How a Good Golf Story Can Become Much More in the Hands of a Master
On April 12th of this year I sat in a local pub and watched the Master's Tournament, live from Augusta, Georgia. I am not a golfer, nor have I ever been a fan and up to recently, I would have have likened viewing a televised game to watching paint dry. But there I sat transfixed.
Ask anybody who knows golf and you will learn that the Master's is the creme de la creme of the sport and that this year's competition has quickly risen to the top as possibly being the best ever in its 79 year history. A 21-year-old from Dallas named Jordan Spieth won his first major and broke several records while doing so. A physically and psychically ailing Tiger Woods, a four-time winner who last won it in 2005, returned to the game after an absence to tie for 17th place, which might appear disappointing on the surface but to those in the know, the 39-year-old may have played his most important game, ever. Who doesn't know of Woods' personal dramas and subsequent career spiral? And then there was 63-year- old Texan Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Master's champion who last wore the coveted green jacket 20 years ago, who has declared 2015 his final Masters, after 44 appearances. But all of this was not why I watched.
I watched because of an article by Kevin Robbins on the front page of the Sports section of The New York Times a week earlier on Easter Sunday, when I splurged six dollars on the tome, which I read every page of, as a holiday treat to myself. Which is how I came to read the golf article written by Robbins, entitled A Golf Teacher With a Lion’s Instincts and a Dove’s Heart, a longtime Texas journalist, who now teaches sports journalism at the University of Texas.
I have never set foot in Texas, but they must be onto something down there because how else could I, along with so many others, get hooked on a television series a few years back about high school football?
I watched because I knew the backstory, thanks to Robbins. I knew that those famous Georgia links were most definitely haunted by the looming presence of the late Texas golf coach and author, Harvey Penick, who died a week before Crenshaw won the Masters in 1995.
I watched because Robbins made me care about something I had not really considered before. In his masterful feature article, the journalist wrote about Penick, and his connection to Crenshaw whom he had coached since the age of 6, who began his own golf career as an 8-year-old caddie. I read and then I watched because he told me a good story. Forget that I am not into golf, I did. Robbins related the humanity of a storied coach, his method of teaching, and his relationship to and impact on one particular athlete, Crenshaw.
Journalism has been on a slippery slope for many years, and print journalism in particular has become an endangered species. The human species is acclimating to a high-speed, multi-sensory delivery of information erupting in spurts and fits of fragments that don't, as a rule, allow for actual storytelling or much humanity, which is really at the heart of what story is about - showing us what it means to be human.
Robbins article is an exception to what is rapidly becoming our new media normal. Sure he covered all the who, what, where, when, and how bases with all the sports stats and history, but he did so in a meaningful way. Otherwise, I would have turned to the next page. The reader could sense that he wasn't just shooting stats blindly, he wasn't kitchen-sinking, he was purposefully choosing what to include and what to leave out. Then he elevated his sports piece to a feature piece, by connecting all that information into a story - a story that showed me the humanity of Penick, Crenshaw and Woods. Robbins told me the "why" of it all and in doing so - hooked me.
But then, the writer did something amazing, he conjured magic by wondering what could happen if Tiger Woods and Harvey Penick intersected before this tournament. That is when, for me, Robbins work became inspired. Not your everyday journalism, definitely something worthy of the Sunday New York Times.
Woods had his professional debut at the Masters just after Penick died. He was the golfer Spieth looked up to growing up. When he won this year's Masters, he tied Woods' score at his first Masters win, and became the second youngest to win the title, Woods being the youngest.
Instead of jumping on the bashing bandwagon that has erupted following Woods' fall from grace, which is the type of behavior we have begun to expect from many media outlets, Robbins ups the vibration, by inviting us to imagine a Penick/Woods encounter along with him. Pretty creative stuff.
As I file this column, a gentle rain is falling. Perhaps it is like the rain that fell on that day years ago, when Crenshaw, not knowing what was happening to his career that was in a two year spiral, went home to Texas, where he received Penick's wise counsel, which wasn't really about golf at all. According to Robbins, Penick asked Crenshaw if he was prepared to forget the troubles of the past year, and just get back to his game.
According to the journalist's interpretation, "He was saying nothing about golf and everything about a return to a true self. Crenshaw won the first of his two Masters jackets two years later. He knew again what was happening. He remembered who he was."
Right there was the true beauty contained in this piece. A late legendary golf coach reached through the willing vessel of Kevin Robbins and woke me up. Quite unexpectedly, I remembered who I am and what I need to forget. Penick's meeting with Crenshaw was way beyond golf, as Robbins imagined it could be with Woods. It would be nice to imagine Woods read the same article I did - that you can. You never know what you are going to find in a newspaper article. On Easter Sunday, I learned a little about golf (don't expect to see me on a course anytime soon) and remembered much more about who I am - about my life.
I have taught memoir workshops for many years. Sometimes my students make me cry. More than other writing genres, the craft of memoir is burdened and blessed by the continual ebb and flow of remembering and forgetting. One memory flashes, one recollection threads to another, and suddenly the floodgates open. Sometimes the memories are pieced together on the page, like a beautiful tapestry. Other times the result is beautiful in its own right but painful for the writer, who may remember what he or she sometimes worked hard to forget, and is now confronted with the emotional weight of the past. The tears shed often contain both joy and sadness, for me and them. Putting one's life on paper is a courageous process, during which we explore and excavate our life journey to share our unique stories.
Robbins article, which I shared with my students, made me remember who I am and why I love journalism. I had a flash of sitting across from my father at the breakfast table growing up as he read the morning paper, me leaning forward in my seat to read the flip side of his page, and being gently admonished. I would get my turn. Be patient.
Somehow I knew he held magic in his hands.
For me, being in a newsroom filled with other reporters amidst the clicking of keyboards, as the day's news is being written, is as good as work gets. I love the smell of fresh newsprint and don't mind when it stains my fingers. The students who sit in Robbins' classroom on their way to future newsrooms, are lucky indeed.