Bob Cullen is a fine writer. When he turns his attention to golf, his favorite game, his readers are all the better for it.
Cullen’s newest offering, Why Golf?, is his first solo try at golf writing. He was already well known to the sport because of his remarkably successful, four-book collaboration with Bob Rotella, beginning with Golf is Not a Game of Perfect.
In Why Golf? Cullen searches for explanations for golf’s appeal to its millions of players. The central theme of the book derived from his work with Rotella, when he read Arnold Haultain’s 1908 classic, The Mystery of Golf. Haultain’s work, still in print, also tried to describe why this frequently frustrating sport attracted so many avid players. Short quotes from Haultain start each chapter of Cullen’s new book, and are intriguing comments on the game in and of themselves.
Cullen drew upon many different resources for his own journey. Few writers would have the temerity to blend Plato and Punkin’ Chunkin’. Fewer still would be able to carry it off with his comfortable prose style.
Punkin’ Chunkin’, for those not from where I live (Sussex County, Delaware), or the farm country of Illinois and a few other spots in the United States, is a two-day celebration in the fall. The centerpiece of the festival involves the use of giant homemade compressed air cannons that shoot pumpkins as far as possible. Some go well past a half-mile.
Cullen saw how the crowds at Punkin’ Chunkin’ stood in awe of the pumpkins arcing across the sky. He immediately recognized the parallels between a 300-yard drive and squash abuse.
As for Plato, Cullen explains the Greek philosopher’s analogy of the shadows on the cave wall, relating to the search for the ideal. Cullen argues that golf appeals to those seeking contact with the notion of perfect control, grace, and power. This leads to intense fan interest in golfers such as Tiger Woods, who gives hints of the ideal in his amazing performances.
Cullen worked up the nerve to ask Woods directly about this notion during a press conference. He did not receive an ideal answer.
Cullen also touches upon several other possibilities. He learns about psychological studies of human motivation. He reviews anthropological evidence to explain the appeal of the golf course landscape. He takes lessons from famous golf teachers such as Paul Runyan and Bob Toski.
“What I Learned From Bob Rotella” gives the readers a backstage pass to the collaborative process that led to the popular golf book series. It also shows Rotella’s remarkable personality and drive to help others who truly desire to improve their performance. Cullen describes the allure of a game that fully engages the mind and the body, and how Rotella helps his clients achieve that integration.
Cullen also interviews Jack Fleck, winner of the 1955 U.S. Open, at his little public course in Arkansas. Fleck’s moment of greatness is compared to Ken Venturi, with whom Cullen discusses his famous 36-hole win at the 1964 U.S. Open. Both gentlemen give interesting insights into the minds of very good golfers when facing the peak of competition.
I also enjoyed Cullen’s sessions with Tom Doak, the golf architect. They met while Doak worked on a new course in the Norfolk region in Virginia. Cullen describes how the golf course design adds to the blend of variety, challenge, and accomplishment that golfers enjoy.
Two chapters should be read in tandem. “Why Ayatollahs Don’t Love Golf” recounts Cullen’s experience of playing golf on an increasingly decrepit course near Tehran. “My Home Course” is the story of a round of golf with Scottish ministers at a tiny course in Cullen, Scotland. Cullen tries to determine why the game developed and flourished in Scotland, and why it will likely never have more than modest appeal in Iran. The cultural distinctions and suggested explanations are fascinating.
“The Fellowship of the Links” describes Cullen’s annual golf trip to Florida with his buddies. It reminded me of the “Grown Men on Spring Break” chapter in David Owen’s My Usual Game.
David Oakley is not well known, but the story of his stint on the PGA Senior Tour is the central core of the “Mulligan Boys” chapter. Cullen argues that golf writers who denigrate the skill levels shown on the Senior Tour are missing the point.
Cullen finishes with “Twilight Golf,” in which he takes his children along for a few holes in the final hours of a late spring day. His son and daughter’s contact with the possibilities of accomplishment shows yet another basis for the game’s charms.
Why Golf? is a worthy successor to Haultain’s Mystery of Golf. The essence of golf’s appeal cannot be found in any one explanation. Cullen gives his readers a well-written, comprehensive suggestion of all the likely reasons so many are addicted to the sport.
Review date: June 25, 2000