The best way to meet Dr. A. MacKenzie is by surprise in some dim shop on Charing Cross Road, amid airborne dust and the perfume of old bindings and decayed pages. Taking his little volume, Golf Architecture, from the shelf, one can turn the pages languorously and lose oneself in the arcana of "hummocks." "whins." "rushes" and "mole drains." There is poetry in the good doctor's litany of manures: "Fish or meat guano, basic slag, malt dust, sulphate of ammonia, chalk, the refuse from leather, cloth, and shoddy factories, seed crushing mills, seaweed...." There is common sense, too, as in MacKenzie's correction of the notion that worm killers have manurial value: "The green-keeper will tell you that after the application the grass has come up much greener. That is due to the fact that the worms are no longer discolouring it by crawling over it with their slimy bodies."
Don't get to London much? A more practical way to meet Alister MacKenzie—who, if you don't recognize the name, also designed some of the world's great golf courses, including Augusta National and Cypress Point—is by way of a subscription to a book club called The Classics of Golf (65 Commerce Road, Stamford, Conn. 06902).
The idea of the club, put simply, is that noted golf historian and writer Herbert Warren Wind will nose around musty book shops while you're out smacking balls in the sun, and every couple of months he'll send you a reprint of one of his finds for $19.95 plus handling. The series opens with an incontestable classic—Down the Fairway, by Robert T. Jones Jr. and O.B. Keeler—and progresses to volumes quaint (James Balfour's Reminiscences of Golf on St. Andrews Links) and curious (Arnold Haultain's The Mystery of Golf), with stops along the way for landmark instruction books by Ben Hogan, Tommy Armour and Byron Nelson.
The book club began in 1984, and the voices of some of the authors included to date are instantly recognizable:
April 1, 1990
•"You will no doubt recall Keats's poem about stout Cortes staring with eagle eyes at the Pacific while all his men gazed at each other with a wild surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien. Precisely so did Peter Willard and James Todd stare with eagle eyes at the second lake hole, and gaze at each other with wild surmise, silent upon a tee in Manhooset." (P.G. Wodehouse, The Clicking of Cuthbert)
•"We picked up—'I.P.'d' as one said at the time, meaning the ball was 'in pocket'—and began looking for all of the other competitors in backyards along the way toward Colonial. Tiny had quit at a fishpond. Grease Repellent had struck a sundial and lost his ball. Easy Reid had met a fellow and stopped to sell him some insurance. John the Band-Aid had broken his blade putter by throwing it against a chimney. The only two still in contention were Foot and Magoo, whom we found hitting seven-irons out of Bermuda grass lawns over the rose-covered fence and onto Colonial's 1st fairway." (Dan Jenkins, The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate)
Other voices are barely tolerable, such as J.L. Low's in the extremely dense F.G. Tait—A Record, which joins a Scottish golf memoir to a play-by-play of the Boer War, with missed putts and missing limbs getting roughly equal sympathy.
For the most part, the collection is more Masterpiece Theater than Nevada Bob's. The facsimile editions are faithful reproductions, and each volume has a new foreword by Wind and an after-word by the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Alistair Cooke or John Updike. "We've found that reading is first, and golf is second," says series publisher Robert Macdonald. "If you're not a dedicated reader, it's not going to be that appealing to you."
Having thus narrowed the market to that tiny segment of Americans who own both wing chairs and hickory-shafted putters, the founding partners have made a virtue of smallness. Macdonald, a former CBS executive, runs the operation alone from a Manhattan office a few blocks from Wind's cubbyhole office at The New Yorker. ("I'm more of the business person," says Macdonald. "Herb's hopeless at business.")
Orders are handled through an office in Stamford. "We know this is a very small market," says Macdonald, who pegs the Classics subscription list at about 5,000. "The so-called golf nut is not really interested in these books. It takes a much more reflective, thoughtful kind of golfer."
Although chronically behind schedule, Classics of Golf has released 26 titles to date with 36 as the final goal. If Wind and Macdonald have trouble with their remaining choices, they can always refer to the series' selection number 16 for guidance. "A good golf course." MacKenzie writes in Golf Architecture, "is like good music or good anything else; it is not necessarily a course which appeals the first time one plays over it, but one which grows on the player the more frequently he visits it."
So far, most of the titles in the Classics of Golf series meet MacKenzie's test. They deserve repeated visits by golfers who enjoy reading.