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Books | Sports

May 22, 2008

The Duffer Chronicles

David Owen once thought golf was uncool. Then he tried it out, and his life, and golf writing, have never been the same.

Paul Sterman

In writing about golf, David Owen represents the regular guy—not the sublime shot-maker fine-tuning his swing for four hours a day, but the hacker out there on weekends having a blast with his buddies as they take mulligans, choose nicknames for each other, and whack away at the little white ball.

His 2003 book Hit & Hope is primarily a collection of Owen's writings from Golf Digest, for whom he has been a regular columnist since 1996, in addition to his duties as staff writer for the New Yorker since 1990. In the various pieces, he tees off on topics such as playing golf inside the house, the lies golfers tell themselves, the slowest member at his club, and how he has wasted a boatload of money on new golf equipment over the years. ("A cupboard in my basement contains nothing but superfluous head covers.")

David Owen
"Regular guys have much more fun playing golf than most professionals do. Not more fun than Tiger, but probably more fun than J. P. Hayes."

David Owen

He's also the author of My Usual Game, which features such excursions as Owen going to golf school, following the drama of the 1993 Ryder Cup, and taking three golf-fixated buddies on a junket to Myrtle Beach. The prolific writer also has penned several books on the subject of home improvement, including Sheetrock & Shellac—a sequel to his 1992 book The Walls Around Us.

In an email interview with Gelf, Owen mused about the greatest golf books of all time, the marvels of the Xerox machine, and his wife's love of ice hockey. You can hear Owen and other golf writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, June 5th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: You have written that your first real experience playing golf didn't come until you were 36—after which your life was never the same. What were your general impressions of the sport before that?

David Owen: I almost never thought about golf before I started playing it, except to think that it was uncool. I took lessons at the Kansas City Country Club for a couple of summers when I was a kid, but I was bad at it and hated it.
When I was a teenager, in the late 1960s, golf seemed very unhip and Nixonian—almost beneath contempt. My brother played all the time, and was the captain of his high-school and college golf teams, but he's seven years younger than I am and so is really from a different generation. Tom Watson, who is six years older than I am, went to the same high school I did, so I was always aware of his career and interested in it, and I wrote a profile of him for Esquire in the early '80s, but even then golf seemed creepy to me.
When I started playing, I felt embarrassed about it, even though I loved it. Tiger has made golf seem like more of a legitimate activity, or at least a legitimate sport, but loving golf still is something you have to apologize for occasionally, especially if you don't think of yourself as a country-club type.

GM: After your conversion to a born-again golfer, the sport became a wellspring for your professional life. What is it about golf that provides you with endless—and endlessly rich—material for your writing?

DO: Golf is so hard that people who take it up tend to either quit or become obsessed. And obsessives make a good audience, because they'll try almost anything, including reading. Golf is a great subject because it's a scaled-down version of life—in the same way that New York City is, say. It's big enough to keep you permanently interested, but small enough to seem sort of manageable.
Plus, Scotland and the Masters.

GM: You and a friend once conducted a beer-drinking golf experiment: to discover the precise degree of intoxication required to eliminate tension from the arms without letting the limbs become too loose. Have you ever tried a similar test with your writing—finding out how many beers to consume to produce the ideal flow of creative juices?

DO: I actually did more research on the golf part. In 2003, I took three of my regular golf buddies to Las Vegas for four days to study the effect of beer on the golf swing, and I wrote about the results in an article for Golf Digest called, "Does Beer Help?" We played a drunken, nine-hole scramble against Carson Daly and three guys from The Man Show—Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Carolla, and Cousin Sal—and we conducted a skills test, both sober and drunk. There were guys in lab coats taking notes on clipboards, and we had a golf cart devoted solely to beer—it had a big ice-filled barrel lashed to the back, and to keep it from tipping over the driver had to stay in his seat at all times. We beat the Man Show guys, who were even drunker than we were—the experiment didn't really have a control group—and we proved what I'd always suspected, which is that beer does help.
Actually, it helps quite a lot, and for longer than you would think. But we drank a really appalling amount, and about six months later I decided to quit drinking altogether. Then another one of the guys quit, too. We had both been alarmed by how well we were able to function after drinking a dozen beers and a couple of Bloody Marys, and neither of us has had a drink since.
I think the effect of beer on writing is very negative, and I'm sure my writing has improved since I quit. Writers who drink too much always end up putting more energy into their drinking than into their writing.

GM: The canon of golf books written over the years is quite extensive—everything from Dan Jenkins's Dead Solid Perfect to Rick Reilly's Who's Your Caddy? Are there a few works in this field that have stood out for you?

DO: My favorite golf writer is probably Henry Longhurst—speaking of drunks. I've never been a big fan of Bernard Darwin, who I think is more admired than read. He wrote a memoir called The World that Fred Made, which I like better than his golf writing, but it's nowhere near as good as the memoirwritten by his cousin Gwen Raverat, even though her book has nothing to do with golf.
I love John Updike's writing about golf, and I wish he would spend less time reviewing novels by foreign writers I've never heard of and more time writing about his own foursome. Updike's short story "Farrell's Caddie" is probably my favorite piece of golf writing ever.

"I love John Updike's writing about golf, and I wish he would spend less time reviewing novels by foreign writers I've never heard of and more time writing about his own foursome."
GM: In My Usual Game, you spent a week with the inventor of the modern golf club. And in your book Copies in Seconds, you chronicled the efforts of Chester Carlson—the man who invented the Xerox machine. What about inventors makes them compelling subjects to write about?

DO: I'd never thought about it before, but Chester Carlson and Karsten Solheim were similar in several ways—both Scandinavian, both solo innovators, both extraordinarily determined. I guess what appealed to me about both of them was that they defied conventional wisdom and then stuck to their convictions for years, until they were finally vindicated.
I said in Copies in Seconds that if Carlson's insight hadn't turned out to be correct he would just seem crazy, and that's probably true of Solheim, too. Both were extremely influential. There is still no way to economically make copies on plain paper other than the one that Carlson invented in the 1930s, and just about every golf club manufactured today incorporates Solheim's ideas about perimeter weighting. Neither has been superseded.

GM: You write often about your home golf club and the buddies you play with regularly. Ever catch any flak from those friends about the stuff you write?

DO: I think they mostly like it. I've written a couple of things that I regret, and I occasionally catch myself thinking of my friends almost as though they were fictional characters, but for the most part I'm pretty sure they've gotten a kick out of being written about. A couple of them have even run into strangers on other golf courses who knew about them from the magazine.
I once wrote an essay for Golf Digest called "The Case for All-Male Golf Clubs," back when the whole Augusta National thing was going on, and there was a paragraph in there that deeply offended several women at my club. I was just trying to be funny, but they had a point. If I had it to do again, I'd leave that part out. There was nothing personal in it, but it was wrong for me to be mouthing off.

GM: I think we can all agree that when it comes to golf-themed movies, Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore are true classics of the genre. But The Legend of Bagger Vance and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius seem to have swung and missed badly. What do you think makes a good golf film—and what have been a couple of your favorites?

DO: My favorite golf movie—as I once wrote in a Golf Digest column—is Casablanca. It doesn't actually have any golf in it, but that scene at the end, when Humphrey Bogart goes off with Claude Rains after sending Ingrid Bergman packing, seems very golflike to me. Other than that and Caddyshack, golf movies are pretty awful. I saw Bagger Vance accidentally, on an airplane—with no headphones, and just catching occasional glimpses of the screen—and couldn't wait for it to be over.

GM: What do you think—does Tiger Woods's utter dominance in golf make the sport less exciting because he eliminates any real rivalries, or does he make it even more captivating to watch because we're probably seeing the greatest golfer in history?

DO: Tiger makes it more exciting. If anything, we underestimate how good he is, and I think you could make a case that he's not just the greatest golfer ever but the greatest athlete ever. Yet he's not a jerk or a steroids user or anything like that. The most amazing thing, to me, is his ability to turn everything to his advantage. Married players used to complain that bachelorhood gave him more time to practice, and they were right: being single was one of his advantages. Now that he's married, though, his edge is being married. Same with fatherhood. Every major life change has carried him to another level. Everything makes him better. And he's as nice as can be. He'd be your best friend at work, except that he's Superman.

"Tiger would be your best friend at work, except that he's Superman."
GM: What spurred you to write about the subject of home improvement, which you've done in several books now?

DO: My wife and I live in a very old house, which required a lot of improvement when we moved in, and writing about the house made it easy for me to be home when my kids were little. I loved doing that stuff, and could have been very happy as a carpenter. I still tinker with things here and there, but golf has pretty much taken the place of banging nails in my life. I keep thinking I'll suddenly rip down a ceiling, the way I used to, but I always seem to end up going to the golf course instead.
My wife is actually happier now that I've stopped working on the house, since I always enjoyed starting projects more than finishing them. We had buckets of joint compound in our dining room for years. There was also a toilet in our yard for quite a while.

GM: Like the game of golf itself, the New Yorker has a long and illustrious history. Had you read many of the magazine's most famous writers—people like Roger Angell, Lillian Ross, and John McPhee—before you started working there in 1991?

DO: I've been a New Yorker fan for a long time. Calvin Trillin made me proud to be from Kansas City, back when I was in high school, and I loved everything by John McPhee. There really is no magazine like it. I came to it, professionally, by sort of a circuitous route. I started out by writing a few things for Esquire, then switched to Harper's, which was in the same building. Then the editor of Harper's, Michael Kinsley, got fired and I spent the next six years writing mainly for the Atlantic Monthly, which in those days shared an advertising sales staff with Harper's, believe it or not.
Then the Atlantic got sort of boring and public-policy-oriented, and I wrote a letter to Robert Gottlieb, who had taken over from William Shawn as the editor of the New Yorker. I didn't like writing for Tina Brown very much, and there was a year or so when I sort of went on hiatus, but David Remnick is a great editor, and I think that his New Yorker is terrific—maybe the best ever, week in and week out.

GM: What are some of your favorite aspects of writing for the New Yorker?

DO: The New Yorker lets writers take on substantial, unusual subjects and really do them right. Last year, I wrote a profile of a British structural engineer, for which I traveled to London, Portugal, and China, and I was given enough space to pull everything together. And the editors are very talented. The only problem with the New Yorker, from a reader's point of view, is that you have to keep up with it. It's sort of relentless, and if you don't keep reading you can quickly fall several weeks behind. For a writer, though, it's a dream job—although I like writing for Golf Digest just as much. My New Yorker contract doesn't commit me to a certain number of words each year, the way most staff writers' contracts do, because I always want to be available to run off to New Zealand if Golf Digest suddenly suggests that. The two magazines are now owned by the same company, Condé Nast, so they now seem like part of the same team.

"Loving golf still is something you have to apologize for occasionally, especially if you don't think of yourself as a country-club type."
GM: Who are a few of the professional golfers whose careers you most enjoy following?

DO: I haven't actually spent much time with professional golfers at any level, although I've played golf with a number of them, and I did once get to hang with Tiger for a couple of days. Most of what I've written about golf has been more personal—travel pieces, stories about my friends, stories about myself. I think regular guys have much more fun playing golf than most professionals do. Not more fun than Tiger, but probably more fun than J. P. Hayes. I also wrote a book about the history of the Masters. That was probably the best assignment I've ever had, as a writer, because researching the book was like working on a Ph.D., and while I was working on it I got to play lots and lots of golf at Augusta National.

GM: John Daly sometimes seems like a tragic-comic character straight out of a Shakespeare play. Do you think he's a welcome source of fun and amusement for golf fans—or is he starting to veer more into the sad and pathetic category?

DO: I don't know and wouldn't want to speculate. I've always liked watching him play, and, like most golf fans, I've always pulled for him to get his act together. He seems like a good person who's had to wrestle with more than his share of demons. And he's a terrifically talented player. I wouldn't mind going for a ride in his motor home, which reminds me of one my father owned.

GM: You've written that most of the presents you receive from family and friends are golf-related items—including a number of edible objects. What are a couple of the best golf gifts you've ever received?

DO: I guess my best golf gift has been my wife's acceptance. She was very anti-golf when I began. At some point, she actually said, quite threateningly, "I didn't marry a golfer"—even though by then I was earning most of my living by writing about golf. What turned her around was ice hockey, which she took up when she turned 40. She'd never been interested in sports before, and suddenly she was going to goalie camp in Canada and watching the Rangers on TV. And once she got into it she forgave me for golf. In fact, she loves Bob Rotella's golf books, which she says have helped her hockey.

GM: If I'm ever in your neck of the woods, can I join you and your pals at the club for a round of golf?

DO: Of course. We love visitors. We play every weekend and usually a few times in between. Nine of us just got back from Scotland, where we played two rounds a day for eight days and managed to remain friends. I think our next big trip will probably be to the Robert Trent Jones Trail, in Alabama. After that, northwestern England.

GM: Have you noticed that in the new comedy Noise, the main character, a New Yorker played by Tim Robbins, is named after you (or at least shares your name)? Are you someone who goes nuts when you hear noise?

DO: I did notice that. Noise doesn't bother me, but I have become mildly obsessed with outdoor lighting, and I wrote an article on that subject for the New Yorker last year. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the brightest thing in the sky is not the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, 175 miles away—that sort of thing.

GM: Do you share George Bush's recently expressed sentiment that playing golf is disrespectful to dead servicemen and women?

DO: Maybe the president was making yet another dig at his father, who still plays golf and goes to golf tournaments. Or maybe he was upset about General Eisenhower. Anyway, the big problem for American servicemen and -women is Bush himself.

Paul Sterman

Paul Sterman is a freelance writer and an associate editor at The Toastmaster magazine in Southern California.

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Article by Paul Sterman

Paul Sterman is a freelance writer and an associate editor at The Toastmaster magazine in Southern California.

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