Golf as pastoral ode? Not for screenwriter Pressfield, whose captivating first novel borrows more from Homer's record of heroic clashes than from Wordsworth's musings on lakes and verdancy. It's 1931, and while the country struggles through the Great Depression, Adele Invergordon of Savannah, Ga., presides over an exhibition match between Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones held at her family's spectacular new coastal course, Krewe Island. To appease Savannah's city fathers, Invergordon is compelled to allow local hero Rannulph Junah to compete alongside the two golf titans for the $20,000 purse. A troubled WW I vet once in possession of ""every virtue of shining Southern manhood,"" Junah has been wandering the globe, searching for enlightenment in the company of Bagger Vance, his companion, confidant, and sage. Reluctant to test his rusty talent against stellar competition, Junah relents only when Vance, a black man, offers to be his caddy. What follows is not so much a report of the match as a sometimes awkward metaphysical fugue that integrates sport, spirituality, and the quest for individual fulfillment. Vance is no average caddy: He's an immortal warrior god who just happens to groove on golf, offering his champion the incontrovertible wisdom of the Authentic Swing while showing him how Hagen and Jones tap into their auras to reach linkster Nirvana. Junah's 36 holes against the dashing Hagen and the quietly brilliant Jones follow a pattern as old as Hellenistic verse: After a shaky start and the requisite sulking, Junah gathers himself and scorches the final 18. Along the way, Vance teaches him to play as if he, his game, and the course were a continuous expression of the examined life. Throughout, Pressfield displays his limber knowledge of a nobler golfing age, when gentleman players wore plus-fours and wielded clubs with hickory shafts. His hymn to the sport is less convincing when his classicism drops acid -- Vance sometimes sounds precariously like Timothy Leafy -- but such lapses are forgivable. Altogether, then, a swift, dandy debut.