Writer Salutes Golfer Mickelson

Washington Post Magazine sportswriter Eli Saslow talks about his admiration for golfer Phil Mickelson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, there are sports fans and there are sportswriters, but can both coexist in the same body? Washington Post sportswriter Eli Saslow struggled with that question. In this case, pro-golfer Phil Mickelson captured his imagination and turned Saslow into a fanatic.

Eli Saslow wrote about his experience in yesterday's Washington Post Sunday Magazine. He joins us from the Post newsroom. Hi, Eli. Thanks for being here.

Mr. ELI SASLOW (Sportswriter, The Washington Post): Hey. How are you doing?

MARTIN: I'm good. Okay, now. You start your essay describing a vacation, where for several days, you did nothing but lay on a couch in front of your parents' TV watching Phil Mickelson play in the 2006 U.S. Open tournament. So, why Mickelson?

Mr. SASLOW: He plays differently than most other guys on the PGA tour. He takes a lot of risks that most people would consider stupid. And I think he even considers him stupid some of the time. But he's, sort of, still driven to do it because I think it's just kind of intrinsically part of his nature. And he's really flawed and I think he's very open about that, and there's something kind of attractive about that on a tour where most of the guys are very buttoned down and treat this very much as a calculated business everyday on the course.

MARTIN: How did you get acquainted with Mickelson to begin with?

Mr. SASLOW: The first time I met him, the only time I met him, is at a golf tournament when I was in high school. I went with my younger brother, who at that point was a bigger golf fan than I was. And throughout the round, you know, I started to like Mickelson a lot pretty quickly because whereas most golfers are so in the zone that they're not really looking at anything other than the fairway in front of them, Mickelson goes out of his way to be really engaging. I mean, he's sort of is always smiling and nodding at the crowd around him, and it's actually very goofy. I mean, he'll, sort of, tug his cap at you or waive and he walks through the gallery after each hole to go to the next hole, and he sort of holds his hands out and high five's people.

And, you know, now as somebody who covers sports, I recognize maybe even more how rare that is for somebody to even made that kind of effort to connect with people everyday. And then after the round, he lost. It was a really difficult loss for him, and he had every right to, sort of, be bitter about it and to stand through the trophy ceremony and take his second place and go home. But he actually after that came back out to where all the fans were after getting second and signed autographs for like an hour and a half, whereas the winner of the tournament, you know, took his first place trophy and was gone. So that really stood out for me.

MARTIN: A lot of people assume that sportswriters really are just grownup fans. And in the magazine article, you tell a funny story about how when you were in college, how your sports editor did a pull-aside with you when you were just learning how to be a sportswriter and told you how you got to learn to be one or the other. Could you just tell that story?

Mr. SASLOW: Yeah, sure. It was sort of a heartbreaking moment for me, I guess, in some ways. I mean, I was at Syracuse University, and the basketball team there, as usually is, was pretty good this season. And I was a freshman and I sort of bought season tickets to the team and I went, you know, to every game with my friends and got decked out and, you know, painted our faces and really looked forward to sort of going crazy in the stands at these games. And simultaneously, I'd started writing for the student sports section. And one day, at the Carrier Dome, the basketball stadium in Syracuse, the sports editor happened to see me, you know, with all my friends, dressed up and cheering and going crazy. And he sort of looked at me like I had cheated on a test or lost my mind or gone absolutely crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you're like what? What did I do?

Mr. SASLOW: Exactly. I had no idea what I'd done. And he pulled me into his office a day or two later and he, sort of, explained, you know, that what I had done by dressing up was really the number one sin of being a sports journalist, which was that you're not supposed to be what he called and what a lot of sports journalist call a homer, which is somebody who sort of roots for the home team and roots for the team that they cover.

MARTIN: We're talking with Eli Saslow, a Washington Post sportswriter about his fall into sports fandom. So how do you comfortably and ethically maintain your Mickelson obsession?

Mr. SASLOW: Well, I think my sports editor makes it pretty easy on me. I think he recognizes the obsession well enough that he would never let me anywhere near a golf tournament that Mickelson was playing in to cover.

MARTIN: And could that be because of all the Mickelson posters that you have, you know, tacked up around your workspace? I don't know, got to be a clue?

Mr. SASLOW: That might be a part of it. Maybe I should've closed that a little bit more. I actually am happy not to cover golf, and I wouldn't want to have interview him or things like that. It would really changed the way that I relate to him now. So…

MARTIN: Speaking of hard to idolize - Tiger Woods?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASLOW: Oh yeah. Very difficult to idolize.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. SASLOW: I just find him sort of a very corporate. You know, sometimes it feels like he belongs to Nike, in particular, and so many other companies. And because all of these companies have used him as a spokesman, it's almost like they've wrung him like a sponge and now there's no real personality left. And also, just as a golfer, he is so unbelievably focused that he almost looks angry all the time. Yes, you very rarely see him smiling on the course. And when he does smile, that automatically becomes like a signature moment that's replayed on every golf telecast 80 times every hour. Whereas, you know, if you just look at Mickelson, any given time, he's smiling.

MARTIN: Well, some might argue you're just a hater.

Mr. SASLOW: That they might argue that, and they probably would be a little bit right. And that's why I can't write about Tiger Woods, either, so.

MARTIN: What about John Daley? He's another big-time golfer who's had his ups and downs and doesn't seem to hide his flaws? What do you - do you like him?

Mr. SASLOW: Totally, yeah. And I think that that's probably the reason he's so popular is that he is, you know, such an everyman. Fans like it when they can sort of recognize a little bit of themselves in somebody that they root for. And for Mickelson, he's sort of pudgy and he seems to sweat profusely and he's changing shirts all the time. And that's just - it's very human.

And with John Daley, I mean, it's another level entirely. You know, he's drinking 12 diet cokes every 15 minutes. He says things off the cuff, and that's sort of funny. And I think that these are all things that people can relate to. I mean, it's - golf is not a game where you can watch pros play and feel like you're very similar to them.

Because for the most part, these are people who've played at elite country clubs all their lives and Mickelson, here, being one of them, they're sort of very removed from the pedestrian lives that most people lead. But when you see some characteristics in somebody that sort of remind you of yourself, you know, that's really endearing. And I think John Daley and Mickelson both really benefit from that.

MARTIN: I just want to go back briefly before we go about something you said at the beginning of our conversation, which is that athletes can sometimes be hard to like. Can you just talk a little bit more about that? Because I think that some people would think that that's one reason they envy sportswriters, is they get to hobnob with these guys - and some gals. They just think it must be so fabulous.

Mr. SASLOW: Yeah. I mean, I think it's an interesting paradox, because I think a lot of sports fans admire sportswriters and admire, you know, how close they get to the athletes and things like that. You know, I think that for most sports fans, if they were told to spend one week in a baseball locker room with a major league baseball team, going in, that would sound like a dream opportunity.

But after a week, I guarantee you, they wouldn't be eager to be in there any longer. I mean, the media - especially for a sport like baseball, but really for any sport - you know, sportswriters and athletes are sort of forced to communicate so often for both of their jobs that I think that sort of wears on both of them. And, you know, it just becomes a situation where, you know, athletes don't want to talk to you, and you need to have a story done by a certain time and maybe the athlete wants to finish dinner first or whatever else. It can become kind of a contentious situation. And…

MARTIN: You know want (unintelligible) to sorry for you, do you Eli?

Mr. SASLOW: I guess not. No, no, no I don't want you to feel sorry for me.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. SASLOW: But that's why I continue to write about things like, you know, playing golf with PGA players or hound dogs in Pennsylvania, because that way, I'm not in locker rooms all that often.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. That's Washington Post sportswriter Eli Saslow. He joined us from the Post. He wrote the essay, "Philophilia" in yesterday's Washington Post Sunday Magazine. You can read the entire article online at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

Eli, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. SASLOW: Sure. Thanks for having me on.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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