Travelin' Joe Passov's top 10 holiday gift books of 2009

Planet Golf
Abrams Books
Planet Golf USA.

My favorite golf books revolve around courses and history. If your passion runs along the same lines and you're looking to give — or receive — a last-minute Christmas gift, here are the Top 10 golf books I've come across in the past 12 months.

1. Planet Golf USA: The Definitive Reference to Great Golf Courses in America; Author: Darius Oliver; Publisher: Abrams
If you consider yourself a true course connoisseur, one who devours anything written on the subject of golf course architecture, welcome to your Christmas feast. If you simply want a gift book full of pretty pictures, here's your answer as well. PLANET GOLF USA works perfectly on every level. One of golf design's most astute critics, Australian Darius Oliver, has carved out a superb sequel to his original compendium of the world's best courses. His follow-up, focusing solely on U.S. courses, isn't the revelatory surprise that characterized his first effort, but it's every bit as worthy, both as a reference work and as a photographic journey to America's greatest private and public layouts. What separates-and elevates-this book from other coffee table tomes is the author's insights and candor. Oliver doesn't pull punches, even tweaking the Top 100s where he sees fit, including our own at GOLF Magazine. Agree or disagree, you'll find yourself totally engaged.

2. Sports Illustrated's The Golf Book; Author: The Editors of Sports Illustrated; Publisher: Sports Illustrated Books
OK, so I'm a little biased, since Sports Illustrated is our sister publication and they share our web site. That said, for 55 years, SI has stood for the finest in sports journalism, both words and pictures, and THE GOLF BOOK illuminates those virtues beautifully. The tournament coverage, both ancient and modern, vividly brings to life the events that meant something to us all, but my favorites are the quirky images, such as a beaming Richard Nixon holding up his hole-in-one ball at Bel-Air, or the amazing shot of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara locked in a putting duel soon after they claimed Cuba for themselves. It's great fun-and great memories-from start to finish.

3. Fifty More Places to Play Golf Before You Die; Author: Chris Santella; Publisher: Stewart, Tabori & Chang
OK, I'm a little biased here as well, since I'm one of the contributors. Just the same, I wouldn't have contributed to this sequel if I hadn't found Chris Santella's original book so enjoyable. The beauty lies in the format: Santella taps into 50 well-traveled golf insiders and asks them to identify the one course you must play before your travels are through — and why you need to play it. He then interweaves the anecdote-laced narratives with interesting course facts that he's gleaned through his research. The result is 50 punchy, compelling course stories. Courses range from munis in the U.S. to resort spreads in China and Uruguay, with sharp photography to match. Most of the courses are public-access, but the author let me gush about Cypress Point, my favorite course anywhere. That's a tough one to get onto. Bob Hope probably put it best. "One year they had a big membership drive at Cypress. They drove out 40 members." Play it once if you can before your days are done.

4. Freddie & Me: Life Lessons from Freddie Bennett, Augusta National's Legendary Caddy Master; Author: Tripp Bowden; Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
It's not easy digging up fresh insights on one of the most famous, yet secretive clubs on earth, Augusta National. Freddie & Me does so in admirable fashion. This coming-of-age tale of the first full-time white caddie in the club's history succeeds on many levels. It's replete with always entertaining caddie yarns. It's also a classic tale of a young man and his street-wise mentor. I can pretty much see Morgan Freeman playing caddiemaster Freddie Bennett. Yet, ultimately, it's a rare look at the inner workings of America's most storied golf club, from Masters Week to regular days, as remembered by a likable young guy who soaked it all in.

5. The USA Today Golfers Encyclopedia; Authors: Sal Johnson and Dave Seanor; Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Let's start by saying this encyclopedia won't win any beauty awards. Its 959 pages look and read like a phone book. With that in mind, if you're a golf history buff, you will love each and every one of the fascinating numbers that dwell within. Golf's top stat man, Sal Johnson, teamed with former Golfweek editor Dave Seanor to create a labor-intensive, figure-filled book that dishes out desert-dry facts that somehow tell remarkable stories. The encyclopedia lists every player who competed in 25 or more PGA Tour events, starting in 1958, through 2008. Displayed are his season-by-season totals, from wins to top-5s, top-10s, top-25s, cuts made, best finishes and prize money, among others. With this book, it's pretty easy to go back and compare Tiger and Phil to Arnie and Jack. It's fun to see the obscure names from yesteryear, such as Rex Caldwell, who had a win and three consecutive seconds in 1983, only to fade away by 1990.

The authors devote the final third of the book to a week-by-week, Top-10 results summary of every tournament played for 50 years, in chronological order. That's how I figured out that the Big Three (Palmer, Player, Nicklaus) only finished 1-2-3 three times: Phoenix in 1963 (Palmer, Player, Nicklaus), Whitemarsh/Philadelphia in 1964 (Nicklaus, Player, Palmer) and the Masters in 1965 (Nicklaus, Player, Palmer). For those who love history and number-crunching, this encyclopedia is indispensible.

Want a second opinion? Check out Jeff Silverman's Top 10 Golf Books of the Year

6. Great Golf Down Under; Author: Gary Lisbon; Publisher: Gary Lisbon
If you're into spectacular photos of faraway courses, this aptly named book will resonate. Without question, the subtitle, "Breathtaking images from the best of Australian and New Zealand golf," sums up the book's essence. Author, publisher and photographer Gary Lisbon has been documenting the region's best courses for more than 10 years, many of which Americans have finally gained the chance to see, thanks to telecasts on the Golf Channel. To his credit, Lisbon provides near-equal treatment to hidden jewels such as Newcastle Golf Club and Barnbougle Dunes, in addition to showcasing such legendary layouts as Kingston Heath and Cape Kidnappers, though I do feel readers would have connected more with the holes depicted if there had been even a modicum of accompanying text. Still, with Royal Melbourne playing host to the next Presidents Cup, Great Golf Down Under becomes even more relevant.

7. Golf's Dream 18s; Author: David Barrett; Publisher: Abrams
As a daydream exercise and good-looking holiday gift, Golf's Dream 18s fulfills its mission. Its author, David Barrett is well-suited to the task and the photography, primarily the work of L.C. (Larry) Lambrecht, Russell Kirk and a host of other top names, ensures that the scenic journey is superb. Its subtitle, "Fantasy courses comprised of over 300 holes from around the world" illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. On the one hand, if you're a fan of great golf holes, they're here — jabbed into chapters such as "Hard Holes," "Mountain Holes," "Historic Holes," and "Holes Anyone Can Play." On the other hand, there was really no compelling reason to group these holes by 18s. They're just great holes, period.

8. The Downhill Lie; Author: Carl Hiaasen; Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
OK, this one was a 2008 release, but I didn't read it until 2009. And in this a year when we can really use some good laughs, The Downhill Lie delivers a belly full. I read this on an airplane ride and nearly required oxygen because I was out of breath from cracking up.

Subtitled, "A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport," The Downhill Lie details the author's seemingly misguided reconnection with the sport of his childhood after 32 years away. His day-to-day travails are among the funniest accounts about how we struggle with golf that I've ever read. Take Hiaasen's first line in the Preface: "There are so many people to blame for this book, that it's hard to know where to begin." Over time, he touts then skewers everything from lessons to pendants to drivers. It's all hysterical. The Florida-based Hiaasen, whose best-selling novels include Skinny Dip, Lucky You and Sick Puppy, isn't going to appeal to genteel tastes. But if you love golf and you love the absurd, there's never been a better read.

9. A Son of the Game; Author: James Dodson; Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Sitting down with a James Dodson golf book is like slipping on your old pair of slippers next to a cozy hearth. If you're fond of that kind of comfort, you'll easily warm to this vibrant, poignant, humor-filled tale that explores such universal themes as going home again and connecting with your kids. If you aren't a fan of the old soft shoes, you'll likely want to head elsewhere. Dodson, who penned perhaps the greatest golf/family/sentimentality story of all in Final Rounds can definitely pour on the syrup, but this book isn't drenched with it — and it asks questions and raises issues that any reader can relate to. A bonus for golf travel fans are his descriptions of the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area, practically the holy land of U.S. golf.

10. A Course Called Ireland; Author: Tom Coyne; Publisher: Penguin/Gotham
Imagine playing every great seaside course in Ireland, plus all of the hidden gems — not bad duty. Now envision doing it on foot — both on-course and off-. Now that's wild — and it's the premise for Tom Coyne's remarkable adventure story. Subtitled, "A Long Walk in Search of a Country, a Pint, and the Next Tee," A Course Called Ireland is blessed with vivid travel writing of the first order, where all of your senses are stimulated. Coyne covers the courses well enough, but it's the characters, roads, meals and life lessons that truly pop. I will say that the rambling descriptions can overwhelm at times, so it's best to take this one in small doses, but eventually, take it all in. It's worth the journey.

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