Preferred Lies, by Andrew Greig

Evergreen wisdom on the fairway to heaven
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The Independent Culture

In a period one takes to be around the turn of the millennium (the time-frame is never made explicit), terrifying things began to happen to the writer Andrew Greig. First he would get violent headaches, then unconscious spells. Finally, he fell into a coma. Only some quick thinking by a talented Sheffield neurosurgeon saved his life. When Greig recovered - thanks to a tube fitted to drain the brain fluid that had been obstructed by a colloid cyst - he found that he was "tired of living in the make-believe".

Having reached his fifties, his impulse was not to add to the five novels and six works of poetry that had made his name. Instead, what he wanted to do, to the bewilderment of his wife (fellow-author Lesley Glaister), was play golf - a sport he had once loved but had barely been near since he was lured away by "girls and guitars" in his late teens.

After a three-and-a-half decade hiatus, one might imagine Greig would find plenty of culture shock. The last time he picked up his ancient Ben Sayers putter, wooden clubs were still made out of wood, the Men Only Bar was the norm, the Augusta National was still umpteen committee meetings away from its first black member, and the nearest thing to a hip celebrity golfer was Jimmy Tarbuck.

Everyone plays golf now, it seems, and the game is currently engaged in an entertaining struggle with its new image. Still fundamentally sexist and elitist, it becomes overrun with rock stars and excitable young men with streaked, damp-looking hair.

Greig's golf bears scant resemblance to the manicured and moneyed sport played by Ian Poulter and Tiger Woods. It takes place in remotest Scotland, among rabbit skeletons, alongside working-men pessimists with short, stabby swings. Here, where the courses are often "all an undifferentiated One, like the original world, the world before language", it will always be, to some extent, 1887.

That Preferred Lies feels like quite a special book quite quickly is due, in no small part, to the fact that it is just as undulating and cranky as the landscape it traverses. Greig sets off around the country of his - and golf's - birth, playing some of its most weatherbeaten courses, not quite certain what he is looking for but certain it is something profound. His preference is to play alone, but he meets old friends and, in one memorable section, the self-bashing humility his father taught him on the course locks horns with the positive thinking of a new-agey golf society called Fairway to Heaven.

Greig has been away from the game long enough to forget that one of the few worthwhile bits of clubhouse etiquette is not giving a blow-by-blow account of your round. But if you ignore the overly detailed accounts of chip shots to the par-three eighth, he is a life-affirming companion, who can happily go a bit Zen and the Art of Backswing Maintenance without sounding remotely dippy. As with all the best golf writing, most of the insights aren't about golf at all. "Life is worth getting upset about," he says. "Because it's also worth getting happy about. What's the point of getting to the end, and all you can say is: 'Well, at least it hasn't bothered me much'."

Golf, "a microcosm of life's challenges", is his way of staying in, and understanding, the present. By the end, he may still be unsure what his book is about, but the sport has stripped his soul naked and taught him about what really matters - and he doesn't even want to be alone while he plays it any more. I'd have him in my fourball any day, but he'd have to give me a free drop from those rabbit skeletons.

Tom Cox is the author of the golfing memoir 'Nice Jumper' (Black Swan)

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