Fear Shoots a Bogey: My Buddy Faces Demons

Just before Labor Day, I played golf for the first time in my life, 18 holes at Blue Hill, a municipal club in Rockland County. I met my friend John Paul Newport in the parking lot and watched as he put on a bunch of knee braces and then practiced putting till the guy at the first tee called out his name, impatiently. We were late.

John Paul’s shirt was already mantled in sweat. He set up his ball, then walked away from it and waggled his club in the air as if it were a dowsing rod. He took weird breaths and seemed quite distracted. Then he marched toward the tee and drew back the club in a very slow back swing before hitting the ball out of sight.

I was eager to endure the company of grim doctors with rounded shoulders and Young Turks with razor haircuts for 4 hours because of John Paul’s book, The Fine Green Line , which was published this summer by Broadway Books. A chronicle of his year playing pro golf and trying to qualify for the P.G.A. tour, it has lately gone into a second printing and attained that Holy Grail, word of mouth, among thoughtful sportsmen and other middle-aged aspirants for a simple reason: It’s a wry comic triumph.

“An anti–Horatio Alger story,” said Booklist . “A revelation or a delight on every page,” said Time .

I have to admit I was as surprised as anyone that my friend pulled this off. I shared an office with John Paul back when he was starting his book. He is tall, handsome and blue-eyed; a former star high-school quarterback in Fort Worth. And under that exterior, you’ve never met such a neurotic.

He met his deadlines, but after what torture. I watched him pace the room talking to himself with flop sweat soaking his shirt, set his watch alarm to go off at arbitrary deadlines in mid-afternoon so as to force himself to finish a passage, suffer Dostoyevskian money woes that would make you grind your teeth. And often he stared implacably at the computer screen for hours, fists jammed into his ears.

More than once I whispered to a friend that John Paul should try a different line of work.

Then this. You read a friend’s book with sympathy and rivalry. Your murderous heart is quietly pleased by the awkward transition you would have avoided. Your little fund of loyalty swells at the nicely phrased insight. And you skim. John Paul’s story takes you past all that. With nary a pretentious word, it takes on a big theme-trying and failing in middle age-and does so against a drab comic backdrop, from Key Biscayne to Pompano. The Fine Green Line teems with colorful characters, from a rascal who picks up the beverage girls using subliminal-suggestion techniques to Captain Kurt, an Army veteran and better golfer than John Paul who, with uncommon grace, volunteers to caddie for him in his crucial match.

Now a writer for Maximum Golf , John Paul turned to the game 15 years ago, when he was at Fortune and his boss saw him hit a ball 340 yards on a corporate retreat.

“‘Holy shit!’ the publisher said. Those glorious words are seared in my mind,” he recounts in his book. “After we putted out the final hole, he took me aside, clamped both hands on my shoulders, looked me full in the face, and said, ‘You simply must take up golf.’”

The publisher got fired, but John Paul took his advice. And one summer day he shot 69 on Long Island, and a friend said, “Why don’t you turn pro?” He decided to try, budgeting $25,000 for a year.

Michael Hebron, the master pro at Smithtown Landing Golf Club, instructed John Paul, and gives away the book’s ending at the start when he tells him that, at most, he’ll shave one stroke off his performance.

Getting from really good to great takes years.

“A good athlete can go from 100 to 90 in a season if he leaves his ego at home,” Mr. Hebron says. “But John was already so good [2.7 handicap]. And he was cursed by time. Still, I thought it was very interesting how the guys on the mini tour accepted him. An 85 golfer gets pissed when he has to play with a beginner. But really good golfers don’t mind, they understand how hard it is to get birdies and pars.”

On Amazon.com, readers write about what a funny book this is. John Paul argues with his wife that the reason she believes golf is about “plaid pants” is that Dean Martin wore them as a drinker’s joke in the 60′s. He struggles with his feelings about playing the Hooters tour. “The whole exhibition was shameful,” he writes. “Afterward I allowed myself to be photographed with a half dozen Hooters girls hugging my neck. Two were named Tiffany.”

This stuff might be cute, except that John Paul, the son of a prominent Baptist theologian, the late John P. Newport, gets so obsessed that his self-defeating behaviors swarm to the surface. What I didn’t know when I watched him torture himself was that he was actually going to show the reader this madness, and it makes the book.

He is consumed by the religious ordeal of the self-absorbed, the necessity to believe in yourself.

” ‘I do deserve to be here,’ I started telling myself in a panicky tone,” John Paul writes in The Fine Green Line . “‘I’m as good as these guys. I’m a really good golfer. I swear I am, I really am.’

“But I didn’t believe it. That’s the problem with positive self-propaganda. You have to genuinely believe it or it’s just words.”

Fear and doubt so overwhelm him that he spends hours reorganizing his golf bag and, as tee time at the final qualifying match approaches, he agonizes over a change of socks.

“My slacks through repeated washings were a bit on the high-water side, and the rag-wool socks had shrunk in the dryer. Thus, a generous portion of my calf was visible … every time I addressed the ball I would be aware out of the corner of my eye that I looked like Jerry Lewis in The Bellboy . Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump! My heart was in my throat.”

Returning home after this performance, he is afraid for weeks to admit to his wife how humiliated he feels. “‘What’s the problem?’ she asked. ‘What did you expect? To make it to the TV tour?’

“‘Of course not,’ I scoffed. ‘Obviously not.’

“‘Of course not?’

“‘Of course not!’ But then I began to think, maybe I had.”

After our 18 holes (he shot 80, I shot 160; John Paul told me to work on my putting), we had beer and burgers in the clubhouse, and I asked him why he’d been so ashamed.

“Shame is a function of pride,” he said. “I was surprised by the degree to which my male vanity or my athletic vanity was assaulted. I’m a guy of around 40, reasonably accomplished, and here I was around 24-year-old guys who in any other aspect of life I didn’t have much to say to, or didn’t particularly respect. But I felt like a kid, like a protégé. An inadequate admirer. That was the pride coming in. I was competing with these guys on an athletic basis. It was inescapable.

“I was always among the worst players, and the fear just took over. It worked on me,” John Paul told me. “You’re always thinking how many things can go wrong on any golf swing. Then, when pride is on the line in a new way, the consequences of a ball going in the woods become soul-shattering or potentially soul-shattering. I’d broken par regularly before, I didn’t break par in the entire year. I froze.”

He asked the waitress for mustard for his cheeseburger. “I tried to keep an intellectual perspective, that this was just an experiment,” John Paul continued. “And what could be more fun than playing golf for a whole year? ‘This is fun, this is fun,’ I’d say.

“I still think I could have played better. But I can’t say that because I didn’t play better. I couldn’t do better. The anxiety, the freezing up, the sense of being in over my head-they say that golf is life with the volume turned up, and my neurosis-I take it to golf.”

I asked him how he’d gotten clear of that to write the book.

“I figured out what it takes to be a really good golfer, and I realized it’s not important enough for me. I quote Byron Nelson saying, ‘A fine golfer has only one fine thing, his fine golf game.’ He meant there’s no room in your life for anything else. Well, I no longer feel compelled to be a really great anything. I don’t want to be the greatest writer that ever lived, the greatest date. There’s a huge price people pay for that.

“The year helped me move beyond that, and left me at peace with myself as a middle-aged person. Now I like the things I always liked about golf. The thrill of occasionally hitting a really good shot. The atmosphere, the qualitative stuff. It doesn’t matter if I shoot 72 or 80, as long as I’m challenged in an interesting way. I don’t have to be the best, awesome or extraordinary. It’s much better to revel in the ordinary human qualities.”

The beverage girl with the blue eyes from the back nine passed through the room and we shot her a glance.

But what about the tortured person who could drive you crazy from across a room? I asked.

John Paul drained his beer. “I’m just not a self-confident person. I’m someone who always tends to assume-not the worst, but a lot of writers write a sentence and think it’s the most genius thing that’s ever been written. I’m just the opposite. I have this assumption of mediocrity. I went through 10 paralyzed moments in writing, then one non-paralyzed moment, and the non-paralyzed moment wouldn’t be possible without the other 10.”

And in writing, you get to throw out your bad scores.