BOOK OF THE WEEK: The frustrations of going clubbing

Golf Dreams By John Updike (Hamish Hamilton, hardback, pounds 13.99)
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The Independent Online
As Justin Leonard discovered at Royal Troon a fortnight ago, golf can reduce a man to tears. In his case they were tears of joy, not the angst and frustration experienced by most non-handicap hackers - a not terribly exclusive club of which John Updike would consider himself a fully paid-up member.

In this diverse and diverting collection of essays, magazine pieces (the majority from New Yorker and Golf Digest, though the lesser-known likes of The Massachusetts Golfer and Meetings and Conventions are similarly graced), plus extracts from his novels and stories, Updike fleshes out the eternal frustrations and occasional epiphanies (very occasional epiphanies) of his life on the fairways - or, rather, mostly off them. You don't need to be an Updike nut to appreciate it, or a golfing monomaniac either.

If there is an overriding theme, it is that to most who play it - from virtuosi to municipal meanderers - golf is less a hobby than an obsession, not so much a means of keeping trim as a metaphor for life itself - "the swing is the man", as he puts it, while golf is "a game of the mind and soul as much as the muscles". It is also, as he observes, a "non-chemical hallucinogen", as well as "flog" spelt backwards.

Golfing perfection (or even bare competence) is buried treasure for which there are many maps, most of which seem to contradict each other. The correct swing, he says for example, is "a web of small articles of faith, all of which strain common sense."

Most of what he says suggests that golf is somehow uniquely qualified in the metaphor-for-life department. I'm not so sure about that. Anyone who's been out for a lousy duck on a post- prandial summer Sunday afternoon, double-faulted at match point down at the tennis club or missed a 90th-minute sitter in a hangover league goalless draw, will know what it's like to have the rest of their week ruined by failure in the sporting arena, however modest and unsung that arena might be. But he's probably right that golfers are particularly obsessed with self-improvement. As he says, "golf is life. And life is lessons."

"Golf converts oddly well into words", Updike writes. It certainly does when it's Updike doing the conversion job, though for all the fine writing in the rest of the book, all the insights and apercus, the meditations on life, it is hard not to conclude that nothing quite matches the passages from his fiction (there are excerpts from two of the Rabbit novels plus A Month of Sundays, as well as an odd but compelling short story, "Intercession". Despite his belief that it is "not meant to be a profession", my bet is that, if a golfing Mephistopheles had given him the chance to play the game for money, we would never have had the books - and that would be a crying shame.

Chris Maume