Rick Reilly, America’s most famous living sportswriter, retired from magazine writing in 2014 but he didn’t retire from writing. His newest book, “So Help Me Golf,” is out now in bookstores/Internet/Metaverse (or wherever it is books are sold anymore).
It features Reilly’s usual hilarious story-telling with a kinder, gentler, more grateful tone. This seems like a good time to catch up with my former Sports Illustrated colleague …
Gary Van Sickle: Rick, there’s one thing everyone in America is wondering about you. Uh, just exactly how tall are you?
Rick Reilly: (laughing) Is that straight from the Hord Hardin-Seve Ballesteros interview in the Butler Cabin?
RR: I remain 6 feet tall. Jack Nicklaus, however, is shrinking. When I saw him for this book, he said, “Are you growing?” I said, “No, you’re shrinking, buddy.” He gets smaller every time I see him. He’s so sweet, though. His wife, Barbara, was saying their house is too small for all the kids and grandkids. I said, why don’t you get something bigger? She said, “Jack won’t let me. He says, We raised our kids here, we have to keep it.”
GVS: That’s so Midwestern normal. You don’t expect rich and famous people to be normal.
RR: Some are, some aren’t. Have you read the book yet?
GVS: Yeah, I skimmed most of it.
RR: (laughing) Jack’s office is his trophy room, right? It’s pretty small, it’s packed with every trophy there is in golf. I said, "OK, your house is on fire and you can leave with one trophy — which one is it?" Jack points to Barbara and says, “I’ll take her.”
GVS: Seriously, people want to know where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing the last few years since ESPN The Magazine.
RR: I’ve been catching up on my foot-dangling, and playing the piano.
GVS: Are you better at golf or the piano now?
RR: That’s a great question. Probably the piano. I did shoot a 63, though. It was the highlight of my life, including all six weddings.
GVS: Where did you shoot 63?
RR: It was Bel-Air Country Club. The hole looked like a New York manhole cover, I just could not miss. I kept looking at my buddy, I don’t know what’s going on. The putts were going right in the middle, perfect pace. I could do nothing wrong. I hit one that looked like it might go out of bounds, it hit a rock and bounced back into the fairway. It was all my good deeds repaid in one day. And I’m not sure I had any good deeds. It was so exciting. And I was 63, so that was pretty great, too.
GVS: I can’t believe you shot 63 at Bel-Air.
RR: Well, I went out a few days later and shot 82. And I hit it about the same.
GVS: So, he shot 63-82 and missed the cut by one.
RR: (laughing) Didn’t Mike Donald do that at the Masters — shoot 64 and come back the next day with 82 or something?
GVS: Yes, but that was different. America was rooting for him.
RR (laughing): Back to your question — I’ve been writing books and trying to write movies.
GVS: So you’ve been writing stuff that we just haven’t seen?
RR: Well, my Donald Trump book, “Commander in Cheat,” was on the New York Times best-seller list for four weeks. Which I guess you don’t see too often. Also, we’ve done a lot of traveling. We live in Sedona, Arizona, and Hermosa Beach, California.
GVS: Didn’t you live in Italy for a while?
RR: That was a lot of fun. Then COVID came in and it was no fun at all. You needed a doctor’s written excuse to go anywhere except the grocery store or pharmacy. It was ridiculous.
GVS: What’s the deal with your new book? It feels like Rick Reilly’s greatest hits.
RR: It’s my valentine to golf. I’ve been saving string on this book for most of my life. Like the incredible story of the POW pilot who got shot down and played golf in his 6-foot-by-7-foot cell to pass the time. Golf isn’t about what score you shoot, it’s about all the stories you hear and the people you meet and in the most beautiful settings. Golf is still the best way to spend time with your friends. I love it.
GVS: What’s your best Tiger Woods interaction moment?
RR: He’s still in school at Stanford. We’re at Indianapolis at a predominantly black golf course. Earl Woods, his dad, takes a beer cooler, not even a big one, puts it out at 96 yards and opens the top. It’s got ice in it. Tiger hasn’t even warmed up. Earl goes, “Tiger, start doing it.” Tiger hit 10 balls. Two went in the cooler. That’s ridiculous.
GVS: At the 1997 Masters, Tiger shot 40-30 in his first round there as a pro. He came to the interview room, the interview hadn’t started yet, and you tried to break the ice by commenting on his scores by saying, “I did that once.” Tiger glared at you. Then you said, “I shot 50-40.” He wanted to laugh, you could tell, but he wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.
RR: That’s right. So a guy comes up to me two days ago and says, “Oh, you’re Rick Reilly!” He was a terrific college kid who qualified for the Masters. I didn’t put this in the book because it just happened. He gets to the Masters and meets Tiger early in the week. Tiger says, “Let’s have lunch, I’ll show you where to hit it on the course.”
So they go up to the Champions Locker Room, they get served their lunch and ESPN is on a TV. Tiger is talking to the kid and then I come on the TV. It was something from 2011, when I did a one-minute piece on how he had no chance to win because of the whole sex scandal, there’s no way anybody can focus under this kind of strain and I’m surprised he’s even here. Tiger tied for fourth that year, by the way. The kid said Tiger looked at the TV, never looked back at him, his lunch was half-done and Tiger simply put his fork and napkin down and walked out of the room.
So this idea that Tiger doesn’t care what the press says? He cares, he just doesn’t like it.
GVS: I think he was surprised that he didn’t do better at last month’s Masters, as remarkable as it was that he played. I think he thought he could win.
RR: He always thinks he can win. I’ve got a wager on him for the Open at St. Andrews. It’s flat, he’ll murder that course, he can drive it anywhere and he doesn’t have to walk hills.
GVS: That’s a gutsy call. The question is, will his golf get better as he recuperates or given the physical limitations of his body, is this as good as he can expect to play? We don’t know.
RR: How about the story in the book from Max Homa, who’s like, “I’m there, I’ve never met Tiger, he’s hitting 5-woods on the range and there’s a guy out there catching them with a baseball glove and the guy doesn’t have to move his feet.” Then Tiger switches to a 3-wood, the guy moves back 25 yards, and he still doesn’t have to move his feet to catch the balls. Max said, “The guy is not a real person.”
GVS: How about the time you were determined to get your first hole-in-one?
RR: What happened was, a 90-year-old nun who had never played made a hole-in-one on her first round. I’d been playing since I was 13 and still didn’t have one.
So I went to a par-3 course on a Monday morning, not many people there, and told my buddy, who worked there, I’m going to go around and play until I make a hole-in-one. And he’s like, “Ohhh-kayyy.” I hit 10 shots on each hole. I brought my son, he had his baseball glove and would catch my shots if they weren’t close. I was going to make a g------ hole in one.
The first day, I went from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and nothing. Come on, I’m paying my son like $12 an hour to be there. The second day, at 1:42 p.m. with the 742nd ball — 51 yards, it went in! I went into the clubhouse and said, “I’m buying drinks, I made an ace.”
There was one guy there. He wanted a Diet Coke. I told him the story and he says, “Fifty-one yards? That isn’t regulation length.” I said, Dude, I’m hitting 10 balls per hole to a guy with a baseball glove. What part of regulation do you think I care about?
GVS: Probably just the part where you paid for his Diet Coke.
RR: It’s funny, but it was like when a woman quits trying to get pregnant and then gets pregnant, and gets pregnant again. I made two more aces in the next two years. I guess I broke the dam.
GVS: So, do you believe in miracles?
RR: Nice. I was at Hillcrest in L.A., me and a buddy and Al Michaels. I hit it over the pin, right on line, and it started slowly rolling back toward the hole. Al immediately goes into play-by-play mode: “Hold on, folks, we’re not done yet! It could be … it might be … it is!” It was like being inside your TV set hearing him make the call. It was so cool.
GVS: What are the odds of making an ace playing with a famous sports announcer?
RR: I know. One time Vin Scully made one at Bel-Air. He comes in the next day and I say, Vin, tell me about the hole-in-one. He launches into that great radio voice — “Well, you know, it’s funny. I was playing golf with a guy who would make a cup of coffee nervous. I wasn’t having a real great time. Well, whaddaya know, I get to the fifth hole, it sounded like I hit it with the morning paper. It wasn’t a good sound. But two wrongs do make a right because I had the wrong club. Lo and behold, it went up the side of a hill, around and — plunk! — into the hole for a hole-in-one.” I was waiting for him to say, “And this story was brought to you by Farmer John’s.” It was so great.
GVS: How many books have you written as a 6-foot-tall writer?
RR: Fifteen. I’ve got 11,000 copies of my fictional novel, “Slo Mo,” if you want one. They’re still in my garage.
GVS: What was your worst author moment?
RR: I was in the Mall of America in Minneapolis at a Barnes & Noble. It was snowing. I show up, they’ve got a signing table and they must have 500 of my books. They’ve got a serpentine tape line on the floor going through fiction, geography, science and self-help and out the door. They’ve got another table with two mountain stacks of cookies and two coolers of water and lemonade. I find the lady in charge and ask, "Who are you expecting to come through, Stephen King?"
“Oh, Mister Reilly, we think it’s going to be a great crowd,” she says. I say, "I’ve been doing this a long time and never had a crowd that big." I mention that it’s snowing. She says, “Oh, Minnesotans don’t care about that.”
So the time comes and there’s one guy in a sea of 200 chairs. And he’s wearing shorts and flip-flops. So I asked if he wanted me to just tell him about the book or sign one and he said, "No, go ahead." He made me do my talk. Which I shortened from 20 minutes to 10. I said, "That’s it," and he raises his hand. I say, "Sir, if you have a question, you can just ask it." He says, “Yeah, I have a question. Can we eat them cookies now?”
It was abjectly humiliating.
GVS: What was the best golf tournament you ever covered?
RR: The 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club. There were roars bouncing all over. I was sitting there with Ben Crenshaw when Justin Leonard makes that putt at 17. In the roar that follows, Crenshaw grabs me by the shoulders and says, “On Francis’ hole, Rick! On Francis’ hole!” Just over the fence was where Francis Ouimet lived with his parents. He’d hop the fence and play that hole. It gave me goose bumps on top of my goose bumps.
GVS: In your book, you say Crenshaw is only person who’s a bigger Ouimet fan than you. That’s bulls---, right?
RR: Yeah, probably. There’s gotta be somebody bigger.
GVS: Your sentimental ending to the book kind of sounded like a farewell.
RR: I had a buddy who got Alzheimers who died real quick, which is in the book. And then the same thing happened to our friend from Golf Channel, Tim Rosaforte, and you think, geez, this isn’t promised to us forever. You start to see the end. I want to tell people how fun my life was and how great they made it. I want to thank them. Most of them were connected to golf and I realize how deeply woven golf is into my whole life. I’ve got maybe 10 more years of playing golf. I want to really savor it.
GVS: Last question: What’s the capital of Vermont.
RR: Binghamton? ... Burlington?
GVS: No and no.
RR: (laughing) I’m not from Vermont, gimme a second. Middlebury? I don’t know.
GVS: Montpelier, you uneducated savage. Good luck with your new book. It may sell, anyway.
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