a son who are very different people, and who get closer by hitting little white balls on acres of grass.
An upbeat bonus is that the book’s introduction is by James Dodson, whose “Final Rounds” is the gold standard by which all father-son golf books will ever be judged.
While his son is in St. Louis, the senior Friedman suggests to him, “You should write a real book.”
Hey, Mr. Friedman. He just did.
“Golf Stories” is a collection of 18 short stories or book excerpts by an all-star collection of authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, P.G. Wodehouse, Herbert Warren Wind, Ian Fleming, John Updike, Rick Reilly and Dan Jenkins.
The book is organized to show how golf writing — and fiction writing in general — has evolved from the wordiness of the early 20th century — interesting, but probably only compelling to an English major.
Viewing the book from the perspective of a modern recreational golfer reading about his sport for pure pleasure, I graded the stories and doled out two A’s, eight B’s and eight C’s. One A went to “Tees and Teens” by Jenkins — it’s an irreverent and hilarious look at the invasion of youth and foreign talent on the Ladies Professional Golf Tour. The other went to “Farrell’s Caddy” by John Updike, a tale of how telepathy can develop between caddie and player.
Some story ideas are captivating and worth mentioning to others in your next foursome, even if you didn’t want to recommend the story itself. “The Last Round” by Holworthy Hall is about a golfer who, because of mounting medical problems, is playing the final round of his life. Bernard Darwin’s “The Wooden Putter” tells how a mediocre golfer flashes talent when he has total confidence in the club in his hand.
Anthology editor Charles McGrath, a New York Times staff writer, contributes his own story, the enjoyable “Sneaking On.” It’s a tale about a golfer trying to play his way across town from one course to another — McGrath admits in the foreword that it is a “fairly shameless rip-off” of the John Cheever story “The Swimmer.”
Craig Smith is a retired Seattle Times sports writer.