Michael Murphy Riffs, Act 2

With routine maintenance occupying the Bomar Brain, I’ve decided to do the crowd-pleasing thing and post more of my interview with Golf in the Kingdom author Michael Murphy. Our conversation, from 20 months ago, was filmed and recorded at the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, Calif., not far from the sound stage where Casablanca was filmed. Michael wore jeans and a brown sweater, and he looked much the same as I remembered him — thin gray hair, face not-to-deeply lined for 79, complexion slightly florid, quick to smile.

JG: Are you still playing golf?

MM: Nope.

JG: When did you stop? After we played at Pebble?*

*The novelist and the blogger shared a memorable round, complete with a metaphysically-induced hole-in-one by a third party, at the 1994 Shivas Irons Games of the Links.

MM: I quit four or five years ago. Finally, I — well, you know my game, John. I modeled my swing on Byron Nelson, down the middle and 200 yards. But it’s so boring to be out-driven by 100 yards. Two shots to get to my partner’s drive. I don’t like that, actually. To hell with that!

Royal Portrush

Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush links — another course that could have been the inspiration, but wasn't, for Burningbush. (John Garrity)

JG: Did you have a final round that you knew would be your final round?

MM: I can’t remember. [frowning] No, it’s receded into the misty past. But I make up for it, I walk my four or five miles every day. When you and I played, I was a runner, competing in the over-40 divisions. That took a lot of my time and energy. But now it’s just pride. Some would call it ego. I went out with my brother once, it was in the last year of his life. He had various afflictions. To be 100 yards behind my younger brother, who was in bad shape — it’s humiliating.

JG: But you do remember our round at Pebble Beach?

MM: Very.

JG: And the hole-in-one that Andy Nusbaum made on the seventh?

MM: The only hole-in-one I’ve ever seen!

JG: And since it was part of the “Games of the Links,” you had a flautist and a cellist playing Renaissance music on the tee, and an actor in the role of Seamus McDuff, and I was covering it for Sports Illustrated, and it was all being videotaped. Andy not only got the best-documented hole-in-one in history — it even came with a live musical score!

MM: High point of his life. All downhill after that.

JG: Getting back to Golf in the Kingdom, how much time did you spend on location at Bandon Dunes?

MM: Well, almost four weeks. I think I only missed the last week.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: Twenty days.

MM: Twenty days?

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: Well, [apparel titan] John Ashworth is a great friend of mine, and I was visiting him down in Carlsbad, and he said, “If you really want to make a low-budget feature of Golf in the Kingdom, go up to this place called Bandon Dunes. It’s just perfect.” I’d never heard of it, so I said, “Well, you’re going to have to call for me.” So he called Mike Keiser, and Mike said, “Have Mindy call me.” And I called him. He said, ‘It’s destiny, come on up.”

JG: Well, anyway, you go up there and they’re making a film after all these years, 38 years. They’re bringing your novel to life. But these are new people with their own vision. What’s that like for you? I mean, you obviously had in your head an idea about the characters and what everything looked like.

MM: Well, it helped me understand why they say, “Keep the damn writer off the set.” I mean, these are two radically different art forms. It’s like two species mating; they can’t mate, but they think they can. So I gained tremendous insight into my own vast incompetence. I mean, to see twenty people or so, every one of them with a job. You have the director, the two assistant directors, the photographer, the assistant photographer, all of them certified pros. Then you have these “grips” with these belts of tools — weird tools that you’ve never seen before, and they’re coming in from different angles. And I realize that the photographer [Arturo D. Smith], who’s a tremendously gifted guy, and the director [Susan Streitfeld] are seeing things that I don’t see — things that I haven’t been trained to see — and they have been doing this for thirty years. So after two or three days, I retired to the sidelines.

JG: You took a knee.

MM: With a great sense of relief. But I had a fantastic time with David O’Hara, who plays Shivas Irons. We practiced meditation together, we had drinks together, we had great talks at night. It was a lot of fun, and it really opened my eyes to the vast amount of skill that goes into a feature film. And the difficulties! God, it’s a miracle that any of these films turn out well. There’s so many moving parts. I use the line — don’t print this, because they’re all watching, including the lawyer ….

JG: I’m good about these things. I understand “off the record.”

MM: Well, I say, “It’s a lot like making love. A lot can go wrong.” [Laughter] My wife’s not going to like that. Whatever. Keep it in.

JG: But you have seen actors, over the years, perform scenes from the book. The Games of the Links was part dinner theater.

MM: Yes, and I’ve always loved that, because I have friends who write screenplays or write for the theater. They write with anticipation of how it’s going to sound. I never did. Golf in the Kingdom was the first book I ever wrote, and it wasn’t really edited. It just came out. But Annie Long, who plays Agatha in the movie, she said, “Boy, you write in such a way that it’s fun to deliver.” And that was so flattering. I don’t know how true it is, but it was flattering. You know, you think it up here [pointing to his head], and then you feel it [pointing to his chest], and then somebody does it. And it’s a wonderful miracle, you know?

JG: But every actor, I assume, brings something different to it.

MM: Right, exactly. And the same for every director and every director of photography. But first and foremost is the actor.

JG: The cast [Malcolm McDowell, David O’Hara, Frances Fisher, Tony Curran, et al.] obviously had the chops for playing these roles. Did they also bring some knowledge of golf to the project?

MM: Well, the young guy who plays Michael [Mason Gamble], he has a nice golf swing and has played a lot of golf. Malcolm McDowell, he plays golf all the time. Six of the cast are Brits, two or three of them Scots-Irish. So there’s a lot of command of the language, and they’re all talented. For the amount of money that was paid, it defies the laws of gravity.

JG: What scenes were they shooting when you were on the site?

MM: Well, I missed the banquet scene. It was primarily David as Shivas Irons and Mason as the Michael character. And Jim Turner as the MacIver character.

JG: People describe movie making as this agony of waiting and waiting to do something, and finally doing it, and then sitting down and waiting some more. Was that your take?

MM: Very much so. I mean, it’s a tough, tough job.

JG: Would you have the temperament for that?

MM: I doubt it. I can sit and write all day — but see, I’m in charge of everything. The author is the producer, the director, the actor, he’s everything. So to be out there with the movie makers and to be reduced to a mere widget — well, I’m not trained for that. So I just rooted from the sideline. Once I owned up to the staggering size of my incompetence, I actually had a very good time.

Speaking of staggering incompetence, the Top 50’s IT director just stopped by to tell me that the latest shipment of fanfold paper was folded wrong side out. I’ll pick up the Murphy interview again in a couple of days. Meanwhile, if any of you have actually seen the movie, I’d welcome a short review.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Championship will be contested  on the 512th-ranked Highlands Course at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. Informed this afternoon that this is the first major to which fans can bring cell phones, Masters champion Charl Schwarzel said, “Every single phone these days has got a silent mode, so put the thing on silent. That’s about all I can say.”

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