Thursday, June 04, 2009

Why Golf?

Why Golf?

This is the question I’m inevitably asked anytime I do a reading and Q&A: Why a golf mystery? Why that combination?

The answer: Metaphor.

Raymond Chandler, in his classic 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder” wrote: “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.”

Redemption and metaphor. Chandler, of course, knew exactly what he was doing. All art functions metaphorically, and Chandler established a character who represented all that was virtuous in society. We relate to works in which we discover a human condition similar to our own, whether these works are novels, essays, movies, or songs. Hell, the first time I read The Big Sleep, I wanted to be Philip Marlowe.

And so the Jack Austin PGA Tour series was born of metaphor. Golf is the last untarnished professional sport. It remains a game of integrity. PGA Tour players call penalties on themselves that cost them (and their families) great sums of money. Perhaps there is no better recent example than the case of J.P. Hayes, the man who coincidentally serves as a technical consultant for my series. In November, during the second stage of the 2009 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament (affectionately known as “Q School”), Hayes unknowingly used a prototype Titlist ball not yet been approved by the United States Golf Association. Titlist, Hayes’ sponsor, had sent him the new balls to try, and he had practiced with them. One remained in his bag when he left for Q School. Upon changing balls during the Q School round (pros often change balls every two or three holes), Hayes inadvertently put the prototype ball in play. He made the discovery after his round, back at his hotel room, while going through his bag.

His wife and two kids were home in El Paso; he was completely alone in that hotel room.

Yet Hayes picked up the phone, called tournament execs and explained what had happened, knowing full well the penalty: disqualification from the event and thus the forfeiture of his PGA Tour playing privileges. The detective, Chandler wrote in his famous essay, “must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” Hayes’ reply when asked why he turned himself in: “Everybody out here [on Tour] would’ve done the same thing.”

Ah, maybe.

But as a golfer, a golf coach, and as a golf fan, and a reader of mystery novels, I want to believe that other pros would have done the same thing; because in Philip Marlowe’s world, the man who walks untarnished down the mean streets certainly would have, as Hayes insists, “done the same thing.” Jack Austin is surely fictional and a very flawed character, but at his core his values are not unlike those for which most of us strive.

So to answer the question I originally posed, Why the golf mystery? The answer is because the metaphor bridging the world of professional golf to the world of classic detective fiction strikes me as not only fascinating but undeniable. Or in simpler terms: Because Philip Marlowe would shake J.P. Hayes’ hand.