James Patterson | 68 | Briarcliff Manor, New YorkNovember 19, 2015

My Shot: Master Storyteller James Patterson

Author James Patterson on pain, jokers, sneaking on, and good O.J. versus bad O.J.
Gasper Tringale/CPI Syndication

The ordinary hacker's career in golf parallels a Russian fiction novel. War and Peace, perhaps, for the endless number of mundane turns and the multitude of characters coming in and out. Crime and Punishment, maybe, because, on balance, we get what we deserve. The individual rounds, meanwhile, are like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in that little actually happens, yet we're hooked.

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SOME GOLFERS, offered a cup of joy or a cup of pain, will take the cup of pain. They have an expectation of frustration, bad bounces and poor lies, and boy, does the game give them all of that. As a shaky 10-handicapper, I can't deal with the pain. It would overwhelm me. So I ignore almost all of the bad things. I play nine holes five times a week, usually alone. I walk. I enjoy the exercise, the beauty and the occasional really good shot. I'm a cup-of-joy guy.

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WHEN I VISITED L.A. in the early 1980s, I would stay at Riviera Country Club. You used to get a room there for around $60. Early one morning I came down to hit balls, and the only person there was O.J. Simpson, who was a member. I asked him where I could get some range balls, and he very graciously escorted me to a ball-dispensing machine. He even gave me a token to get the balls. Incredibly nice guy. Later that same year, I was at Sleepy Hollow in New York, where I'm a member. And who do I see from a distance on the fourth hole but O.J. He's facing a 100-yard shot and duffs it. This nice man proceeds to bury his club up to the hosel. From two holes away I could feel the rage pouring out of him. So there's a good O.J. and a bad O.J. Whatever you are, golf will bring it out.

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ONE DAY at Sleepy I hit a bad drive into an adjoining fairway. There were two players there, partly obscured by trees, and of course I shouted, "Fore!" I rush over to find two guys are sprawled out. As I move closer, they jump to their feet and start laughing. My pals at Sleepy are real jokers.

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AT THE BEGINNING OF 2014, my wife, Susan, had four holes-in-one and I had three. On Feb. 6, I made my fourth ace, so now we're tied. She's a competitive person, a former All-America swimmer at Wisconsin. So her reaction—"I don't like it, but I can live with it"— did not surprise me. Two days later, we're playing together at Emerald Dunes, and I make another hole-in-one. This time I expected a hug or at least a high-five. Instead she said, flatly, "You've got to be shitting me." Now that's my kind of woman.

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WHEN I WAS A KID, I took to sneaking on to the Powelton Club near my home in Newburgh, N.Y. I would play 16, 17 and 18. One day I decided to play the other holes. While doing so, I look up and see a man in a cart barreling toward me. It's the head pro, and he's caught me red-handed. After sizing me up, he said with a wink and a nod, "You're Charlie Conway's kid, right?" Charlie Conway was a member. "Yes, sir!" I said. He said, "You ought to come by for a lesson. I think I can do something with that swing." Then he drove off. Now, the pro could have thrown the book at me. He could have destroyed a future golfer. Instead, he created one. I'd like to think that if I were in that pro's spot and saw a kid out playing far from the clubhouse, I'd smile and look the other way.

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I HATE FUNERALS AND WAKES. I just won't go. When my grandmother died, I made an exception and went to her funeral and the get-together afterward. Halfway through the party, I snuck out for a round at Powelton, my old sneaking-on spot that I now had access to. A very weird thing happened. I made four birdies in row, which was unprecedented for me and which I haven't come close to matching since. When the last birdie putt—a long one—went in dead-center, I felt my grandmother, telling me I'd done the right thing.

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THERE'S SOMETHING BUILT INTO MY SWING DNA THAT CANNOT BE FIXED. I cut across the ball. I lose distance. Alex Cross, the detective and hero in my novels, could easily track me around the golf course just by following my divots, which are uniquely mine. Several good teachers have marveled that golf can even be played the way I play it. Yet somehow it works.

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IF YOU PLAY WITH ME I really don't care what rules you play by. Do whatever you want. But if I hear the expression, "What are we playing for?" then we're playing by The Rules of Golf.

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I'M NOT SO SURE GOLF TEACHES HONESTY, integrity and respect for rules to the degree the idealists say it does. A million shady people have played golf with no positive effect on their character.

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GOLFERS SAY THE CRAZIEST THINGS. I'm with my buddy, Frank, in Myrtle Beach. On one hole we're a hundred yards from the green when he blurts, "Jimmy, did I leave my putter on the last green?" I said, "Frank, think about what you just said. If I'd seen your putter on the green, wouldn't I have picked it up or at least told you?"

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A LITTLE ADVANCE WARNING: If I'm your partner, and there's a tree trunk or large rock 10 feet in front of my ball, there's a good chance I'm picking up. I've known two guys who have lost an eye from balls ricocheting off things. Bad luck comes in threes, and I'm not going to be that third guy.

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DONALD TRUMP, WHOM I KNOW AND LIKE, has said that golf should be aspirational. I don't agree that we should deliberately set out to make it that way, but the reality is, it is aspirational and always has been. It's expensive, it takes time, and it's very difficult. But it's the best game to help a child aspire to. It teaches them patience, the realization that getting good at something requires persistence.

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PATIENCE IS NOT ONE OF MY STRONG SUITS. In the British edition of my Alex Cross novel, Cat & Mouse, I wanted to get it done, and in so doing didn't get the ending right. It was a cliffhanger, and I just didn't tie it up well at the end. I heard the same remark from half a dozen people: "I finished it and felt like throwing the book against the wall." I quickly wrote a different, better ending for the American edition, which came out after the British edition.

It created a unique problem: How do I pick up the next book where the last one left off?

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WHO HASN'T IMAGINED THEY'RE A FAMOUS PLAYER? For me, it wasn't Nicklaus or Palmer, but Travis McKinley, the protagonist of my novels Miracle on the 17th Green [1996] and Miracle at Augusta [2015]. Travis is a good golfer but couldn't make a living at it, and he's stuck in a job he doesn't like. One day, Travis inexplicably enters a zone with the putter, and it enables him to accomplish something quite fantastic. I really lived through Travis, and it continued into the Augusta book—my co-writer, Peter de Jonge, did the writing. Travis is my hero, and I don't think I'm finished with him yet. I'll spare you the details of Miracle at St. Andrews, which I might do in a year or two to make it a trilogy. Suffice to say, the most profound miracle of all awaits Travis McKinley.

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I FINALLY GOT TO THE MASTERS IN 2012, as part of a hospitality package put together by Gary Player's son Marc. On Monday after the tournament, I got to play with Gary at a course near Augusta. He still cranked it out there about 250, and his determination was something else. A sport psychologist Gary knew was there with us. As Gary teed his ball on one hole, the shrink leaned over to me and whispered, "Want to know the softest part of Gary? His teeth."

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GARY TOLD US not to stay at the Masters after the ninth hole on Sunday because it gets insane out there and you can't see anything. "Come back to the guest house," he said. So we went back and watched the back nine on TV, with Gary providing a running commentary. The stories he told were unbelievable. I thought, This is the best ticket in sports.

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AT ONE POINT, GARY SAID, "Golf is a puzzle without an answer." That resonated, because when I write, I present a puzzle. The basis of all storytelling is giving the reader something to figure out. People love to do that. But at least I solve the puzzle. Golf tempts you with a solution, but it never lasts. I have thousands of scorecards with I've got it now swing thoughts written on them. Not one has lasted.

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GEORGE PLIMPTON ONCE SAID, the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Really? Is there a golf-novel equivalent to Bernard Malamud's baseball-themed The Natural? I love Dan Jenkins' Dead Solid Perfect, and many good nonfiction works also have been written. I loved The Greatest Game Ever Played. But golf generally is written for a knowledgeable and appreciative—but narrow—audience.

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JUST BECAUSE YOU HAVEN'T BEEN PUBLISHED DOESN'T MEAN YOU AREN'T A WRITER. As soon as you take a crack at writing a manuscript, you're a writer in my mind. My first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, was rejected 31 times before it was published, and I certainly considered myself a writer before it got into print. The same is true with golf—just because you don't have an official handicap and play in tournaments, doesn't mean you aren't a golfer. If you play nine holes twice a year, you're still a golfer.

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BOOKS ARE LOVE. Get kids reading, and it will open all kinds of possibilities. It's why I wrote the Maximum Ride series for young people in addition to a lot of other children's books. It's why I've committed millions to school libraries and a lot of reading programs. Similarly, golf is love. Get a kid playing golf, and it has the possibility of opening doors. My son, Jack, who is 17, happens to like cooking more than he does golf. But he's played enough to have a pretty good swing, and there's a good chance he'll become more enthused when he gets older. If and when that happens, he'll have a passion that will serve him well. At the very least, it will give exposure to a lot of very nice people.

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I'VE NEVER BEEN PARTICULARLY BOTHERED by purists who criticize my writing. It's like knocking Jim Furyk's golf swing. It might not be pretty, but it sure wins a lot of tournaments.


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