Baseball players are exacting and precise. Footballers tough and physical. Basketballers consistent and skilled. Runners fast and enduring. But golfers? Zealots, plain and simple.
The one sport that most resembles a religion is, in fact, golf. Its adherents are devout and fanatical, with practices and customs that nonbelievers would find strange, often incomprehensible. They have a lifestyle, code, and morals. Hell, they even dress alike, with their khaki shorts and polo shirts.
Just think about it. How does it make sense to carry a bag of 14 clubs 7,200 yards (4 miles), while trying to hit a 1.68-inch ball into 18 different 4.25-inch holes? "When has golf ever made sense?" sportswriter Rick Reilly asks in So Help Me Golf: Why We Love the Game. It hasn't. It doesn't. It's pure insanity.
But the devout (this reviewer included) do it anyway. Religiously. Michael Jordan famously plays 36 holes, nearly every single day, always with something on the line. Father Monaghan, a priest in Hawaii, did 18 every day to less fanfare—while wearing no shoes, no shirt. Colonel Michael Hall, a four-year resident of the Hanoi Hilton, also enjoyed the escape, playing 18 imaginary holes while in captivity to prevent going stir-crazy (it worked).
And then there's Reilly, the retired 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year, longtime ESPN columnist, and the author of 15 books, including his latest, a best-of notebook dump from one of the most esteemed golf writers ever. Reilly doesn't just golf every few days. He has done it with just about anyone who's ever played the game—on what seems like every course, around the world. And with this book, you too can feel like you're out there with him as he regales his best one-liners, famous foursomes, and takes political potshots.
Rush Limbaugh is fat. (Or was—Reilly hasn't bothered to update the line.) Dan Quayle might have been "a very solid 6 [handicap], with a lovely tempo and an immaculate short game," but he's not "the sharpest razor in the medicine chest." And Donald Trump is a cheat (he wrote a whole book about that already, but still can't help sharing that insight here).
His best political story is the time he played with then-president Bill Clinton, who "hit it well, especially his irons, though his old Bulls Eye putter needed to be impeached."
After catching a ride in the presidential motorcade, "we changed our shoes sitting on the trunk, like two muni plumbers," Reilly recalls.
"Clinton was wildly into it. It was like he was getting a one-day furlough from prison and he was going to make it last as long as he could," he goes on. "We played for a good five hours plus. The main reason was the Billigans. A Billigan is cousin to a mulligan. It's a practice shot. Clinton would hit his first shot and then take three, four, even five extra practice shots from the spot, trying to work this flying elbow or that head lift. Billigans are still cheating, but more a venial sin than a mortal one." It helped, too, that the Secret Service would find his ball, always pointing out the one closest to the hole for the president to hit next.
So Help Me Golf isn't really a traditional book. It's a bunch of short essays cobbled together with hardly an arc to bring them together. If there were one, it's his relationship with his dad, a drunk and an awful father who at first made Reilly hate the game. But Reilly is at a young age able to divorce his dad from his true love—and fully embrace golf. He's sure not to be the same type of dad to his kids and grandkids.
Of course, Reilly isn't a professional golfer and once even had a day job. And he's pretty funny talking about that, too. Take "the single greatest boondoggle of an idea any golf writer ever dreamed up"—when he got Sports Illustrated to pay for a three-week golf tour so he could write about the most unforgettable golf holes around the world. Which the then-flush magazine didn't even bother to publish.
So Reilly dumps it here, into this book, for us to enjoy. As braggadocious as he can sometimes get (the hole in one Al Michaels was on hand to call, how he invented Topgolf, and his rounds at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters), it isn't just the highlights—though mainly it is. He also includes a few hysterical lows. Like the time he was on a book tour in Minneapolis. The Mall of America book store set out 200 chairs, a mountain of Chips Ahoy, "1,000 napkins, 250 paper cups, and, for no apparent reason, 100 spoons."
"Oh, hi, Mr. Reilly!" one of the workers told him after he walked in for the big event. "Well, we expect a really big crowd tonight!"
"One guy came," Reilly admits. "One." And he came for the cookies. Ouch.
For Reilly, golf isn't just a religious experience. It's a physical one too. He figures he burns 1,500 calories every round—and that's just if he's walking all 18 holes without carrying his clubs. But unlike your standard work, it's always pleasurable. "Golf is like sex," says Reilly. "Even when it’s bad, it's still pretty good."
So Help Me Golf: Why We Love the Game
by Rick Reilly
Hachette Books, 272 pp., $29.00
Daniel Halper is the author of Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine and the coauthor of A Convenient Death: The Mysterious Demise of Jeffrey Epstein.