"Whenever you see me with a furrowed brow,"P.G. Wodehouse wrote, "you can be sure that what is on my mind is the thought that if only I had taken up golf earlier and devoted my whole time to it instead of fooling about writing stories and things, I might have got my handicap down to under eighteen." Jeeves fans will applaud Wodehouse for sacrificing his handicap on the altar of literature. Don't feel too bad for the old fellow; he found ample opportunity to indulge his sporting passion while keeping up his literary output.
To prove it we have Fore! The Best of Wodehouse on Golf, edited by D.R. Benson (Houghton Mifflin, $13), an orgy of hijinks on the links and in the clubhouse. There the Old Member -- Wodehouse's equivalent of Conrad's Marlow or, as editor Benson would have it, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner -- dispenses advice on the game of golf and the game of love. In "Chester Forgets Himself," the O.M. recalls the romantic travails of one Chester Meredith, "one of the nicest young fellows of my acquaintance. . . . I had watched him with a fatherly eye through all the more important crises of a young man's life. It was I who taught him to drive, and when he had all that trouble in his twenty-first year with shanking his short approaches, it was to me that he came for sympathy and advice. It was an odd coincidence, therefore, that I should have been present when he fell in love."
The object of Chester's affection is Felicia Blakeney, scion of a brainy family who longs only for a "man who was simple and straightforward and earthy and did not know whether Artbashiekeff was a suburb of Moscow or a new kind of Russian drink." To Chester's delight, she's a force on the course, "the only woman I ever met who didn't overswing. Just a nice, crisp, snappy, half-slosh, with a good full follow-through . . . You know how women waggle as a rule, fiddling about for a minute and a half like kittens playing with a ball of wool. Well, she just makes one firm pass with the club and then bing! There is none like her, none."
Though Felicia deigns to tee off with him, Chester makes a nearly fatal mistake: He reins in his natural impulse to cuss a blue streak whenever he flubs a shot. "All her life she had treated golf with a proper reverence and awe, and in Chester's attitude toward the game she seemed to detect a horrible shallowness. The fact is, Chester, in his efforts to keep himself from using strong language, had found a sort of relief in a girlish giggle, and it made her shudder every time she heard it."
Will Chester win Felicia's hand(icap)? Will the inept quartet known as the Wrecking Crew -- execrable players all, "four retired business men who had taken up the noble game late in life because their doctors had ordered them air and exercise. Every club, I suppose, has a cross of this kind to bear" -- bungle his attempt to beat the club record? Only the Old Member knows for sure -- and he'll be more than happy to tell you all about it.
Like Felicia Blakeney, Billie Jean King could never be accused of "waggling" when she swings, though she wields a tennis racket rather than a sand wedge. In The Right Set: A Tennis Anthology, edited by Caryl Phillips (Vintage, $14), King recalls her much-hyped match with "Male Chauvinist Pig" Bobby Riggs: "How often in this world can you suddenly have something which is altogether original and yet wonderfully classic? And what could be more classic than the battle of the sexes? The only problem for me is that I think everybody else in the world -- Bobby included -- had more fun with that match than I did. Men's tennis would not suffer if Bobby lost, so he had nothing to lose." Her strategy for the match (which she won handily)? "I knew Bobby felt that women were poor players at the net . . . So, to me, it would be psychologically telling if Riggs suddenly realized that this woman could volley. And I did, too. Five of the first six times he tried to pass me with his backhand, I volleyed away winners. He had me down a service break at 3-2, but by then I knew I could take the net at will, and when I broke right back, that pretty much told the tale."
With sportswriting by (among others) James Thurber, Michael Mewshaw, Martha Sherrill, Martin Amis and the players themselves, The Right Set serves up the history of tennis, including the first Wimbledon (1877) and the celebrated 1926 match between American Helen Wills and Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen -- "one of the most remarkable sporting events of the century," Phillips writes, equivalent to "the 1974 Ali-Foreman `Rumble in the Jungle.' " Other match points: the influence of big money on the game; race and nationality on the court; and how tradition (netiquette) still rules, despite the racket-throwing tantrums of John McEnroe and the struttings of Andre Agassi (who has toned it down lately). "There is a `demand' for `personalities,' " Amis writes, "because that's the kind of age we're living in. Laver, Rosewall, Ashe: these were dynamic and exemplary figures; they didn't need `personality' because they had character . . . All great tennis players are vivid, if great tennis is what you're interested in . . . These players demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to have, or to contain, a personality -- without being an [expletive]."
Even for an amateur, tennis can become an obsession -- or a lifeline. In The Tennis Partner (HarperCollins, $14), Abraham Verghese, a doctor and devoted amateur player, finds himself on staff at the county hospital in El Paxo, Texas; soon to be divorced, he takes solace in batting a ball around with David Smith, a medical student and recovering addict with "a pretty game, smooth and flowing, his racket in preparation early, his body always positioned sideways to the ball at the moment of impact, his balance perfect. He stepped into his shots, the way one was supposed to do. . . . It was an old-style game, the kind Mr. Swaminathan taught in Ethiopia [where Verghese, the son of expat Indian teachers, learned to play]." There's a salvation of sorts in their matches -- though this set, for Smith at least, will not end well.
Sports keeps some people together; others bring something new of their own to the game. One classic study of character in action, John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are: A Profile of Bill Bradley at Princeton (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12), has been reissued in time for the presidential campaign ahead. The book, McPhee's first, takes its title from Bradley's famed over-the-shoulder shot, "which had no actual name. He tossed it, without looking, over his head and into the basket. There was no need to look, he explained, because `you develop a sense of where you are.' "
Since its publication in 1965, the book has been twice updated with photos and commentary by McPhee that reflects Bradley's post-court career. The focus, however, stays trained on his spectacular performance on Princeton's basketball team in the early to mid-'60s. How did this rich kid from Crystal City, Mo., become "the most graceful and classical basketball player who had ever been near Princeton, to say the very least"? Natural talent, of course, but there was more at work. McPhee captures the 6' 5" Bradley in action: "Every motion developed in its simplest form. Every motion repeated itself precisely when he used it again. He was remarkably fast, but he ran easily. His passes were so good that they were difficult to follow. . . . His play was integral. There was nothing missing. He not only worked hard on defense, for example, he worked hard on defense when the other team was hopelessly beaten. He did all kinds of things he didn't have to do simply because those were the dimensions of the game."
The kid was so good that the bigtime teams courted him; to the Knicks' dismay he first opted for a Rhodes scholarship. "The most interesting thing about Bill Bradley," McPhee observes, "was not just that he was a great basketball player, but that he succeeded so amply in other things . . . and, in the end, put basketball aside because he had something better to do" -- like making wastebasket shots in the Oval Office.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.