By Thane Peterson I'm not much of a golfer. In fact, most days I'm the worst sort of short-hitting, ball-lost-in-the-woods, four-putting bumbler you'll find on the links. But I'd be even worse if it weren't for Harvey Penick's golf classic, the Little Red Book.
Every time I play, I spend half an hour or so beforehand thumbing through this slim volume of gentle advice on proper grip, club placement, etc. It doesn't turn many triple bogeys into doubles, but it's reassuring to at least have some idea of how golf is supposed to be played.
Like a lot of duffers, though, I'm studying a new guide this spring: Tiger Woods's How I Play Golf (Warner Books, $34.95), a coffee-table-style book written in collaboration with the editors of Golf Digest. It came out late last year, with an initial printing of 1.5 million copies and a lot of hype. It could have been one of those disappointing "as told to" tomes that capitalize on a celebrity's name without really delivering the goods. (Golf Digest has excerpts from the book on its Web site.)
MORE THAN HYPE. Woods doesn't seem to do anything shoddily, however, and this is actually a very practical how-to guide for the weekend golfer. Better books on specific aspects of the game may exist, but for average players who want to brush up on the basics or address a specific problem in their play, this is an excellent overview.
How I Play Golf isn't at all like the Penick offering -- which to date is the best-selling golf book ever by a long shot. Penick, who died in 1995 at the age of 90, was a legendary coach and club pro in Austin, Tex. He was known for having helped pros like Tom Kite and Betsy Rawls work through problems with their swings. Already in his late 80s when the book came out in 1992, Penick was an affable, kindly man who had for years kept a little handwritten notebook of tips and observations.
When first told that a publisher had agreed to publish his jottings, edited and shaped into a book by Austin writer Bud Shrake, for a $50,000 advance, the unworldly Penick is said to have responded: "Gee, I don't know if I can come up with that much." Reflecting its author, the Little Red Book is straightforward and unpretentious. It doesn't even have any illustrations.
STAR ALLURE. Woods, as we all know, is something else entirely -- not only the greatest golfer who ever lived but also one of the hardest working. Only 26 years old, he's a driven perfectionist who was already the game's dominant player in 1998 when, in an effort to become even better, he set about overhauling his swing with the help of his coach, Butch Harmon. TV ratings soar when he's in a tournament, and he's said to get a $2 million fee just for showing up at overseas tournaments, regardless of how he plays.
If you're hoping for some tip that will transform your game, Woods's book will disappoint. His advice contains nothing revolutionary. He starts with a discussion of putting and works back from the green to the tee. Anyone who has had golf lessons probably has heard a lot of his suggestions before. But for a duffer, it's like gaining entry to a world you've mainly seen on TV and never really understood.
Woods says one of the keys to creating a sense of continuity in your game is to develop an unvarying pre-shot routine. Here's the elaborate soft-shoe he goes through before every putt: Study the shot from behind the ball, walk to the hole to get a side view, examine the area around the hole, walk back and crouch behind the ball for another look, take two practice strokes, move behind the ball, take two more looks at the line, and (finally) putt.
SOUNDS EASY ENOUGH. I've seen him do this on TV, but I never realized that he did exactly the same thing every time. He goes through a somewhat different but equally unvarying routine before drives and other types of shots.
A lot of his tips seem fairly easy to apply. An advantage of his book is that it has tons of photos of Woods actually doing the things he recommends. For instance, I've been studying his putting posture so I can get my eyes directly over the ball and on parallel with the trajectory of the shot. It works great -- at least on my living-room carpet.
It's also fascinating to learn that much of the time Woods doesn't aim his approach shots directly at the pin. Rather, he factors in the possibility that the shot won't go exactly where he aims it. (I thought all of his shots went where he aimed them.)
TIGER'S BLOOPERS. Indeed, one of the reassuring things about the book is Woods's frankness about his own muffs and moments of anxiety. He even recalls shooting a nine on a par-four hole back in 1997. Of course, that was on a particularly tough hole during a driving rainstorm, but still, it's nice to know that even Tiger Woods falls apart every once in a while.
It's also reassuring to know that one of the main keys to his success is something we can all do: practice. For instance, back when Woods was overhauling his swing, he would sometimes repeat one movement for 30 minutes. He writes: "I would get so tired it felt like my arms were going to fall off."
Woods actually seems sincere when he talks about his game as still being a work in progress. At one point he says: "My goal of becoming a more consistent ball striker is finally within reach." Yeah, right.
BIG-SHOT DREAMS. A fair number of the techniques he recommends are way out of reach of an average duffer. I don't think I'll be taking his advice on how to shoot out of shallow water anytime soon, for instance. It's not that I don't hit into every stream and pond in the same county as the course I'm playing. It's just that taking a penalty seems more prudent than risking four or five extra strokes trying to emulate him.
Woods also gets a little beyond me when he describes how to hit a draw shot like the one he aced in the 2001 Masters tournament. It seems to involve making the ball take a sharp left turn about 230 yards out from the tee, which I've been known to do -- but not 230 yards out and not on purpose.
In the end, dreaming of playing like Tiger Woods is a little like dreaming of winning the Indy 500 in your family sedan. He's a prodigy who first reached for a golf club as a toddler and has been playing intensely all his life. This book is about what works best for him. And some of those strategies -- like the reverse-overlap grip he favors -- may not work for everyone. But, hey, if you're looking for a role model, the greatest golfer of all time isn't a bad one to choose. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online