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A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport

Written by Carl HiaasenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carl Hiaasen



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On Sale: May 13, 2008
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26943-0
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Bestselling author Carl Hiaasen wisely quit golfing in 1973. But some ambitions refuse to die, and as the years passed and the memories of slices and hooks 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 rolling, frustrating green hills of the golf course, where he ultimately—and foolishly—agreed to compete in a country-club tournament against players who can actually hit the ball. Filled with harrowing divots, deadly doglegs, and excruciating sandtraps, The Downhill Lie is a hilarious chronicle of mis-adventure that will have you rolling with laughter.

Excerpt

In 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

My 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 en- couraging. 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 top-notch 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 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.




Toad Golf

My divorce from golf was uncomplicated and amic- able. When I came home from college on visits, my father and I would spend Sunday afternoons watching the PGA on television. Dad had always asserted that Sam Snead was the greatest player of all time, but he was gradually coming around to the possibility that Jack Nicklaus was something special.

Then, in February 1976, my father died suddenly at the outrageously unfair age of fifty, a tragedy that extinguished any lingering whim I might have had to tackle golf again with serious intent. Apparently I played a round later that year with a friend, although my memory of it is fogged.

Possibly I've blocked out other rounds, too. My brother, Rob, says that he and I golfed together one time not long after Dad passed away. "It wasn't good," he tells me.

The next time I recall swinging a club wasn't in any conventional, or socially acceptable, format.

It occurred one night that same year, when my best friend and fishing companion, Bob Branham, called to report a disturbing infestation. The culprit was Bufo marinus, a large and brazen type of toad that had invaded South Florida from Central America and proliferated rapidly, all but exterminating the more docile native species. The Bufo grows to two pounds and eats anything that fits in its maw, including small birds and mice. When threatened, it excretes from two glands behind its eyes a milky toxin extremely dangerous to mammals. Adventuresome human substance abusers have claimed that licking Bufo toads produces psychedelic visions, but the practice is often fatal for dogs and cats.

Which is why Bob had called. Every evening a brigade of Bufos had been appearing outside his back door and gobbling all the food he'd put out for Dixie, his young Labrador retriever. It's probably unnecessary to point out that while Labradors possess a cheery and endearing temperament, they are not Mensa candidates in the kingdom of canines. In fact, Labs will eagerly eat, lick or gnaw objects far more disgusting than a sweaty toad. For that reason, Bob expressed what I felt was a well-founded fear that his beloved pet was in peril during these nightly Bufo encounters.

When I arrived at his house, the onslaught was in progress. A herd of medium-sized toads hungrily patrolled the perimeter of his patio, while one exceptionally rotund specimen had vaulted into Dixie's dish and engulfed so much dog chow that it was unable to climb out. It looked like a mud quiche with eyeballs.

As kids, Bob and I had roamed the Everglades collecting wild critters, so neither of us wanted to harm the Bufos. Yet there seemed no choice but to remove them quickly and by force, before his dopey dog slurped one like a Popsicle.

Ballasted with Alpo, the toads would have been easy to capture by hand. That, however, would have presented two serious problems. One was the poison; the other was pee. Toads are prodigious pissers, and Bufos in particular own hair-trigger bladders. The instant you pick one up, the hosing commences and does not cease until you drop it.

Bob and I were discussing our limited and unsavory options when I noticed a golf bag in a corner near the back door. We had a brief conversation about which of his neighbors was the most obnoxious, and then I reached for a 9-iron. Bob chose a 7.

Before the PETA rally begins, let me point out that an adult Bufo toad is one of God's sturdiest creatures. Bob swears he once saw one get run over by a compact car and then hop away. I have my doubts, but in any case we purposely picked lofted clubs to effect a kinder, gentler relocation.

Aerodynamically, your average toad travels through the air with substantially more drag than a golf ball. This is because golf balls are usually round, and legless. A toad won't carry as far, or roll more than once or twice when it lands. Nonetheless, I soon found the range with Bob's 9-iron, chipping several beefy Bufos onto a window awning two houses away. Even at that distance we could hear the feisty invaders clomping across the flimsy aluminum before free-falling into the backyard of their new, unsuspecting hosts.

Purists probably wouldn't consider clandestine toad launching as true golf, but for accuracy's sake it must be reported that I took five or six swings with an iron that night. The next time I touched a club was in August 1977, while vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina. The trip stands out for two reasons: Elvis Presley died that week, and I got my first (and last) taste of genuine mountain moonshine. However, I was neither grief-stricken nor bombed when I accompanied a friend to a municipal driving range, which--using borrowed clubs--I chopped into wet clots of flying sod.

During self-imposed retirement I continued to follow the professional tour as a fan, and in 1978 I even attended what was then called the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in Lauderhill. On the afternoon that I was in the gallery, Nicklaus ran off five consecutive birdies on his way to dusting the field. His performance was so otherwordly that it validated my decision to abandon the game; the only way I belonged on a golf course was as a spectator.

Then, in November 2002, another slip occurred, and it ultimately set me on the cart path to perdition.


From the Hardcover edition.
Carl Hiaasen|Author Q&A

About Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen - The Downhill Lie

Photo © Tim Chapman

CARL HIAASEN has been writing about Florida since his father gave him a typewriter at age six. Now Hiaasen writes a column for the Miami Herald and is the author of many bestselling novels, including Star Island and Bad Monkey. Hoot, Hiaasen's first novel for young readers, was the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Newbery Honor. 

Author Q&A

Q: You’re known for your bestselling adult and children’s fiction, as well as your sharply observed op-eds for the Miami Herald. What was it like to switch gears and write about your own life and family?
A:
It was a big change, for sure, and at first I wasn’t entirely comfortable. But there was no way to write about my own ragged history with golf without writing about my father and also my own kids, who seem hell-bent on playing the damn sport.

Q: THE DOWNHILL LIE is not just a book about golf, it’s a book about fathers and sons. What is it about golf that brings boys closer to their fathers?
A:
Most people I know who play golf started playing with their fathers or mothers when they were young. When you’re a kid, it’s just a great walk on a sunny day away from all other distractions. And it’s quiet time, which every parent likes. Of course, in my case I was usually cussing so it wasn’t quite as quiet as my father would have hoped.

Q: I hate to sound like Oprah, but would you call this your most personal book to date?
A:
I’ve never written about my family, so this is certainly more personal than my newspaper work or any other nonfiction that I’ve written. Usually I hate writing in the first-person and try to avoid it, but some stories are impossible to tell any other way.

Q: You blame your return to golf on a trip to Barbados to cover the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition photo shoot. Is the Swimsuit Edition ruined forever?
A:
It was quite a journalistic ordeal, being sent to the Caribbean for the swimsuit issue. I don’t know how I survived. Of course I invited my wife to come along, which was one of the smarter moves I’ve made.

I’m one of those people who gets bored after about three minutes on a beach (slightly longer when there are swimsuit models around), so that’s how I ended up on the golf course in Barbados. The road to doom, it was.

Q: Seriously, what inspired your return to the game after a 32-year hiatus?
A:
Some high-school buddies suggested I give it a try. A good friend, Joe Simmens, dragged me out to play nine holes and I was pretty much hooked again. I had no great expectations, either, because I wasn't a very good player even when I was young.

Q: You recall playing golf in high school with your buddies and--somewhat begrudgingly--admit that you enjoyed it. After watching your youngest son Quinn on the course, you write: “When the sport is new, every crisp shot is a wonder and thrill. I believe this is how you’re supposed to feel with a golf club in your hands: Full of heart and free of mind.” Is this a game best saved for the young?
A:
It’s a game that works best for those who are young of heart, whether they’re eight or 80 years old. Most writers are NOT young of heart. The exception might be Mike Lupica, my dear friend who talked me into keeping a journal of my so-called comeback. Lupica is just a big kid, really. He’s appallingly enthusiastic.

Q: When your wife takes her first lesson and enjoys it, you sagely note that the golf course is dangerous territory for a marriage. Is she still playing?
A:
My wife has returned to horseback riding, thank God. She still plays golf every now and then, and she went up to Augusta with me for the practice days at the Masters this year. She loves the sport but, unlike me, is perceptive enough to know her limitations.

Q: You observe that golfers love maxims, and it seems fair to say that they’ll go to feckless lengths to improve their game. You tried out a number of products meant to improve your game, such as golf energy-enhancing pills. Did anything—pills, amulets, inspirational books—work?
A:
Nothing worked for more than a week or two. I suspect it’s all magically effective, though, if you have a big fat endorsement deal from these companies. I don’t.

Q: Throughout the process of writing THE DOWNHILL LIE, you’ve had the pleasure of golfing with a number of esteemed players: New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica, former PGA golfer and Golf columnist David Feherty, and the Knopf publicity department’s own Paul Bogaards. Who was your favorite partner?
A:
I never actually played with Feherty because he doesn’t ever touch a golf club, unless he is forced at gunpoint. He’s a riot, though, maybe the funniest guy I’ve ever met. Lupica is hilarious, too, and a disgustingly solid player. Bogaards is by far the most profane, much worse than even me. And loud, too. He bellows like a gutshot grizzly bear when he misses a putt, which is often.

Q: The book is done and yet you’re still golfing. What’s the update on your game?
A:
As soon as I finished writing the golf book, I had to start another novel for young readers. Consequently, I don’t have as much time to play golf, which naturally means that my game will improve. Last time I checked, my USGA handicap was 13.3, which isn’t too bad. The number is misleading, though, because I play on a pretty tough course with a high rating. Afew rotten rounds and I’ll be right back at 15 or 16, no problem.

Q: Writing. Golfing. Fly fishing for bonefish. You’re a true Floridian renaissance man. Do you have any other hidden talents up your sleeve?
A:
Obviously you’re using the word “talent” very charitably, but no, I have no hidden ones. I don’t paint, cliff-dive or play the mandolin, if that’s what you’re asking.

Q: What’s next for your writing?
A:
Once THE DOWNHILL LIE book tour is done, I’ll start another depraved novel for grownups. I haven’t even thought about a plot, but I suspect that Skink, the unhinged ex-governor, will return as a character. He’s been away too long.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“An extraordinary book for the ordinary hacker.”—The New York Times “With biting humor and painfully honest self-humiliation, Hiaasen describes his 1-1/2-year journey into one of Dante's inner circles of hell.”—The Christian Science Monitor“A cleverly written, witty and sometimes wistful look at golf, marriage, human nature and life.”—The Tampa Tribune“Hiaasen's hilarious misadventures on the golf course are all too familiar to anyone who has ever flailed at the ball in futile attempts to conquer a sport that mercilessly strips us of our dignity.”—The New York Times Book Review“The foibles and embarrassments, as well as the joys, of casual and tournament golf ring true....Golfers should love this book.”—Rocky Mountain News“Memoir is new territory for him, but Hiaasen is Hiaasen. Fans of his bizarro novels will find his irony and sense of humor remain unaffected on the links.” —The Florida Times-Union“A return by Hiaasen to his best with the sport of golf providing the venue for his unique wit and biting humor.... You’ll have many laugh-out-loud moments.... If you’ve never read Carl Hiaasen... if you have read him before, this is a wonderful return to the magic (albeit voodoo) that is Carl Hiaasen.” —Decatur Daily“…[Hiaasen’s] insights into the insane lengths a golfer will go to in hopes of a lower score are always entertaining. If you’ve been bitten by the golf bug, you’ll appreciate every moment of Hiaasen’s magnificent obsession. If you haven’t, read The Downhill Lie and laugh at those of us who have.”—Howard Shirley, Bookpage“Golfers in general tend to be self-critical, but Mr. Hiaasen is a self-lacerator. He doesn’t curse or throw his clubs, but he sighs a lot and asks existential questions like, “Why do we do this?” and “Why are we out here?” He plays the way you imagine Samuel Beckett might have played. He can’t go on, but he goes on.”—Charles McGrath, New York Times“His analysis of his lessons, hapless rounds and gimmicky golf equipment is hilarious, and his vivid descriptions are vintage Hiaasen . . . With the satirically skilled Hiaasen, who rarely breaks 90 on the links, this narrative is an enjoyable ride.” —Publishers Weekly “It has taken Carl Hiaasen to capture the essence of a game that, like the bagpipes and the kilt, was invented by the Irish and given to the Scots as a joke. Carl's dementia is kind of exquisite. He lampoons the most banal aspects of stodgy blue-blooded American country-club life. The simple act of buying a set of clubs gets the full Hiaasen treatment, and the guilt-ridden angst of the triangular love-hate relationship between himself, his drop-dead beautiful Greek wife, and the drop-dead-you-rotten-bastard Scotty Cameron putter she bought him, is alone worth the price of one for yourself and another for Father's Day.”—David Feherty
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