A Novel of Heaven and Earth

By Roland Merullo

Algonquin. 277 pp. $23.95

After a near-death moment when struck by lightning during a golf tournament, Lee Trevino said he'd never again let it happen. Next time he heard thunder, he would run up a high hill and hold a one iron over his head because "even God can't hit a one iron." Turns out He can. Hank, who played four seasons on the PGA tour with middling results but then took refuge as a country club teaching pro, has seen the Almighty in action. With 8,187 courses in heaven, including Eden Hills and Nirvana Meadows, when God needs a break from lording it over the universe, He golfs.

The tale of Hank the earthly pro and God the eternal swinger is engagingly and wittily told by Roland Merullo. Theologians might wince at the mildly blasphemous notion that God, presumably the Perfect One, doesn't shoot 18 holes-in-one. They may be troubled by the trick question: If God can do anything, can He make a golf course so hard that He can't break 100 on it? But for the rest of us whose veins aren't clotted with overly deep thoughts, especially when it comes to whacking golf balls, Merullo offers a plot that holds together like a string of birdies on the back nine. Amid the laughs and playful banter, Golfing With God is a serious story of self-examination and growth, the hardest games of all.

In the promised land, word has spread that one of the recent arrivals -- Hank -- is a master teacher. God, who has had His share of otherworldly rounds, summons Hank for a lesson. "I'm in a slump like nothing anyone has seen in a million years and you're going to make my game right again," He commands Hank, "or I'm going to quit the damn sport forever and take up needlepoint." The problem? The yips, the chronic disease of missing near-gimmee putts caused by a semi-palsied shaking of the hand muscles, a meltdown of the mind and the paralyzing fear of pending humiliation. Plenty of the greats have had the yips -- Sam Snead, Bernhard Langer -- so why not God?

Midway into the novel, Hank is dispatched back to earth to work on his flaws and failures. This time God is a Her, and the two of them play at Augusta National, a course "as fine as the perfected soul." Amid the lightness of this tale is the deeper story of a man, much like the rest of us, looking to shed his pride and dampen his urges. "I struggled," Hank says, "to do what every spiritual apprentice tries to do: push out beyond the constraints and habits of an old, imperfect self." He confesses to having always felt guilty about playing golf and not "doing something, well, more essential" but on the last day of his revisit to earth, he sees that "golf was as essential as anything else. It was my purpose, my destiny, my route to salvation. I also knew, somehow, by some magnificent intuition, that it was my route to an ecstatic union with the lord."

Golf hasn't attracted that many quality fiction writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald approached true literature in the short story "Winter Dreams." John Updike and J.F. Powers have had golf scenes but not full novels. John O'Hara gave it a try with Appointment in Samarra, as did John P. Marquand in Life at Happy Knoll. There is Steven Pressfield's The Legend of Bagger Vance and J. Michael Veron's The Greatest Player Who Never Lived and The Greatest Course That Never Was. Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom is more an exercise in self-help than literature. Dan Jenkins's golf novels are designed for 19th-hole guffaws, but that domain rightly belongs to the master of manic golf fiction, P.G. Wodehouse.

With Golfing With God, Merullo (author of A Little Love Story) ranks a place in current golf literature. He knows the game. He's up, also, on the Hanks of this world as they slice, hook, shank and yip their way through life's fairways and roughs seeking a lucent moment or two. *

Colman McCarthy is the author of "The Pleasures of the Game: A Theory-free Guide to Golf."