Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, August 03, 1997

Driving The Fairways — America’s Golf Mania Has Created A Plethora Of Books

By Mark Lindquist
Special To The Seattle Times

In a possible sign of the impending Apocalypse, golf is creeping through the national consciousness. Tiger Woods and Greg Norman are as likely to be discussed at the local barber shop as Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr.

Clearly it’s not right that men and women who hit a stationary ball with a stick, then walk a few minutes and do it again, should be compared to the warrior-athletes of the hardwood or diamond, but such is life at the end of the millennium.

What’s interesting is that many of the current golf books are not about golf per se, but about the quest itself: golf as metaphor for knight-errantry.

Two exceptionally fine examples are “Breaking Eighty: A Journey Through the Nine Fairways of Hell” (Hyperion, $22.95), by Lee Eisenberg, and “Chasing the Dream: A Mid-Life Quest for Fame and Fortune on the Pro Golf Circuit” (Avon, $24) by Harry Hurt III. Also out this summer is a book about the young man largely responsible for the golf boom and the resulting glut of books, Tiger Woods. John Strege’s work is titled, imaginatively enough, “Tiger: A Biography of Tiger Woods” (Broadway Books, $25).

Eisenberg, a former editor-in-chief of Esquire, devoted 18 months to improving his game, and he rationalized this indulgence by writing “Breaking Eighty.” Though his ostensible goal was to play a round in fewer than 80 strokes, he clearly had more in mind.

“To get golf right sets us on an arc of self-discovery and revelation,” writes Eisenberg. “It sets us on a path. The path is its own reward.”

One truly hopes he finds some noble truths on the path, because it quickly becomes clear that this semi-spastic scribe will never know the rewards of actually breaking 80.

This is a bright and talented man who has known much success in life, so why not with golf? Because golf makes men insane.

As Eisenberg descends through his “nine fairways of hell,” he becomes increasingly irrational. He seeks out instructors, physical therapists, writers, salesmen, all of whom offer contradictory advice. He listens to it all, tries it all, and continually, not surprisingly, fails.

This would be infuriating to read, except that Eisenberg is exceptionally good-humored, graceful and intelligent – completely unlike his golfing. He is highly literate, effortlessly working in references to thinkers such as social historian Christopher Lasch (“The Culture of Narcissism”).

Eisenberg understands that an obsession with golf could be due to “the growing emptiness of contemporary life,” that the game is a distraction not unlike drug and drink. Yet he does not let this dampen his child-like thrill in buying a new set of clubs.

Harry Hurt III, meanwhile, also attempts to improve his game through instruction, physical training, and, yes, new clubs. Hurt, however, has talent.

At 18, he was the No. 1 player on the Harvard freshman team, a golden future ahead. Then, a country club required him to get a haircut before his team could compete. Hurt quit. (Hey, he was only 18, and it was the late ’60s).

Cut to 25 years later: Hurt is a 43-year-old journalist who plays less than a round a year until a midlife crisis hits. Preposterously perhaps, he decides to attempt the PGA tour.

For most of us, this would be armchair fantasy. Who hasn’t sat, beer in hand, and projected himself onto the screen? But Hurt actually steps out of his chair and into the flow of action: He is a first-rate writer with a once-in-a-lifetime story, and a truly fine book results from this fortunate intersection of circumstances.

Hurt’s quest begins with amateur tournaments, then moves on to minor-league tournaments such as the Hooters Tour, then “Q school” – qualifying school for the PGA tour – and finally Monday qualifying rounds for the PGA tournaments.

There are numerous moments that cut to the heart of the male competitive spirit as Hurt brings an adult’s experience and a writer’s eye to this excellent adventure. Like Eisenberg, he punctuates his experience with literary allusions, but his reference points include Nirvana and the Rolling Stones as well as Shakespeare.

Though Hurt does not speak of golf as spiritual endeavor, his soul is involved, and though he loses money in the hunt, he has triumphs that are genuinely moving. Most impressively, by the end of the book, his wife has still not left him.

For “Tiger,” John Strege had full access to Tiger Woods and his family, and a thorough if uncritical biography results.

PGA tour commissioner Tim Finchem has referred to Woods as possibly “the most important player ever.” The young man’s success has measurably raised public awareness of golf, particularly in the minority community and among kids.

Sports-hero biographies are generally inspirational, but this one takes on a sad edge as Tiger goes from golf prodigy to marketing tool. The most interesting and telling detail in the book: Tiger’s first public comment when announcing at a press conference his intent to turn pro – “Hello, world” – was written by Nike ad meisters.

Lee Eisenberg and Harry Hurt III likely will never be in a Nike commercial, but, ironically, both their books are more inspirational than the biography of the young man who helped make their publishing deals possible.

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Mark Lindquist