This is my third posting about really great long-term gigs. Even as this is being written I feel a need to be looking over my shoulder, and there is a simple explanation for this cautiousness. No sooner had I penned (or typed if you will) about Peter Kaplan and the NEW YORK OBSERVER, than he announced he was retiring and I, heeding my own gut which had been urging me to gather some breathing space into my life and complete a number of long overdue, as well as still in-the-works, projects, followed that announcement by requesting a long sabbatical from the paper. Let’s see if it helps. But, let’s keep it for now limited to the OBSERVER. A steady gig is a steady gig in these tough economic times.
A funny thing happened on the way to illustrating former golf pro, now CBS PGA Tour commentator, David Feherty’s “Sidespin” GOLF column in 1997. The last time I had swung a golf club I was probably 19 or 20. My knowledge and comprehension of the rules of the game were, and remain, close to nil. Admitting that, it’s only natural to assume that my familiarity with the terms and terminology of the game is equally clueless. My brother-in-law, Reese, can spend hours explaining par and bogey or birdie and I will look at him with sincere, idiotic, blank, incomprehension. Ironically this gross deficiency in skill and knowledge has never proved an impediment illustrating golf articles for any number of other publications including SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and the USGA. Just be funny and you can remain an uncoordinated dope.
But I digress (a favorite phrase of David’s). Back in the summer of ’97, I received a call from Ina Saltz, the art director, to illustrate the first column. It was sort of an audition, as other illustrators were being considered to work as either part of a rotating team, or have the slot entirely for themselves. This I remember being told. I don’t quite recall what happened next but the gig became mine and has happily remained so ever since.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my lifelong saturation in Looney Tunes and Three Stooges would prove to be invaluable working all these years with David, as he is truly a brilliantly funny writer on the topic of golf, and that is no small feat. Golf humor, in general, is about as funny as watching golf on TV is heart pounding exciting. I’ve done two book covers for Oxford Press on humorous golf anecdotes. Dutifully I read the galleys of both books, and in each situation found myself cracking a smile not once. Reading Stephen Ambrose’s account of D-Day brought more chuckles. My first realization reading David’s columns was that, in spite of the topic, despite the fact that he was writing for the already converted and knowledgeable, regardless of the reality that I didn’t entirely understand at times what he was talking about, his sharp, really wicked, wit and style (great timing to boot even on the printed page), had me doubling over. Every once I a while I would try to read out loud a column to my wife, Terri, and find myself unable to finish a paragraph because it would be so difficult forming words while laughing like a lunatic. His imagery is very slapstick (a big plus for me already), his puns often scatological (sorry if you are politically correct), and his fantasies grounds for arrest. There’s also a healthy dose of male locker room ribbing peppered throughout his columns.
Equally unaware was I of the fact that my caricatures of David, who in the beginning was to be the main focus of the illustrations, struck his fancy and apparently swung his vote to keep me on. As good as he gives, he can take when it comes to ribbing. David has been blessed by the Almighty with a noteworthy proboscis, and it was that nasal appendage that was the focus of my caricatures. Reference on him in the beginning was paltry and I found myself winging it with what seemed the most obvious. The fact that I hadn’t been replaced by another illustrator during all this time should have meant something, and yet I had no idea, and heard no feedback through the grapevine, what he thought of the images for his column. That came years later when I was asked by Shawn Coyne at Ruggedland Press to illustrate the cover for his book, A NASTY BIT OF ROUGH. Apparently at David’s request. There were some inside illustrations as well in the deal and I felt I needed to get some details right regarding some of his references. This led to an email from me to David, with a response something to the effect of, “I believe this may ruin a beautiful relationship.” This led to a phone conversation, that took an interesting twist when, in a sort of digression David mentioned that he would have trained to sing opera had he not gotten into playing golf, as he was a tenor by training. It was impossible not to be aware of that mellifluous Irish lilt in his speech pattern. In a flash I responded, “Oh, like John McCormack (A great Irish tenor from the 20’s and 30’s)? “ There was a silence on the other end of the line and then finally, “Ah, well yes.” Bingo! We had made the connection. And it was opera. As a youth he sang in a choir in Ireland. We compared notes on our favorite choral masterpieces. I mentioned Durufle, he responded with Faure’s Requiem.
Well, the rest is, as they say, history. We’ve enjoyed a wonderful friendship, even as our lives and careers have rarely crossed paths physically. When they have, it’s been memorable. Like last year when he invited me along on a USO sponsored tour, ‘Operation Links’, of Kuwait and Iraq visiting soldiers and Marines at numerous bases during Thanksgiving week. (I would have gone the year before as well, but the paperwork couldn’t get completed in time.) An amazing week where I had the opportunity, as this blessed tagalong with a bunch of golf pros doing demonstrations and meet and greets, of drawing the service men and women doing their best with the challenges they’d been confronted with. There was even a mini-documentary put together for the GOLF CHANNEL that ran during this recent Memorial Day weekend, and this humble servant received a few video moments in that as well. The natural instinct in me is to feel the outsider, and it was very easy to do so surrounded by all these sports heavyweights. David tolerated none of that and always made it a point of introducing me a part of the team in the appearances and photo ops.
He’s a ridiculously generous human being along with possessing a tenacious sense of loyalty that I believe only badgers have. He’s taken nothing for granted in his life and has lent his name and services to any number of charities and good causes, in particular for kids in distressed situations. Growing up in Belfast has nurtured in him an appreciation for those in less than ideal circumstances. He’s also initiated and funded a number of other charities on his own. Currently, he’s been deeply involved with the armed forces, in particular, those who have suffered serious injury as a result of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a non-profit he’s co-founded, called Troops First. His commitment and loyalty to these wounded warriors is humbling. Politically, he’s all over the spectrum, and quite difficult to peg. Thankfully, at least for me, he’s more on the side of whom I would consider the ‘good guys’ than the bad guys. Being a shoot from the hip humorist can sometimes land him in a tight spot. Recently he received some angry flak over a failed joke (he says he meant it as a metaphor) concerning Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. But hey, even Jonathan Swift’s essay about what to do with England’s poor kids- eat them- wasn’t met with knee slapping guffaws from the reading audience in his time. Sometimes, humor is a dangerous business.
I submit for your perusal a selection of images from GOLF Magazine that have turned out particularly well. David’s writing, more often than not, presents a formidable challenge of trying to match, forget about topping, his comedic verbal imagery. In other words, he inspires me to keep trying to do better.
I am grateful indeed for this weird, whacky, beautiful friendship, and look forward to whatever encounters await us in the future. Maybe one of these days he’ll actually follow through and we’ll go to the Opera- our wives will sit comfortably with each other gritting their teeth politely through the event- and then have a rousing post performance dinner with his good friend and golf buddy, Bryn Terfel.