Tuesday, February 9

Bill Scheft Q&A: Treasured Memories of Uncle Herb (Herbert Warren Wind)

BILL SCHEFT WANTS TO TELL YOU about his uncle, who happens to be Herbert Warren Wind, widely considered to be the dean of American golf writers. It's a good time to revisit Wind, who died in 2005. Open Road Media has released seven of Wind's titles as ebooks.

Bill Scheft with Herbert Warren Wind
on Scheft's wedding day in 1990.
(Courtesy of Bill Scheft)
Wind, of course, was the legendary scribe who penned eloquent narratives for the New Yorker and Sports Illustrated, and who collaborated with golf legend Ben Hogan on Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the gold standard of golf instruction books. He was also the one who coined "Amen Corner," that crucial three-hole stretch on the back nine of Augusta National Golf Club. Fittingly, the annual USGA book award is named after Wind. And he is also a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

A stand-up comic, comedy writer, sportswriter and novelist, Scheft could also tell you about himself. There's plenty to tell. He was a writer for David Letterman for 24 years until Lettterman retired. During that time Scheft was nominated for 15 Emmys. There's more.

But I've noticed that Scheft loves to share about his Uncle Herb. One could say Wind's legacy also lives on through his nephew. Read on to discover why.

Q: What made Herbert Warren Wind such a great writer, and a great golf writer, in particular?

BILL SCHEFT: I always found him incredibly generous with his knowledge. Not just golf, it was clear that he wanted you to be as much of an expert as he was. He never left anything in his pocket to pull out at a cocktail party or to impress another writer.

What made him such a great golf writer is how he, and usually this is a bad word, compartmentalized the game between the personal, the journalistic, the technical, the historical and the architectural/ecological. They would eventually intersect. Because he had the benefit of long lead time at the New Yorker, his obligation to the reader (and himself) was to make sure he covered all these areas and put a result everyone knew about in perspective.

Let's face it, golf is the only game where on a given day you or I could skull a chip in flush off the stick for a 2 on the same hole Jordan Spieth gets a 3. So, there must be perspective. And there cannot be perspective without context. That's why you would get 5000 words on Royal Wurlington before 3000 words on the Masters. 

Q: How did he influence you?

BILL SCHEFT: You mean other than the fact I know Royal Wurlington? He was, quite simply, the most influential man in my life. He is the reason I became a sportswriter and eventually an author. Especially after I moved to Manhattan in 1980 and spent a lot of time with him. He showed me the possibilities of living the writer's life in Manhattan. And the possibilities of living a life on your own terms.

Now, for 95 percent of that time, I made a living as a stand-up comic, but I longed to be a writer, just a writer. And he would always say to me, "What you're doing is right. But I hope some day you could get a job writing for a guy like Bob Hope."

And when I got the job with Dave Letterman in 1991, he said, "This is exactly what you need." I spent 24 years writing jokes for Dave, but I also found the time, and courage, to write five novels, and return to sportswriting with regular humor columns, first at ESPN Magazine and then Sports Illustrated. The last time I spoke with Herb, he was fully in the throes of dementia, but he came out the other side for a second to say to me, "I hope you realize all the good work you've done."

I like to think he was saying that to himself, because he never ever gave himself the credit for being such a singular practitioner of his craft. And with rare exception, never let anyone else give him credit.

Q: What is your golf background?

BILL SCHEFT: I grew up with two golf-loving parents. My father, Bill Sr., was a very solid player. At one point he got down to a 6. My mother Gitty, Herb's sister, was a exemplary player. She won club championships at four different clubs. At one point, she was an 8 and I don't think ever hit a drive longer than 180. But I caddied for her, and let me tell you, you never ever ever looked for her ball.

Q: Do you have a favorite Uncle Herb story or anecdote?

BILL SCHEFT: In 2000, when my mother was 77, she shot her age at Sterling Acres in Massachusetts. I called Herb, who had moved into Carlteton-Willard, a multi-level assisted living facility in Bedford. I said, "How about your sister Gitty shooting her age?" There was a long, long, long pause. And he said, "It's great to play alone, isn't it?" 

Q: That's funny. Anything else?

BILL SCHEFT: I've made my living in comedy, but there have been few people wittier than Herb Wind. When my wife and I got married, in June 1990, he came back to New York with my parents. We only had 13 people at our wedding. It was in the Slocum Room at the Harvard Club, which is exactly the kind of room you would imagine. Wood paneled, spare and relentless elite. There was a portrait in the middle of the room, and my father looks at the plate and says, "Hey Herbie, what does this mean? (Russell) Slocum '86?" Without missing a beat, Herb says, "It means he had a bad round."

And a P.S.

BILL SCHEFT: My first novel, THE RINGER (2002), was the story of a 35-year-old New Yorker who makes his living playing softball and how his life changes when he has to take care of his celebrated sportswriter uncle, who has fallen ill. The uncle, Morton Martin Spell, was based almost entirely on Herb, especially his delivery and wit. When the book came out, Dave Anderson left this message on my machine: "Hey College Boy (the lead character's name), I loved the book. And you did a rotten job disguising Herb, which I loved even more."

Bill Scheft's latest novel is SHRINK THYSELF.

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