SI golf correspondent Chris Lewis spent 2006 shadowing the world’s best golfers and some of the lesser-known (but often quirky) Tour pros. The result is his new book, The Scorecard Always Lies: A Year Behind the Scenes on the PGA Tour.
After reading the book (yes, I recommend it), I caught up with Chris via email and he graciously answered my questions about what it’s like to follow Tiger, Phil and others around, on and off the golf course.
(This is going to take a few minutes, so get comfortable. But it’s worth it — promise.)
Armchair Golf: You say in the introduction the idea for the book came from hearing listeners to a sports talk show ask: What are these guys (PGA Tour players) really like? I’ll ask you a variation: What are these guys really like to hang out with?
Chris Lewis: Three days a week, the Tour is just like any other office, except with a lot of carefully-mown grass. On the range and in the locker room there’s a lot of water-cooler talk—people standing around talking about ballgames, TV, or whatever, and yes, trading a little gossip.
The players (and caddies and coaches and agents and wives and girlfriends) are pretty much like any other slice of the population: some are really social, some keep to themselves, some have equipment-trailer-sized egos, and most are pretty down-to-earth.
If they’re different (in a general sense) from “normal” people, the reason is (you guessed it) money. As a group, they worry a lot less about dough than the rest of us. You never have a conversation about how much somebody would like to go to Aruba some day, because if a Tour player wanted to go, he was probably there last week (in five-star accommodations).
I’ll never forget the first time I picked up a dinner tab (business expense, charged to the company) at a restaurant with a guy who’d won a million dollars the previous Sunday. That doesn’t happen much outside Tour circles, I’d guess.
Armchair Golf: Was it hard to get the players – especially the big names – to buy into the project and give you the access you needed?
Chris Lewis: You know, not really. I think all the players were aware that the Tour has been doing poor TV numbers compared to, say, five years ago, and that they could all benefit from some more revealing, humanizing press– even if that meant exposing a few warts.
Phil got it immediately. So did Tiger and Vijay, and pretty much everybody else.
I knew I was in good shape when the agents started nodding at me, agreeing that the project was a good idea. It made sense to everybody. I think everybody understood that the Tour in general could benefit from some in-depth, long-format attention.
Armchair Golf: Chris Couch’s emergency tattoo parlor visit and first PGA win just days later are pretty incredible. What were your favorite episodes from the book?
Chris Lewis: Well, you could probably tell from the book that on a personal level it was flying to the PGA Championship in Chicago with Geoff Ogilvy and Tim Clark. I’m not just saying that because it was a private plane – which, trust me, is a pretty sweet way to travel. In general, it was a really fun couple of hours. They’re both awesome guys – really open and unguarded.
The other two people on the plane – Richelle Baddeley and Tim’s girlfriend, Candace, were also very cool, in addition to being … well, you know.
Armchair Golf: Any big surprises as you reported this book? Did it change the way you think of Tour pros?
Chris Lewis: Not really. The book jacket mentions that I was on the road thirty weeks last year, but what it doesn’t say is that I was on the road with the Tour almost that many weeks every other year since about 2001, and plenty before that. So I had a lot of experience with the guys. I pretty much knew what I was dealing with.
Armchair Golf: You wrote that Tiger went on a six-mile run before playing the final round in last year’s British Open, which he won. What is your training regimen before reporting a final round of a major? How does it compare to other golf writers?
Chris Lewis: It’s the same with all us media guys: we sit around and eat free press room hot dogs ‘til our shirts run yellow with mustard!
Seriously, this is a pretty interesting question, in a way. Major Sundays are very different for daily writers and weekly writers. Newspaper guys don’t change their schedules much, because Sundays are like every other day—they have to file as soon as possible after the finish.
On the other hand, if you work for Sports Illustrated (as I did) or for another weekly, you know you’re going to be working deep into Sunday night. The only thing I could compare it to is cramming to take a final exam in the morning. So for us weekly guys, you try to stay up really late on Saturday, and sleep as late as you can on Sunday morning, so you can work late on Sunday.
Personally, my mission at the majors was always to do reporting legwork for Alan Shipnuck, SI’s lead golf writer. I would go out on Sunday afternoon and walk with the third- or fourth-to-last group, gradually falling back toward the leaders, and try to spot things on the golf course no one else saw. But more importantly, I’d talk to coaches and wives and moms and dads to get background on potential winners (you know, how they had spent their off-course time that week, that kind of thing). Then, after play, in the locker room, I’d try to do much the same thing, only with the players themselves.
Then there was the post-major ritual we called “trunking,” where I basically followed the winner through the toasts and trophy ceremonies all the way to his car trunk, trying to get a little scene or quote that no one else had, before he left the property. Then I’d go back to the hotel and type up all my notes for Alan, and hopefully get everything to him sometime before 10 or 11 p.m.
Armchair Golf: Can you share a funny story or anecdote that didn’t make it into the book?
Chris Lewis: Wow, there are so many. I could have written a chapter just on all the crazy little airport stories, from watching Mark Hensby’s girlfriend break necks in the airport lobby at DFW to Jim Mackay, Phil’s caddie, fast asleep, stretched out across three seats, at his gate in Columbus the morning after the Memorial while waiting for his plane to Hartford. (Flying to Hartford instead of New York was the pro move last year when you were heading to Winged Foot – Bones was on his way to meet Phil that morning for a practice round.)
But just one funny story? Hmm. Okay. We were in Akron last year, and Phil was playing with Aaron Baddeley. Their group comes off on Friday (I think it was Friday), and all the sudden, these Akron cops come over, grab Aaron’s caddie, Pete Bender, and drag him into a police car.
Pete, of course, has been around forever, and has seen it all – he used to caddie for Greg Norman, put in a bunch of years with Rocco Mediate, and so forth.
But now, after this round in Akron, the cops take him away, and he has no idea what’s going on. Turns out that years before, during a practice round in Maui (probably the last time Phil played the Mercedes), Pete had set a couple of snails down on the seat of Phil’s golf cart (they use carts during practice rounds there), and Phil of course sat on them. So years go by, and Phil never forgets.
Finally, last year in Akron, Pete winds up in the back of that squad car, and the cops tell him, “Mr. Bender, you’re here because of an outstanding warrant on a violation of a Hawaiian ordinance against cruelty to mollusks.”
Phil had set the whole thing up. He’s just standing there about fifty feet away, laughing his head off, while Pete’s in the police car scared out of his wits.
Armchair Golf: How does covering golf compare to other reporting you’ve done?
Chris Lewis: Tell you the truth, I’ve never really covered any other sport but golf. I’ve had little assignments here and there, from Kirk Gibson (ugh!) to Kobe Bryant (cool guy, but that was before Eagle County). But I can tell you, just on hearsay, that golf’s a pretty sweet gig.
If you write basketball, you’re going to be spending a few days every February in Minnesota, and that can’t be pleasant. But that doesn’t happen with golf. I’ve literally gone a whole season wearing long pants fewer than five times.
Don’t get me wrong – golf does have its drawbacks. You have weeks sometimes – especially after your magazine’s just hacked somebody to bits – where it seems like nobody will talk to you. Guys like Tiger, Vijay, and Phil are always tough gets, above all when they’re playing well, because everybody’s angling for their time.
I have to tell you, I’ve been amazed this year, doing some hard news stories (on things like Katrina relief and underage gambling) never to have to chase around or wait around for the people you really need to talk to. It’s nice when subjects and sources make themselves available to you basically whenever you want.
Armchair Golf: What’s next for you? Is there another book in the works?
Chris Lewis: Hey, slow down! I’m still recovering from writing this one!
You can learn more about The Scorecard Always Lies and read Chris’s take on pro golf at his blog.