Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Benefits of Rejection

Safer 2

                                                     John Safer

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?

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. 

Why Isn’t This Man Famous?

Photo courtesy of Joe Austin

Photo courtesy of Joe Austin

The cool thing about being a writer is that even procrastinating has a payoff if you’re paying attention. So when I should have been blogging the other day about my new book — which is about a guy who wanted to be a star and wasn’t —  I read interviews with a couple of guys who are: Ginger Baker and Yo-Yo Ma.

Baker was the brilliant and irascible drummer with Cream, one of the first supergroups of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll era. Baker was cranky and rude in his prime, and he’s still cranky and rude, and the funny thing about the recent interview is that people keep hoping he’s changed.

I used to be a rock critic and feature writer and interviewed a lot of well-known people, including musicians. Although I knew next to nothing about music, I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t cooperative, pleasant and even engaging. Albert King, B.B. King, the Allman Brothers (Gregg, Dicky Betts and Butch Trucks), Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Vassar Clements, Carlos Montoya, ZZ Top (all three guys)  — never a harsh word.

Harry Nilsson talked about gun control after John Lennon’s death. Maria Muldaur told me she went to a holy roller church and spoke in tongues. Herbie Hancock said he used a Buddhist chant to help find parking spots in Manhattan. And backstage after a Jethro Tull concert, I watched a bearded Jesus freak in overalls and T-shirt try to “save” Ian Anderson.

Anderson, haggard and looking 74 rather than 24, shook his head and said, “I wish I could believe you, man.”

I also interviewed a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who performed with orchestras around the country on weekends: Yo-Yo Ma. He seemed like a nice kid then, and judging from the recent interview, he’s still a nice guy.

Ma told the Times something that brought me back to my book about Mike Austin — Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter. Ma said “the thing I’m most interested in is figuring out what makes people tick….”

I’ve always been interested in the person behind the publicity still, what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” In Austin’s case, I wanted to find out why he isn’t famous.

In 1974, the 64-year-old Austin drove a golf ball 515 yards, a world record that still exceeds anything ever hit on the PGA tour by 40 yards.

Everything seemed aligned in Austin’s favor: his students included Howard Hughes, Jack LaLanne and the Quaid brothers. He sang light opera in local productions. He was a fringe character in Hollywood and appeared in the Michael Douglas thriller, “The Star Chamber.” He was a war hero with three doctorates.

And yet despite being the subject of a DVD and a book that celebrated him as  “a real-life Indiana Jones,” Austin died an angry man and virtually unknown. And now, oddly enough, he’s probably better known than when he was alive.

I wanted to know why, and I learned that the truth is a lot more interesting than any of the stories he told his pals at the driving range.

Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter will be published later this month. Here’s an excerpt:


         The last time he saw Austin, John Anselmo was giving a clinic at the Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It was early 2004. Anselmo was 81; Austin was 89.

“I was doing a little clinic about Tiger Woods,” Anselmo said, “and I look over and there’s Mike with his wife, Tanya, who was a very beautiful woman and a wonderful person. I went over to say hello, and Mike was in a wheelchair. That was a shock.”

Anselmo didn’t remember much about what was said that afternoon. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and their memories were refracted through the astonishment at what time had done to them. An eye injury had ended Anselmo’s dreams of playing professionally when he was young, and his 60-year career as a teaching pro had been interrupted by colon cancer. But when he was interviewed for this book, he was 89, healthy and in Beijing where he and his son, Dan, had opened an Anselmo Golf Academy similar to ones they operated in Huntington Beach and Irvine.

Austin, once powerful and movie-star handsome, had suffered a stroke in 1988 that left the right side of his body paralyzed. A broken hip from a fall in 2003 had so dispirited him that friends feared he would die. Although somewhat recovered, his hands shook and he drooled from the corner of his mouth. But seeing Anselmo warmed his heart.

“John,” he said, “they haven’t given you enough credit for teaching Tiger.”


Copyright: John Christensen 2013. All rights reserved.