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Selwyn Herson Played Them All

The eighteenth hole at New Zealand's magnificent Kauri Cliffs is a steep dogleg-left par five that plays 539 yards from the tips. On Thanksgiving Day 2004, while the rest of us were downing our turkey and stuffing, Selwyn Herson, a scratch player at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, was nervously contemplating a five-foot birdie putt for an even-par round of seventy-two. But it was not the putt that was making his hands sweat. Rather, it was the realization that Herson pushed the birdie putt right and then calmly tapped in for a solid seventy-three, beating the two pros from Kauri Cliffs who played with him.

Thus concluded an extraordinary golf journey: Herson, who looks like a cross between Sean Connery twenty years ago and Dr. Phil today, had finally played every hole at each of the top 100 golf courses in the world (as ranked biannually by Golf Magazine). It was a journey that cost him a small fortune and countless frequent-flyer miles and regularly challenged the patience of his wife of now twenty-seven years. It also required brilliant time-management skills, since Herson accomplished his feat while working fifty to sixty hours a week on various entrepreneurial ventures. Along the way, he collected scorecards from some of the finest and hardest-to-get-on courses in the world, joining an elite club of only perhaps a half dozen other Americans who can claim to have played the entire list of the world's top 100 courses.

But as he plucked his ball from that final cup, Herson was overcome with an odd and unexpected sense of melancholia. "It was almost as if I did not want to make that last putt because it signaled the end," he reflected recently on a terrace overlooking the first fairway at Riviera. "You start thinking, 'Well, what am I going to do next?'"

I first met Herson on the driving range at Riviera (#36 on the 2003 list, to which all top-100 references in this story refer unless otherwise noted), where we are both members. You can find him there frequently on Saturday mornings for hour-and-a-half practice sessions grooving one of those swings that makes you wonder if you ever really want to look at your own swing on video again. As he blasted 300-yard drives to the back fence, we started chatting. Herson wanted to play the following week, but I was about to leave for Dublin, Ireland, to produce a movie. It was then that Herson first told me of his quest to play the top 100 and that one of the final courses he would be playing was near Dublin (the European Club; #98, Brittas Bay, Ireland). We talked about having dinner there, but in truth it was one of those polite conversations you barely absorb and never expect to materialize into anything.

On my ten-hour flight to Dublin, however, I began to think about Herson and his magnificent obsession. Was this a genuine golf accomplishment—the small-ball equivalent of climbing the Seven Summits?Or was this simply the mad meanderings of yet another golf fanatic?As I nibbled on my Aer Lingus canapés, I wondered what this all revealed about the complex game of golf. More important, why Herson—and why not me?

Several weeks into production I got a message on my cell phone from Herson announcing that he was staying at the same hotel as me and that he wanted me to join him at the European Club, a tight oceanside links, the next day. Since we had just started filming the movie, I did not feel comfortable giving up a day of shooting. So as a substitute I offered up my driver, Tommy Hamill, a former footballer for the Dublin Bohemians and a respectable eleven-handicapper with his own passion for the game. Herson, who had let the management at the European Club know he was coming and why, wound up playing with Tommy and a friend of the course's architect, Pat Ruddy. When told that Herson liked to play from the back tees, their host took them deep to drive from original tee areas that were now just fescue. Hamill, a bear of a man, could not reach the fairway on a number of holes, a source of great humiliation heaped upon his considerable Irish pride. How tough was the course?Herson shot eighty-one, lost three balls in the process and told me he played pretty well.

That night I joined Herson at Shanahan's, where JFK's rocking chair is housed in bulletproof glass behind the bar downstairs. There, over steaks, Herson poured out his saga like a smooth glass of Jameson. Psychiatrists talk about the perfect-storm marriage of a drug and its abuser; in this case, it was a marriage between Herson and a brazen idea.

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