The truth is that I don’t know very many hard truths about drinking and writing, or even exactly why writers tend to drink. That said, I will say that many of the learned explanations I’ve read don’t show much understanding, let alone truths either.
No less an authority than Psychology Today included gems like:
the drive for success of every kind
the hunger for prestige, fame, and money
Naw, that ain’t it…
Anyway, I do have some ideas (better ideas than those, anyway).
Crafting the Buzz
You’re a wordsmith, that’s great. And, if you drink when you write you also have to be a buzzsmith (yes, I did just invent that word) because too much alcohol, and this is news to no one, blunts perception, true sensitivity and the ability to articulate ideas.
But, what about just enough alcohol? Well, that’s a different story. I contend that, for me, just enough alcohol, just as it facilitates some conversations, facilitates access to ideas and word combinations that may well be elusive in a state of total sobriety.
The general accepted idea is that judgment is the first faculty to be affected by alcohol. But, think about what judgment can mean when applied to writing. It’s easy for judgment to become self-judgment, and self-judgment is very effective in closing down new and novel ways to think about things. Since when has that helped the writing process? There’s a chance that just enough alcohol can open the very doors that need to be open for the ideas to flow their best.
But there’s something else, too.
A Foil Against Writing-Induced Loneliness
I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me how I can spend so much time alone and writing, owing to my basically chatty nature. It’s not only difficult but it runs against some of my most basic instincts to be around other people and talking. When my office is quiet, and it’s dark outside, my first impulse is to call someone on the phone. But, if there’s something I want to write I need to replace that temptation for a while. I start with a snack and follow it with a drink. If I make good progress, I may have another drink, but that’s it.
The law of diminishing returns sets in after two drinks.
Is a Rum & Coke So Different From a Xanax?
When I get home from a long day and a hundred miles or more of driving and I need to write, I’m also going to want a drink. That’s the just the truth without a proclamation of pride or shame. I admit it’s an ongoing balancing act. I admit that I have also written effectively when sober as a proverbial judge. And, sadly very close friends of mine have had their lives ended by the ravages of alcoholism.
So Where Does that Leave Writers and Alcohol?
Writing, like living, is an art. There’s simply no rule book that governs the creative process. I can only say that I seek balance. I want to write. I want to see people and enjoy their company. I want to have a couple drinks and enjoy people and writing sometimes even more when I do without.
All of that said, I want to do all of this safely, in a way that protects me and everyone else. That can be the hard part but it’s also the most important part of all.
Enjoy & create, but take good care of yourself while you’re doing it.
I’ve not been around lately because I am trying to make hay while the sunshines on my second book. It’s coming along nicely, thanks for asking. I have an outside chance of finishing the narrative by my self-imposed deadline of December 31 of this year.
It’ll be close but I might just make it.
Anyway, I was having lunch with a preternaturally nervous and stressed friend yesterday. Does he deserve to be as wound up as he is? I don’t think so but it’s pretty much his natural state. He’s a little better some days and worse others.
We were parked at the bar of the local CPK and he asked why I wasn’t having a beer. I told him CPK had a lousy tap list. They used to make mixed drinks with Pepsi, for heaven’s sake.
He said, “I wonder why some of the local brewers don’t just get a keg in here. It would be easy.”
“Easy?” I said incredulously.
“Wouldn’t it be?” he said naively.
Before I not-so-gently corrected him I reminded myself who he was and how he thought. For him, everything is always simple and easy as long as someone else is doing it. I try to remind him that pretty much anything worth doing is located on the Hard Scale somewhere between difficult and impossible but he’s quite resistant to the reality of all things worthwhile.
Writing a book? Easy until you try.
Brewing a decent red ale? Easy until you try.
Learning a new language? Easy until you try.
Admitting something’s hard shouldn’t scare us away from doing it. We only have to care enough to take the steps that need taking, day after day.
I’m preparing it for submission to a handful of publishers and it turns out they don’t fancy looking at books that are already in the throes of a self-publishing campaign.
I’m quite certain that’s where my book will end up and that’s OK by me. I’m glad I wrote it. It took a lot longer than I had hoped but I learned so much about the kind of long-form writing thought that a novel requires that I now regard the span of time as something of a necessity. That’s another way of saying I’m a slow learner.
I had written a great deal over a very long period of time before I decided to write a novel. Now that I’ve done it, I want to do another and to do a better job of it. I can look back on my book and can see it clearly for its good and bad. Something about writing it broke away a kind of resistance that had set in to that kind of writing ambition. Suddenly, writing a book seemed like something I could do and do with meaningful results.
I think often of Steve Earle’s dark years in Amsterdam when he was addicted to heroin. When he had finally clawed his way back into the light, he had a creative boom of sorts, making records and writing books and plays with a speed and intensity he never showed before. He attributed the burst of work to his release from smack.
Even though I wrote for both pay and fun I avoided the idea of writing a book until I hit my 50s. Rather than being addicted to heroin I had instead succumbed to the belief that I didn’t have anything to offer; that I wasn’t that kind of writer. It turns out that I am…
So, I’m grateful that I simply had the idea to write my book. Obviously and as always, it is the idea that made everything possible.
Now I have another idea and it’s led me start writing my second next novel.
Here’s hoping it moves along faster than the first one.
The Woolsey Fire is now all but out. The evacuation area got as close as a mile from my home. I got out toward the end of last week and saw some of the devastation along the north-bound 101.
Most of the oak trees I have photographed on many of the trails I hike have burned. They stand now like charred skeletons on the fire-darkened slopes. Compared to many of who live not very far from where I do, I was very lucky.
The fire started to the south and west of Sage Park. For days, I wondered if the prevailing winds would allow the dried grasses and oaks of the park survive the inferno and they did.
There’s always something to be thankful for and today I’m thankful for all of the oaks and all of the wildlife and all of the rare open space of Southern California that came through the Woolsey Fire unscathed.
I can’t remember if it was 2008 or 2009 when I first met Tony Manzoni. I know I was in the desert on a golf junket and that I had picked up a local desert golf magazine that had an article on Tony that alluded to his swing theory. The article was pretty sparse, and didn’t really get to the essence of what Tony was saying, but there was just enough there to pique my interest.
Soon thereafter we met but it was years, many years, in fact, before our book, The Lost Fundamental, saw the light of day. Those many years have now flipped by as the days and weeks and months and years of the calendar are destined to and now my friend, Tony Manzoni, has moved on.
Tony battled cancer over the last few years. He fought the good fight and fought it with optimism and good humor but in the end cancer or the fates or God in heaven ended the game and now we are all left to face the world, and especially the world of golf, without him.
Yes, he had played alongside of the greats of our game.
Yes, he taught golf to movie stars.
Yes, Frank Sinatra was godfather to his daughter.
Each of these are undisputed facts but what they don’t convey is what truly matters about Tony Manzoni. In the end, as great a teacher as Tony was, as fine a player as he was, his real calling in life, his real gift, was as a lifelong student of golf.
Of course, Tony was an amazing player in his own right.
Of course, Tony coached his College of the Desert team to no fewer than five state championships.
I had the good fortune of working with Tony on his concepts many times over the last decade and each and every time I met with him in person, or when I spoke to him by phone, his mind was always on the game.
Once, I met with him in his office during a time when we were feverishly editing one of the final drafts of our book. I was reading the book, out loud, to him while Tony silently read his copy of the draft.
I was watching his hands as he read but I couldn’t figure out why he was moving them as he was..
Then I realized what was happening. Before we had gotten into the edits I had mentioned the premise of an article I had read concerning the action of the wrists during the golf swing. The writer said that only the left wrist truly hinged while the right wrist merely shifted right to accommodate that hinging action. What I was seeing was Tony working his hands to see if this was true or not.
After a while, Tony looked up and me and said, “You know, Paul…that’s absolutely right.”
Perhaps this is the final and best lesson of a true master of golf. Learning never ends. Part of being an expert is having an open mind to different ways of experiencing golf and also to explaining it. Tony had this gift. A part of it gave him the ability to relate to his young students at College of the Desert though he was many years their senior. It was easy for him because Tony was always learning, just like his players.
Tony has only been gone for a few days now but I already miss him dearly. My own golf game will surely suffer for his absence but my life will always be enriched by the echo of Tony’s ongoing presence and his passion for golf and learning.
I am proud to count Tony Manzoni as a friend and I was honored to work with him on the mission of bringing his knowledge to more and more of those who love our game.
If you would like to read more about Tony’s storied career you can read his obituary in the Desert Sun here.
I’m having a marginal golf season so I decided I needed to some find some talismans to help my game. OK, I know they’re placebos, but I am huge believer in placebos.
By the way, if you haven’t heard this podcast listen to it now and come back and look the photo and read this later: Akimbo: Don’t fear placebos
Anyway, I decided to buy some coins from the year of my birth. The quarter was a coin from my dad, so even though I carry it in my golf bag I don’t use it to mark putts since I’m always afraid of losing it.
So, this is the collection so far. None of them cost more than a dollar and I think they make a nice looking group. Now when I loan someone a coin as a ball mark and they forget to give it back I can say, “I’ll bet you have a 1961 coin in your pocket…hand it over.”
By the way, the two divot repair tools are made from real carbon fiber. Back in the day I knew a guy who made them and they are very cool. The are exceptionally light and show very little wear even though I use them all the time.
Sadly, the guy lost his access to carbon fiber and the business never took off.
The high end will continue to shrink. There will soon come a day when every surviving high end guy will come together in a room, shake hands with one another, and then all fall over dead. – Kevin Halverson, co-founder of Muse Electronics.
After all these years, this final meeting still hasn’t happened…yet. I started The Audio Observatory way back when, even before Kevin laid this hard bit of prophecy on me. I didn’t really have much of a vision for TAO, which is the one big reason that it never became much of anything. It existed to serve my own purpose and my purpose was to do what I could to undermine the then-existing attitudes toward the relevance and influence of reviews. I simply wanted people to have the confidence to listen to what they liked and to enjoy what they listened to.
A mother-fucker can either listen to what he likes, or he can listen to what some other mother-fucker likes. – Joe Roberts, Editor of Sound Practices.
TAO started out and ended up modestly. At its peak, I was sending out a few thousand issues at a time. But, when I started out I was only mailing a few hundred. Most were sent to my high end heroes. I sent issues of TAO to guys like Nelson Pass, Ray Kimber, Yves-Bernard André, Jim Winey, Bruce Thigpen and Roger Modjeski. After a few dozen issues I got a hand-written letter from Roger Modjeski and a poem. It turns out that he liked the line I used to close each issue.
Listen well, but listen happy.
The line captured what I wanted readers to get, that their happiness with their own beloved music was all that mattered. When I got that letter from Roger I knew I had gotten at least one thing right and lots of folks can’t even do that. He invited me to give him a call and to come up to Santa Barbara for lunch…just to talk. A few weeks later I did and so began an association that, to this day, informs a good deal of how I think and how I see the world, especially the world of high end audio.
Right away, Roger and I enjoyed each other’s company. I think we each sensed that we saw the other as an odd yet accurate reflection of our other self. If that doesn’t make of sense rest easy; t doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. In some ways, we didn’t have much in common. Roger was an engineer’s-engineer and I was a mere layman, though one possessed of a strong appreciation for formal reasoning and a quick facility for the occasionally clarifying analogy. Sometimes Roger’s engineering rigor created an angst-inducing forest-for-the-trees situation that needed that ability on my part.
We both loved music and thought that vacuum tubes were the best path to achieve its reproduction in the home. That’s not really true. Roger thought that but I believed that the very best transistor gear was in fact superior to the best tube gear. But, I also thought that better designed vacuum gear outperformed most solid-state gear that was even remotely similarly priced. And, there was and there is no vacuum tube gear that’s as well designed as the gear Roger Modjeski designs. He simply has no equal.
Roger’s brilliance came from, well, brilliance. He had made the mistakes (in his mind) that lesser engineers had often made in their products and he never forgot a lesson once learned. After we got to know each other, he began to share his thoughts on his own designs and the designs of others. Some were old and some were new but he always looked to examine what had been achieved, or what had not, and how the failure of knowledge or experience or both had led to the result.
After a few of our lunch meetings, Roger offered me a job. I would handle Music Reference and RAM Labs sales and marketing. Me being me, I knew I could handle the task. I am not prone to delusion. I knew that Music Reference and RAM Labs were small companies in a small market. The job would not be a path to anything other than the chance to do something I’d never done before and to work along side someone for whom I held a genuine respect and fondness. I took the job and instantly The Audio Observatory was transformed. It was impossible for me to review tube gear in my own journal. My readers objected, but from then on I confined myself to reviews of solid-state gear. It was an unsatisfying turn for my association with The Audio Observatory but I knew it was the right move for me at the time.
Working with Roger was never dull, never easy, often frustrating yet frequently entertaining in a way that’s hard to describe. We met two Mondays a month, always for lunch. The day went like this. I’d hit the road from Valencia around 10 a.m. and look to arrive at Roger’s house in Santa Barbara around Noon. His mood upon meeting me at the door determined a lot. Sometimes I could tell that he’d been waiting for me in a kind of intellectually anxious way. Perhaps he’d read something that annoyed him but didn’t quite grasp in a way that satisfied his reasoning. Other times, I would be met with an air of frustration that he tried to hide behind a futile mask of cordiality. I could sense his dissatisfaction simmering. Sometimes I could find a kind of voice for whatever was gnawing at him and sometimes it persisted right on through our initial meeting, our lunch out, and our after-lunch meeting. Those could be some long-ass afternoons.
Still, I treasured our meetings. Roger Modjeski was a consistently fascinating person to hang around with and our customers loved his gear and the tubes he tested. And, I learned a lot. No, I didn’t learn many of the kinds of things that were very likely to improve my financial fortunes but I didn’t care. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was learning to do things I wanted to learn how to do. Roger wasn’t what anyone was likely to call a traditionally good teacher. Still, I learned a great deal from him and also from myself. Roger liked to say that pretty much every success he ever had at Music Reference and RAM Labs came from doing something for the first time, and learning from the mistakes that first effort had brought to light. Mistakes never pleased him, but he knew they were an unavoidable part of learning in the same way he had learned.
The greatest challenge for Music Reference was production. As much as Roger loved design and engineering he hated manufacturing. I’m not sure if he always hated it or whether the years of coordinating everything it took from a taking a product from concept to final testing fell on him. Either way, manufacturing was a constant topic. Roger wanted a production manager who could take over the most onerous duties. That would free Roger to develop new designs and also to do the kind of extended travel he believed the ongoing day-to-day demands of the business prevented.
One of my first bits of inexperience was exposed by my belief that finding the right candidate for the job would be doable if not easy. Music Reference and RAM Labs were located in Santa Barbara and I figured that between UCSB and Santa Barbara City College there would be a good number of qualified applicants in the area. I was wrong. Roger and I interviewed a number of candidates and one seemed less likely to be able to do the job or even to truly understand the substance of the job than the next. It was a sobering experience.
I met Graham Hardy back in my early days as a reviewer. He partnered with Kevin Halverson in the design of the legendary Muse Model Two Digital to Analog Converter. The Model Two was a ground-breaking product. It was the first DAC to show (to me, anyway) that digital could someday rival, and possibly exceed, the fundamental fidelity and musicality of the finest analog systems. Kevin might dispute this, but I believe it was the Model Two that really put Muse Electronics on the map back in the early 1990s.
Here’s where things start to evolve and worlds began to clash. Graham was an avid reader of The Audio Observatory and liked to question me about what I regarded as the essential musicality of a vacuum tube system. His curiosity got him thinking about designing a tube amplifier of his own. Graham had a particular design goal for his amp. He wanted it to be able to automatically bias its output tubes.
It will be as if there are eight little audio nerds living in each amplifier chassis, constantly turning tiny screwdrivers keeping the output tubes in a state of perfect bias. -Graham J. Hardy
That sounded cool to me though I had always enjoyed biasing tubes for myself, in very much the same way I liked checking my car’s oil level and tire pressure. Still, Graham was passionate about the idea. His enthusiasm brought an idea to mind; could Graham be the production manager for Music Reference?
I thought about it for weeks before I brought the idea to Graham. It turned out he had been independently hoping I would set up a meeting with Roger. In hindsight that motive, on Graham’s part, should have been a warning. Graham was looking for affirmation that his concept was impressive to a respected, even legendary, designer of tube gear. He also wanted to prove to himself that he could slip from the digital world to the analog world and still do valuable work.
Roger didn’t have a problem with the meeting. All of the failed interviews with would-be production managers had worn him out and put him close to giving up on the idea that finding a decent candidate was even possible. We picked a date and Graham and I headed north to Santa Barbara. I knew that it would be a waste of time to make any attempt at coaching Graham about how best to present his ideas to Roger. I also knew that Roger could be a little bit like a roulette wheel when it came to how he would receive someone new. Roger was always cordial. He’d grown up in Richmond, Virginia and I always felt that a certain kind of southern gentility influenced his behavior. He was never loud or contradictory and he could be an excellent listener. But, once he knew that the person he was speaking to lacked a full understanding of what was being discussed he would begin the dissection just to make sure. He did this by asking one seemingly simple question after another. I regarded those questions as if they were the coils of a python; at first it felt OK but then it would get a little hard to breathe. Just when the person being questioned started to figure out what was happening, that answers to important questions had been fumbled, the end of the interview would come mercifully.
The interview went terribly. Roger started questions with phrases like, “You do understand…” -and- “Certainly you’re aware that…” When Roger asked, “Do you realize that capacitors in this kind of circuit will each discharge at different rates while music is playing?” I knew full well the interview was over. The Oxford PhD in physics, the genuine honest-to-God, card-carrying rocket scientist from JPL, had been laid-low by the soft-spoken electrical engineer from the University of Virginia.
Graham seethed all the way back to his house and about an hour later when I finally got home to my house I had a message from Roger on my machine. When I called him back, he thanked me for bringing Graham to Santa Barbara to meet with is. But, then he said, “You do understand that there’s no way I can work with him, right?’
So then back to the inexorable passage of time. The 1990s ended and then my marriage ended and finally my friendship with Graham came to a coda brought about by his poor behavior when he drank and finally by his subsequent move to Washington. I missed him, but being around Graham was like being close to a moving fire. It was only a matter of time before it became uncomfortable and a painful burn was sure to follow. All that said, I still miss him to this day. He always was, in his way, a great and dedicated friend.
Even more time passes. It’s New Year’s Eve 2017 and I was sitting in an outdoor jacuzzi having a late-night cocktail when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The woman who answered told me she was calling about Graham and the water in the tub suddenly felt as cold as the desert’s winter air as it swirled around me. I knew before hearing the words exactly what she was going to say; Graham had finally killed himself.
Without being told, I knew that he had shot himself.
Without being told I knew the gun he pulled the trigger on was very likely one he had bought from me in the months after I was divorced.
Without being told I knew that this was by no means the end of the story.
Another reason the woman had called me was to enlist my help in getting one of Graham’s unfinished designs through final engineering and manufacture. I was astonished but I was also intrigued. I thought to myself, what were the odds that this design would ever surface again, especially after Graham’s death, and that I, of all people, could be the point of nexus required to get it to market or see it consigned to the ash heap of never-produced high end design??
Still, still; it was a very odd thing to consider. Graham’s amplifier, and especially the work he’d done on it after the time when he’d vanished from my radar, comprised a kind of vendetta against Roger Modjeski. There was no way for me to know if Graham had, against all odds, overcome his limitations as a designer of tube gear and created a viable circuit for today’s market. Then and now I say that the odds were against him but that doesn’t make such a design an impossibility.
Graham’s amplifier was made to look like a Music Reference amplifier. Roger liked to say that he had designed Music Reference amplifiers, especially the RM-9, to look as if they had been built by someone in his garage, but by someone who had access to certain elements of construction that would never be attainable to someone building something by himself. It was one of the first products to use a 6061 T6 aluminum top plate. The nomenclature was done in a technique called Anofax that would never wear out the way conventionally silk-screened lettering would. Each of the three transformers were hand-wound by either Roger or a technician who made guitar pickups for Seymour Duncan who Roger had trained in the exacting art and science of transformer winding. Once wound, the transformers were vacuum potted into enameled transformer cans. It was a tricky, laborious and time-consuming process from start to finish.
Graham’s amplifier had double the number of output tubes (per channel) of an RM-9. It also had a T6 top plate and a wooden frame. The power and output transformers were made by a company called Plitron which has a somewhat mixed reputation. A written description of Graham’s amp and the RM-9 could lead one to believe that they looked similar to each other, but they didn’t. Still, it was clear that Graham’s design was directed at what Roger Modjeski had created all those years before.
No one will ever know why Graham didn’t finish the design himself or build the production amplifiers. For a time, even before he moved to Washington, he had a created company of sorts and a website, but there was never a product available to buy. When I learned that the prototypes had survived him I considered making the effort to hear them for myself, but I didn’t really want to. In the end, I believed it was very unlikely Graham had achieved a working version of his auto-bias function and, even if he had, I was even more doubtful he had achieved a musically viable product in what was his first attempt at designing a tube amplifier. It just ain’t that easy.
Still, I feel an odd and somewhat uncomfortable connection to Graham’s design. It had been so long since I had spoken to him it was as if the amplifiers were all that were left of him, and even they were incomplete. Somehow the amplifier’s design didn’t feel genuine. It didn’t feel like something that had been created to bring better sounding music to people’s homes. Somehow it felt hard and hollow and empty. I admit that I may be missing something about Graham’s amplifier. Perhaps he achieved far more than I’m giving him credit for, but I’m actually quite comfortable never knowing the answer.
There’s another irony to all of this. A while back I called Roger Modjeski to let him know about Graham’s passing and the amplifier he designed and built. But, Roger didn’t remember the fateful meeting. Even after I reminded him about the specifics, he simply didn’t remember. In the end, the meeting simply hadn’t meant anything to him. And, for Graham, even though he acted as if the meeting had meant a lot, he wasn’t able to find a way to directly benefit from it, or even to see it as a light that showed him a way forward. Graham could only find a way to feel dismissed and minimized even though no one had sought to make him feel that way. Without trying to win, or even knowing there was any kind of competition, Roger had won. In his effort to prove himself as the equal of his own education and professional stature as a physicist and engineer Graham had lost and, even worse, he had undermined himself and his mission in the process. What an terrible waste of intelligence, energy and potential.
Today, after all these years, there’s an effort underway to get Graham’s amplifier built. But, I still wish the whole thing just felt better to me. I wish Graham had been able to create out of a heartfelt desire to build something better rather than a pitiable need to be proven correct. More than that, I wish he had been able to live his life to its full measure. Who knows what he could have achieved had he simply given himself the occasional luxury of being wrong and the right we all have to learn from our mistakes and move on.
With that, I’ll give Graham the last words one final time.
Any good Englishman would rather be right than happy. – Graham J. Hardy
How can it be over six years since I wrote this; impossible! Still, reading it again reminds me of writing it and makes me want to drop AVL to see how he’s doing.
In 1996 Tiger Woods said, “Hello world,” and things haven’t been the same since. Before Woods ever put a tee into the ground as a professional he’d been made a multimillionaire by Nike and Titleist. For the first time, far more of a player’s income was going to come from sponsorships than tournament winnings. A new world order had arrived and golf almost instantly expanded into a truly global game.
Since then, we’ve said hello to a bunch of mini-Tigers like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa. What each of these players have in common (along with a lot of game) is a massive corporate support mechanism. Each is as much a brand as a player. Fowler actively cultivates his image and look on his website by asking, “Love my look?” His Cowboy-orange and flat-billed cap are tools helping to set himself apart from the rest of the khaki-clad PGA Tour crowd. And, while it would be easy (if a tad cynical) to say most great players have yet to set themselves apart by winning,
I don’t want to create the impression I don’t like this crop of young, corporately well-connected, players because for the most part I do. It’s just that I also enjoy following the kind of player who lacks such deep-pocketed support. It’s important to understand how many players come to professional golf in anonymity and with significant hardship.
It’s well known Ben Hogan failed on the PGA tour at least once before finally breaking through. Before succeeding, he was down to his last bit of cash, $86 from a war chest of $1400. He had promised his wife Valerie (who was driving with him from event to event) that if he didn’t earn a check in the next tournament they would take what little money they had left and make their way home to Fort Worth, Texas. The morning before the tournament, the Hogans awoke to find their Buick stripped of its rear tires and wheels, its rear axle propped up on rocks.
Hogan got a ride to the tournament and ended up winning $385. Hogan described that check as the biggest one he had ever seen and he was quite sure it was the biggest he would ever see in his entire life. It’s impossible to imagine that Hogan sponsored by Nike, given millions of dollars before he had ever put a tee into the ground in a professional event. Hogan is a reminder that for every Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler there are thousands of aspiring players who come up another way; a much harder way.
Jim Von Lossow came to professional golf in a way much closer to that of Hogan than of Fowler or Woods. Jim’s an old friend of mine and some years back he told me of his time on the PGA Tour. He was only 20 when he left Seattle for California and his parents had no love for the idea of playing professional golf. Jim’s quest to play on tour was one he faced largely on his own. He ended up on tour for a few years and even played alongside some storied players like Tom Kite and Jack Fleck. Though Jim didn’t make many headlines while on tour, his journey led him to become a PGA instructor, the first putter manufacturer to mill heads from 303 stainless steel and now one of the most respected club fitters in the country.
It’s no surprise that Jim and his wife, Susan, have two children who grew up excelling at golf; their daughter, Hannah, and son, Andrew. When it came to Andrew, Jim hadn’t realized how good he’d gotten until Andrew and his friend, Eric Benjamin, shot back to back rounds in the low 60s. This got Jim thinking and he and Susan decided to stake Andrew and Benji enough cash to cover a summer playing The Dakotas Tour. “When I was coming up, I didn’t have the support of my parents when it came to golf,” Jim told me. “So, it was important to me that my wife and I give Andrew and Benji whatever help we could.”
Toward the end of July, Andrew and Benji loaded Andrew’s 1997 Toyota Camry and headed east toward Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman would serve as the duo’s home base for their summer on The Dakotas Tour since Benji knew some folks there. Andrew & Benji missed the first eight events of the 2010 Dakotas Tour season. These tournaments were played in cities with names like Okoboji, Iowa. Obscurity is common in professional golf. A serious golf fan might be able to name 50 PGA Tour players but there are 125 exempt spots. Add the players on the Nationwide Tour, the Canadian Tour and all the myriad other mini tours and we’re talking about serious obscurity. Galleries consist of friends and family, but more likely no one at all. Testing one’s game on a tour like the Dakotas was a strong reminder that golf can be a very solitary game, especially for aspiring professionals like Andrew & Benji.
Still, this is a duo that’s pretty comfortable with obscurity. They’ve even created their own organization to promote it; The Northwest Obscure Golf Association. Andrew & Benji came up with the name when they were forced to admit that to play as much as they needed to play to sharpen their games they’d have to play on some of the area’s scruffier courses. So, for two months of summer in 2010, Andrew & Benji tested their games against other aspiring professionals. They played some golf, they drove a lot of miles and had a lot of fun. At the end of the summer, they both agreed it had been the best one ever.
After arriving in Bozeman, Andrew & Benji drove about 700 miles for a one day Pro-Am at Wild Oak GC in Mitchell, South Dakota. For the next few weeks, Andrew & Benji teed it up twice in Yankton, South Dakota at Fox run and then at the open qualifier at Hillcrest Country Club.
Which open? The Bobcat State Open at Fargo Country Club, of course. Notably, the state animal of South Dakota is the coyote, so go figure. Jim Von Lossow had told me what good players his son Andrew and daughter had become, but it was Andrew’s humble blogging that drove home just what fine players he and Benji are and at the same time what a difficult undertaking they were attempting.
Andrew’s first blog entry:
Benji and I played a practice round at Fargo Country Club. It was a nice day, around 80 degrees with a slight breeze. The forecast for tomorrow is calling for wind and sun. I tee off at 8:20am while Benji tees off at 1:20pm.
The greens are very firm and fast. The key to approach shots is staying below the hole and taking one club less for the ball to run up to the pin. This is a very Northwest-style golf course so Benji and I feel comfortable playing here.
Here are a couple pics from today at the Fargo Country Club…
To the casual reader, I’m sure these photos simply look like two really good players teeing off. But, when I look at them I’m trying to imagine if Andrew & Benji felt differently when they put the tee in the ground. They were doing what they had done thousands of times before, but they were doing it for a very different reason. Their ability, their pure joy in playing the game and their newfound drive to play golf for a living, had taken Andrew & Benji to this very unusual place.
I once watched Nick Price in one of his first tournaments on the Champion’s Tour. I had sought him out before he teed off to tell him how much I enjoyed his book, The Swing, which had come out a few years earlier. Nick Price was as kind and gracious a man as his reputation would suggest. There were a few people who watched him tee off, but by the 3rd hole his gallery had all but vanished. It was a perfect, glorious day in Southern California and one of the best players in the game was playing a competitive round of golf in almost total solitude.
That was an odd event. It was the first day of a tournament that had been moved from one course to another and attendance would be light until the weekend. But, that day reminded me what a lonely and isolating game professional golf can be. As I walked with Price I marveled at his rapid-fire swing and the dead-solid sound the ball made when he struck it with an iron, and I felt a little sorry for him. I know…Price wasn’t really alone, and was certainly not lonely. Still, live professional golf very often doesn’t always bear as much similarity to the game we see on television as we might expect.
Andrew & Benji were taking their first steps toward becoming a colleague of Nick Price but I’m sure they didn’t see it that way. They were and are good friends who wanted most of all to have their best summer ever. While they were at it, they would measure their games against each other and against the games of the other players with the same mission.
They both knew it wouldn’t be easy:
Day 1 of the Bobcat North Dakota State Open:
Benji and I both shot 75. I played in the morning and made the turn at 3 over and shot even on the back.
For Benji’s round in the afternoon the wind picked up and baked out the greens. He hit a flagstick from 190 yards and the ball then went into the water in the greenside hazard. In the last 3 tournaments, Benji has at least hit one flag per tourney. His round also lasted 6.5 hours.
Benji shot 70. He played solid but just had one bad hole. He was punching out from the trees when his ball caught the trunk of a tree sending it into the hazard. Benji missed the cut by 2.
For myself, I shot 81. Made the turn at 3 over again and knew I had to make some moves if I wanted any chance of making the cut. Instead the round went the other way.
We are leaving North Dakota today and heading to Milbank, South Dakota. We will drive three hours and play a practice round at Pine Hills Golf Club for a one-day Pro Am tomorrow, August 30th.
We are looking forward to playing a new course and teeing it up in another tournament.
For 7,000 miles, Andrew & Benji chased the little white ball across the Dakotas and into Montana, going all the way east to Iowa for the Tour Championship. They were like the golf equivalents of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hopping from town to town, staying at KOA campgrounds. Playing golf was the reason for their trip but I will bet it was the trip itself they’ll remember most keenly. As another Cervantes once wrote, “The Journey is better than the inn.” In an era when people are brought together over vast distance by technology, it’s even more important to venture into the expanse from time to time. I’m sure Andrew & Benji would agree.
I wondered a lot about Andrew & Benji and their dream of playing golf for a living. In fact, when I started working on this story, I wasn’t even sure they really wanted to play the game for a living. So, I talked to Andrew about it.
Today, Andrew Von Lossow’s day job is studying Design at Eastern Washington University where he’s on schedule to graduate in 2013. He told me about the reaction of his fellow students when he tells that in his spare time he’s a professional golfer. Not surprisingly, they don’t quite know what that means. When most people think of the word professional, they think of doctors and lawyers, not golfers.
When asked to describe his game, Andrew said, “My strength is ball striking. I can hit high long irons and from there I have good confidence in my other irons. My chipping and pitching are works in progress. Same with my putting; I am a streaky putter I can really get it going when I am on. When I’m not, it is a lot of two putts and the occasional and dreaded 3 putt.” He’s clearly a guy who believes in his game and has done a lot to develop it from working with a number of teaching pros to enhancing his overall fitness by following a rigorous fitness regimen developed by the Titleist Performance Institute.
As ever, golf is a game of making three shots into two shots any way you can. The different mind set of the truly fine player is revealed when he says, “Once I make one birdie, I feel I can string them together. The more birdies I make, the more unaware of my score I get because I get caught up on the next shot to make the lowest score possible.” Poor players don’t think that way. A couple good holes is more likely to make them protective than confident. Andrew clearly has the confidence to go low when the opportunity comes his way, as he did by finishing 5th and winning $800 in the Gallatin Valley Open.
He wrote about the event and the end of his first pro tour:
What a journey it was out in the Dakotas. Benji and I both agree that this was the best summer we have ever had. Benji had some great finishes in tournaments while I was enrolled in the school of hard knocks in the tour life. What I learned was very important for becoming a better player. Golf is not easy as we all know.
The last tournament, The Gallatin Valley Open, I came in 5th shooting 72-68. The first day I shot 4-over 40 on the front nine and I took some experience from my previous tournaments and shot 4-under 32 on the back nine. The next day I shot a bogey free 68 to make a move up the leader board to cash my first professional check.
I’ll bet Andrew’s closing 68 felt so easy. At the same time, I’m sure that front nine 40 must have had him doubting that he was cut out to play professional golf. The ability to turn off those doubts and salvage par says a lot about his resiliency. Still, it must be extraordinarily difficult for an aspiring professional to measure his game, until the heat of professional competition gets turned up. Then it becomes easy, if potentially confidence crushing. There are so many good players today. As sure as I am that the best players of eras gone by like Nicklaus, Hogan and Ballesteros would still be amazingly successful players today, I’m equally certain the depth of quality players is greater today than it’s ever been.
No one needs to tell Jim Von Lossow about the difficult challenge that lay ahead for his son. There is surely no way to tell whether Andrew will be able to make a living playing golf. But, that’s not really the point. In golf and in life, outcomes are never assured. All we can do is make our best swing, go find the ball, and do it all again.
Today, Andrew & Benji are continuing to hone their games in preparation for their next trek on tour. They’re sure to have plenty of birdies and their fair share of bogies when they do.