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.
Annals of Investigative Golf :
The Gavea Golf Club in Rio de Janeiro.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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