Striking an occasionally accurate golf shot is arduous enough, not to mention the torment of the more frequent foozled hits. But trouble can also lurk off the course -- where one must face golf's critics and defend the ancient and royal game against foul assaults.

An environmental group -- the Global Anti-Golf Movement (GAG'M) -- warns that pollution from golf courses "leads to health problems for local communities, populations downstream and even golfers." In 1994 the Wall Street Journal ran a story, "Golf Courses Are Denounced as Health Hazards." Piling on, Tom Hayden, the California politician and senior league baseball player, says golf courses are the last stop before the graveyard: "If you stop playing baseball, hardball, then it's all downhill. Next comes softball, then comes bowling, then comes golf, then comes death. It's a straight line."

One defense against these carpers is to seek refuge in the literature of golf. This summer, a diverse quartet of writers offers a small treasure of prose that, imagined as a tee shot on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, would be a 300-yard draw down the left side of the oceanside fairway and an easy spoon to the green.

M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of The Road Less Traveled and a dozen other spiritual works, is a 90s-shooter who lacks the game and muscle to get home in two on Pebble's par-5 No. 18. No matter. While flubbing his way to the green and accepting golf as the "most convoluted, frustrating, and challenging sport on the face of the earth," he embraces the experience as "a spiritual discipline."

In Golf and the Spirit: Lessons for the Journey (Harmony, $25), Peck creates 18 chapters -- 18 holes -- that form his imaginary Exotica Golf and Tennis Club. Peck's course -- par 72, 6,976 yards from the back tees -- is a metaphor for life. In one chapter, "The Human Condition," playing golf "is almost guaranteed to bring to the surface those flaws in a person's character that otherwise might not be visible." In "Civility," Peck analyzes the awesome terror of the 20-inch putt. He prefers "the custom of gimmes," confessing "that I miss more short putts than any other human being I know."

Gimmes are therapeutic, counsels the doctor: "I see no harm -- not to anyone else and not to their own souls -- for golfers to bend the rules a bit to minimize the agony slightly, as long as it is consensual. I doubt that God does, either." Peck's writing skills exceed his golfing ones. His spiritual side comes through, although at times he sounds like Norman Vincent Peale on "The Power of Positive Duffing." Mostly, though, he offers substance. If Thomas Merton had had a golf course at his Trappist monastery, and his abbot let him play, Golf and the Spirit would have been the book he wrote.

The Comeback Trail

In Laura Baugh's golfing life, no gimmes are allowed. A touring pro since 1973, she was chosen Rookie of the Year and known as "golf's golden girl." She won the 1971 U.S. Amateur at 16 and declined a golf scholarship at Stanford to turn pro. Out of the Rough (Rutledge Hill, $22.95) is an account of her battle with alcoholism. Baugh tells her story with rare candor. She became a before-breakfast drinker in the morning and a passing-out drunk in the evening. On the women's tour, she spent as much time holding a glass as a putter.

"Looking back," she writes, "I think it's almost surreal that someone who had so much and who seemed so together could fall so spectacularly. . . . Now that I am living a life of recovery, I can say without hesitation that what happened to me was a blessing from God. I have been given the gift of a second chance."

After a beneficial stay at the Betty Ford clinic in 1996, Baugh began her comeback as a recovering alcoholic. In 1997, she had her seventh child, followed by her third divorce. As inspiring as Out of the Rough may be on one level, Baugh's recovery is too recent and her professional career too unsettled -- she is back on tour but making little money -- for her to be offering a life story. Another 10 or 20 years are needed to add some necessary heft.

Course Humor

No such wait is needed for Bill Murray's wry and often comic autobiographical tale of his golfing journey from the caddy yard of the Evanston (Ill.) Community Golf Course (par 62) to the 19th hole -- and 20th and 21st -- at Pebble Beach, Augusta National and other millionaires' playgrounds. In Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf (with George Peper, Doubleday, $19.95), Murray plays the funny, daffy guy with all the verve he gives to that role in his movies. If he's had a staid moment in his golfing life, it isn't told here.

Murray's fairway pals these days include the game's stars, with whom he tees it up in celebrity pro-ams. But his gentle Irish-Catholic heart remains tied to the caddying days of his youth. "As a caddy," he recalls, "you learned how to smoke, curse, play cards. But more importantly, when not to. I don't know many caddies that turned out bad."

Back in Murray's Jesuit high school days in Illinois, they called him "the man least likely to succeed." They were right about his golfing but stone wrong about his writing.

Great Scots

In the field of witty golf fiction -- what other kind need exist? -- P.G. Wodehouse has nearly all the fairway to himself. Some space should be saved though, for Robert Marshall, a Scot (1863-1910) who attended the university at St. Andrews, where he read books, and played the hallowed golf course, where he read greens. The Haunted Major (Ecco, $23), originally published in 1902, is a first-person novel about Major John Williams Wentworth Gore, who seeks the hand in marriage of the American widow Katherine Clavering Gunter, "an enthusiastic golfer" worth a cool 2,000,000 pounds sterling.

Two problems arise. The major, a polo ace and cricketer, disdains golf, and Jim Lindsay, "the finest golfer living," is also out to win the fair Katherine. What to do? A duel, of course -- not of pistols, but a 36-hole golf match. And now the third problem. The major has never touched a mashie, niblick or other golf stick. How all this turns out -- the major is 16 down after the first 18, but don't place your bets just yet -- is recounted in the kind of urbane, wry prose that will leave readers comparing Marshall to Wodehouse, the sidesplitter himself. At 192 small pages and large type, The Haunted Major requires a reading time of about three hours -- the equal of a rained-out 18, and every minute a pleasure.

Now, about those grouchy GAG'Ms and cranky Tom Hayden, fretting, for different reasons about the unhealthiness of golf: They have 18 holes in their heads. Not only do environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society regularly honor golf-course designers for their sensitivity to nature, but where do healthy, big-league baseball players go on their days off? To the nearest first tee. And it's a fair guess they're reading Scott Peck, Laura Baugh, Bill Murray and Robert Marshall on golf, not George Will on baseball.

Colman McCarthy, author of "Pleasures of the Game: A Theory Free Guide to Golf," averaged 69.5 in college competition in his junior year.

Michael Dirda is on vacation.