I played my first round of golf when I was about ten years old, with my father. He had scheduled a round with his oldest childhood friend, and they decided to bring along their sons to complete the foursome. I was bitten by the golf bug that day. I loved it in large part because it was a connection to my father. My dad, who died five years ago, was an OB-GYN and out all hours of the day and night delivering babies. If you don't see your father very often, finding something that gives you insight into who he is is important in its own right. According to family legend, my dad won the city golf championship in high school. And so I soon aspired to follow him into the world of golfing honors, essentially committing myself to a lifetime of sporting failure—a familiar experience for a Cubs fan.
"When I was a high school freshman my parents moved to Winnetka, Illinois, and I suddenly had no social circle. We lived about three blocks from the Winnetka public golf course, or at least from its thirteenth hole, where I used to sneak on after school and play five or six holes. I was never very good, but as with every golfer, hope sprang eternal, and I tried out for the New Trier High golf team as a sophomore. It was a bitter March day with a ravaging wind, and I didn't come close.
"The summer before, I had caddied at a local country club and had learned many lessons, most of them having nothing to do with golf. A loop paid $3.25 a bag. A good job was rewarded with a standard thirty-five-cent tip, but there was a man named Schweitzer who'd give me a dollar at the end of the round and also buy me a hot dog. I hope I've kept his example in mind with the caddies who carry my bag these days. The hours I spent in the caddie shack were also educational. A lot of the caddies were black kids from north Chicago. It was the first experience I had hanging around on a daily basis with African-American peers, and I have no doubt that it contributed to my involvement in the civil rights movement, which had begun by the time I was a sophomore in high school.
"From 1966 to 1978, while I was in college, grad school and law school, I don't think I picked up a club more than a few times—a pity, in retrospect, because five of those years were spent at Stanford, with its wonderful course. Then I worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, seventy or eighty hours a week when we were in trial. Trying my last big case, I became anemic and then jaundiced. I looked terrible. My wife said, 'You've got to get out of there. Finish this novel you've been writing and play golf.' So in the summer of 1986 I finished Presumed Innocent and played golf every Saturday. I got into a set foursome, and I've played with increasing regularity ever since.
"Golf has had a role in several of my novels. In The Burden of Proof, Sandy Stern has a match against his client and brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell. It was the perfect vehicle for the peculiar rivalry between them. I don't say who won because we know Dixon's going to beat Sandy: He wouldn't play if he wasn't going to win. And in Personal Injuries the FBI uses a golf course to set up an elaborate sting, and a two-iron ends up as a murder weapon.
"The psychology of the game is what fascinates me most, the challenge of putting yourself back together after a bad hole, or a bad stretch. Every shot is such a damn mystery! And the greatest mystery of all is putting. There are times when I stand over a putt, even a thirty-footer, and I know it'll go in. Then I can miss a fourteen-incher. I switched to a belly putter last summer, and I do think it's helped.
"I recently joined a club close to my home outside Chicago. I refer to it as Golf Heaven. It's a wonderful refuge when the writing is over for the day. My favorite playing companions are my kids. My older daughter, who walked off a course at age twelve saying that golf was a good way to ruin a weekend morning's sleep, now has her own clubs and can hit it a long way. My son is a much better athlete than I am, and he's got a great short game. But I don't push him. To get good takes patience that twenty-one-year-olds don't have. My little one took a golf class one summer and hasn't touched a club since. My hope for all of them is that they each find some outdoors pursuit that provides them the kind of fun and engagement that the game of golf has given me."