The Downhill Lie

I like Hiaasen and I love golf. I should have read this when it came out. I’m not sure what took me so long. This is Hiaasen’s story of his quest to pick up the game of golf after giving it up about 30 years ago when he was 20.

I had a hiatus from the game also. It wasn’t as long as Hiaasen’s, it ran from about 1993 to 1998. After I came crawling back to the game my love for it increased considerably. Unlike my return, Hiaasen’s return wasn’t met with love. But I’m not surprised, my love didn’t arrive in earnest until a few years after picking up the sticks again.

And anyway, love isn’t funny. Pain and frustration is funny. And if you play the game you know about pain and frustration. Hiaasen goes into his own pain and frustration in great detail it’s funny as all get-out. Plus it’s full of keen insights into the game.

Hiaasen is smart. He didn’t go into this endeavor with dreams of glory:

When I decided to reconnect with the game, I had no illusions about getting really good at it. I just wanted to be better at something in middle age than I was when I was young.

That’s realistic, and highlights one of the beautiful things about golf. You can actually improve all the way into your 60s I think. This potential for improvement does not make it any less painful when you dump a $4 Pro V1 in the drink:

Hooking a new Pro V1 into the drink is like totaling a Testarossa while pulling out of the sales lot. It makes you want to puke.

That’s my man. I would love to meet this guy and just have a conversation with him. He cracks funny on a ton of stuff. Here is his take on golf magazines:

That’s because most players drift from weekend to weekend in a fog of anxious flux; they play well in streaks and then, for no plain reason, fall apart. They are seldom more than one poor round away from stammering desperation, and to these unhinged souls every golf article dangles the most precious enticement: hope.

It should be fun, but it’s so difficult to make it fun. Says Hiaasen:

Sure, I want this game to be fun.

I also want peace in the Middle East, a first-round draft pick for the Miami Dolphins and a lifetime of reliable erections.

Wanting, however, won’t necessarily make it happen.

In the end, even with the frustration, you gotta keep things in perspective, which I feel like I learned a few years ago after having some tough times. Hiaasen’s take on the frustration level:

Trying to be good at something isn’t a bad idea. But, in the turbulent and random scroll of life, topping a tee shot is a meaningless if not downright comic occurrence. A few players I know appreciate this truth; they shrug off their flubs and placidly move along. Such inner peace is as enviable as it is elusive.

I made a list about 10 years ago about why golf is fun even when you’re playing bad. I eventually brainwashed myself into appreciating being outside, hanging out with family and friends, and the potential for a comeback, such that I now have achieved a certain amount of that elusive inner peace on the course. It’s important to get there, not just for your own self-preservation, but for the people you play with. Hiaasen has this lament about playing on Sundays with his dad:

I’m wondering if he knew what those Sundays meant to me; if he understood that even when I was playing poorly and fuming like a brat, there was nowhere else I’d rather have been, and no one else I’d rather have been with. I hope I told him so, but, sadly, I cannot remember.

Stop for a moment, please, thanks. Keep playing, even though it sucks sometime.

No matter how frustrating it gets, and how much it sucks, there are those moments of total brilliance that anyone can achieve:

That’s the killer. A good shot is a total rush, possibly the second most pleasurable sensation in the human experience. It will mess with your head in wild and delusive ways.

Bissinger talked about this in 3 Nights in August, about the feeling a pitcher gets when his heater slaps the back of the catcher’s glove and the batter didn’t even get close to it. I’m paraphrasing, but any pitcher, he says, would think it’s simply a feeling worth having again. That’s why we play sports; sports are rife with chances for having a pleasurable feeling that’s worth having again. They don’t come often, but they come. Try and duplicate that dynamic during work, watching TV, or partying.

Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Maybe this elusive feeling is not a great justification for pouring time and energy into sports. But Hiaasen and I feel it is.


Grounds for Golf

This is more than a book about golf architecture, it’s a book about golf in general. Early on, Shackelford captures a trait of the game that is very important to me – the artistry and beauty involved in the field of play. Playing the game allows for a deeper understanding of the artistry because you can actually touch, hear, smell, and experience the work.

Here is how Shackelford puts it:

When you visit a museum and study a Claude Monet painting, it is just you and a security guard and fifteen other tourists trying to enjoy the painting. But say you get that rare moment alone with a masterpiece and you understand what the artist was trying to portray, there is still something that you are unable to experience. You cannot step into the garden that Monet used for his paintings and smell the flowers.

With a golf course you can enjoy the garden from afar and recount memories of playing the course years after you’ve left the grounds, because you were able to step into the landscape and experience it’s architecture.

Shackelford reeled me in and now I’m even a devotee of his blog at He gets it as far as I’m concerned. They guy posts golf news about four or five times a day on his site.

He goes through all aspects of golf course design in this book and he does it in a very conversational, non-technical, and relaxed style. He breaks it up into 18 manageable holes (chapters), let me talk about a couple.

The Third – Schools of Design

He groups designers into the following categories:

  • The Natural School
  • The Penal School
  • The Strategic School (MacKenzie, Ross, Tillinghast)
  • The Heroic School (Robert Trent Jones)
  • The Freeway School
  • The Framing School

It’s interesting to hear him compare and contrast these design schools. He talks a lot about Pete Dye but never actually classifies Pete in any school. It’s as if Mr. Dye is beyond classification.

The Seventh – The Classic Holes

He goes into four great holes in detail:

  • The Thirteenth at Augusta National
  • The Tenth at Riviera
  • The Road Hole at St. Andrews
  • The Sixteenth at Cypress Point

With each he goes through the strategy, the green complex, the naturalness and artistry of construction, and the playability. I loved the discussion on the Thirteenth at Augusta. That is such an awesome hole and I can’t wait until the 2008 Masters.

It’s a lot of great stuff and if you’re a fan of the game, you should read this book. I haven’t played golf in a few weeks and I won’t play for about another five months, but I can’t wait to put my new eye for design to work.

I do have an issue with Shackelford’s steadfast adoration for all things classic. He’s one of those guys who respects designers that don’t move any dirt. He speaks highly of the classic designers like Ross, MacKenzie, and Tillinghast and also respects current guys like Pete Dye, Tom Doak, and Crenshaw/Coore. He doesn’t speak very highly of Tom Fazio or Rees Jones. His distaste for Tom Fazio is so extensive that he names Fazio’s renovations of Inverness, Merion, and Oak Hill as the Worst Tournament-Influenced Renovations to Great Courses That Should Have Been Left Alone.

Enough already. This love of all things old-school gets tired after awhile. I get sick of hearing how earth moving equipment and club technology are ruining the game. It reminds of baseball fans who complain about the wild card, tennis fans who complain about the lack of serve-and-volley play, or basketball fans who think current players don’t work the ball around. Things change, deal with it.

Hear are some ideas if you don’t like how easy your 6,300 yard Donald Ross course is now that you have a Taylor Made R7 Quad, a hybrid club, perimeter weighted irons, a lob wedge, and a Scotty Cameron putter. Try one of these:

  • Sell your clubs and go back to persimmon woods and blades.
  • Quit the club and join a nice new Nicklaus design with a second tee that runs about 6,600 yards.

Continuing to beat up the old course with all of the new technology while complaining about the state of the game is NOT an option.

Okay, sorry about the rant. I’m still reading your blog Geoff, you go. Great book. I strongly suggest it for avid golfers.


Unplayable Lie

This tidy little mystery was a lot of good fun. It’s a police procedural that takes place in Scotland, where a murder was committed. Yikes, a mmmuuurrrrddddeerrrr. That’s scary. Alright, enough with the funnin’ around.

This has been sitting in my stack of stuff to read for a year or two maybe. It’s a mystery, which is a genre that I like, and it has a link to golf, which I like. So I was gonna get to it eventually. I kept thinking that I asked for it for Christmas or something. Then my wife sees me reading it and says, “Hey, how do you like that book? That’s the one I picked up at Jackson Park Golf Course for free.”

What? I take great care in picking out every book that I read, and my wife is telling me that she grabbed it for free from some writer with a card table and a Sharpie at a Chicago municipal course where you can play all you want for like $15. I think that is the case. Well, it turned out alright, even though it was not even signed. Maybe he just left a stack to give away or something, I don’t know.

Though short on golf-oriented sections, it was pretty long on golf insight. At one point, Inspector St. George and his cohort, Laurence Poole, have to go to historic St. Andrews to do some detective work. The inspector is a golf lover, and during some downtime he is describing his penchant for blowing big bucks at golf shops:

“Make no mistake, Laurence, I’ve spent many happy hours immersing myself therein [golf shops]. And if those various proprietors included my patronage in their annual budgets, then I must confess they did so with good reason.””Ah! In other words, you’re hooked.”

“Yes, I suppose you could say so. But that makes it sound rather pathologic. After all, it’s not like I’m a gambler.”

Always sensitive to his mentor’s sensibilities and moods, Poole hastened to add, “Of course not. Just sounds better than ‘compulsive’ or ‘addicted’.”

“Let’s just say ‘focused’ and leave it at that.”

“All right. Pathologically focused.”

Keen insight into a common malady with golf junkies like myself. You know when you start denying it, or comparing it to vices like gambling, drugs, or internet porn, that you really do have a problem.

I may grab the other Inspector St. George mystery at some point, who knows.



The US Open at Bethpage Black, back in 2002, was lost on me while it was happening. It was not until after that I realized how special it was to host an Open at a muni (municipal course).

I mean, I’m a public course guy, so I am not sure why I didn’t embrace it during the build-up. I can venture a few guesses. First of all, the Masters is my number one sporting event on the face of the earth, so everything kind of pales in comparison. I love to watch dudes rack up birdies on the back nine on Sunday…that does not happen at a US Open. That course set-up that the USGA seems married to is just plain old stupid.

Second, I view the USGA as a bunch of east-coast, country club types who think golf stops at about central Pennsylvania and does not start up again until the Pacific coast.

And finally, I can’t sit and watch golf on a weekend in the middle of June. Summer weekends are treated like gold here in the Chicago area and I won’t be inside for one.

Now, I can’t really defend any of these reasons. They probably show how childish and irrational I can be when it comes to certain things that I am passionate about. In fact, I’m just dead wrong on a few counts and this book really opened my eyes to a lot of things about the USGA and the Open that have changed my view of this fine championship.

Feinstein walks you through the whole process of how the Open at Bethpage Black came to be. He starts with David Fay’s (executive director of the USGA at the time) dream of an Open at the Black and ends with Fay exiting the clubhouse, rather discreetly, after Tiger’s victory. In between, he fills the book with tons of insight on golf, sports broadcasting, New York state, and the people and places that make up each.

All of the major players in this story get a decent sized bio. You will learn plenty about where everyone grew up, how they developed a love for the game, and what kind of person Feinstein thinks they are. It certainly changed my view of the makeup of the USGA, in a positive way. There is also a very interesting section about how NBC got the TV contract for the Open. It made me a bigger Johnny Miller fan than I already am. The book also takes you through the highlights of all of the Open qualifiers, which includes a lot of touching stories and some great golf history.

The meat of the book is Feinstein going into great detail on the course reconstruction, the course setup, and the preparation and playing of the Open. I’m a golf junkie, but I learned a lot from this book and had a good time reading it. It’s a lot of fun to read non-fiction about a subject that you are familiar with. I didn’t feel like I had to be as alert and engrossed. I just sat back during a relaxing vacation and consumed it over the course of a week, stopping in the middle of chapters more than ever. I may grab some more Feinstein non-fiction for my next vacation.