By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos Courtesy of John O’Hern
WESTPORT, CT – Deep down inside many an avid golfer beats a heart of compulsion, a desire for perfection so intense that it can rarely be assuaged or satiated. For these folks, even when they’re playing well, they still believe they can do even better.
Many a pro has lost his swing by pursuing such perfection. When good wasn’t good enough, they sought change, and it eventually ruined them. For those duffers stuck on a much lower plane, the potential for addiction and decay is no less intense.
That’s the internal struggle portrayed in John O’Hern’s fabulously dark comedy Sweetspot – Confessions of a Golfaholic. O’Hern’s main character, Tom, starts out as a normal guy, but his dark side emerges once he takes up the grand ol’ game of golf.
Sweetspot depicts a tale many are familiar with – golf addiction – but softens the edges with comedic touches that allows us to empathize and even cheer on the book’s eccentric group of characters.
By chuckling at O’Hern’s cast, we’re kind of just laughing at ourselves. It’s not quite self-loathing as much as it’s helpless self-pity.
As every good comedy should, Sweetspot dances on the edge of truth, leaving us wondering whether Tom, his wife Carol and the others in the book are based on real persons (O’Hern answers this question for us below). These folks may not be found in the local telephone directory, but you just seem to know people just like them.
O’Hern also adds a comedian’s keen eye for detail and exaggeration to his writing, painting vivid backgrounds for his characters to interact – and to get in trouble.
Tom’s actions are indeed extreme, often goaded by his “spirit guide” – none other than the great Ben Hogan. Along the way, Tom lies and cheats his way to his version of golf nirvana, yet at no point do you give up on him and count him for lost on the path to no-redemption.
That’s probably the most endearing aspect of Sweetspot. The story allows us to condemn Tom, yet he’s still a good guy. In that sense, golf obsession may depart from other forms of addiction. Tom’s exploits certainly cross the line on numerous occasions, but O’Hern always leaves room for him to come back.
In the interview below, O’Hern admits that some of the story is based on his own experiences, a knowledge ingrained through many hours of searching for perfection, only to fall woefully short.
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: First off, congratulations on the book. The introduction says that all the characters in Sweetspot are fictional, but we all "know" people like Tom, Carol and Marty the Golf Pro. Are they loosely based on real people you've come across?
O’Hern: The short answer is yes, I have a bit of a problem with golf myself and when I took a job in the golf shop at our town course I quickly discovered that I was far from alone in my addiction. I noticed golfers getting out of their cars looking anxious and jittery like someone in need of a fix.
When a fellow came to the window one time and realized he wasn’t getting out because he’d tragically made a tee time for the following day instead, I watched in silence, embarrassed for the guy as he went through the five stages of grief in front of everyone.
My favorite story, one that got me writing, was a simple one. A fellow came into the shop on a day that was raining so hard that the first fairway was completely under water. He looked at me, then the first tee. Then, back at me and then back at the first tee. Finally he said, “What do you think?” I assured him that I wouldn’t be giving him a rain check if he came back. He nodded at me like a happy five-year-old, slipped on a pair of Wellingtons and off he went.
“Wow,” I thought, “that guy is f…ed up!”
Carol’s character is loosely based on my own wife, who watched me slip into the clutches of golf with growing concern. At first she was delighted that I had found something that gave me such pleasure and brought out a long dormant sense of dedication that she was unfamiliar with. She soon lost her appreciation for my zeal when the chores around the house went for want of a useful hand.
For example, I had all the ladders and paint brushes out to paint the garage for an entire summer, but never got around to actually painting it. I blush to think of the ridiculous excuses that came out of my mouth!
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: It's obvious from reading the book that you know a lot about golf and its history. Are you a "golfaholic" yourself?
O’Hern: Yes, but it’s easing some.
When my addiction was at its height, I would sneak over to the driving range any chance I got. Of course I was late to all sorts of appointments, parent-teacher conferences, soccer games and the like. When I went out for milk I came home an hour later dripping perspiration, no milk and a golf glove hanging out of my back pocket.
I was constantly going to “the hardware store” for “stuff.” They say that golf is a game of honesty, yet nothing could be further from the truth. I started lying about my whereabouts all the time to escape the scathing accusation that I had been hitting balls or sneaking in a quick nine. I had a practice net in the side yard until I started hitting balls through the net and putting dents in my neighbor’s aluminum siding. So I emptied my garage and put the net up in there.
My wife was furious but I didn’t care, I just had to swing.
I didn’t fall in love with the game of golf you understand, I fell in love with the feel of a well struck 5-iron. I could swing and hit for hours at a time. I still work at the golf shop and teach Jr. golf clinics and private lessons, so my lust has tempered some. But still, if the weather’s right, I find a way to drift down to the range and whack a bucket or two before I head home.
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: How did your years as an at-home Dad contribute to your portrayal of the characters?
O’Hern: That’s an interesting question, one that I’m not entirely comfortable answering, but what the hell.
It was during my years as a stay-at-home dad that my sneaky behavior was at its worst. I told our babysitter every time I left to go play that if my wife called from her soul crushing corporate job in the city that she was to tell my wife I was out shopping.
My wife would come home from her long day at work and the dreadful commute and exasperated, she’d ask, “My god, were you shopping all day?” I’d tell her with a tanned straight face, “Why yes. Yes I was.”
When we were out together and I’d be greeted by strange men my wife didn’t know, she’d ask, “Who’s that?” I’d lie. “Oh….one of the other Dads I know.”
I sort of see myself as Fredo from the ‘GodFather.’ Not an intrinsically bad person, just….weak. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me to picture equally devious characters in the novel. I would like to say here and now that I didn’t do half the things that Tom, the hero of our story does…because I do retain a shred of decency….but I know people who came very close.
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: Why did you choose Ben Hogan to play the role of Tom's spirit guide?
O’Hern: For the sake of balance in the story line, I wanted Tom to go on a spiritual journey not unlike the journey his wife Carol is seeking in her new age yearnings.
When it came to who his spirit guide would be, there was no question but that it had to be Ben Hogan. I don’t think there was anyone as deeply competitive as Hogan, no one as fierce in his devotion to perfection. Tom needed a messenger like that to drive him to the extremes he goes to.
We’ve all grown into golf hearing about the ‘secret of the Hogan swing’ and I wanted something irresistible like that to drag Tom along, to lure him. Also, it didn’t hurt that in some of the stories I’d read about the Great One made it clear that Hogan had a dark, almost sinister streak.
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: Was it a struggle to adapt a stage play into a full-length book?
O’Hern: Just the opposite actually. That was a joy for me.
I had written the sketches for the play production so I already had the character outline, but when I sat down to expand the characters, to give them a full life in novel form, they just took off.
I couldn’t believe how much fun it was to breathe life into them. I think if you read the book you’ll see that certain characters like Tank’s wife Connie or the priest Father Charlie were just fantastic fun to create.
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: Something I found most intriguing about Sweetspot was the combination of comedy and dark satire on human nature. Was that your goal?
O’Hern: You bet.
I’ve always been one to say out loud what most people only think. That’s the basic tenet of being a comedian I think. Sometimes it’s just ghastly stuff like when Tom fantasizes how much golf he’d be able to play if a tragedy occurred and his wife passes away.
I’m not insisting that everyone has harbored thoughts like that about their spouses….but…..I know many have. And yes, it’s sick thinking, but it is funny. I find it funny that as hard as people try to be good, their secret desires keep tripping them up.
Yes, we all shake our heads when a family man ditches his wife of twenty years for a younger gal, but there’s laughter in there too. We know the poor fellow is making a dreadful mistake but he just couldn’t help himself.
What struck me about addiction is that it makes people do things they wouldn’t possibly imagine they were capable of doing otherwise. Normally this kind of behavior is despicable but in the case of golf addiction, it’s just plain funny. Think Mayberry on crack!
They may be the nicest people on the planet, salt-of-the-earth types, but you can’t trust a word they say because they’re addicts.
GolfTheUnitedStates.com: Finally, how difficult was it to create characters who are deeply flawed yet still quite likeable?
O’Hern: I believe that all of us are deeply flawed in one way or another. I also believe that we grown-ups all understand that.
We secretly like rascals, mischief makers and even criminal types. They live outside the normal rules of society and although we sometimes chuckle or shake our heads at their bad behavior, we quietly admire their courage.
The difficulty was in making sure that the characters I created didn’t do something so terribly abhorrent that they would risk becoming unredeemable. What I tried to do was wave great temptation in front of rabid golfers and then let the chips fall where they may.
Then I hoped that as golfers ourselves, we would be appalled at Tom’s behavior and his choices -- but the dark side of us understands them completely.
You’ll have to read the book to see how O’Hern’s story concludes, but it’s a satisfying ending without being overly-solicitous or syrupy.
Sweetspot is a book that golfers and non-golfers alike would enjoy, highly recommended for anyone who’s almost drowned on the long sea journey to perfection.
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