If a group of giggling schoolboys sat down and cooked up the terminology for a new sport, it's doubtful they would emerge with one quite as loaded with innuendo as golf. The Royal and Ancient game requires many mental disciplines, paramount being the ability to switch off the part of your brain that makes you burst out laughing at silly or suggestive phrases. This extends not only to jargon, but the names of pros themselves. Being a good golfer is not just a matter of stifling a chuckle when your playing partner talks about "rimming out" or "stiff shafts", it's about pretending it's ormal to live in a world where names such as Fred Funk, Jeff Maggert, Boo Weekley and Davis Love III are commonplace.
Even so, I wonder if John Niven sometimes takes things too far in his third novel, The Amateurs. We learn of the fictional PGA player James Honeydew III, the legend of a bygone, fiery pro named Dirk Munter Jr, and briefly visit a tournament called the Schitzbaul Invitational Trophy, played at Benders Creek Golf Club. Into this alternative universe stumbles Gary Irvine, a hopeless 33-year-old hacker, trapped in an unhealthy marriage, who, after being hit on the head with a golf ball, wakes up to find himself virtually unable to hit a bad shot. There are two unfortunate side effects for Gary: the odd attack of Tourette's Syndrome, and a chronic need to masturbate in public.
If Niven has an aim here, it seems to be to do for the West Coast of Scotland what Carl Hiaasen has done for Florida. He even includes a Hiaasenesque epilogue, detailing the happy (or not) ever afters of each character. Gary's quasi-gangster brother, Lee, gives Niven a chance to demonstrate a flair for plotting largely absent from his bilious music-industry novel Kill Your Friends.
But he is a Hiaasen who trades in plucky heroines for paper-thin love interests (chiefly April, a twentysomething golf journalist) and who swaps subtle satire for that refuge of the uninspired thriller writer, the middle-name-as-profanity one-sentence-paragraph ("Calvin Fucking Linklater."). It's a shame, because Niven is very good on the psychological masochism of golf.
He describes driving ranges as "floodlit citadels of concentrated torment" and calls the classic club-across-the back warm-up routine "a parody of crucifixion". He only falters as he gives his shot-by-shot run down of Gary's climactic performance in The Open.
The final chapters feel half like a fun, badinage-heavy round at a municipal nine-holer, half like hasty instructions for the director of a sequel to Tin Cup. And if, by inventing fictional pros, Niven is attempting to widen his comic terrain, he undermines himself with musical in-references. In a pub, the jukebox plays "The Mondays". Later, when Gary's caddie is looking for inspiration, he asks, "What would Strummer do?". The hip club he is writing for will nod, knowing he's talking about Happy Mondays and the Clash. Does Niven really want to write the Great Golf Thriller, or just an article for a late-1980s NME?
Tom Cox is the author of 'Bring Me The Head of Sergio Garcia' (Yellow Jersey)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies