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Books | Sports

July 3, 2011

A Sport for Fathers and Neurotic Sons

Author Steve Friedman found frustration and father-son bonding on the golf course.

Andrew Golding

The game of golf is simply explained—knock a tiny white ball into a small round hole hundreds of yards away. Golf's more talented players make it look easy; a smooth stroke launches a shot to within yards of the target with ease.

For the less talented, golf is not so simple. Those who are mere mortals are accustomed to pleading with errant drives, forced to play out of sand traps and bunkers, searching for lost shots in prickly shrubbery, and trying to retrieve balls from water.

Steve Friedman. Photo by Jennifer Mann.
"I've always been pretty introspective, probably to a neurotic degree, and I don't find it extraordinarily difficult to write about some of the things I think and do."

Steve Friedman. Photo by Jennifer Mann.

Steve Friedman, the author of Driving Lessons: A Father, A Son, and the Healing Power of Golf, is by his own admission not a very good golfer. He has an established relationship with golf's penalty boxes—areas not so welcoming and not so forgiving. In Driving Lessons—an autobiographical account of Friedman's attempt to play better golf—he fails at part of his mission; he remains a below-average player. But he does succeed at his larger quest, using golf as a way to connect with his father. The book is about a father-son relationship, a search for knowledge and understanding.

In this interview, which took place via Gchat and has been edited for length and clarity, Friedman expresses his admiration for his father, discusses a family member's request to not be included in any future works, and drops in references to Nicole Kidman, Mel Gibson, and Bill Russell.

Gelf Magazine: We're at the 18th hole, match play. If you win the hole, you win the match. What's your father's advice?

Steve Friedman: Relax, but be focused. Remember to do all the things we talked about, but don't overthink. This is a big shot, but the important thing is to have fun. Concentrate, but stay relaxed.
He's very Zen. Or contradictory in his suggestions. It's difficult to tell sometimes.
I'd either whiff, ground one to the right, or loft a beautiful drive 275 yards. The first two would be much more likely, I suspect.

Gelf Magazine: Is there anything about golf that makes it the perfect sport to reconnect, or could any hobby or activity work? Steve Friedman: I think just the sheer amount of time two people are together, doing the walking-and-talking part of golfing, helps. There's also the fact that the game frustrates and rewards players of vastly different skill levels. Also, that any golfer seems to be very aware of the frustrations inherent in the game and consequently probably has empathy for the rookie. I imagine fishing would be similar, and that's why it's another activity often linked to fathers and sons. I have always been afraid of worms, though. Oh, I should mention that my dad, who just turned 80, shot a 79 last year, when he was 79. And it would have been lower except "I checked my scorecard after the 17th hole, and then had a seven on 18." Another golf/life lesson…

Gelf Magazine: What were some of the challenges in writing Driving Lessons?

Steve Friedman: Oddly enough, some of the scenes came pretty easily. I just felt like I had to write what I clearly remembered. The difficulties: I had to admit to some fairly unsavory emotions/behavior (ratting out my dad and his planned golfing trip to my mom when I was nine; being consumed with resentment when he mispronounced "Starbucks"). Also, since I knew my dad's general feelings about the book (he's private and would just as soon nothing was ever written about him), I had to try to ignore those feelings as I was writing. I think one of my weaknesses as a writer is a tendency to sentimentalize, and this is a story with lots of opportunities to do that. So I tried to guard against that by being as honest as possible, including those aforementioned unsavory personal details regarding me.

Gelf Magazine: Some people have difficulty being introspective and acknowledging personal weakness. This seems to be a strength of yours—in Driving Lessons, in your memoir Lost on Treasure Island (which was published this month), and in previous work. Any thoughts on why?

Steve Friedman: My first answer would be that it's like some people are good at whistling and some aren't. I've always been pretty introspective, probably to a neurotic degree, and I don't find it extraordinarily difficult to write about some of the things I think and do. (I heard someone say that if there's language to describe something you did/thought, then someone else did or thought it before).
To digress semi-wildly, it made me crazy when a reviewer complained that in the other book of mine recently published, that "…he never lets himself get too introspective. Moments of clarity or insight are mentioned or hinted at but soon give way to the next 'lousy choice' …" That to me seems incredibly dense or an almost intentional misreading—or maybe it's just difficult for some people to understand how someone who is introspective can do such stupid things. If someone would complain "Jeez, this guy is insufferably introspective, just a whiny brooder," fair enough, but if anything, I'm guilty of too much introspection. I suspect maybe the reviewer didn't read the whole book, because I don't think it's possible to read the last couple chapters and think there's not enough introspection. Maybe too much, but not not enough. (A novelist I know says the best thing to do is to not read reviews. I'm not that hardy yet. Sorry—didn't mean to rant about a review of Lost on Treasure Island…)

Gelf Magazine: I'm wondering about your family members' reactions to Driving Lessons and Lost on Treasure Island. Did they have any comments for you?

Steve Friedman: Driving Lessons first: Mom really liked it. Sis loved it. Brother's first reaction was, "Really great. Dad's gonna hate it." My dad didn't hate the book so much as the idea of his life being revealed and published. He's asked me to not write about him anymore.
Regarding Lost on Treasure Island: Sis loved it. Mom loved it (she's an artist so I think she is delighted that I'm writing). My brother's reaction: "Dark, disturbing, lots of commercial potential." I'm fairly confident my dad was horrified about some of the things I revealed about myself, and was very concerned for me. I should add that my dad and I have a very open and loving relationship, even better since the driving lessons and Driving Lessons. He's even said, "I'm proud of you, love you, think you're a terrific writer." I just don't think he's too big on painful self-revelation. And he doesn't like being written about.

Gelf Magazine: What surprised you when talking with your father: things you didn't know, observations that stand out?

Steve Friedman: That he wanted to be a doctor.
That he really does just want me to be happy. I think I get so fixated on the idea that he's criticizing me that I lose sight of his enormous love
Of course, a lot of the pain he went through as a child and young man.
The fact that it was Bob Pettit he told me about when I got 14 fouls in a high-school basketball scrimmage. (I had remembered it as Bill Russell for the past 40 years or so.)
And the fact that he had a wife, two kids, and a mortgage, and took a chance on an unknown career (life insurance). I think that's incredibly admirable.
What did not surprise me was when he suggested I ask Nicole Kidman out on a date.
I should add that many of the surprising things came during my reporting for the book apart from the lessons and talking to him…specifically, talking to his parents.

Gelf Magazine: How do you expect readers will feel about your dad, and your relationship with him, after reading Driving Lessons? And what do you hope people take from the book?

Steve Friedman: I expect (and hope) most everyone will see my dad as a really good father and a good man, someone who loves and wants the best for his children and who sometimes expresses that desire through advice. I hope people will see me as someone who is struggling to understand his father and to get over his tendency to take any advice (especially from his dad) as soul-crushing criticism. I expect some will see me as a whiny moper, and that others will see me as a brave and candid artiste. I don't think anyone will see me as a particularly good golfer. My hope is that people see this as the story of a son and a father struggling to understand and accept each other, and to express love to the other.

Gelf Magazine: I want to ask about Loose Balls, the 2001 book you wrote with Jayson Williams, the former All Star forward for the New Jersey Nets. In light of his 2010 convictions for assault and driving while intoxicated, what are your thoughts on how Jayson's life has changed since then? We knew he had demons, but I never expected them to erupt like this.

Steve Friedman: I really liked Jayson and still like him, thought I haven't talked to him in a year or so. I'm not sure about demons. He did kill a man, and he was arrested for drunk driving. Both those things happened when he had drunk a lot so I guess it's conceivable that two accidents happened to a guy who was drinking too much. Which isn't to minimize them—especially the first, because a man died as a result of something Jayson did. I'm just not sure about the jump to demons. I mean, he hasn't started saying Bobby Fischer- or Mel Gibson-like stuff to my knowledge. And I don't want to say that killing a man is less wrong that spouting crazy objectionable hateful nonsense, just that his misbehavior seems to have been isolated, and not part of a pattern of violence. Oh, and to how his life has changed—he lost most of his money, I suspect, and his house. He's in jail. He presumably came by some really hard wisdom.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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