Commentary

Author Carl Hiaasen discusses golf, nerves and the shanks

Updated: May 15, 2008, 2:48 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

The biggest surprise in reading Carl Hiaasen's nonfiction book on golf? Discovering that the author of 11 comical, satirical thrillers is actually a self-professed uptight loner who struggles having fun anywhere -- especially on the links.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of laughs in "The Downhill Lie," Hiassen's account of his return to golf after a 32-year hiatus. Part journal, part commentary and part reporter's notebook, the book covers nearly two years in which Hiassen attempts to achieve two modest goals: top the best score from his youth, and compete without embarrassment in his country club's annual member-guest tournament.

In addition to chronicling his comeback odyssey, Hiassen rants about some of his favorite subjects: the state of Florida's ecosystem, the war, political corruption and developers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Hiaasen
Alfred A. Knopf PublicityWhen was he most nervous on a golf course? Author Carl Hiaasen says while playing during a member-guest tournament.

Hiassen was raised in South Florida, where he often spent Sundays golfing with his father, a successful but busy lawyer who died at 49. Odel Hiassen was an accomplished golfer with a sweet swing. His son was a temperamental hacker -- one reason he quit the game, a decision he has since regretted.

Hiassen married at 17 and became a father a year later. In 1976 he joined the Miami Herald as a reporter and in 1985 became a columnist, focusing on environmental issues. For many years he lived in the Florida Keys, where -- when he wasn't writing -- he pursued his passion of bone fishing.

In the 1980s, Hiassen began writing fiction, which has brought him considerable success. He later divorced, remarried, started a new family and moved to Vero Beach. There, far from the bone fish waters, an old friend reintroduced him to golf in 2005, and a writing project was hatched. Hiaasen still writes for The Herald once a week, giving him more time for his books and, presumably, golf. He just completed his third book for youths -- "Scat" -- and soon will begin contemplating another comedic thriller in which he promises the return of his most popular and zany character, Skink.

ESPN.com talked with the affable and engaging author by phone while he was in Los Angeles as part of a one-month tour promoting his book. At 55, Hiaasen says he dislikes the travel almost as much as flying and tournament golf.

What was the hardest part of returning to the game after so many years?

Hitting the golf ball straight is always the hardest part. But there was a sentimental hurdle I had to cross. In my mind it was so much attached to the experiences with my Dad. In a way, it was an inspiration, I have to say. On the other hand, it did bring up a lot of memories, too. Some of them are sad memories because he passed away suddenly when I was 22. I had to convince myself that he would approve, even though I wasn't a very good golfer when I quit. I think he probably would have approved of me going back and tackling it again because he truly loved the sport. [Also], I had to wrestle in my own mind with the idea of, "Am I being too presumptuous in my 50s to think that I could conquer this game again when I really wasn't all that great at it when I was young?" It became a challenge. There is enough of the middle-aged male ego and vanity alive that you think, "You know what? This is a sport in which guys my age can play very, very well. Now, can I do it myself?" I don't know. You always hold out that hope. So I guess the hardest part [from that sense] was taking that leap and say, "OK, I'm going to buy some clubs and go tackle it again."

During the course of your comeback, you bought numerous drivers, putters, and rescue clubs -- not to mention a wide assortment of swing aids, instruction books and even pills to help you focus and something called a Q-Link to hang around your neck. Why, and did they help?

[To me], this was all new stuff. When I was a kid, I didn't remember any of this stuff being shoved at you. It seemed to be much simpler then. I mean, I never got fitted for a set of golf clubs. You just walked in a store and pointed at some clubs and said, "That looks good." The idea of going on a launch monitor -- I mean, it was mind-boggling. Since I was keeping a journal, I figured I had to experience all of it. Yes, I bought a Q-Link. The whole idea that this thing was resonating on your neck and controlling your bio-field was kind of preposterous. More than half of what golf is about is in your head anyway. If you believe something is going to work or if something works while you're doing it, then you start to believe it. So it's a self-fulfilling sort of thing. I think if I had played well using any of this stuff or these swing aids and these special clubs -- if any of that stuff had worked, I'd probably swear by it right now. But in my case, none of it worked.

Despite the efforts of your teachers, friends and family to get you to enjoy the experience of returning to golf, it was mostly a painful journey for you. Why?

I think the nature of my personality and probably many writers is to be cranky and solitary … and, also, extremely self-critical. Those of us who try to be perfectionists, you want every sentence to be perfect, and every paragraph, and every transition. You can't do it perfectly, of course. You take that same attitude and philosophy out on the golf course and you can beat yourself up pretty badly. And that's what I had to guard against. Some days I'm not very good at doing it. And I'm not sure that's the best approach to golf. I envy the folks -- and I know a few -- who really do just go out and have a good time. [Of course] they're usually taking a cooler of beer, too.

In your book, you describe scenes in which you drill dog-food-thieving toads with a 9-iron, and hammer rats that disabled your SUV with a golf-swing aid called the Momentus. How will you respond if vermin rights groups come calling?

Well, vermin is vermin. Trust me when I tell you the Bufo toad is an invasive species in Florida. And people have tried to basically exterminate the species because they have eaten up all of the native toads and frogs in the area. We were chipping, by the way. I wasn't taking a full swing or teeing them up. They also are highly poisonous to dogs. My friend's dog was a Labrador and you know Labs: They'll eat anything. They literally can kill a dog in a few minutes if [the dog] licks them or picks them up. It was one of those them-or-us situations, so we elected to relocate the toads. They were very much alive at the end of their flight, I can tell you that. They are as tough as nails. In terms of the rats, I have no apologies. If I'm facing four or five large rats and all I have is a heavily-weighted golf club -- 40 ounces of firepower -- the rats are going to lose every time.

What's more difficult: overcoming writer's block or curing the shanks?

I don't believe in writer's block. In journalism, that translates to "unemployment block." You can't be a journalist and have writer's block. You have deadlines; you write. It's just what you do. [On the other hand], there has been very little in my life more terrifying than the shanks. Once it gets imbedded in your head, you just can't figure out what to do. And everybody has a different cure. You read different books and the golf magazines. My friends won't even let me say the word around them. I use sign language or just say, "The S-word." It's so infectious and so diabolical. I have not figured it out.

Name three of your fictional characters you'd like to have in your foursome and why?

Well, I'm sure I would like to have Skink [an ex-governor who lives in a swamp and dines on road kill] just because of sheer entertainment value and just to watch any dining opportunities that might come along. Skip Riley from "Tourist Season" is someone I would like to have because he's a kindred soul -- if he's still around, which wasn't exactly clear at the end of the novel. I would probably also like to have one of my favorite characters, JoLayne Lucks [owner of a $28 million lottery ticket that gets swiped in "Lucky You"]. I think she would certainly bring some energy, optimism and scenic relief.

You're an outspoken environmentalist. You've been harsh in your journalism and in your fiction on the sort of people who belong to your country club and develop the courses you play -- most of whom likely are far more conservative. How do you deal with that?

I've spent my whole life around people who are more conservative, so that's not the problem. The thing I had to wrestle with was what kind of courses would I play. Golf has changed quite a bit. When this sport started, nature really dictated the kind of course it was -- the hillsides, the creeks, the lakes. On the old traditional courses, you went out into the elements and played against nature. It's a much different deal now. Now they are building courses that are basically excuses for high-end housing subdivisions. The golf is secondary to the real estate sales in most of these places. That isn't where I wanted to spend my afternoons. So the course I play, Quail Valley in Vero Beach, is wonderful because it was basically 280 acres of orange grove. It wasn't habitat, it was agricultural land. And when they built this course the owners made it very clear that there would never ever be any [housing units] anywhere around it, if they can help it. It was strictly for golf. Now the place is teeming with wildlife. And it wasn't [before] as an orange grove. … That's one of the sad ironies of the whole thing. If you're golfing in Florida, you're likely to see more wildlife during an 18-hole stroll than you would likely see while taking a walk in the woods. The other bottom line to the whole thing: If there wasn't a golf course on that property, there could be 1,000 homes there. And the impact of an 18-hole golf course on the environment of Florida is miniscule compared to the impact of a housing development on that property. But having said this, I'm not oblivious to the fact that there's been a lot of carnage in the name of golf development in this country, which isn't good.

What are your thoughts on David Feherty, the CBS golf announcer you became friends with while working on your book?

He's wacky but I'll tell you what, he's one of the funniest people I've ever met, and I've known some really funny folks. He's just so quick and he's so sharp. But here's the thing: He comes off when you talk to him as the gruff and droll Irish wit that suggests golf is an arena for lunatics. But the truth is he loves the sport. And it's very hard to get him to admit how much he loves the sport. I was with him for two days up at Firestone, and the great thing is, when he sees some of these fellows hit these extraordinary shots, he's as awestruck by it as you and I would be. And he played the game. He played well. He was Ryder Cup. But even his jaw drops. He has back problems and other things so he doesn't play much anymore. But the love of the game isn't extinguished no matter what.

As a father and children's author, name an important life lesson learned from golf.

When I started this it was just supposed to be a journal -- [I was] hoping it was funny. And the worse I played, of course, the funnier it seemed to get for everyone else except me. I didn't think there would be any lessons in it. But my editor wisely said you have to talk about how you got started, when you were a kid with your dad. It's something I had never really talked about with anybody. It's nothing I would do in my novels and certainly not my newspaper columns. But as I wrote about some of it and the memory came back, I realized I had behaved like a petulant brat out there. Every time I hit a bad shot I acted like it was the end of the world. And I think I wasted a lot of moments and a lot of afternoons with him that I wished I could have just done over again and behave a little better and enjoy them for what they were. Now that my kids are playing, I don't think I could ever quit as long as they're enjoying it. I think the lesson is I'm not going to waste those afternoons anymore. I'm not going to blow it again. Because you never know; you need to make each moment count.

What pro golfer are you most impressed with and why?

I think Tiger has done some remarkable things for the game. As a kid, I was a huge Jack Nicklaus fan, and I still am. He was a fantastic golfer. Lorena Ochoa and Annika [Sorenstam], what they're doing is so incredible to watch. I just think it's all good for the game. All those 32 years I wasn't playing, I still was a fan. I still watched the PGA tournaments. Part of it was that's what my Dad and I used to do together, so I never stopped. When I went back to the game I didn't feel as much a stranger had I turned my back on the sport [completely].

When were you most nervous on a golf course?

I first played in the member-guest tournament at my club. I'm sure it sounds ridiculous. I had my friend, Leibo, with me and he was a great comfort. But still, you're playing with strangers and it counted for something. It was a team thing. You don't want to let your friend down. Just getting up there and hitting the ball off the tee with all those strangers standing around was torture.

What's the state of your game today?

I haven't been playing much because I was trying to finish the kids' book. So it's pretty ragged right now. I didn't bring my clubs on the book tour. I have to get home and have things die down before I can focus on it.

Will an uptight hacker, with a proclivity for vulgarity, who likes to golf alone turn up as a character in one of your future novels?

If he does, he'll be killed off by the fifth chapter, I predict. One book is enough to inflict that particular character on my readers.

What was the most rewarding aspect of this experience, and was it worth it?

I've been interviewed by a lot of people who don't play golf. And they've asked me, "Why are you doing this? Why are you killing yourself?" And I tell them because there are one or two golden moments, maybe only once a round when you make a shot or sink a putt just like Tiger would have done it. There are very few sports that a guy my age -- or any age -- can walk out onto essentially the same playing field as a pro and duplicate something that the pro can do. It may happen once a year that you drain that impossible putt or you hit that 4-iron that you [normally] can't hit and suddenly you hit it and you're on top of the world. You can keep coming back for years on one good round, one good shot, one good moment out there. Also, I've reached a level -- when I was playing [regularly] -- that I was better than I was as a kid. My best score still is 85; I haven't been able to beat that. My subconscious belief is that I can, so I'll keep going out there and trying.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.