Book review: A Son of the Game

A town founded as a sanctuary for tuberculosis sufferers now serves as a haven for golfers facing a midlife crisis.

Welcome to Pinehurst, N.C., created in 1895 by an undercapitalized visionary, James Tufts, and built to look like a small New England town. Tufts didn’t play golf, but he had enough sense to find someone who knew the game well: recent Scottish émigré Donald Ross. More than a century later, the town is the American counterpart to St. Andrews as a spiritual home to the game.

As told by veteran golf writer James Dodson, Pinehurst and the adjoining town of Southern Pines work because of their small-town neighborliness, with golf serving as the language and practice of everyday existence. Everyone in town, it seems, is a golf pilgrim. Tom Stewart, who operates a museum-like golf shop in town, is a former PGA club professional who played the Asian Tour, spent three weeks with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress, and speaks in epigrams about golf and life. “A good golf buddy,” he says, “is nature’s compensation for being unable to pick your relatives.”

Dodson makes his own early-50s malaise the basis of this rambling, conversational narrative. It’s less a plot line than a series of musings about his life as writer-in-residence with a highly regarded community newspaper, The Pilot (circ. 25,000). Dodson’s status is no fall from grace; it’s a voluntary excursion down the back roads of a region he has known since his childhood. After decades of writing for major dailies and magazines, he now has the time to relax with his family and to share the game with his teenage son, Jack.

This is a very Southern set of stories, with the emphasis on people. No tale comes off sadder or more disappointing than Harvie Ward’s, whose early promise as an amateur golfer got ambushed by bitterness and alcohol. And yet in later life, before his death in 2004, Ward returned to Pinehurst and redeemed himself, if only partially.

Dodson’s vision of golf and of small-town life is entirely mythic and traditional. He has never met a sentence that couldn’t be made more complicated with a subordinate clause or two. A close reader of the text might wonder whether the game can sustain itself on the basis of rocking-chair bonhomie. Maybe it can’t. But Dodson has tried hard to make the case.

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