TO THE LINKSLAND: A GOLFING ADVENTURE, By Michael Bamberger, Viking, 196 pp., $21;HARVEY PENICK'S LITTLE RED BOOK: LESSONS AND TEACHINGS FROM A LIFETIME IN GOLF, By Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake, Simon & Schuster, 175 pp. $19.
SOME people watch golfers punch little white balls around a field and wonder what the attraction is. Others can't resist doing the punching, and many of them, too, aren't sure why they do it.
These two books go a long way toward putting such questions to rest, particularly for those who love the game but have never examined why. Both authors have passion for golf, but their perspectives are distinct. Michael Bamberger is a 30-something reporter who decided to take a year away from the newsroom and indulge a yearning to drink from golf's wellspring. Harvey Penick is a renowned teacher of the game who stands very near that wellspring, having influenced the swings of such talents as this year's United States Open champion, Tom Kite.
Bamberger's golfing odyssey, "To the Linksland," begins when he and his new bride leave Philadelphia for Europe. The goal: Find someone on the European Professional Golfers' Association tour who needs a caddie. Michael will carry clubs and observe top-level play while Christine soaks up the milieu of such places as Lisbon, Majorca, and Florence.
Bamberger's hopes are realized through Peter Teravainen, an American pro who hits the ball farther than anyone else in Europe, but who never quite breaks through to a win. But he manages to place in the money often enough to be a moderately successful "journeyman."
Trooping around after Teravainen through conditions fair and furious, Bamberger sees the game's mysteries up close - how even the best players can suddenly miss, how curious interactions of mind and body in that split second when clubhead meets ball produce astounding results. He also gains some intriguing insights into the lives and games of Europe's best: Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam.
But the insights that really count are in the second half of the book, after Bamberger parts company with Teravainen and explores golf's home turf, Scotland. Perhaps the best passages describe Bamberger's acquaintance with a venerable Scottish pro named John Stark, who seems to peer back into the very origins of the game. He instructs Bamberger to listen for the swoosh of a harmonious swing and the click of a squarely struck putt. He takes him around a six-hole course where sheep still graze and all that
counts is the experience of playing close to nature. That's the archetypal "linksland," shaped from, but never departing from, Scotland's dunes and heather.
When Bamberger says good-bye, the wise old Scot replies, "You're golfing within yourself now, and that's magical. But you've got some Scot in you now, so you can no longer expect to measure your improvement simply by numbers, aye?"
Penick would doubtless understand that sentiment. His "Little Red Book," written with Bud Shrake, won't have the appeal for nongolfers of Bamberger's often lyrically written volume. But its pithy comments on the game, both the techniques and the personalities, will fascinate golfers whatever their handicap. His pointers are simple - for example, start the downswing in slow motion until you get the indelible feel of the right elbow coming down to the body as the left heel plants; warm up before a round wi th a few chip shots, getting the feel of the club crisply striking the ball.
Feel is everything in golf. Penick eschews old dogmas like "never up, never in." "I like to see a putt slip into the hole like a mouse," he says. It's gentle advice, but based on a lifetime of helping men and women claim victories small and large in a game where the fundamental contest is always with oneself.