Chronicling the human side of the humbling, `civilizing' game of golf

Strokes of Genius, by Thomas Boswell. New York: Doubleday & Co. 240 pp. $19.95 Tom Boswell calls it ``a civilizing game.''

Anyone who has endured the puzzlement of a swing that's perpetually out of the groove, or felt the impulse to put a right angle in the shaft of his driver, might disagree.

But Boswell, for 17 years a sportswriter with the Washington Post, documents his case (pardon the phrase) to a tee.

In ``Strokes of Genius,'' he assembles some of the best from his many years of golf journalism. The result is a lucid and often touching portrayal of this game's rich human dimension - apart from the glitz of tournaments, commercialism, and big money.

To observe professional golf at its most Darwinian, one chapter takes readers to the qualifying school run by the Professional Golfers Association. There, aspiring young pros sweat, fret, and scramble for the privilege of carrying a tour card - their ticket to shoot for the prize money and fame offered at the dozens of PGA-sanctioned tournaments each year.

More than 400 show up; just 25 win a card. Many come back year after year. Some gain their prize, only to lose it in a year or two because they can't win the minimum amount of money (about $5,000 in 1979, the date of Boswell's piece) required to be allowed to stay on the tour.

Only 100 touring pros make a good living at the game, Boswell points out. If a golfer clears $100,000 in prize money, half of that will go straight to travel, accommodations, and other tour expenses. And there's no team support for these players; each one is a one-man business, often on the verge of bankruptcy.

Among Boswell's best essays are his penetrating looks at golfers who have made it and are likely to keep it. There's Fuzzy Zoeller, one of golf's reigning humorists, who gambols among dead-pan colleagues. And Calvin Peete, who surmounted a physical handicap and dirt-poor beginnings to become one of the PGA's extremely rare black stars. And Seve Ballesteros, a Spaniard of near-mythic golf talent who possesses, in Boswell's analysis, a fierce and quickly injured pride that could tether him permanently to the ranks of the almost great.

``No other sport offers careers as long, arduous, and twisting as golf,'' writes Boswell. True, and a minor, unavoidable drawback of this book is that the careers described have often taken a wild twist or two since the author penned his piece.

But insight, not historical detail, is what this book is full of. Boswell's comments about the game he loves are timeless. What he loves about it, clearly, is its premium on mental toughness, rather than physical strength or agility. ``Golf has always been limited - and will always be protected - by the fact that it is more a game of head and heart than of guts and muscles. ... No American game is so rigorous in weeding out its audience. Its charm is technical, intellectual, and aesthetic as much as athletic.''

That, no doubt, is a major part of what he sees as golf's ``civilizing'' tendency - hand in hand with its strict code of sportsmanship. Pro golfers have been known to call penalties on themselves, sometimes at the cost of a tournament.

Now, enter Jack Nicklaus, the man who embodies these values of golf, and who is clearly Boswell's favorite subject. Nicklaus emerged from the haze of a declining career to win last year's Master's at age 46. Describing that event, Boswell writes, ``This afternoon was special because Nicklaus called on reserves of poise, of strength, of judgment under enormous pressure, which go to the heart of human dignity.''

Yet this same titan of golf, perhaps the best to ever play the game, has had to wrestle mightily with its fickle minutiae - particularly that maddening thing called ``putting touch,'' the ability to master the intricacies of break and speed on greens that vary week to week as the tour moves about.

``Golf is the humbling game and none know it better than the best,'' pronounces Boswell. Nicklaus would probably be first to agree.

Humility - maybe that's the game's ultimate civilizing value. And maybe that's why Boswell ends this anthem to fairway and swing with a brief account of some of his own memorable humiliations at the hands of the game.

This whole book, in fact, is a gentle reminder to frustrated golfers everywhere that we're part of a bigger struggle - embracing touring pro and duffer alike - to conquer that impulse to mangle an innocent five iron and thus gain, perhaps, just a tad more self-control.

And that, dare I say it, is a metaphor for something much, much bigger than the game of golf, or any game.

Keith Henderson is the editor of the Monitor's Home & Family section.

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