Fear and loathing at the Nissan Open
To hear Hunter S. Thompson tell it, he invented "gonzo journalism" out of total desperation. The good doctor, as he liked to call himself, had a deadline to make and nothing to write. Sort of like being a golf writer and having the tournament of the week endlessly interrupted by a rain front that apparently extended from Riviera Country Club to somewhere west of Krakatoa.
While Thompson's connections to golf are minimal, and while the fact a golf writer should sing his praises seems a bit gonzo-ish, the good doctor would understand about making a deadline. Desperate times stretch the definition of relevance. The truth of the matter, however, is that Thompson's contributions to journalism were enormous. His death Sunday of an apparent suicide at his Colorado home silenced one of the rarest of creatures: A truly original voice.
According to Thompson -- and with Thompson you were never exactly certain where truth ended and fiction began -- he developed his stream-of-consciousness style in which he plopped himself into the middle of whatever he was writing about when he was sent by Scanlan's magazine to cover the Kentucky Derby. The article, as I remember, quickly abandoned the Southern civility of the mint julep and plunged headlong into the bottom of a bourbon barrel. It was apparently on the morning after the night before, with the haze of excess still shrouding his mind, that Thompson tried to put his thoughts on paper.
"I'd blown my mind, couldn't work," he said in a Playboy interview years later. "So I finally started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to write for anybody." Instead, his piece was greeted with rave reviews and hailed as a breakthrough in journalism. It was the beginning of a remarkable career that produced, among other works, the books "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" and "Hell's Angels." Thompson never pulled a punch. He not only wrote what he thought, he wrote what he felt. His obituary on former President Richard Nixon published in Rolling Stone in 1994 was entitled "He was a Crook" and contained this passage:
"He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that 'I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon.'"
One of the last things Thompson wrote contained the humor and brutal irony for which he was noted. In this case the irony was unintentional. The piece, published earlier this month on ESPN.com, was called "Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray." In it, Thompson details a late-night phone call with Murray in which the author asks the actor for advice on how to launch a new sport he has invented that combines gunplay and golf. "Last spring, the Sheriff and I played a game outside in the yard here," Thompson wrote. "He had my Ping Beryllium 9-iron and I had his shotgun, and about 100 yards away, we had a linoleum green and a flag set up. He was pitching toward the green. and I was standing about 10 feet away from him, with the alley-sweeper. And my objective was to blow his ball off course, like a clay pigeon."
As with much of Thompson's writing, you can close your eyes and picture the scene. As with much of Thompson's thinking, he battered down barriers by combining two concepts as remote from each other as golf and skeet shooting. Guns were always a part of Thompson's life, as was alcohol and other mood-altering compounds, so much so that you wonder if the story he had mentally written for his own life ended with him dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound -- alone -- as he did.
One of the first things I remember reading by Thompson was a piece titled, "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border," originally published in the National Observer nerly 40 years ago:
"One of my most vivid memories of South America is that of a man with a golf club -- a five-iron, if memory serves -- driving golf balls off a penthouse terrace in Cali, Colombia. He was a tall Britisher, and had what the British call a 'stylish pot' instead of a waistline. Beside him on the patio was a long gin-and-tonic, which he had refilled from time-to-time at the nearby bar. He had a good swing, and each of his shots carried low and long out over the city. Where they fell, neither he nor I nor anyone else on the terrace that day had the vaguest idea. The penthouse, however, was in a residential section of the Rio Cali, which runs through the middle of town. Somewhere below us, in the narrow streets that are lined by white adobe blockhouses of urban peasantry, a strange hail was rattling on the roofs -- golf balls, 'old practice duds,' so the Britisher told me, that were 'hardly worth driving away.'"
I don't know if Thompson ever really played golf, other than to hit balls from a penthouse terrace in Colombia or to shoot at golf balls struck by a 9-iron with a shotgun. He did have a Ping 9-iron, of that we are reasonably certain because at least he said he did. And that was the ultimate playfulness of Thompson: He challenged you to figure out whether or not he was telling the truth. In doing so he made you laugh. And in doing so he made you think. Even in death he made reality elusive. The Associated Press said he was 67 and The New York Times said he was 65.
Hunter S. Thompson once said about golf: "The reason most people play golf is to wear clothes they would not be caught dead in otherwise." When I heard that the good doctor would no longer be in, I blinked back a tear, thought of that line and chuckled. I wondered what he was wearing. And I thanked him for a column idea on a rainy day. He would understand the irony.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.
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