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Authors: Carl Hiaasen

The Downhill Lie

BOOK: The Downhill Lie
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The Downhill Lie
Hiaasen, Carl
Vintage (2008)
Rating:
★★★☆☆

Originally drawn to the game by his father, Carl Hiaasen wisely quit golfing in 1973. But some ambitions refuse to die, and as the years–and memories of shanked 7-irons faded, it dawned on Carl that there might be one thing in life he could do better in middle age than he could as a youth. So gradually he ventured back to the dreaded driving range, this time as the father of a five-year-old son–and also as a grandfather.
“What possesses a man to return in midlife to a game at which he’d never excelled in his prime, and which in fact had dealt him mostly failure, angst and exasperation? Here’s why I did it: I’m one sick bastard.” And thus we have Carl’s foray into a world of baffling titanium technology, high-priced golf gurus, bizarre infomercial gimmicks and the mind-bending phenomenon of Tiger Woods; a maddening universe of hooks and slices where Carl ultimately–and foolishly–agrees to compete in a country-club tournament against players who can actually hit the ball. “That’s the secret of the sport’s infernal seduction,” he writes. “It surrenders just enough good shots to let you talk yourself out of quitting.”

Hiaasen’s chronicle of his shaky return to this bedeviling pastime and the ensuing demolition of his self-esteem–culminating with the savage 45-hole tournament–will have you rolling with laughter. Yet the bittersweet memories of playing with his own father and the glow he feels when watching his own young son belt the ball down the fairway will also touch your heart. Forget Tiger, Phil and Ernie. If you want to understand the true lure of golf, turn to Carl Hiaasen, who offers an extraordinary audiobook for the ordinary hacker.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

“There is no comfort zone in golf.”

—Tiger Woods

“If there’s one thing golf demands above all else, it’s honesty.”

—Jack Nicklaus

“When all is said and done, style is function and function is style.”

—Ben Hogan

“When you suck, you suck.”

—Anonymous
16
-handicapper

Preface

T
here are so many people to blame for this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. At the top of the heap is my old buddy Joe Simmens, who got me golfing again for the first time since college. Next is Mike Lupica, who egged me on and conned me into keeping this journal, primarily for his own sick amusement.

At the Sandridge Golf Club I received deceptively promising lessons from Bob Komarinetz, an excellent instructor. Later I was inexplicably admitted to membership at the Quail Valley Golf Club, where Steve Mulvey, Kevin Given, Nate Tyler, Paul Grange, Jim Teed and many other good people declined to intervene and put an end to my misery.

It was at Quail Valley where two talented pros, Steve Archer and Mike Kotnik, spent long, valiant hours attempting to identify and repair my exotic swing flaws. The incomparable Delroy Smith caddied for many rounds, offering boundless encouragement even when it was patently futile.

My book editor, Peter Gethers, was no help at all. He insisted that I continue to write, no matter how rotten I was playing. In fact, the only person who offered to talk me out of this project was the notorious David Feherty of CBS Sports, but he’s such a whack job that I didn’t take him seriously.

Many friends willfully abetted my comeback by including me in their golf outings: Bill Becker, Paul Bogaards and all the crew from the class of ’70 at Plantation High—“Big Al” Simmens, Jerry Miller, Tommy McDavitt, Steve Cascone, Larry Robinson, Mike Winchester and, last but not least, my tournament partner and unlicensed sports psychologist, Michael “Leibo” Leibick.

My own family cannot dodge some culpability for this misguided enterprise. My stepson, Ryan, helped pick out my first set of clubs; my wife, Fenia, bought me an elegant putter; my older son, Scott, never once tried to change my mind about doing this book, despite many opportunities; and my younger son, Quinn, has insisted on playing the game of golf with riotous mirth.

The person who first put a 5-iron in my hands all those years ago was my father, Odel Hiaasen. If he were still alive, this book would have turned out much differently—for one thing, he would have fixed my shanks by now.

Last on the list of conspirators is my loving mother, Patricia, who actually was pleased that I’d taken up golf again, and to this day believes it’s been good for me.

I would never admit this, but she’s been right before.

Dawn of the Dead

I
n the summer of 2005, I returned to golf after a much needed layoff of thirty-two years.

Attempting a comeback in my fifties wouldn’t have been so absurd if I’d been a decent player when I was young, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. At my best, I’d shown occasional flashes of competence. At my worst, I’d been a menace to all carbon-based life-forms on the golf course.

On the day I gave up golfing, I stood six-feet even, weighed a stringy 145 pounds and was in relatively sound physical shape. When I returned to the game, I was half an inch taller, twenty-one pounds heavier and nagged by the following age-related ailments:

• elevated cholesterol;

• a bone spur deep in the right rotator cuff;

• an aching right hip;

• a permanently weakened right knee, due to a badly torn medial meniscus that was scraped and repaired in February 2003 by the same orthopedic surgeon who’d once worked on a young professional quarterback named Dan Marino. (The doctor had assured me that my injury was no worse than Marino’s, then he’d added with a hearty chuckle, “But you’re also not twenty-two years old.”)

Other factors besides my knee joint and HDL had changed during my long absence. When I’d abandoned golf in 1973, I had been a happily married father of a two-year-old son. When I returned to the sport in 2005, I was a happily remarried father of a five-year-old son, a fourteen-year-old stepson and a thirty-four-year-old son with three kids of his own. In other words, I was a grandpa.

Over those three busy and productive decades, a normal, well-centered person would have mellowed in the loving glow of the family hearth. Not me. I was just as restless, consumed, unreflective, fatalistic and emotionally unequipped to play golf in my fifties as I was in my teens.

What possesses a man to return in midlife to a game at which he’d never excelled in his prime, and which in fact had dealt him mostly failure, angst and exasperation?

Here’s why I did it: I’m one sick bastard.

The Last Waltz

M
y first taste of golf was as a shag caddy for my father. He often practiced hitting wedges in our front yard, and I’d put on my baseball glove and play outfield.

Dad seemed genuinely happy when I finally asked to take golf lessons. I was perhaps eleven or twelve, too young to realize that my disposition was ill-suited to a recreation that requires infinite patience and eternal optimism.

The club pro was Harold Perry, a pleasant fellow and a solid teacher. He said I had a natural swing, which, I’ve since learned, is what pros always say at your first lesson. It’s more merciful than: “You’d have a brighter future chopping cane.”

The early sessions did seem to go well, and Harold was encouraging. As time passed, however, he began chain-smoking heavily during our lessons, which suggested to me the existence of a chronic problem for which Harold had no solution. The problem was largely in my head, and fell under the clinical heading of Wildly Unrealistic Expectations.

My first major mistake was prematurely asking to join my father for nine holes, a brisk Sunday outing during which I unraveled like a crackhead at a Billy Graham crusade. This was because I’d foolishly expected to advance the golf ball down the fairway in a linear path. The experience was marred by angry tears, muffled profanities and long, brittle periods of silence. Worse, a pattern was established that would continue throughout the years that Dad and I played together.

Golfers like maxims, and here’s a good one: Beginners should never be paired with good players, especially if the good player is one’s own father.

The harder I tried, the uglier it got. To say that I didn’t bear my pain stoically is an understatement. Dad suffered along with me and so did his golf game, which added to my sullen mood an oppressive layer of guilt.

There were rare sunbursts of hope when I managed to hit a decent shot or sink a putt, but usually a pall of Nordic gloom followed us around the links. My father was a saint for tolerating my tantrums and sulking. He never once ditched me; whenever I asked to tag along on his regular weekend game, he’d say yes despite knowing what histrionics lay ahead. As I grew taller he generously bought me a set of Ben Hogans, which were so gorgeous that at first I was reluctant to throw them.

Interestingly, I have no recollection of my father and me completing a round of golf, with the exception of a father-son charity event (and the only reason I didn’t flee on the back nine was that I wasn’t sure how to get back to the clubhouse). I can’t recall our final score, probably for the same reason that victims of serious traffic accidents often cannot remember getting in the car. Trauma wipes clean the memory banks.

In high school some of my friends took up golf, and occasionally I joined them on weekends. Surrounded by retirement developments, the Lauderdale Lakes course was a scraggly, unkempt layout that was chosen by us for its dirt-cheap, all-day green fees. Despite the trampled fairways and corrugated greens, I actually started enjoying myself—the mood was loose and raunchy, and it was uplifting to discover that my friends stroked the ball as erratically as I did. We were the youngest players on that course by half a century, a disparity that every round precipitated one or two prickly confrontations with foursomes who were less agile and alert. That, of course, only added to the sportive atmosphere.

Occasionally we also played a chaotic par-3 layout, upon which I once bladed a 9-iron dead into the cup for an ace. It was a feat that I never replicated. My name (misspelled, naturally) was etched into a hokey hole-in-one plaque that was hung among literally hundreds of others in the funky little clubhouse.

My father was undoubtedly relieved that I’d found other golfing companions, freeing him to resume his regular Sunday rounds in peace. Unfortunately, bursitis was making it increasingly difficult for him to swing a club, and by the time I left for college he was playing infrequently, and in pain.

During my first semester at Emory University I got married and soon thereafter became a father, so for a time I was too preoccupied—and too broke—for golf.

In the summer of 1972 I entered the journalism college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where I reconnected with my high school buddies. The university maintains a topnotch par-72 that was in those days open to students for $2.50. It was there I broke 90 for the first and only time before giving up the game.

I was walking eighteen in a group that included a good friend, Al Simmens. He was hitting the ball well but I was all over the map, scrambling for bogeys and doubles. In the midst of butchering a long par-4, I improbably holed out a full 7-iron for a birdie. Exclamations of amused wonder arose from Big Al and the others. Then, supernaturally, two holes later I knocked in a 9-iron from about 110 yards.

This time Al keeled over as if felled by a sniper. Once before I’d seen him collapse like that on a golf course. It had happened when he was kneecapped by a drive struck by Larry Robinson, a member of our own foursome—the most astoundingly bad tee shot that I’ve ever witnessed, to this day. Al had been next up, standing dead even with Larry and seemingly safe, when Larry’s abominably mishit ball shot off the tee at a 90 degree angle and smashed into Al’s right leg. The impact sounded like a Willie McCovey home run. Incredibly, Al was upright within minutes, and resumed playing with only a slight limp.

But after my second hole-out on that morning in Gainesville, he lay lifeless in the fairway with a glassy expression that called to mind Queequeg, the Pacific Island cannibal in
Moby-Dick,
who’d lapsed into a grave trance upon seeing his fate in a throw of the bones. Eventually Al arose and rejoined our group, but he was rocky.

I completed the round with no further heroics yet I walked off the 18th green with an 88, my best score ever. That was in the summer of 1973, and by the end of the year I was done. The Hogans sat in a closet, gathering dust.

Richard Nixon was hunkered down like a meth-crazed badger in the White House, Hank Aaron was one dinger shy of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, and The Who had just released
Quadrophenia.

At age twenty, I was more or less at peace.

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