This piece was commissioned by TheSpook, a lively Web rag started by the multi-talented and multifaceted Anthony Sapienza, who subsequently changed the name to Metropole. Posting it as a Dispatch is admittedly a bit of a stretch—what, after all, does investigative golf have to do with the vanishing world ?—but I’m including it because it’s always a good idea to push the envelope of the mix, lest the writer and his readers become too set in their ways. To me, it evokes a period of my life that is no more, when Brazil, and later golf, were a central part of it, and the Brazil that I first came to in l976 doesn’t exist any more either. This will be elaborated in a future Dispatch on Lapa, the old bohemian quarter of Rio.
Ten years ago, I was obsessed with golf, and because my magazine assignments and book research took me all over the world, I always tried to avail myself of the local facilities and get in a round wherever I happened to be. I played in Katmandu, New Delhi, Bujumbura, Harare, Kinshasa, Kampala, Little Rock, Amarillo, Mexico City. I played the eight postcolonial courses in Uganda, most of which were reverting to savanna, and all 45 ones in the Adirondacks, and the native American courses of New Mexico, with local tribal champions and chairmen. These rounds never failed to provide insights into the local culture and gave me instant access to the local elete, the movers and shakers, who were less guarded about sharing their thoughts on what was happening than they would have been in a formal interview. Not infrequently, I would pick up leads or inside information about the story I was working on. For instance, when I was sent by Vanity Fair to the Central Africa Republic to cover the trial of its ex-president, Jean-Bedel Bokassa (who was accused, among many other things, of clubbing schoolchildren to death and eating a mathematician who had fallen into disfavor), one day I played hooky from the trial and repaired to the rudimentary (oiled-sand greens) course in Bangui, the capital, where I found myself paired with none other than the new minister of justice, who over nineteenth-hole hole beers told me the verdict two weeks before it was officially reached : namely, that Bokassa would be sentenced to death, which would be commuted to life. Which was exactly what happened.
These and similar experiences made me realize that golf is not just a stupid but incredibly difficult and highly addictive game that I am spending far too much time playing, it’s professionally useful. This is something that every businessman knows, of course : deals, not only little white balls, are struck on golf courses. But I was the first, and to my knowledge, am still the only writer who has realized what a journalistic and anthropological gold mine golf courses can be. Particularly in the Third world, the dividends are so great that I gradually made it a practice, whenever I arrived in some new country, to hit the local course sooner rather than later. It was also a great way of acclimating to the local landscape and climate and flora and fauna.
And so, to legitimize and capitalize on my addiction, as much as anything else, I devised a new form of journalism—postgonzo, dada, participant-observer– which I called Investigative Golf, and the editor of Esquire was so intrigued by it that he hired me to write a golf column. This was a few years ahead of the baby-boomer golf boom, which didn’t take off until later in the nineties. Once again, I was ahead of the curve.
No golf column is worth a damn unless the columnist is gets to review the latest equipment, I reasoned, so I had Taylor Made and Calloway UPS me their latest graphite clubs, which I took to my home course, Craig Wood in Lake Placid. I teed off in a warm, fine rain. This was a round I will always remember. On the fourth hole, a straightforward par three to a bunker-guarded green, I hit the Calloway eight-iron. The ball cleared the traps, landed ten feet from the pin, took a few bounces, and rolled in. Hey everybody ! Hole in one ! Hole in one ! I shouted, jumping up and down with excitement. But I was the only person on the course. No one else had witnessed it, so it didn’t count. Then, two holes later, I drained a thirty-footer for an eagle, but this, too, was unwitnessed. But I took these two holes (don’t ask about the rest of the round; I still didn’t break eighty) as a good omen. The golf gods are smiling on my column, I told myself. I was psyched.
For my maiden outing, I decided to go to Brazil, whose president, Fernando Color de Mello, had just been caught with his fingers in the till to the tune of nineteen billion dollars. The Brazilians were extremely upset. Here they had elected him because he had promised to clean up the rampant, institutionalized corruption in the government, and what had he done ? whisked off a significant chunk of the national reserve into numbered banks accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. The scandal was starting to resemble a Greek tragedy. Color had been busted by his brother, in revenge for sleeping with his (the brother’s) wife, and their mother so devastated by the revelations about Fernando and the hatred between her sons that she had had an aneurism and was in a coma.
So I thought I’d fly down to Rio and see what I could come up with by working the golf angle. Brazil having been a Portuguese and not a British colony, it has very few golf courses. Golf is not a word that the average Brazilian has even heard of (except that there is a popular domestically manufactured Brazilian Volkswagen model the Golf). When I registered at the Windsor Palace in Copacabana—a small hotel a block from the beach that caters to Argentinian sex tourists, where I usually stay when I’m in Rio—this time I didn’t put down pesquisador, as I usually did where the card asked for my profession. This means “researcher,” and gets you automatic respect in Brazil; everyone calls you Doctor (Dotor). I wrote golfista : golfer. The guy at the front desk read this and glanced nervously at the long black bag containing my golf bag and clubs. I realized what he was thinking. Golfista (golfer) was a word he had probably never heard of and therefore wasn’t computing, so he thought I had written golpista, which means a fomenter of coups, a word which everybody in Latin America knows because coups (golpes) are happening all the time. He must be thinking my bag is full of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. “Não rapaz, voce não esta pegando o negocio certinho, I explained¸ you’ve got me all wrong, and unzipping the bag showed him the Calloways.
I soon learned that the minute fraternity of Brazilian golfers included two of Color’s brothers-in-law. These were guys I obviously had to play with. But not right away. First I had to ease into the scene, which was at Gavea Golf Club, the swankest club in Rio and in fact, the only one in the city proper. There was another course in the outskirts, but forget about it, my sources told me. One of the brothers-in-law belonged to Gavea. So Gavea was the scene to infiltrate. There are two problems with investigative golf, I mused : in the first place, having this hidden agenda of trying to coax information from the people you’re playing with is contrary to the gentlemanly spirit of game. This was causing me a certain amount of angst, but the whole thing was such an interesting concept that I could live with it. Secondly, once they figure out what you’re up to, you’ll never play at that club again. This was even worse, but there are a lot of courses out there.
I called the club and asked to speak with the pro, whose name was Mario, and explained that I was writing an article on golf in Brazil for a prestigious American magazine, and asked if it would it be possible to play a round with some interesting and colorful members who could show me a little about how golf is played in Brazil.
Mario said to come the next morning. The physical layout of Rio, if you’ve never been there, is one the most beautiful of any city in the world. There’s a series
of beaches broken by rounded granite domes that come right down to the sea, and Gavea is in Sao Conrado, the next beach down the coast after Ipanema and Leblon. Copacabana, where I was staying, is the next beach up. Sao Conrado is much less built up than Copacabana or Ipanema/Leblon. It’s like a little tropical paradise, a world of its own. Looming over it is a four-thousand-foot-high anvil shaped mountain called the Pedra de Gavea from which hang-gliders and paragliders are constantly taking off and drifting down to the beach. Then there is a wall of other crags and domes, whose slopes are frothing with rainforest and home to some of the last golden-lion tamarins on the planet, so that Sao Conrado sits in a bowl or valley, enclosed by mountains and the sea.
The golf course was laid out on the valley floor in the twenties so that Rio’s then-sizeable British expatriate community could have a place to play. A few days later I played with one of the last representatives of this scene, a gentleman or seventy or so who had grown up in Rio and was the oldest member. He had played at Gavea several times a week for decades. He wore a deerstalker hat and sat on a shooting stick when I was hitting my shot, and muttered bugger when he topped his drive and was completely British although only been to England a couple of times in his life.
Mario turned out to be a German Brazilian in his sixties, who had grown up in the south of the country. In some southern cities German is the first language. Mario had invited the Brazilian woman’s champion to join us. Her name was Adriana and she was absolutely gorgeous– a bronzed brunette of about thirty, wearing very short white shorts, a pink blouse, and a broad-brimmed planter’s hat, classy and athletic but still feminine and very sexy. She was a criollo, a white, European Brazilian like Mario; her father was French, she herself was married to a Frenchman who had some very profitable business in Rio, and they had a daughter as I recall.
I myself looked the part, like a pro on the Latin American tour, with my huge black Calloway bag and the latest graphite clubs, which didn’t impress Adriana, because she had the latest titanium Calloways, which she had just picked up on one of her frequent shopping trips to New York. Clearly, she took the game very seriously. She took almost daily lessons from Mario, whom she called maestro, and as she walked up to the first tee and set up and adjusted her grip she cast anxious glances at him. She pushed her drive off into some jacaranda trees, she moaned Adriana, in heartbreaking anguish. I chose a two-iron and smacked my drive 220 yards low and straight down the middle, just beyond the dogleg, leaving an easy 130 yards straight to the pin. Bravo, Mario said. He drove to just behind me, and we set out, Mario in a cart, Adriana and I on foot, our huge bags lugged by a small, barefoot moreno (a dark-skinned mestizo like most of the people in Brazil) who looked about fifty and was from Rocinha, a favela that abuts the course on one side and has four hundred thousand residents; it’s the biggest slum in Latin America. The huge disparity between the rich and the poor in Brazil—according to the latest census, 23 million out of the population of 170 million have less than a dollar a day to live on— was hard to miss in Sao Conrado, even for the most out to lunch gringo. The course was surrounded by a high wall patrolled by guys with Uzis to protect the members from being assaulted by the nearby slumdwellers. Our caddy was stunted, toothless, and emaciated and was soon staggering under the combined weight of our two enormous bags. I wondered if he had had anything to eat that day. He was inches shorter than the vibrant classy, beef-fed, Adriana whose teeth were all there.
“Where are you staying ?” Adriana asked as we walked up the fairway to our shots. I didn’t realize it yet, but this was not a casual question. She was sizing me up.
“The Windsor Palace,” I said.
Puzzlement furrowed Adriana’s lovely face. The Windsor Palace ? What hotel is this ? I could hear her thinking. I have never heard of it.
“It’s a little pension in Copacabana that caters mainly to Argentine sex tourists, ” I explained. Copacabana ? I could almost hear her thinking. He’s staying in Copacabana ?
This was not a bairro, a part of town, where anybody in Adriana’s world would dream of staying, unless it was at the Copacabana Palace. It may have been chique fifty years ago, but now it was seedy and seething and seamy and almost Fellinian. I could feel that I had just fallen a notch in Adriana’s estimation. What’s the matter, I thought to myself a little testily, The Windsor Palace isn’t good enough for you ?
I spanked a nine iron to ten feet and sank the putt for a bird, beating both Mario and Adriana, who punched out of the jacarandas and saved par with the sangfroid of someone who had practiced this shot for hours under the watchful gaze of the maestro. Americans from the South call it a Texas knockdown. I call it the Zimbabwe, because that’s exactly what it does, if you hit it right : a low, scooting Zim, that takes a big bounce, Ba, followed by a little one, Bwe, then dribbles up to and right into the cup.
I led the way to the second tee, brimming with self-satisfaction, and proceeded to smack three drives that went straight out for a hundred yards then suddenly veered drastically to the left, flying over the wall and landing right in the busy road that ran along the beach. It was impossible to see whether any cars had been hit. These were the type of shot that a golf buddy of mine calls an AMF, short for Adios Motherfucker. My score for the hole was a humbling eleven. Whatever momentum I had created on the first hole was more than canceled out. I had hoped to be able keep up the illusion of being a pro taking a break from the PGA Tour with a little r and r in Rio a little longer, but my game was not cooperating. And it got worse. By the eleventh hole, a short par three with a green entirely surrounded by water, the wheels had come off completely. I put six balls in the drink before finally making the green. Adriana was keeping score for us. “And what did you get for that one ?” she asked with a shiver of distaste.
“I think it was fourteen,” I said. This was really bad. Enough for Mario to suddenly remember that he had a lesson. He took off in his cart for the clubhouse, leaving Adriana and me and the caddy to finish the back nine.
“So what are some Brazilian golf expressions ?” I asked Adriana. “Like what do you call an eight ? In the States we have all kinds of terms : in Texas it’s called dog balls, in New England the Dreaded Snowman. “We call it a crab,” she said. “And when someone asks how your round went, you can say, eu nem embocei nemhuma,” which means that you didn’t drain a single drive or approach, so that it went right into the cup.
Finally, on the eighteenth hole, I recovered my game and nailed my drive from a very elevated tee straight out 250 yards, leaving me with 135 to the pin. The green was on a mound, so let’s say we’re looking at more like 145 here, I mumbled to myself. I took out the eight. The ball popped way up in the air and came down right on the tip of the flagstick, slid down it shaft, and dropped right into the cup. It was a shot you could stand there for the rest of your life and never be able to repeat. Nonchalantly, as if this sort of this happened every time I went out on a golf course, I said, to the astonished Adriana, whose mouth had dropped open, “Parece qu’eu embocei uma, I seemed to have drained one. Adriana was beginning to wonder if she was being made fun of, if my atrocious second through the seventeenth holes had all been a setup, um gozaçâo.
Our caddy had cut one of his feet on some glass several holes ago and was bleeding pretty badly and was so weak and wobbly that he didn’t look like he was going to make it to the clubhouse. He was getting five hundred thousand new cruzeiros—the equivalent of two bucks, with the runaway inflation a lot less by the end of the day– —for carrying our bags, and approaching Adriana he asked her meekly, implored her if the senhora (she) could possibly advance him five hundred thousand for the next round, because his wife was sick and he needed to buy her some medicine. Adriana looked at him as if he were an annoying piece of bellybutton lint, and said, “Absolutely not, and if you ever dare to ask me for something like that again, I will see that you are fired.”
Adriana and I sat down on the patio. I was uncustomarily silent. What a bitch !
Adriana ordered a glass of lemonade and when the waiter brought it she screamed at him, “You idiot ! I said no ice.”
I can’t believe this, I thought. It must be de rigeur to abuse the help at this club, otherwise Adriana wouldn’t have dared to be so outrageous. This was a side of Brazil I had never seen before.
Down below us, one of the orange-uniformed maintenance crew was mowing the grass, and a few minutes later, he deftly—so cunningly that there was no way you could have possibly accused him of doing it on purpose– managed to direct the clippings that were flying up from the mower into a gust of wind that swept them up to the patio and landed all over Adriana’s blouse, in her hair, on her beautiful legs and her very short shorts. The help tittered, but quickly recovered before any of the members caught their amusement. Adriana fled to the ladies’ lockeroom. I saw her the next day, having a lesson with Mario, but she barely said hello.
The game with the brother-in-law who belonged to Gavea never materialized. It took a week before I was finally able to get him to invite me for a round, and on the appointed morning, it was pouring rain. And I was flying up to Brasilia that afternoon, so this was the last chance. I had to play with him, rain or no rain. So I called the brother-in-law’s cellphone. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to play today,” he said.
“What’s a little rain ?” I said. “So we get a little wet. We can have a great time out there, anyway.”
I could feel the brother-in-law’s growing suspicion on the other end of the phone, wondering, What’s this gringo’s game ? Why is he so desperate to play golf with me ?
then slowly realizing, Aha ! This must be about Fernando. What these journalists won’t stoop to.
We left it that we would take a raincheck until I got back from Brasilia, but when I called his office a week later, his secretary said, Sorry, Senhor (I don’t remember his name) is busy all day.
“What about tomorrow then ?”
“He’s busy then too. In fact he’s booked solid for the rest of the week.”
“What about next week, then ?”
“Next week– even worse.”
So from the investigative golf point of view, the trip to Brazil was a bust. I didn’t get any significant goods on Color from the golf courses of Rio and Brasilia, and the editor of Esquire never ran the column from Rio. Instead he suggested that I go to Little Rock and try to play golf with Clinton’s buddies, the FOB’s, as they were called. Clinton had just been elected to his first term, and he was a big golfer, but he was not a Republican, so what kind of a message was he trying to send us ?
I managed to play with most of the FOB’s, even though Hunter S. Thompson did his best to sabotage me. One of the rounds was with Webster Hubbell, who would later be indicted for bilking the Rose Law Firm, which Hilary was a partner of, out of a couple of hundred thousand. But no one knew that he was doing this yet, and ol’ Web seemed the soul of integrity. I have to say that I didn’t pick this up from his golf game, either, which throws dirt in the face of another premise of investigative golf : that the game strips you naked. So the column from Little Rock, I turned in was a little gimmicky and just as shy on hard goods as the one from Rio. The editor ran it, but then he killed the column, and a few months later, he himself was sent packing.
I took my idea to Golf Digest, and they signed me up to do a piece about the O.J.Simpson case. O.J. was in the middle of his trial. What light could his golf game shed light on his guilt or innocence ? This was the assignment. The one that was finally going to put investigative golf on the map.
I golfed with his buddies at the Riviera Country Club and this time I scored some tangible goods. “We’ve all wanted to kill our wives at one time or another. I don’t see what the problem is,” one of his buddies told me. When the article came out, I was invited to go on Entertainment Tonight, where I said—the trial was still going on, and it was in the part where all this DNA evidence was being introduced– “Has anybody thought of checking the lawn at Rockland for divots ? [O.J.’s alibi was that he was home, practicing chips with his three-wood]. What this trial really needs is a forensic divotologist. You realize, of course, that a person’s divot is nearly as distinctive as his DNA.”
The piece completely validated investigative golf. I could see the day when colleges would be offering a major in investigative golf with a minor in forensic divotology, or vice versa. But Golf Digest got so many angry letters that the magazine decided that investigative golf was too hot, too controversial a concept for it to take on at the moment. Best to stick with the instructional stuff.
It was amazing how many old friends I hadn’t heard from in years caught my minute of fame on Entertainment Tonight, with me in a bowtie, peering over half-glasses and trying to look as professorial as possible, like the professor of forensic divotology from the University of Barcelona. For the next few days, I was deluged with calls and everybody thought I was great.
A few years after the O.J. piece, I was back in L.A. for Vanity Fair The magazine wanted a piece on the private golf clubs where the stars play for its Hollywood issue.
At Sherwood, the latest and most expensive and hottest of the clubs, Jack Nicholson and Sean Connery’s stockbroker introduced me to a golf guru from Hot Springs, Arkansas, whom he was promoting, and guru explained to me the secret of the swing, which I may be willing to share on some future occasion. Actually, the stockbroker did a much better job of putting it into words than the guru did. Since then, now that I have this knowledge, now that I understand the swing, every time I go out, I can pretty much count on shooting in the low eighties, and I hardly play any more, because I don’t have to play, I don’t feel the need to play the way I used to when I was desperately struggling with my swing. I play once, twice a year max. After the golf boom took off four or five years ago, and every blooming boomer in bloomers started to play, I just kind of lost interest. It lost its distinctiveness. Plus now we have three little boys, and it’s hard to get away. But the oldest, the eight-year-old, is starting to show an interest in the game, so maybe I’ll get back out there this summer. Maybe I’ll even get back into writing investigative-golf. The concept has kind of been in mothballs. But it’s definitely a sound one. That round at Gavea, for instance, provided a powerful snapshot of the Brazilian reality, the Brazilian disparity, and validated another central premise of investigative golf : that every course is a microcosm of the culture in which it is embedded.
This spring I took the fam to Brazil for the boys’s spring break. This time I didn’t stay at the Windsor Palace. Copacana has become a little too Fellinian. You can’t swim in the water because the foam of the cresting waves is brown with shit from the sewers that pour into the sea, mostly from the hilltop favelas. Every so often a severed arm or leg from some gang war washes up on the beach. So we spent at few days the Hotel Intercontinental in Sao Conrado. There was a spectacular view of the Gavea golf course from our balcony, but I didn’t feel the slightest urge to play it. Not only because there was an epidemic of dengue fever in Rio and it wasn’t a good idea to be outside for any length of time, but where I’m at now, golf is just not what I want to be doing. A quick game of squash or tennis—yes. But five hours on a golf course ? I can’t justify it.
One of the waiter’s at the Intercontinental’s pool turned out to have worked for years at the Gavea Country Club. I asked him if he remembered the lady’s champion ten years back– a gorgeous-looking woman named Adriana.
“How could I forget,” he said.
The latest news about Color is that after rusticating himself in Paris for a few years in his splendid apartment near the Arc de Triomphe, he is back in politics, running for governor of Maceio, his home state, and is probably going to win. As Antonio Carlos Jobim put it, Brazil is not for beginners.