It is said that the only golf stories a player likes to hear are the ones he tells about his own game. But whether you aim to wear the green jacket one day or simply yearn to putt into the clown's mouth, George Peper's charming history of the game, The Story of Golf , is an exception to that rule.
Peper, the editor in chief of the sport's bible, Golf Magazine, is equal parts historian and cheerleader (albeit one who roots with golf's understated whisper). He traces the game from its origins it may have begun in China during the 14th-century Ming Dynasty, in England at roughly the same time, or in 13th-century Holland, where a game called colf possessed Dutchmen, but that is lost to history like a ball in deep rough. The spiritual home of golf, as just about anyone who has ever picked up a club knows, is St. Andrews in Scotland, where the rules of the game were written in 1744 and where the earliest groundskeepers were the sheep who trimmed the grass as they grazed.
From the links of Scotland, Peper introduces us to all the great characters of the game, such as Old Tom Morris, the first pro at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, who won four of the first eight British Opens, and his son, Young Tom, golf's first superstar, who died "of a broken heart" at 24 after the death of his wife and child. There are, of course, the names one would expect to find in any golf history, like Bobby Jones, who, after winning 13 national titles in eight years, retired at 28 and went on to become America's premier golf-course architect; his masterpiece is the course at Augusta National where the Masters is played. We tee off with Arnold Palmer, whose passionate play was ideal for ushering in the new era of television golf. And Peper makes the case for why Jack Nicklaus (who wrote the book's introduction) is the player of the century. Even Bobby Jones himself wouldn't argue: "He plays a game," Jones once said famously of Nicklaus, "with which I am not familiar."
But what makes The Story of Golf so enjoyable are the smaller stories -- like that of the invention of the wooden tee in 1899. It was patented by George F. Grant, who was one of the first African-American golfers and also one of the first African-American dentists, and who had his tees created for him because he loathed getting his hands dirty as he began each hole. And amid the legendary tournament anecdotes (illustrated with period photographs and images of famous golf holes throughout), Peper offers some lesser-known gems. The famed golf architect Robert Trent Jones, after redesigning the course at Baltusrol for the U.S. Open, was accused by a club member of creating a hole that was too difficult. To answer the charge, he agreed to play it himself with his critic, the club professional, and the chairman of the Open. The other three men hit their tee shots onto the green, and finally Jones stepped up with his five-iron and aced it. "Gentlemen," he said, "I think the hole is eminently fair."
For a golfer looking to pick up a few tips, there is not much advice to be found in The Story of Golf , but one might contemplate this bit of wisdom from Babe Zaharias, the greatest female athlete of the 20th century and arguably the best woman golfer of all time. Considering her remarkable record 31 tournament wins, including three U.S. Opens every weekend hacker would do well to channel their inner Babe: "I just hitch up my girdle and rip it."
Michael Solomon is the Deputy Editor of Mirabella magazine.