Rick Reilly,  SO HELP ME GOLF: Why We Love the Game

Rick Reilly, SO HELP ME GOLF: Why We Love the Game

Zibby speaks to longtime Sports Illustrated and ESPN writer and New York Times bestselling author Rick Reilly about his latest book So Help Me Golf: Why We Love the Game, a valentine to his favorite sport. Rick shares his best golf stories, from playing in Bali with ball-stealing monkeys to caddying for Donald Trump. He also talks about the sports announcer who taught him that the best sports stories aren’t about sports at all and shares his best tips for beating writer’s block and imposter syndrome!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rick. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss So Help Me Golf: Why We Love the Game.

Rick Reilly: What are moms doing? There’s no time to read a book. They have too much to do.

Zibby: Then there’s definitely no time to play golf.

Rick: I was going to say, how do they take four and a half hours to play golf?

Zibby: I actually used to play golf for a little bit. Once I realized it was okay to play nine — my mom is a really serious golfer. For her, that is not an option. I was like, there is an option where I could go out and have fun and play nine holes and, god forbid, not even count what I get. She’s like, “What?”

Rick: Wouldn’t it have been such a better game if they’d have just stopped at nine?

Zibby: Yeah.

Rick: It would’ve saved so many marriages.

Zibby: I think so. Why eighteen?

Rick: You’re done, two hours. See ya later.

Zibby: People complain about reading books. Honestly, two rounds of golf, and you could’ve read an entire book.

Rick: You know what I do? Sometimes I go out and practice just by myself with my bag. I have — you know those Bose sunglasses that have speakers in them? I listen to books as I walk along. Maybe they would have time to listen to books. Maybe not.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s interesting. Play two rounds of golf. Listen to a book. All right, we’ll start a new campaign. We could start with your book.

Rick: There you go. I did the audio. I’ve done fifteen books. This is one of the first ones I ever read aloud. You don’t realize that there’s emotional parts in it that when you say out loud — I came apart. I started crying three times. It was either about my dad or my grandson or my son or wife, whatever it was. You don’t really realize the power of saying it out loud. It just seems more real.

Zibby: I totally agree. I just wrote a memoir. I read my audiobook also. I knew from interviewing so many authors to expect to be caught off guard by how emotional it was. I was still intellectually prepared, but emotionally, it made no difference. For my publishing company — I was literally just talking to somebody yesterday. I was like, “Before any of our authors record an audiobook, I’m going to make them a care package with a huge box of tissues and all these things and say, watch out. This will be intense.”

Rick: I’m terrible. I cry at a McDonald’s ad. I cry if a pen runs out of ink. I’m just the worst.

Zibby: I don’t think that’s the worst. I think that’s the best.

Rick: My wife’s over there going, you are. You cry too much.

Zibby: No such thing. It’s great to have that level of sensitivity. I know you’ve written a bazillion books. Can you tell listeners a little more about what So Help Me Golf is about? Why this book now?

Rick: It’s my valentine to golf, all the things I love about it and stories I’ve saved for forty years covering golf, and not professional golf especially, but real golf, people, women, men that play, aren’t very good, funny things that happen, and a lot of emotional things. My dad was a drunk. He was a drunk golfer. I hated how golf made him come home drunk and beat on us. Then later, I realized it wasn’t golf’s fault. It was his fault. Then I fell in love with golf as a teenager and then grew to love it even more. Then why now is because during COVID — I always wanted to write this book. In sports writing, we have a thing called saving strength. I was saving strength for this book for forty years. Finally, I had some time. That’s why now.

Zibby: Interesting. Did you write this during COVID?

Rick: Yeah, I wrote it during COVID. Then a lot of it, I had to go out and research more stuff. Then I had to kind of wait for COVID to die down. It was a lot of travel with this. It was also just memories. I went around the world once in the eighties playing the most unforgettable holes in the world. Sports Illustrated let me do it. It was supposed to be a two-part article. Then by the time I got back a month later, they had fired the guy that assigned me the story. He was gone, and so they didn’t care about it. I saved all those notes. I kept adding to it. I’ve heard there’s a hole in Africa where you take a helicopter to a peak and hit down. There’s an underwater hole. There’s a hole in Bali where monkeys steal your ball. I just kept going around the world and doing these great trips. Of course, people will let you play their course free that way. Then I had all that stuff. That’s a ten-page part of the book.

Zibby: There were a couple parts that I just wanted to highlight quickly. The part where you accidentally played at the Denver Country Club was hilarious, thinking you were on a public course. Can you talk about that?

Rick: I was kind of raised by my brother. He’s seven years older. He got me into golf. We played at this crummy, terrible course in Boulder, Colorado. Finally, he said, “You know, we could go to Denver and play golf there.” I’m like, “What?” I’d never even been to Denver. I think he was nineteen. I was twelve. We took his old jalopy. We played two rounds. One was at this crappy municipal in Denver, which was better than ours. The second one was at a place called Park Hill. We think we’re there. We go there. We run in. This is fantastic. There’s flowers everywhere. We run into the pro shop. We’re like, “One thirty. Reilly.” They said, “Your name’s not on the book, but there’s nobody out there. Just go ahead.” We’re looking at each other like, this guy’s doing us a favor. Thanks a lot. We’re looking at the tee box. We’re like, this is better than our greens. This is the most beautiful place we’ve ever played. There was a box of free tees and free ball markers. We’d always had to pay twenty-five cents to reach in the jar to take your tees. This was free tees. Our pockets are full of tees. We hit our shots. We’re walking down the fairway just flying with happiness. The guy pulls up in the cart and says, “Do you guys know where you are?” My brother’s like, “Uh, Park Hill.” He said, “No, you’re at the Denver Country Club.” We’d never even seen a country club. He goes, “Is your mom and dad a member?” My brother goes, “Yeah.” He goes, “No, they’re not.” He put us in the cart. We didn’t even go get our ball. I remember that. I was right in the middle of the fairway too. He wouldn’t even let us go get our ball and kicked us off. The irony of that is years, years, years later, I became a member of the Denver Country Club, but it was never as fun. It was never as fun as that first shot and only shot we got to hit as interlopers.

Zibby: I loved that. I also love how you talk about caddies. You say, “Golf is the one place where a man who sleeps on satin will take advice from a man who sleeps on streets. Golf is like that. Golf is so hard. It strips a guy down to his soul. The caddy, his only ally, gets a front-row seat to it, which is why I spent a year caddying very badly for all kinds of famous golfers.” Then you go on to talk about Casey Martin. It’s true. Talk to me about that.

Rick: It was so fun. I’d never caddied. I did this book called Who’s Your Caddy? I caddied for Donald Trump, Deepak Chopra, a blind guy, a guy who bets fifty thousand dollars a hole, Jack Nicklaus, a lot of interesting people. I would say that the most interesting was Trump. This was when he was just a businessman. We knew him from the world of sports. I’m a sportswriter. He was always just so full of shit, but it was fun. It didn’t matter. He was just lying like crazy and saying stuff. We’re like, yeah, sure, tell us more stuff. He said, “When are you going to write about me?” I was his favorite sportswriter. I finally called him up and said, “Hey, I’m doing this book. I can write about you now. Let me caddy for you.” That day, he took seven mulligans. He took a gimmie chip-in. You know what a gimmie putt is. He took a gimmie chip-in. Did you just take a gimmie chip-in? I’ve never heard of that. He goes, “I never miss those.” I’m like, “You chip like Stevie Wonder.”

He was fun, but he was full of shit. Then he was introducing me as Rick Reilly, president of Sports Illustrated. I’m like, “No, I’m just a writer. Why do you keep lying about me?” He’s like, “It sounds better.” I remember he introduced me to the chef. “This is Luigi. He was voted best hamburger chef in the world.” Luigi’s like, “No, no, it’s not true.” We’re all like, what is this ? Then that guy became president. That’s what blows us away in sports, that this guy became president. For instance, he bought a USFL team. This was way before your time. There was this upstart league that played in the spring called the USFL. He bought a team and signed this guy, Doug Flutie, to the biggest salary they had. He sued the other owners because they wouldn’t help him pay Flutie’s salary. The other owners are like, “You’re trying to beat us with this guy. Why would we pay you the salary?” Trump says, “Because this is going to make the league.” He was always doing crazy shit. That’s pretty much how he’s been the president, or he was.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what a unique vantage point there. I am amazed — you find a way to tell all these very personal stories. Golf is just the vehicle for the stories of people’s lives and what’s so unique about them, and inspirational and everything. Were you trained to do this through sports writing? How does this happen? How do other people get better at it?

Rick: Vin Scully just died, the great Dodger announcer. My first job was at the LA Times. I got to know Vin. I would mostly listen to Vin on the air. It really didn’t matter what the score of the game was. He was telling people’s life stories. This guy adopted. His father was a fireman. Then the fireman died. It would always be some gripping story. In LA, I’ll see people in their driveway with the car still running staring at their dashboard. I know what’s happening. Vin is telling a story. They can’t bear to get out of the car. Vin Scully taught me that sports really isn’t about the score. It isn’t about who won or lost. It’s about their lives. As I learned to write, I learned that the best sports stories are not about sports at all. They’re just hung on a very thin wire of sports, but it’s about people’s lives. That really made all the difference for me. I remember writing about this dad that had this kid who was about thirty-five years old. He had severe cystic fibrosis, I think. He couldn’t speak. He was all bunched up. Somebody had invented a way for him to talk by puffing into a thing. The first thing he said is, “I want to go for a run.” The dad, he’s a smoker. He’s fifty pounds overweight. He puts him in the wheelchair and tries to run, but he couldn’t go more than half a mile, exhausted. He started to get into shape, got a better wheelchair. Pretty soon, he’s doing a mile. Then two miles. Then the kid goes, “I want to go for a swim.” He bought this lifeboat and got a kayak and started — pretty soon, bicycle rides. He put him on the front with this plastic.

The two of them did over two hundred marathons, a hundred triathlons, finished halfway up in the Hawaiian Ironman. Two people. He’s dragging a guy as he swims against guys that have nobody to drag. This story I wrote for Sports Illustrated became a movie. The names are Rick and Dick Hoyt out of Boston. You’ll see them on airports. Dick Hoyt died. That wasn’t a story about sports. That was about the dad and the son being able to bond through sports, but the dad wanting to be a good dad for this son who could finally tell him what he wanted. That’s kind of what the book is about, a lot of stories like that that have nothing, really, to do with sports. Did you read the one about the guy in the Hanoi Hilton, the prison? He only had six feet in a solitary cell. Yet every day, he played golf in his mind. He had a stick. He played golf in his mind, kissed his wife, kidded around with his buddies, waved to people on the golf course, had a beer. It took him four and a half hours. He said that kept him alive. He said so many guys he knew he could hear in the prison die because they never left the cell. Golf got him out of the cell. When people criticize golf, I’m like, it’s not really about what we shoot. It’s about getting out there with your friends. Maybe that’s for you too, getting out there with your friends. You’re in nature, the sunshine, laughing, cold beer. It really is a way to forget your problems. I think that’s why people are so addicted to the game.

Zibby: Interesting. I personally find it too anxiety-provoking. I play a lot of tennis. There, you can change everything with the next stroke. You can win the next game. You can always do it over. You can do the next stroke better than the last stroke and still win the point. In golf, it’s like, forget it. By the second hole, I’ve ruined the whole day.

Rick: A couple things that I can help you with. You got to play the double max rule. I play with Charles Barkley a lot. We have a rule. Once you get to double bogey, that’s as much as you can take. It’s a par four. You make a six. You’re not even on the green. You take your six, and we go to the next tee box. It doesn’t ruin your day. The other thing is to lower your expectations. Don’t keep track of your whole score. Just play for a great shot. We call these hop shots, H-O-P, head on pillow at night. Head on pillow, and you’re like, remember that great shot I hit on three? In golf, I think unlike tennis, you can hit one shot as perfectly as Tiger Woods. It’s just perfect. It goes up, trickle, trickle, trickle, go in the hole. Nobody can do that better. I can never hit a shot like Ivan Lendl did. I can never throw a football seventy yards like Tom Brady. I think that also is the great thing about golf, those hop shots. I always tell people, don’t keep score. Play the double bogey max. Have a beer. Have fun.

Zibby: It’s too bad you didn’t get me started on golf. My mom even gave me one of these bracelets because I couldn’t even remember how many shots it was taking me. I was on twelve. I got better. I was like, how do I even know how many — too much pressure.

Rick: Are you a masochist? Nobody keeps track that much. Do you play just match play? Whoever wins the hole gets one.

Zibby: That’s fun too.

Rick: That’s much easier. If I make a ten and you make a three, you’re ahead of me by one. That way we don’t keep score that way. We keep match.

Zibby: No. My mom kept saying every round I had to put in the computer. I had to get my handicap. I’m like, my handicap’s fifty-four or something.

Rick: If moms don’t have time to read books, how come she had so much time to play golf?

Zibby: She’s obsessed. She plays all the time. She’s so good.

Rick: She would like this book.

Zibby: Yes, I know. I should’ve had you sign it or something.

Rick: Next time.

Zibby: Next time. Yes, they are going to inhale your entire oeuvre of books, my stepfather too, but he’s not quite as crazy as my mom. I’ve gotten to know Mitch Albom a little. You must have worked with him in the sports writing world.

Rick: I love Mitch. He’s great.

Zibby: He blurbed my book. He called it a valentine to books. Now you’re calling this a valentine to golf. I’m like, okay, way back when you guys were being trained, everything is a valentine. That’s the lingo.

Rick: We don’t do valentines anymore. Do they do them on Twitter? Nothing?

Zibby: Jason Gay, I love how he writes about sports. Do you read him in The Wall Street Journal?

Rick: Sure.

Zibby: He’s so funny.

Rick: What were you going to say about Mitch?

Zibby: It’s the same thing with story and sports and the relatability of all the stories and finding the common things. I feel so many parallels in your writing.

Rick: Mitch is also really fantastic about telling someone’s deep emotional story and how they got there. Of course, he’s made a lot of money at it. He knows a good story. That’s why I think his column’s so compelling. He tells a good story. He’s also very kind. He’s always kind. He sends me notes and stuff. He can really feel people’s pain. I play piano. He can really play piano. You ever heard him play?

Zibby: No, that’s amazing.

Rick: He’s really good.

Zibby: What book is coming next for you?

Rick: Geez, I just finished this one. I’m supposed to be retired. In my retirement, now I’ve done two books. Now I’m writing for The Washington Post somehow. I don’t know how this happened. I have this idea. I can’t tell you.

Zibby: You can tell me, even if it doesn’t work.

Rick: I can’t because it’s the kind of idea that’s so good, someone’s going to hear it and steal it. I will tell you when it comes out. How’s that?

Zibby: Okay, thanks. That’s awesome.

Rick: What’s your next book?

Zibby: My next book is a novel. It’s coming out in 2024. It’s called Blank. It’s about a mom of two who’s a successful writer, author in LA. She’s on deadline and cannot seem to write her next book, and so she comes up with this very innovative solution to her problems.

Rick: Since I’ve been writing, I think I’ve published over two and a half million words over the years with ESPN and SI and this and books and articles. After a while in this business — maybe you feel this way — there’s no such thing as writer’s block. I can’t imagine getting writer’s block. I don’t know what it is. I know sometimes you get stuck. Then you just go to a bar. You go to a restaurant. I write standing up. I go over by the fireplace. I start in the middle. I start at the end. I write one sentence. I go read. I love Damon Runyon. I’ll go read one chapter of Damon Runyon. You can always get out of writer’s block. I always notice that with writers who aren’t really experienced yet. They’re like, I just have terrible writer’s block. I’ve just been looking at the screen for two weeks. I’m like, don’t look at the screen. Get out a yellow legal pad. Do anything. Write on your phone. Judd Apatow, I think he wrote three movies just on his phone. There’s never an excuse, I don’t think, for writing. That’s a good idea if you got an interesting way to beat it.

Zibby: Those are fantastic tips for writer’s block, by the way, not that it exists, but for those who believe it exists. Amazing. Any other advice for aspiring authors? What if there’s somebody out there who wants to write, wants to tell the kind of stories you’re telling? They don’t know where to start.

Rick: Just write a sentence. Write two sentences. Write ten sentences. People are always coming to me. Will you write my story? It’s really good. It’s about my dad. He was in World War II. He was captured by the — I’m like, no, you should write it. You know it. The number-one rule in writing — I have two rules. Never write a sentence you’ve already read.

Zibby: Never write a sentence you’ve already read or written?

Rick: Read. Never write a sentence that you’ve already read. It’s got to be all new. That will really make your sentences pop because you can always write a cliché. Then the reader’s bored. Give me something that pops. As Damon Runyon said, make the sentence jump off the page and squirt grapefruit juice in the reader’s eye. Pink elephants dancing on top of the Empire State — whatever it is, make it new. The other thing is, as you know, write what you know. Write what you really want to write. Write what just burns inside you. I always tell the guy, you write that story. He goes, how do I get it published? Write it first. You can spend five hundred bucks and have a hundred of them made and give out to your friends and your family. At least, then it will exist. It’s hard to get them published, but the hardest thing is to get over that hump of, I can’t write a book. You can write a book. It might suck, but you’ll get it out. Then you can start improving. All good writing is rewriting. I write, and then I rewrite twenty-five, thirty, fifty times. I think any good writer will tell you, the thing is to get it down and then start fixing it.

Zibby: It’s like making a sandcastle. You can’t do that without any sand. Terrible analogy. Forget I even said that. Anyway, Rick, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on.

Rick: You’re welcome. I hope we can get a book to your mother because she’s a freak.

Zibby: She’s a freak, but she’s very loveable.

Rick: Does she also have time to read books too?

Zibby: Yes.

Rick: And play piano?

Zibby: No piano, but yes, books, bridge. Also, bridge.

Rick: Wow. Does she ever sleep? Holy Jesus.

Zibby: A little bit. We don’t really need sleep in my family.

Rick: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Have a great day.

Rick: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

SO HELP ME GOLF: Why We Love the Game by Rick Reilly

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