August 28, 1995 12:00 PM

IT’S A PERFECT DAY FOR 18 HOLES, but sportswriter John Feinstein is sidelined at his Shelter Island, N.Y., summer house with a nasty case of gout. Luckily for the author, the recurring condition didn’t flare up during the 15 months he followed the PGA tour, hiking around with the world’s greatest golfers. From May 1993 to August 1994, Feinstein traveled to 33 tournaments in roughly 30 cities taking notes for his new bestseller, A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour, which takes its title from Mark Twain’s barbed assessment of the game.

After roaming the links with the likes of Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and John Daly Feinstein, 39, began to see Twain’s point. “I never knew just how hard golf is for great players,” says the author of one of the bestselling sports books of all time, 1986’s A Season on the Brink, a candid portrait of volcanic Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight and his players. “I was amazed at how fragile they are. They go through times when they think they’re never going to hit another good shot. It’s difficult because you make your own calls. Nobody tackles you, nobody dunks on you. So when you fail, there’s no excuse. That’s very hard to deal with mentally.”

Feinstein found his subjects, unlike the baseball and tennis players he has covered, refreshingly accessible—and compassionate. “Paul Azinger [who recovered from lymphoma last year] would personally call kids with cancer and give them a pep talk.” That’s not to say that golf doesn’t have its share of prima donnas. The biggest egomaniac? Probably multimillionaire Greg Norman, who brashly tried last year to launch a World Tour that would have challenged the primacy of the 79-year-old PGA tour. “Greg [who has only won two majors] hasn’t been able to dominate the game on the course, and this was a way to dominate,” says Feinstein. The most unpopular? British Open champ John Daly—in part, says Feinstein, because of the recovering alcoholic’s unsubstantiated claim last year of drug use among the players on tour (a charge he now says was inaccurate). “Daly definitely doesn’t have his act together,” says Feinstein. “There are two things you don’t do on the tour—cheat or quit—and Daly has been known to give up if he’s not in contention.”

On the other hand, says Feinstein, golf wives are a special breed who rarely quit. “It takes tremendous patience to be a golf wife,” he says. “Being on the road with your husband isn’t easy, and being at home without him, especially when you have kids, isn’t either. If you don’t have a lot of money, it’s that much harder.”

Feinstein’s own wife, Mary, 38, was beginning to feel like a golf widow herself. She stayed behind at the couple’s Bethesda, Md., home while John toured most of the year in which their son Daniel, now 20 months, was born. “John is innately prolific,” she says. “It’s a necessary function for him, like respiration. It’s what he does.” The players, at least, appreciated Feinstein’s legwork. “John put his time in for this book,” says 1988 PGA champion Jeff Sluman. “Almost always, writers wait for the players to come to them. John went out and watched us.”

The Manhattan-born Feinstein picked up his love for the game from his mother, Bernice, a music-history professor, who died just before he began work on the book. (His father, Martin, recently retired as general director of the Washington Opera). “She wasn’t good, but she loved to play,” says John, an avid golfer with a 12 handicap. “That was the only place she would use profanity. I’d be stunned, and she’d say, ‘On the golf course it’s allowed.’ ” Feinstein covered sports for the campus paper at Duke University, where he graduated in 1977, then went to work for The Washington Post covering crime, politics and, eventually, sports. In 1985 he took a leave to write A Season on the Brink.

Of all the sports he feels passionate about—his next book will chronicle the annual Army-Navy football game—Feinstein puts golf first. “It’s the most baffling, exasperating and thrilling pastime,” he says. “Most of us would kill for even par, but to earn serious money you’ve got to be 10, 11, 12 under. There’s no such thing as mediocrity on the PGA Tour. If you’re out there, making a living, you’re great.”

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