[Editor’s Note: As part of the celebrations for Jay’s 10th anniversary as a sports writer, Jeff Shelley conducted this interview with Jay. For the second part of the interview, we’ll also answer questions form the fans and readers.]
1. What made you want to become a golf writer?
It was more dumb luck than anything. I never planned this or even dreamed about it; it just happened organically.
I was tired of paying 200 dollars for overrated, uninteresting courses, and I was especially tired of six and a half hour rounds on crappy NYC munis. Well one day in late 2004 as I’m waiting to hit to the green at the eighth hole at Forest Park, (down the street from my house in Forest Hills), this kid runs onto the green, grabs the flagstick, and starts dancing around like a majorette. We all yell at him to get off the green, which he does…by jumping over the fence, hopping into a waiting van, and taking off down the road with the flag. I said, “That’s it! I’m going to write a book about where to play and where not to play!”
So shortly thereafter I tell that story to a client of mine – these five funny but socially awkward kids from an Ivy league school that formed a comedy troupe. The obnoxiously haughty and judgmental one says to me, “Oh, so you think you can write?”
That pissed me off. I’ve always been a writer. I wrote long essays even in grammar school, and when you go to Deerfield Academy and Trinity College in CT, you write every single weekend. I’ve lived by Strunk & White since I was 13.
I looked at him like he was an undesirable icicle one might find on the underside of a porta-potty lid in winter.
“Yes,’” I snarled laconically. “I certainly can.” I also thought to myself, “I’ll be damned if Hippie Hipster here is gonna look down his nose at me when it comes to writing…”
“Well why don’t you start a blog then?” he asked.
That stopped me in my tracks. “That’s a great idea!” I thought: Free website, practice writing, and I get to meet people.
So I did start a blog…and four months later – Presto! – I got hired by two different well-established magazines, and was credentialed to go to the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. It was like a scene out of “That Thing You Do” how fast it happened, and there were definitely “pinch me” moments.”
I remember walking in and being astounded at the sheer size of the tent. 425 desks and 39 radio booths I think it was. When I went to my seat – WOW! – I was between Melanie Hauser on my left and Marino Parascenzo on my right, GWAA treasurer and a PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Right in front of me were Tim Rosaforte of Golf Channel and Jaime Diaz, and right behind me was Sal Johnson of Golf Observer. It was like getting inserted into the line-up between DiMaggio and Mays or playing the middle infield with Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker.
You better write well, I said to myself.
…And I have to add, I suppose I should be thanking Hippie Hipster, because if he hadn’t have given me the blog idea, I might not be talking to you here today ten years later….
2, What was your first published golf article and where did it appear?
Well the first pieces I ever wrote were golf reviews for my website, A Walk in the Park – http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com – and some smaller on-line ‘zines. But my first real article for a recognized publication with an A-list masthead was a biopic of Old Tom Morris for Golf Observer to be published Sunday morning of the 2005 Open Championship.
Talk about getting the ball for a World Series game at Yankee Stadium just days after getting called up to the Show. At that time, I knew only superficial things about St. Andrews, I knew nothing about Old Tom Morris, and I was green as peas in terms of developing my voice as a writer.
I was petrified.
I was saying to myself on Saturday afternoon, when I had nothing of any use to say and mere hours to go before my first deadline, “All those great names on that masthead, this wonderful magazine, (back then, along with Cybergolf, Golf Observer was the Gold Standard for sports writing websites, and especially for golf), and this editor – this made guy who’s been everywhere and done everything, who drank with guys like Roone Arledge and Howard Cosell – taking a flyer on me, my big chance with everyone watching…and I’m going to bomb!”
But I muddled through with the gracious help of the good folks at St. Andrews and some marvelous, astoundingly cool photos Sal Johnson found, and by sticking mostly to golf architecture and history, my long suits, it came out well…well enough that my audience liked it. And that’s good enough for me. If I teach you something you didn’t know, if I make you laugh, and if I show you something and interesting, which you remember, then I’ve done my job as a writer.
3. How did you get connected with Cybergolf?
It was maybe about six months later and I had been corresponding with one of your seminal, quintessential writers, and he suggested I reach out to Jeff Shelley, and I did.
I remember my first piece for Cybergolf! I compared Phil Mickelson’s family to March of the Penguins:) Phil Mickelson & Family: It’s the ‘March of the Penguins’ – Cybergolf As I look back on it, there were some fun moments in that piece.
Then Phil goes and falls out of the sky at the U.S. Open just three months later at Winged Foot in what was still the most horrifying collapse I’ve yet seen in golf. Van de Velde was comical at Carnoustie – completely surreal, and Tom Watson at Turnberry was like watching Santa Claus get mugged on Christmas, but with Phil at Winged Foot? It was like we were all watching a snuff film.
That week at Winged Foot was my first Cybergolf gig, and that’s when the light bulb went on. I got in the tent, now I had to show I was worthy.
You better write well, I said to myself again.
I worked hard that week, and my hustle paid off with some humor. My favorite happy memory of that tournament was making [name of prominent journo redacted] and [name of quintessential broadcaster redacted] crack up laughing while I was interviewing Fred Couples. I was at the clubhouse on Wednesday getting all my prep work done, so I lassoed Freddie for some talk on Xs and Os…only problem is, that’s not Freddie’s forte. I hear journo say to b’caster, “Oh, this oughta be good. He’s gonna try and interview Freddie….”
So I start asking Fred about breaking down the golf course – where to attack it, where to lay back, what’s his strategy – you know, garden-variety stuff.
Freddie just mumbles, looks blankly, goes “uhhhhhhh” and otherwise just flails, the poor guy. With each passing question, _____ and _____ are snickering and covering laughs with coughs, and I’m just getting nothing because Freddie’s so confused at this point from having to deep think. So finally, I just decide to end the pain and ask Freddie a softball.
“What’s in your iPod?”
“iPOD?” he asks, pronouncing it completely incorrectly – “eye-PAHD” he said, stressing the second syllable! “I don’t HAVE an eye-PAHD…”
“How about your CD player?”
“I don’t HAVE a CD player…”
By now my puckish side/tested tolerance gets the best of me…
“Okay, but you do know there is such a thing as consumable music, and that they sell items called stereos on which you can PLAY consumable music?”
“Yes,” he harrumphs.
“What do you have to play your consumable music?”
Now ___ and ____ are cackling like the Blair Witch.
“And what 8-tracks do you have?”
“ROY ORBISON!” he shouts! End of interview.
Laughing, _____ and _____ put an arm around me and say, “Don’t try to pick his brain. He doesn’t have a brain to pick! Ask him about the Boom-boom Girls!”
4. What do you like he most about Cybergolf and what attracted you to the website as a contributor?
I love our reputation as a super-smart site for golf. People know Cybergolf. We’re a well-respected and well-regarded; a clean well-lighted place, to use a Hemingway metaphor. It’s a rock-solid masthead of bright minds and great people, led of course by Jeff Shelley and Dan Murnan, two of the most genuine and kind-hearted people in the business. Having them as editors is worth diamonds.
Jeff’s an interesting cat for a particular reason – he’s a direct descendent, father to son, of Mary Shelley and Percy Byssche Shelley. I know it makes him feel self-conscious. But I think it’s awesome. To write for a guy who has that kind of pedigree is wicked cool…to a literature geek like me, at least.
I especially love Jeff Shelley because of another HUGE reason: (and in this respect I can say the same about all four of my best editors!) he doesn’t touch my work without urgent need.
Meter is particularly important in my writing – everything is meant to be read aloud! – so it’s critical that certain words be used instead of others. Jeff was trained in AP form so he has those rules that he sometimes applies reflexively. Parallel construction is a good example – sometimes I’ll use that in a piece for a little poetic meter or poignancy, and it used to be that Jeff would change it, because of that silly AP rule about not repeating words or a phrase. But I could call him up and explain that it was a literary device I was using for meter, he’d say “Ahhh!” and – voila! – it’s back the way I want it. All editors should be like that!
5. What else has it been like working with Cybergolf editor Jeff Shelley?
I’ll tell you my two favorite Jeff stories First, was the day we applied for Masters creds one year,. It was the Monday after Ernie Els flushed that huge lead at the 72nd hole of the Dunhill. So I pull up the website and what’s the headline blaring back at me? “ELS BLOWS ALFRED DUNHILL”.
Cue the laugh track.
So here’s how cool Jeff Shelley is – I call him to give him the heads-up, and he starts laughing with me about it uproariously. That’s one of the reasons why he’s so universally liked – he can laugh at him self – he’s so remarkably human. That’s refreshing when so many people in our business are selling an image. Jeff’s so reliable and trustworthy.
My other favorite Jeff story is the time I got a little blue in an article…and by blue I mean not safe for work…waaaaaaaaaaaaay not safe! It took me 48 hours to get from NYC to Atlanta for the 2011 PGA, so I went all Hunter S. Thompson on the jackanape airline employees and dingbat waitresses and such that gave me so many migraines I needed a vat of Excedrine. I fired a full broadside at everybody and everything, (especially Tiger), and in the process made a joke about a toy…yes, that kind of toy.
I left it in there knowing Jeff would take it out. Of course he’d take it out, right? He’d laugh, and hit the delete button.
I just had to leave it in the draft that went to him for a combination of journalistic integrity, homage to Thompson, puckish rakishness on my part, and because the joke was stratospherically good and involved my gorgeous girlfriend Britt. (She loved it, by the way. You go, girl!)
What happens? There it is in print! Oh…my…God.
So I call Jeff, chuckling to myself, and tell him I think he really ought to remove it.
“Oh no, it’s fine,” he says.
Uh…no. It’s not. At all.
He takes a third look at it and says something like well if you really want it out, okay….So the safe version is up at Cybergolf, the NSFW version at my website. I especially like the part where I get locked out of my hotel room at midnight in my underwear. Here’s the PG-13 version:
5. Do you have any golf writer inspirations? If so, who?
First and foremost, Dan Jenkins and Marino Parascenzo.
Dan Jenkins is everything you could seek in a role model – humble, hard-working, and generous. He stands for Golf, God, and Country, and I feel exactly the same way, add sushi and a beautiful girl as needed. As a writer, Jenkins is a fabulous satirist. And talk about relevant, look at what happened today. Tiger Woods turned a good Jenkins piece into a great piece by doing the one thing guaranteed to make sure everyone read it!
On our best days, we all wish we were Jenkins.
Marino is also all you could ask for in a mentor and friend. He’s an old-school guy and a lifer. He’s another guy that you call yourself lucky to have as a friend and confidant: great journalist, even better person.
There’s gracious gentlemen like John Hopkins – I personally take it as a badge of honor that I’ve made him laugh at things I wrote. We like people who like us, and when good people like Jenks, and Hoppy, and Marino like you, you know you’re doing something right. But there’s so much to learn form so many of the guys – from Hank Gola to Gary Van Sickle, from Ian Baker-Finch to John Garrity, from David Clarke to Kevin Cook: if I had to name everybody who taught me something or who I look up to in the media tent, I’d never finish this interview. (And to anyone I’ve left out, (like Tony Korologos or Marv Beatty), please don’t go all Maleficent on me for forgetting you.)
Writer inspirations are just as important to me too, though. Umberto Eco, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson are probably my biggest influences, but anyone that writes with a passionate, original, and observant voice.
7. How many major golf championships have you covered and have you any favorite majors and/or favorite stories you’ve written?
Wow, talk about giving a starving man a menu! It’s been 10 U.S. Opens, 8 PGAs, and one Masters in the media tent, but also so many great amateur tournaments and USGA/PGA of America events as well. Going chronologically, like I said, I never felt the presence of the Golf Gods like I did when Phil fell out of the sky at Winged Foot. Oakmont became my favorite major venue when I saw it in ’07. It looked like a gorgeous, grassy ski slope with all the trees cut down. It’s everything we need more of in golf design: curvy greens, canted fairways, and hazards that intrude upon the line of play – Lines of Charm as they are known in the vernacular.
The ’08 U.S. Open of course, because of those incredible last five holes by Woods on Saturday. That story is here:
I’m especially fond of it because I wrote it in the form of a letter to my Dad for Father’s Day. He’s elderly, (91 in a couple days…), and he flat-out refuses to set foot in an airplane, so I can’t bring him to tournaments, so occasionally I do the Sunday morning piece as a letter to him so I can be with him in spirit.
The Sunday of the ’08 PGA was amazing, as Harrington shot that sizzling 66-66 to close the deal. In my mind, that had to be every bit as great as Hogan’s final round in ’53 or Littler’s final round in ’61.
2009 was weird, but fun too. Bathpage…yes, BATHpage was a mud-pit and a drunk tank, but Minnesota was great. I wrote a little in the voice of their iconic writer Garrison Keillor, which was interesting. (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/pga_championship_in_minnesota_prairie_home_companion_for_golfers)
In 2010 I was in the right place at the right time: right between Pete Dye and Herb Kohler when Dustin Johnson turned into Roberto DiVicenzo.
Pete Dye turned right to me and said it:
“It’s a bunker. I know because I built it.”
The amateur tournaments are just as much fun and easier for one man to cover. The Walker Cup at National – my favorite golf course on Earth – was joyous. After that, the Travis at Garden City, the Anderson at Winged Foot, and the Potomac Cup between the best amateurs in Maryland and Virginia are some of my favorites. The Potomac Cup is especially fun as I can really let loose and have fun with roasting some of the competitors. I rode one guy like Secretariat. He missed his tee time for a match play round of this major tournament twice in a row, so the third day I ran a picture of Flavor-Flav in Viking hat with a ludicrously big clock around his neck to lampoon him.
The clock shows one minute past midnight, while Flav leers at you.
What is it Steve Czaban likes to say? BOOM! ROASTED!
They got walloped so badly they lost a Ryder Cup-style event before Sunday singles even began.
Finally, I always have a great time at Quail Ridge and Delray Dunes for the Society of Senior events and the Road Cup. I got Lon Hinkle and Mr. Roberts, (the great old movie), in this piece about a Canary Island palm tree that decided to command a little ink.
8. Talk to u a little about your love of golf design.
People always ask me what the difference is between a good golf course and a great one. They also ask why some courses stay high on rankings lists and others debut high, then drop off into oblivion.
The answer is the same: design. Natural setting only counts for 20-25 percent of a rater’s grade. 70% is the design of the holes. Otherwise rankings become a list of the prettiest courses, without any regard for how they play.
Never mind how a course looks…it’s how it plays? Does it make you think your way around?
Now as for raters/critics – A good question is “what makes one a critic or just simply a commentator?” The basic job of a critic is to act as a mediator between the work and the causal observer or user. The critic needs to be able to describe and explain the essential elements of the work. Once a critic can explain the work then they can give their professional opinion and how effectively the work was produced and presented, and whether it accomplished the purpose it was created for. So a critic of anything as needs a highly refined sense of what it is their subject. Anyone can make superficial observations and state the obvious. The idea is to illuminate.
Once you can read a golf course, you’ll save shots, but more importantly, you’ll see the subtext of the golf course, and that’s when the adventure really begins.
As for one of my favorite pieces on that? Here’s the one about which architect is which rock band: http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com/?p=3884
9. What’s next as you go forward in golf writing?
I have some surprises in store. Besides those items I’m playing close to the vest, I’ll be at Augusta, Chambers Bay – for a big Cybergolf party! Woo hoo hoo! – and Whistling Straits again. I’m sure I’ll interview Bobby Jones and Pete Dye again. I’d really like to get more involved in working more with the GWAA and MGWA, especially in getting more access and recognition for writers like me, who started as Internet writers. Right now there is some striation that limits access at certain times and certain places. Those old walls need to be torn down as everyone should have an equal chance to succeed on their merits. I can’t wait for more chances to write and hang with the rest of the Cybergolf guys. It’s a great place to call home.
After that? It’s just Golf, God, and Country. Add girl and sushi as needed. Point me towards the next deadline, I’m ready.
Jazz the Cat went 2-1 in teasers last week, 5-1 overall, raising the season stats to 11-13 in teasers, 31-17 overall.
This week, meet the world’s smartest cat, Barstow. Owned by uber-whiz-kid wunderkind Ian Clarke, Barstow has impressive sense of time. In the pic above he knows it’s 2:58 p.m. and in two minutes the feeder will release the last food of the day, so he’s getting the jump on the other cats in the household.
He’s so smart there’s actually a poem written about him. I can’t remember it all, but my favorite quatrain goes:
…It’s Baker and Barstow, cats extraordinaire,
a crime-fighting duo beyond all compare
a beacon of freedom, a light in the dark
the super-smart pets of our friend Ian Clarke…
Anyway, Barstow is going to get us over .500 for the first time this season! Here goes:
NINERS -1.5 vs redskins
packers EVEN at VIKINGS
SAINTS-ravens OVER 43
TEXANS-bengals OVER 38
THE NFC NORTH IS BORING EXCEPT FOR THE PACKERS!
BEARS-buccaneers UNDER 55
PATRIOTS +2.5 vs lions
bengals +7 at TEXANS
chiefs EVEN at RAIDERS
Of course there are no celebrations around here without music! Joining such luminaries as Phish, Bowling for Soup, and Foo Fighters in various Flemmapalooza celebrations, this year’s musical guest was Mike Doughty, former lead singer of Soul Coughing, who rocked the famous Water Street Music Hall in Rockchester…err…Rochester Saturday night..
It was a perfect Rochester night: NO SNOW, (oh thank you, merciful Lord), Tapas 177 for dinner, then the gig starting at 8 and ending before 11. The only thing that possibly could have made it better would have been drinks with a beautiful girl at the Bug Jar, then back to her place for a mattress mamba, but we’ll save that for next time. Once golf season starts up again, (May around here…), we’ll play Oak Hill and Greystone and maybe a few others.
Musically, Doughty and Scrap Livingston were their usual awesome Question Jar selves. They’re touring in support of Mike’s new album, “Stellar Motel” For those looking to sample the music, see Mike’s “The Question Jar Show” album or go to Drip.com/Drip.fm and download the entire Phoenix, AZ show from 10.20. Here’s the list from last night.
Set 1: Grey Ghost, Madeline and Nine, Question Jar 1-> Navigate by the Stars at Night!, Janine, These are Your Friends, QJ2, Light Will Keep Your Heart…, Ossining, (w diss of “Shaker Girl!”), QJ3, Rustle->Busting up a Starbucks, QJ4, Tremendous Brunettes->Super Bon Bon, QJ5, Circles, Unsingable Name!
Set 2: Rising Up, When the Night is Long, QJ6, Lazy Bones, QJ7, I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress, 27 Jennifers, Sunken-Eyed Girl, QJ8, Vegetable, I Hear the Bells, White Lexus, Looking at the World…, QJ9, Put it Down.
Enc: QJ10, Drunk on the Train to Chicago, Your Misfortune.
Grey Ghost was a surprise opener, and Madeline and Nine appeared early in the show instead of as a set closer. Indeed, the whole first set was one hit after the other. After opening on his acoustic, Mike grabbed is TWO-STRING bass, (you read that night), just in time for a question of, “By which stars do you navigate at night.”
“None,” he replied. “I’m lousy at it. But let’s play that song!”
During “Ossining” he actually stopped the song to ask some idiot girl third row to please not play shaker and tambourine while he and Scrap were playing.
“If we need another musician, we’ll put an ad on Craig’s List,” he quipped. Everyone thanked him for that…
“Busting up a Starbucks” woke everyone up with a thunderclap, coming right out of “Rustle,” but the energy actually intensified even more with the next two songs, “Tremendous Brunettes”->”Super Bon Bon.”
Let me tell you something: When he started Super Bon Bon, every girl in the place went bat-shit crazy…
By now everyone was singing along, so Unsingable Name had a wonderful Gospel feel to it as our voices rose to the rafters.
Set 2 was more loose, but just as much fun. “Girl in the Blue Dress,” “27 Jennifers,” and “I hear the Bells” were the higlights, and “Your Misfortune” was a stellar show closer.
Doughty and Scrap close the tour in NYC at the City Winery Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Good luck getting tickets. If you didn’t order by now, you snost and lost:)
Football picks tomorrow, then golf-hockey-golf for the rest of the week!