Writing a good sports novel requires an author who can traverse
the delicate path between constructing a book for the rabid fan and
one that appeals to the reader who simply appreciates fine writing.
On occasion they successfully accomplish that task, and books such
as SHOELESS JOE by William Kinsella and THE GREATEST PLAYER WHO
NEVER LIVED by J. Michael Veron are the result. But more often than
not, writers have difficulty maintaining that fine balance. This
doesn't mean that the novels produced are not worthwhile; indeed my
shelves are lined with many sports books that were simply enjoyable
and entertaining reading experiences.
THE BACK NINE by Billy Mott comes a long way towards attaining that
precise balance, though in the end, Mott tells his readers a little
too much about golf and not quite enough about life.
Charlie McLeod is the middle-aged anti-hero searching for the lost
glory of his youth. A quarter of a century ago the young man was a
golfing prodigy, bringing the legendary Oakmont Country Club golf
course (the site of the 2007 U.S. Open) to its knees. We meet
Charlie as he arrives in San Francisco deciding that he can earn
some money toiling as a caddy at an exclusive country club.
Mott is a part-time actor and full-time caddy, and his writing
establishes both his respect for those who tote golf bags and his
knowledge of the work involved. Through his eyes and pen we meet
some veteran caddies and country club golfers, all of whom
perfectly fit the stereotype of the social milieu they
We learn about Charlie and the events that shaped his life, but
Mott tells readers very little about what life has done to the
enigmatic main character. Charlie's father made him a golfer and a
freak injury destroyed his career before it really began, but
that's about all the pedigree we learn. You can't appreciate what a
man accomplishes unless you know a bit more about the adversity
that shapes his life. That history is missing from THE BACK
A sports novel requires as its bete noir, the ultimate
contest, the climatic battle between teams or individuals that
capture for readers the struggle that is life. Here, the contest is
an 18-hole golf match between Charlie and the legendary Larry
Siegel, a golf hustler who certainly would have been portrayed by
the late Jackie Gleason in the movie version of this book. Before
the match, however, Charlie must rekindle his skill and love
for golf, and find some romance and tragedy to hone his character
for the novel's denouement.
The match itself is spectacularly chronicled. Mott shows his love
of golf and appreciation of what the game entails. Readers, even
non-golfers, will appreciate the drama of the titanic struggle
between golfers of great skill. It is eerily reminiscent of the
battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 British
Open Championship in Turnberry, Scotland.
Golf fans will appreciate and hopefully understand many of Mott's
subliminal historical golf references. But non-golfers also will
appreciate a well-written and endearing novel that mixes elements
of Rocky, Hoosiers and Field of Dreams.
I am neither an entertainment authority nor a gambler, but I am
willing to place a small wager that we will see THE BACK NINE at a
movie theater near us in very short order.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 22, 2010
The Back Nine