From the Publisher
My infatuation with golf was baffling, even to me. Almost none of my friends in New York played. Most, in fact, still viewed the game as a shameful, bourgeois absurdity. But I was forever dreaming about my next fix.
Part of its appeal no doubt had to do with the personal troubles I was going through at the time. Golf was a refuge. At home and at the office I hardly knew which end was up, but on the golf course the rules were clear. Order prevailed. Plus you had the tweeting birds and the gentle breezes and the bright green grass everywhere--the same elements that make mental asylums such pleasant places to spend time.
In addition to all that, I was steadily getting better, which was good for my ego. But this led to delusions. The primary cause of golf's maddening addiction, I soon discovered, is that every golfer knows for a fact that he or she is actually much, much better than his scores would indicate.
--from The Fine Green Line
From the Hardcover edition.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Reminiscent of Harry Hurt III's Chasing the Dream, journalist Newport's chronicle of a year of golf is the latest, but not the greatest, of the Q-School sagas. Newport's narrative is driven by two objectives: to see how much better he can get at golf in 12 months' time (he starts with a 2.7 handicap) and to test himself at the end of the year by entering the PGA Tour's qualifying school. He tackles the first objective by taking lessons from respected teacher Michael Hebron, who points out plenty of flaws in Newport's swing, as well as the fundamental flaw in his objective: there's just no way he's going to improve his game all that much inside a year -- no one could. But Newport won't be dissuaded, so he embarks on a long series of mini-Tour events to get a sense of playing under pressure. Many of the people the author meets at these tournaments are interesting, but it grows tiresome to read his nearly shot-by-shot accounts of dozens of butchered rounds and holes, all lashed together with doses of desperate wisdom, self-pity, disgust and anger. By the time he finally reaches Q-School, the reader knows Newport is going to self-destruct, which he does, denying the book a satisfying resolution. Newport's objectives are compelling. It's unfortunate that his experiences weren't commensurate.
If you're a golfer, you know someone like Newport, a civilian who hits it straight and long, scores in the mid-to-low 70s and, you sometimes think, could make it on the tour if only he got serious. That's sort of what Newport believed, and his chronicle of a year devoted to the task explains why the fine green line -- the boundary between the worst of the touring pros and the best club champions -- is as wide as the Pacific. Newport may be a very good golfer, but he's an even better writer. From a distressing little story about Michael Jordan to some superb explorations of the golfer's soul, there's a revelation or a delight on every page.
Newport, a very good amateur golfer, spent a year competing on pro golf's mini-tours, the lowest level of professional competition. Could he improve enough in a year's time to perform respectably at the notoriously difficult Q School tournament, where fledgling pros attempt to qualify for the PGA Tour? No, he couldn't, as this revealing account of his frustrating year reveals. In vivid, often agonizing detail, he recounts the humbling experience of watching his game deteriorate under pressure, as he comes to accept that the "thin green line" separating success and failure for a professional golfer is, in fact, a yawning gap that only the most disciplined and talented can bridge. Most average golfers will sympathize with Newport's on-course agony while, at the same time, experiencing a little vicarious joy in watching him sink to their level of incompetence. In the end, though, this is a book about accepting the pleasures the game offers at any level, and that message speaks to anyone who has ever stuck a tee in the ground. An anti-Horatio Alger story with its own kind of happy ending.
Read an Excerpt
The Broken Stick
My year of golf began officially -- not that there were any officials keeping track -- in October 1995, with a lesson from Michael Hebron. It was my first golf lesson ever, and in addition to the predictable paranoia anyone would feel handing over something valuable to a stranger (one's soul to a priest, one's mind to a shrink, one's swing to a golf coach), I was intimidated by Hebron's reputation. One of the country's most respected teachers, just a notch of renown below the celebrity instructors like David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon who hang out on the PGA Tour practice tee, he is the author of (among other titles) The Art and Zen of Learning Golf, a title which intrigued me. Among his former students were Tom Kite, Ian Woosnam, and Davis Love III.
Given my tight budget, I hoped to talk Hebron into giving me lessons for free, or at least at a steep discount, and most of my thoughts during the drive to the lesson concerned how to make my case. "I am no ordinary student," I rehearsed out loud in the car. "I am on a quest. I am embarking on an everyman adventure sure to be of interest to all living Americans. My goal is to penetrate the very heart of golf. I will practice like crazy. My hands will bleed. I will purify my thoughts and become the ball. And all I need to succeed is your instruction -- and your support." In practicing these remarks I made dramatic gesticulations with my nonsteering hand. By the time I arrived at the Smithtown Landing Country Club on Long Island, where Hebron teaches, I felt reasonably confident.
At the pro shop, however, the clerk insisted that I pay $150 in advance -- so much for the free lesson -- and when Iwalked down the hill to the covered teaching tee and spotted Hebron working with a strong young Japanese player, my self-assurance melted. The student, so far as I could tell, possessed an absolutely flawless swing. Which particular, minute detail of the swing he and Hebron might have been working on was impossible to determine. After each swipe at the ball the Japanese guy held his finish like someone posing for the PGA Tour logo. Nevertheless, Hebron always stepped in to suggest some adjustment: a one-centimeter forward shift of the upper torso, perhaps, or a half-degree left swivel of the hips. I had to assume the Japanese guy couldn't putt; otherwise it seemed certain that I would have recognized him from the Tour.
When the lesson ended they shook hands, then bowed to each other in the Oriental fashion, and Hebron walked over to where I stood trying to look nonchalant and introduced himself. He was a decent-looking man in his early fifties, fit and of average height, with sandy, gray-speckled hair and a boyish face that was just beginning to show the effects of years in the sun. But his eyes are what caught my attention. They were striking, vivid blue and penetrating, yet strangely nonrevealing, like a reptile's.
"What can I help you with?" he asked.
The words of my carefully composed little speech deserted me. Whatever confidence I had had in the car was now completely gone, replaced by need -- raw, unadulterated, heartfelt need. I stood before Hebron's reptile gaze stripped of all pretense, suddenly as awestruck as a child who finally gets to the front of the Santa Claus line at the department store. I could only sputter nonsense. What I really, desperately wanted, I realized, was the same thing all golfers want.
"I wanna get better," I said. "I wanna get better at golf."
Hebron nodded understandingly and said, "Let's see you hit a few balls." He told me later that new students often break down in this kind of confessional way ("It can get emotional out here," he said), so in hurrying me to the practice mat he was probably trying to keep things from getting messy.
I chose my pitching wedge to hit with because the wedge is generally one of the hardest clubs to screw up with. I took my time, stretching a little while trying to regain my emotional equilibrium, and slapped a half dozen balls towards the 125-yard sign. The results were better than I could have expected. I hit every ball on the noggin, and one actually hit the 125-yard sign. My confidence came back.
When I turned around to face Hebron, however, he was nodding ominously -- like a doctor who has seen the lab report but is not yet ready to divulge the disheartening results. "Yes, I see a few things," he said noncommittally.
Then he asked me to hit a few more balls with a video camera rolling, and after he ejected the tape we walked up a cart path (my cleats clattering on the pavement) to a small, cinder block shed a pitch shot away. He asked me what my handicap was.
"Five," I told him. "No wait. Actually, three." In fact at that moment it was 2.7, but the Japanese guy and Hebron's enigmatic nods had left me feeling insecure.
I decided to broach the subject of my grand plans for the Year of Golf. "My intention, you see, is to work really hard on golf for an entire year." I tried to sound positive, but couldn't bring myself to mention anything about Q School or turning pro. "I'm going to practice really, really hard and my object is to see how good I can get in that time."
"I know the answer to that one," Hebron said brightly. "Not very."
"But . . . don't you think if I absolutely commit myself to golf for an entire year, I can get better?"
"Not much," he said.
I didn't quite know how to respond. Wasn't a teacher supposed to be encouraging? We walked on, my cleats echoing in the uncomfortable silence. Finally I said, "Why is it you think that?"
"Because the golf swing is complicated. You've got seventy bones and two hundred muscles and they all have to work together. That isn't easy to make happen."
Hebron could tell that I wasn't satisfied with this response. "Let me put it another way," he continued. "College golfers usually start out with a handicap about like yours, three or four. They play 250 days a year, three or four hours a day, for four or five years, and usually by the time they graduate they're scratch players. The ones who go on to do well after that are the ones who happen to be very good in the short game, but that's another issue. And grown-ups like yourself don't have nearly that much time to devote to the game, so it takes even longer."