Ask a golfer to name his favorite golf book and he'll likely say A Good Walk Spoiled, by John Feinstein. He might also mention The Majors, by John Feinstein. Or maybe Open, by John Feinstein. Or possibly Caddy for Life, by John Feinstein.
A prolific writer, Feinstein offers those rare glimpses into life on the PGA Tour that keep us golf fans enthralled. Like tabloid readers who just need to know who Nick and Jessica are dating now, we want that peek behind the curtain at what's really happening during those tournaments.
Although he spent a good deal of time around the game as a teenager, Feinstein didn't start out as a golf writer. Actually, he started as an athlete himself, recruited by Duke University's swim team. But a broken ankle his freshman year sidelined that dream and led to a job at the school's daily paper.
After graduating in 1977, Feinstein put his newly acquired journalism skills to use for The Washington Post, a paper he continues to write for, covering basketball and tennis. His first two books were on those sports. But golf called him back. "I grew up working at a golf course during the summers, when I was in high school and college," he says. "I loved the game, I loved being around the game, although I wasn't ever any good at it."
Modest, perhaps. Feinstein's handicap has been as low as 7, and even now, six months after shoulder surgery, it's hovering at around 14. "When I'm healthy I'm a decidedly mediocre player," he says.
Maybe he's been hanging around the pros too long.
"When I got into journalism I always wanted to cover golf. Unfortunately at The Washington Post, I wasn't high enough in the pecking order when I first got there to cover very much golf. But eventually, when I was covering tennis, since I was already overseas for Wimbledon, the Post sent me to the British Open on several occasions. I was struck by the contrast, coming from Wimbledon to the British Open, [in] the access. Whereas in tennis you have virtually no access to the players, in golf you have almost total access to the players."
According to Feinstein, golfers are an amiable bunch, ready to help out with an interview when asked. Why? "Exceptions like Tiger aside, most golfers don't become stars right away; they struggle. I'm working on a book about qualifying school right now. You look at the list of players at Q-school this year, guys who've had success and are now back at the Q-school level - it's astonishing! I think because they do get humbled, they see both sides of it; they have a greater appreciation for how fortunate they are when they have success. I'm generalizing here, obviously, but it makes them easier to deal with than athletes in other sports who take success for granted."
The Fifth Major, coming out in the spring of 2007, will tell the stories about that pressure cooker called Q-school. When I spoke to Feinstein by phone, he was on the road in Florida, where the five-day tournament was taking place.
"My basketball background really helped me with a lot of guys," he says. "I remember Curtis Strange saying, first time I introduced myself to him, 'I'll tell you anything you want to know if you'll tell me about Bobby Knight.' I was like, 'Sure, deal, no problem.'"
It's fun to talk with someone who knows all the big players on a first-name basis, especially someone who's not afraid to share his opinions. A little free association was in order.
Tiger Woods: "Brilliant, on and off the golf course. To me, a waste of talent in the sense that his role model should not be Michael Jordan, it should be Arthur Ashe."
Phil Mickelson: "Eddie Haskell. Very charming, very image-conscious, but he's got a lot more edge - and I say that as a compliment - than what he shows to the public most of the time."
Michelle Wie: "I never met her, so it would be hard for me to pass any judgment. But I'm one of those people who says, 'Why does she have to turn pro at 16? Why does she have to play as many pro golf tournaments as Tiger Woods is playing when she's 14 or 15?' I don't see any need for that. For every Tiger Woods, there are 10 Ty Tryons. I always worry about young athletes who are pushed that hard by their parents that early, and I wonder what long-term effect it'll have on them."
The LPGA: A long pause. And then: "Great potential. I think it's at a crossroads right now. Annika Sorenstam, for whatever reason, has not been the superstar that has brought the masses to the game. In terms of her play, there's no reason for that to be the case. Perhaps it'll be one of these young kids that are coming up now. Michelle Wie is the person everyone talks about the most, but there are several other players, Morgan Pressel and others, who I think have the potential to be the kind of stars, and to have the kind of rivalry that we saw with Paula Creamer and Annika a couple weeks ago, to bring more interest to the tour."
His favorite player of the moment? He can't quite pin it down to just one. "The names I would come up with first are people that aren't famous," he says. "I like people like Paul Goydos and Brian Hanniger. I like, in terms of success, Jeff Sluman. Davis Love certainly is somebody everyone's heard of who I like very much. Billy Andrade, Nick Price, guys like that."
His preference in courses runs the same pattern. Among his favorites he lists Pinehurst No. 2, Turnberry Ailsa and ... Fishers Island. "My all-time favorite golf course is a place called Fishers Island, which is off the eastern end of Long Island," he explains. "It's a little tiny place but 17 of the 18 holes have water views. It's Pebble Beach without the publicity. If I had one round to play, that's where I would go."
Golf's becoming a family affair for Feinstein: His 8-year-old daughter, Brigid, just began learning to play, and his son Danny, 11, has been playing for four years already. His wife, Mary, a linguist and teacher, is somehow immune to the golf virus; for a wedding gift, John's brother presented her with a set of golf clubs and 10 lessons. A few lessons in, she asked John if it would bother him if she took some time off from golf. "Of course not," he responded. "How long do you want to take off?" "The rest of my life," she answered.
Oh well. Even the best writers can't convert them all.
January 30, 2006
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