Four-Iron in the Soul Book Review

By: | Wed 18 Sep 2019 | Comments

“Dost thou not hear their horses neigh, their trumpets sound, and their drums beat? Not I, quoth Sancho, I prick up my ears like a sow in the beans and yet I can hear nothing but the bleating of sheep.” This quote, which is prefaced to the opening of Lawrence Donegan’s Four-Iron in the Soul, published in the 1990s, acts as a handy nugget for the book’s content. Having dreamed of sporting glory since he was a young lad, sculling 7 irons on his native Scots turf, Guardian journalist Donegan packs in his day job and resolves to spend a year caddying on the European Tour. Four-Iron in the Soul, a kind of mismatch between memoir, golf-book, travel-book, and, idiosyncratically, world political history, reports this experience; this is copy from the golfing frontline.

Donegan attaches himself to a struggling journeyman called Ross Drummond, who is barely making a living but keeping his card on Tour. No doubt a side-effect of his background in journalism, Donegan pictures himself as Cervantes’s famous hero Don Quixote. An idealist who tilts at windmills when mistaking them for dragons, Quixote is an apt metaphor for the romance that is associated with the European Tour; the lure of the underdog narrative, the glory of that first fat paycheck, going toe-to-toe with Seve Ballesteros under the Moroccan sun. Drummond, who cuts a sad, faintly ridiculous figure, is Sancho Panza, the good knight’s fleshly sidekick. Anyone familiar with Cervantes will recognise the incongruency here. The caddie as knight and master? The golfer as his bowing slave? Donegan we sense, is going to come in for a fall.

And so it proves. The idealisms are knocked down one by one. In hilarious and well-put-together prose, Donegan catalogues the highs and the lows of the golfer-caddie relationship, showing the seedier parts of life on a top professional tour. While Drummond sleeps in hotels, Donegan and the other caddies rough it in ox’s stalls, the latter pithily revealing that “some players choose to treat their caddies like a feudal landlord dealing with a feral gamekeeper”. We hear about one pro, in South Africa, who tried to pay his caddie with a second-hand pair of shoes. Sadly, this is just the tip of the pyramid of abuse which caddies can come in for. Jordan Spieth’s yelling at Michael Greller in the US Open isn’t quite archetypal, but it’s a very common scene on the tour.

Thankfully, most tour caddies are a hardened lot, bringing me to one of the book’s main strengths: its characters. With a touch that is worthy of Dickens, Donegan sketches this memoir with a truly remarkable cast. Four-Iron in the Soul is chock-full of madcap caddies, grim-eyed pros and all manner of golfing and non-golfing curiosities. Donegan’s pro, Drummond, is the pick of the bunch. A plodding void, who gains in confidence and stature as the story unfolds, Ross is a brilliantly tragicomic figure; as much a clown as he is a hero, a loser as he is a champion. He plucks and dogs, he frets and frowns. He listens to Anthony Robbins and buys into clichés like “SHAPE YOUR OWN DESTINY”. Not forgetting the supporting cast like Thatcher-fetishist-turned-caddie Martin Rowley, French bagmen who don red noses every time their player makes a birdie (and promptly pull them off again when he does not) and a whole span of other, loveable rogues.       

Although Four-Iron in the Soul is technically a golf book, it smuggles in more than just golf. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a self-advertised ‘golf book’ which ranges so widely. Donegan’s background in journalism shows as he plumbs the undercurrents of racial tensions in the wake of Mandela in South Africa, where pro golfers still volley black caddies with insults like the N-word. In Morocco, he muses on the troubles of third-world dictators and “how the newspaper kiosk at the railway station came to be selling copies of the Sun at five pounds a throw and the Guardian for 20p”. In the general cut and thrust of the player-caddie relationship, Donegan finds material for a segue into Marxism and the class struggle. I never expected to see the Father of Communism, nor on the opposite side of the coin, Friedrich Hayek, name-dropped in a golf book, but here we are.

All told, Four-Iron in the Soul is a beautifully-written and entertaining read. A gut-splittingly funny insight into the black underside of professional golf.

For more on Four-Iron in the Soul, click here.

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