In early 2007, I sent a 4,500-word article called “Mike Austin and the Swing Brotherhood” to The New Yorker. The rejection note was genteel and almost kindly, regretting that the piece didn’t fit their editorial needs “despite its evident merit.”
My guess is that “despite its evident merit” was a stock reply. And it was also my guess that Mike Austin was a good story, no matter what they thought at the New Yorker.
But then there was the matter of John Safer.
I met John while writing a book about a foundation in Washington. He is a brilliant man who made his fortune in real estate and banking, but whose passion is sculpture. He created the towering and ethereal work in front of the Air & Space Museum in Washington, and scores of other graceful and inspiring works as well in museums, public places and private collections. If you’re not familiar with his work—and especially if you could use a lift—check out his website. And bear in mind that he’s self-taught.
For all his accomplishments — which include persuading his Bethesda, Maryland, neighbor, Eugene McCarthy, to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 —John is an even finer human being. And he is witty and droll, which is crucial when you’re a golfer, and he was a club champion.
After reading the Austin article, John suggested I write about something else — I don’t think he approved of Austin — so I did some early spadework on a book about John. But after a Washington magazine did a long piece about him, John — who is 91 — decided he’d rather put his energy into his art.
So that was another rejection. Two, really — the book about John and the Austin idea.
But I couldn’t let the Austin mystery go. How could a 64-year-old borderline genius, using comparatively primitive equipment and a gorgeous, lyrical swing that is golf’s equivalent of a Safer sculpture, hit such a prodigious shot, flirt with fame and then die unrequited and unnoticed?
I knew there was a good story there, but I didn’t realize how good it was until I decided to update the piece and post it on my website. What began as a few follow-up calls became a cascade of information. Every idea, every name, every twist in the story led me forward, like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the forest.
The PGA’s archivist in Florida pointed me to an author in Ireland. An idea about atmospheric conditions led to a geophysicist in Colorado. A conversation with a golf pro led to Tiger Wood’s former coach in Beijing. A search for information about the tournament where Austin hit his record shot led to an article unearthed by a librarian in New Jersey.
Personal connections led to Austin’s old pals, more recent friends and family members. Looking for context for Austin’s life led to detours into golf’s Golden Age. Questions about equipment led to two of the country’s oldest custom club makers, the president of another company, and a super-sized long driver who’s got an amazing tale of his own.
My passion is what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story,” and my favorite pieces have involved persevering when no one else cared. The story that emerged in this case is far different and far better one than the piece John Safer read and The New Yorker rejected.
Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter (which will be published soon as an ebook) is not so much a golf book as it is the story of an unforgettable character who happens to be a golfer.
It would be great if it succeeds financially, but if I never sell a copy — digital or in four-color splendor — I’m happy. I ignored the doubters, I solved the mystery, I discovered some interesting things about myself, and I had a great time.