About the Book by John Feinstein Titled “Feherty: The Remarkably Funny and Tragic Journey of Golf’s David Feherty” and the Book by Michael Bamberger Titled “The Ball in the Air: A Golfing Adventure”

From a Wall Street Journal review by John Paul Newport headlined “‘Feherty’ and ‘The Ball in the Air” Review: Golf Can Be Funny”:

Anyone who follows professional golf knows that the experience is usually “mediated,” as academics like to say, by television commentators who analyze shots, predict the breaks in putts and add “color” to the game. Commentators can be banal, annoying and intrusive, it is true. But many are shrewd, and a few are genuinely amusing as well—indeed, colorful.

In “Feherty: The Remarkably Funny and Tragic Journey of Golf’s David Feherty,” John Feinstein tells the tale of a middle-tier Irish golf professional who finds success as the resident funnyman on American golf telecasts and then as the surprisingly insightful host of a prime-time interview show on the Golf Channel. Behind the persona, things aren’t so funny: David Feherty has fought depression, alcoholism, addiction and the lingering effects of a painful childhood.

He came of age near Belfast in Northern Ireland, Mr. Feinstein tells us, just as the violent, sectarian Troubles were breaking out in the early 1970s. Stress and tension were ever-present. “I knew it wasn’t normal,” Mr. Feherty is quoted saying, but “that way of life became normal to us.”

At the same time, he was suffering from undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. Since he was barely able to focus, teachers stigmatized him as a dummy. At 15, he dropped out of school and soon drifted into golf. After a series of low-level jobs at golf clubs, and hard work on his game, he eventually qualified for the European Tour and in 1986, at age 27, notched the first of his five tour wins. The highlight of his playing career, he says, was his only Ryder Cup appearance in 1991, where under pressure he made a critical shot to win his match against Payne Stewart.

Mr. Feherty made a far bigger mark in the locker room than on the course, by keeping his fellow pros in stitches with jokes and stories. That knack led to a 1997 tryout at CBS and an on-air job reporting from the course, where he became popular for his quips, such as describing a nervous player as “shaking like a pregnant nun” and likening Jim Furyk’s swing to “an octopus falling out of a tree.” Tom Watson, a friend of Mr. Feherty’s, says that he earned the affection of players by “being irreverent without being disrespectful.”

The talk show, called simply “Feherty,” debuted in 2011 and was an instant hit. He interviewed golfers and non-golfers alike, including four U.S. presidents. He also wrote columns and books (funniest title: “Somewhere in Ireland a Village Is Missing an Idiot”) and performed stand-up comedy. Fans were charmed by his self-deprecating manner, as well as by the sense that he couldn’t believe he had the good fortune to be doing what he was doing.

Off-stage, though, he was haunted by sadness. This is a theme that Mr. Feinstein, a Washington Post sports columnist and the author of many books about golf and other sports, explores with sympathy, aided by Mr. Feherty’s own unflinching self-analysis. “I always had that self-destructive streak just below the surface,” he tells Mr. Feinstein. “I never really know when it’s going to jump up and bite me.”

His addictions and depression began creating problems during his dysfunctional first marriage. In 1993, his wife left a three-word note on the kitchen table in their home in Northern Ireland, saying that she and their two sons had moved to the U.S. He followed her to Dallas for love of the boys and has lived in America ever since. In 2010 he became a U.S. citizen and has raised millions of dollars for military veterans.

Mr. Feherty credits the intervention of friends, colleagues and especially his second wife, Anita, for saving him many times from his darkest places. Mr. Watson was twice instrumental in getting Mr. Feherty into recovery programs, once in 2006 and again in 2016, when he rushed to Dallas on a private jet.

When Mr. Feherty announced last year that he was leaving NBC (where he’d ended up after CBS) for the Saudi-funded LIV tour, he drew the expected barbs. But unlike some players who issued complicated rationales for signing with LIV, he responded forthrightly: “They paid me a lot of money.” But readers of Mr. Feinstein’s perceptive book may doubt that’s the main reason. In July 2017, Mr. Feherty suffered the greatest trauma of his life: his 29-year-old son’s death from a drug overdose. For months afterward, he could barely function. Two years later, at the outbreak of the pandemic, the Golf Channel canceled “Feherty.”

As Mr. Feherty’s friends and family testify, his best strategy for keeping his demons at bay had always been staying busy. “An addict needs something to feed his addiction,” Anita told Mr. Feinstein. “As long as it isn’t alcohol or drugs, I’m fine with whatever works for him.” The LIV tour offered not just money but also creative control and a revival of “Feherty.” For a man who says he “white-knuckle[s] every day trying to stay sober,” it may have looked like salvation.

Michael Bamberger’s “The Ball in the Air” tells the golf-related tales of three decidedly non-high-profile figures, one of whom goes to the kind of dark places that Mr. Feherty is familiar with and is similarly saved. Mr. Bamberger, who spent years at Sports Illustrated covering golf and now writes for the Fire Pit Collective knows the glamorous professional side of golf as well as anyone. His last book, “The Second Life of Tiger Woods,” was inspired by Mr. Woods’s comeback Masters victory in 2019. But Mr. Bamberger’s abiding love is for golf as it is experienced by everyday people. “Not all the most important rounds of golf played . . . are played on TV,” he writes. “Not even close.”

The most fascinating of Mr. Bamberger’s subjects is Pratima Sherpa, who grew up, literally, in the maintenance shed at the Royal Nepal Golf Club in Kathmandu. Her father mowed the greens, and her mother weeded the fairways with a screwdriver. They ate family meals next to tractors and fertilizer bins. One day, noticing his daughter’s curiosity about the strange game that the club members were playing, her father whittled a tree limb into a primitive club for her to hit found balls with. Now 23, Ms. Sherpa is finishing up her college golf career at Cal State-Los Angeles.

Mr. Bamberger’s other two subjects, Ryan French and Sam Reeves, grew up in small-town Michigan and Georgia, respectively. Mr. French played on an “Animal House”-style golf team in college, segued into a life of drinking, gambling and fooling around, and at 30 tried to kill himself. With the aid of his parents, especially his golf-loving father, he created a new life for himself caddying for players at the lowest levels of professional golf—the chasers, he called them—and chronicling their exploits. Until recently he wrote with Mr. Bamberger at the Fire Pit Collective.

Mr. Reeves’s story, by contrast, is one of American success writ large. With partners, he globally expanded his father’s cotton business into one of the largest closely held companies in the country but never stopped treasuring the quiet, restorative values of golf. Now 88, Mr. Reeves credits the game with fostering empathy, honing focus, quieting his soul and helping him learn from every experience, good or bad.

Linking these tales is Mr. Bamberger’s own story and his conviction that golf has much to teach when we open ourselves to the game’s deepest, most subtle nature—the unexpected emotions, the “odd and beautiful playing fields,” the intimate bonds that form among both friends and strangers. The pleasure of “The Ball in the Air” is like that of an ordinary golf round. Mr. Bamberger doesn’t strain to build toward some grand unified theory of golf. What matters, as Walter Hagen said long ago, is to smell the flowers along the way.

John Paul Newport, the Journal’s golf columnist from 2006 to 2015, is at work on a golf-related novel.

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