Sport: Books For Christmas - How to iron out failure and drive towards success

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The Independent Online
As a measure of sporting ineptitude having a golfing handicap far in excess of your highest break at snooker may be a handy rule of thumb. The only beef would be that it is a little too near the bone.

Whether it is on the greens, or the green baize, talent will out, or not as the case may be. Since too little of it is distributed among so many, those willing to reveal their secrets of success will always be in a buyers' market, especially at this time of year.

Whether dreams of lowering that handicap outlast the festive spirit and New Year resolutions, you can at least take comfort in the fact that receiving such an instructional tome means there is someone, however deluded, who cares enough to believe that one day you might break 80, 90, 100...

Inevitably, in a sport where the conceptually simple idea of striking a little white ball with a hi-tech stick produces an infinite array of individualistic styles, there are many contrasting approaches to the subject of golf instruction. One may be more helpful that the others, reading the lot would be a sure-fire way of never being able to play again.

When it comes to homespun wit and wisdom, Harvey Penick is still the leader in the field despite his death in 1995, a week before Ben Crenshaw, one noted pupil, won his second US Masters and two years prior to another, Tom Kite, represented his country as Ryder Cup captain.

Penick's Little Red Golf Book was the first, and best, in a series of anecdotal accounts of his life as a teaching professional in Austin, Texas. Penick turned to teaching after encountering a young Sam Snead at the Houston Open in the mid-1930s. The sound of Snead's drive, more than the sight of it, started alarm bells ringing for Penick. "It sounded like a rifle and the ball flew like a bullet," he wrote. "I knew right from that moment that my future was not as a tour player."

Bud Shrake, Penick's ghost, so to speak, has now collected The Best of Harvey Penick (CollinsWillow, pounds 12.99) into one volume. There is much common sense to be reminded of, although no explanation is given when he quotes Ben Hogan as saying: "All other things being equal, greens break to the west."

Far more mysterious is Harry Alder and Karl Morris's Masterstroke (Piatkus, pounds 9.99), which delves into the power of the mind using "neuro-linguistic programming". One sub-heading declares: "Contextualising your anchor" - what is this, deep-sea fishing? - but if as natural a golfer as Ian Woosnam swears by it, there must be something in it.

More familiar territory is explored in David Leadbetter's Positive Practice (CollinsWillow, pounds 15.99). When "Lead" is not on the driving range with Nick Faldo, he is teaching someone else and on this occasion the theory is kept to a minimum in favour of solid, practical advice on improving all areas of your game. A must for anyone who lifts their clubs out of the car to take them to the first tee, and returns them to the boot after the 18th.

Since nothing ruins a card quicker than a two-stroke penalty, a knowledge of the rules is essential. To that end an explanation of their evolution is a useful guide to understanding and such is provided by Kenneth Chapman's The Rules of the Green (Virgin, pounds 16.99). A dry subject to be sure, without a gin and tonic in the hand - much of the research was carried out in the Royal & Ancient library at St Andrews - but one treated with a pleasingly light touch.

To learn from the rich and famous of the game, try A biography of Tiger Woods by John Strege (Piatkus, pounds 14.99) and My Story (Ebury Press, pounds 16.99), Jack Nicklaus' autobiography. Naturally, given the length of their careers to date, the latter volume is somewhat thicker than the former. In his younger days, the Bear was known as "Fat Jack". Tiger, coming up to his 22nd birthday, is just a fat cat.

Disappointing as it is not to have any account of this year's Ryder Cup at Valderrama to review - shame on the publishers who turned down proposals prior to what was always going to be a dramatic and controversial event - the best, and funniest, account of life on the European Tour is presented by journalist-turned-caddie Lawrence Donegan.

In Four-Iron in the Soul (Viking, pounds 15.99), Donegan spends the 1996 season carrying the bag of Ross Drummond. It turned into the Scot's best season in 19 years on tour. This year, Drummond, at the age of 41, failed to retain his card. It can be a funny, old, cruel game.