Author Q/A: Excellent new book captures heroes, underdogs in golf history

The U.S. Open will dominate your TV viewing this week. But I highly recommend you supplement your golf experience with Bill Fields’ new book, Arnie, Seve and a Fleck of Golf History.

All of us in the media room know Fields, a senior editor at Golf World, is one of the best in the business. But his book really hammers it home.

It features a collection of Fields’ stories during more than 30 years of covering golf. There are terrific tales of familiar figures such as Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. Yet some of best his work is on more obscure subjects, such as John Schlee and Jim Simons, both of whom met with tough times after strong finishes in the U.S. Open.

Fields literally was born into the game, growing up in Southern Pines, N.C. only five miles from Pinehurst. His writing elegantly captures the game’s rhythms and emotions. And he definitely knows how to tell a story.

This is a special week for Fields. He returns home to cover his 30th straight Open.

Here’s my Q/A.

What do you remember from your first golf story?

In high school and shortly after I did some local-results kind of stories for weekly newspapers around my hometown, including a story when I was 19 about one of the rare happy chapters in my competitive golf life—when I shot 68 (only time I have broken 70) in qualifying for a local tournament. Alas, normalcy returned with 78 and 82 the next 36 holes. I believe my first profile might have been on UNC golfer John McGough for The Daily Tar Heel during college.

How did you go about deciding what stories to put in the book?

It was more difficult than I thought it would be. I think the 30 articles are a good cross-section of my more substantive pieces over the years—and together take the reader on an interesting journey. But I’ve I’ve second-guessed myself a few times. I wrote a couple after the book’s deadline had passed (on Gary Player and Hale Irwin) that would have been nice to include.

What were your favorite stories? Who were your favorite interview subjects?

My profile of Sam Snead, written when he was 84, is a favorite. It included some personal interaction with him, including a round of golf that is one of my all-time experiences on the job. In small part because he was a fellow North Carolinian, recounting Billy Joe Patton’s great run at the 1954 Masters was a lot of fun. Bert Yancey and John Schlee: complex characters who never reached the pinnacle they were shooting for. Upon re-reading everything, I was very happy with my profile of Jimmy Demaret—my reporting was thorough and I believe I captured him well.

Why have you been drawn to doing so many stories about golf history? And why does golf history make for such good stories?

I have enjoyed history going back to grade school. It’s hard to know where you are or where you’re going unless you understand where you’ve been.. Working for Al Barkow, an excellent golf historian, for five years certainly was a factor. People seemed to think I had a good touch writing golf history, so the positive reinforcement makes you inclined to do more. It is satisfying to give readers a story that tells them things about a subject they didn’t know or reminds them of things they ought to know.

What do you enjoy writing more? Stories about big events such as Nelson’s streak, and famous players like Snead, or the more obscure stories like John Schlee and Jim Simons?

Sometimes the more obscure players have more drama in their lives, but big winners or bit players, most of them are complicated. Having Gene Sarazen tell me about working in a Connecticut hospital during a terrible flu outbreak as a young man before becoming a golf professional—his job was taking the dead to the morgue—puts golf problems in perspective. I’ll never take anything away from today’s generation, but achieving greatness when life, much less golf, was harder, is something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

What did you learn about yourself as a writer while going through this process? How have you evolved through the years?

Overall, it was pleasing to go through the stories again (and again) and feel that they hold up, that there is a consistency to the quality. I’ve always cared a lot about my work, and I hope that shows in this collection. I’m as insecure as most writers probably, thinking you have to prove yourself over and over.

You grew up a few miles from Pinehurst? What does it mean to you to cover an Open there?

It’s very cool. It was a special place when I was growing up, and although it’s grown and changed, it still is. This is the 30th consecutive U.S. Open I’ve covered as a photographer or reporter, and to have that milestone occur this week has a nice ring to it. I think I can safely say I’m the only writer there who was a standard bearer and took down gallery ropes and stakes at pro tournaments on No. 2 Course in the 1970s. Those were fun times, and so are these.

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