The Sport of Drunken Hairy Scots

So why a book about golf, I ask, if you hate golf, hate golf writing, hate the way a sport started by drunken hairy Scots has grown into this tame, joyless Tiger Inc., where grown men walk around in clothes that look like something their mothers picked out for them?

Franz Lidz nods and begins to address this question, but first there is another story, something about his llamas Ogar and Edgar, back on the Brandywine farm, and plus, this is a time to concentrate.

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Photo by Peter Tobia / Inquirer

Gimlet-eyed in fancy Belgian glasses, he lines up his final approach, then crisply scoots the deep purple ball toward the crack in the little Liberty Bell. We have played 18 holes of miniature golf, the only players this morning at Franklin Square not wearing short pants.

Lidz, 56, promises he has never played an actual game of grown-up golf and yet he has bested me by 10 strokes.

“Because it was the sport I was least interested in,” he says. He is surprisingly tall, with a graying beard and fringe of hair. He wears a gray hoodie, running shoes and a pair a chinos splotched with spittle from his three great Pyrenees. He is a rarity for these parts, the urbane country gentleman.

“I always had this image in childhood of golf being staid and austere and mirthless, and so I was looking for the opposite of my image.”

Which explains his new collection, called “Fairway to Hell,” published last week by ESPN books and largely culled from articles written over 27 years at Sports Illustrated.

If he was going to write about golf, he was going to have to make it something he’d want to read, something about the characters who play the game, passionate duffers like Bill Krackomberger, a 425-pounder from Atlantic City with a 24 handicap (which won’t put him on the pro tour anytime soon). He writes:

“The Goliath of Galloway feels he’s never more himself than when he’s in touch with the 10 year old who resides within. He whacks and thwacks through the rough with a schoolboy’s exuberance, his voice as loud as his custom Sansabelts (the ones that look like Japanese TV test patterns.)”

Lidz chronicles a nudist golf game in Florida where the hazards are richocets, a big man’s tourney in New Haven, where players are penalized a quarter for every pound they weigh in at less than 250. He hits the links with the metal band Judas Priest — they “feel more passion for golf than sympathy for the devil.” He celebrates the caddying qualities of llamas — they’re quiet, non-judgmental and don’t have to be tipped.

It was Lidz who suggested we talk about his book at the smart new course in Franklin Square, a kitschy amusement of little Elfreth’s Alleys, Love Sculptures, Boathouse Rows and Rocky Steps.

Soft-spoken and slow-moving, Lidz describes himself as an unlikely hire at Sports Illustrated back in 1980. He’d never read the magazine and had no sportswriting clips. He made the cut on the strength of an unflattering profile of P.J. O’Rourke written for the Johns Hopkins alumni magazine.

“It’s not like I wasn’t athletic,” he said. He’d been a pretty good second baseman on his Little League team in Penn Valley, and relates a still-vivid play-by-play of his moment in the sun, an unassisted triple play.

He took a buy-out from SI last year, and now writes a bi-weekly column for Portfolio, where he is a contributing editor.

Getting these details of Lidz requires persistence, not because he’s reluctant to talk. It’s the opposite: each question leads to another slow-drip comic digression. For instance, it took about a half dozen tries to find out how he came to live on a Chester County farm.

He bought it with movie money, from when Hollywood turned Unstrung Heroes, his dark family memoir, into something brighter. On six acres, he and his wife, Maggie, raised their two girls, Gogo and Daisy. They keep company now with the two llamas, the mountain dogs named Ella, Errol and Tyrone, cats named Yojimbo and Sanjuro and assorted chickens and guinea hens.

He’s dropping me off at the paper in his Jeep, carpeted with white dog hair, when he corrects an earlier statement.
“I said I’ve never played golf. That’s not exactly true. I used to hit Wiffle golf balls with my dogs. They seemed to like that. Except they’d run off with my clubs.”