Even in the somewhat eerie silence in which golf is being played currently, one name is heard again and again. It is like the buzzing of a bee in an adjoining room. It is that of a man who is as much of an Anglophile as any American can be, a Californian who went to university in Maine, did a post graduate degree at Cambridge in England, is a member of the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society as well as the recorder of the Dinner Match Society, which is made up of golfers dedicated to playing foursomes golf and dining well. So, not exactly your ordinary Joe.
This man worked for the USGA and now has an historical consulting business that has advised clubs as geographically diverse as the Cal Club near San Francisco, Baltusrol in New Jersey and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield, Scotland. Aged 42, he has a handicap of 2.3, is married to Dottie Pepper and a proud member of the Saratoga Golf and Polo Club, a nine-hole course of some distinction that was founded in 1896. This man is David Normoyle.
His name is on the lips of many in golf because he has just completed a 40-day journey from the East Coast to the West Coast of the US and back again. While he was doing it he wrote a log that he sent to friends most days. It was an odyssey that included countless meetings with friends and family and business associates. It also included a meal with Bob Goalby, a warm conversation with Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw and a spellbinding encounter with Jarah (pronounced Ju-Rah), described as a mystic, at Cahokia near St. Louis in western Illinois. Some days he drove 500-plus miles and still kept his readers informed and for one segment of the trip he travelled 1,259 miles, driving through Texas to Palm Springs, California, and still had the energy to confront his computer at the end of the day. Dog-tired as he often must have been, his fatigue did not conceal his enthusiasm. Each missive ended with the words: “I can’t wait to find out what happens tomorrow.”
“The first few days were really hard until I got what a friend of mine called my ‘sea legs,’ ” Normoyle said. “Then I understood that you could wake up at 5 a.m., read and prepare for the day and then go the whole day and finish dinner and at 10 o’clock sit down and write 1,000 words and send those words and pictures to a group of pretty discerning people around the world. You go to sleep somewhere between 12 and 1 and wake up after four or five hours sleep and do it all over the next day. I had never done anything like that in my life and I never thought I was capable of doing that, but I just kept going. I was exhausted every day but what I learned was that … you had to be disciplined. The determination to keep going and doing what you are committed to even though everything in your body is telling you to stop.”
If you were lucky you were on Normoyle’s mailing list from the start – in early June you received a prologue from him. If you were luckier you were added to the mailing list as he drove on. To say that these near daily missives of anything up to 1,500 words and photographs created a buzz among his friends would be an understatement, like saying Oakmont’s greens are fast or Bethpage Black is difficult. What started out as a regular letter to one or two friends ended up with a readership of perhaps 500. I don’t know how many friends told me about Normoyle’s letters or asked me if I was receiving them. What I do know is that each morning I opened up my computer with more alacrity than normal, eager to read what Normoyle had written the day before.
“Like countless others I much enjoyed following him around the US,” Angus Chilvers, the current captain of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t know if he warmed to it – or if it was me – but around Day 7, after (Arnold) Palmer, it stopped being folksy and came alive for me and soon after I was hooked. I dropped him four or five short e-mails along the way and astonishingly he replied to every one of them.
“We all feel a close connection to David despite not knowing him terribly well,” Chilvers continued. “He talks of surrogate mothers, fathers and uncles that he collects along the way. We are all in that role. He does not seem terribly vulnerable – perhaps slightly puppy-dog brown eyes? – so I don’t think it is that he needs looking after, although we do. The connection is only partly through golf. He has laid himself bare in his letters. It is a common trope that Americans are full of false bonhomie but I more often believe it is genuine. A direct manner, huge smile, a wish to get on, solid faith. He once said to me that because he doesn’t have his own children he sees it as his duty to look for friends and family. We are all his family. He works at it.”
Normoyle and his trusty car travelled through 24 states and covered 9,000 miles. It was some journey, from his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, down to Latrobe, Pennsylvania and Austin, Texas, and on through California, Nevada, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania (again), New Jersey (again) and back up to his New York home at Saratoga Springs. It was reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s 1962 book, Travels with Charley, a copy of which lay on the back seat of Normoyle’s car as he criss-crossed the US, and Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, published in 1957. If the nub of Kerouac’s book comprised jazz, poetry and drugs, then at the heart of Normoyle’s journey was golf.
“I had packed my car a week in advance but it wasn’t until 36 hours before I left that a friend suggested I should write an occasional remark to let people know where I was. I thought it would be my little journey, out there on the road for 40 days seeing clients.” – David Normoyle
Considering how much work must have gone into planning his route and arranging to meet friends and business contacts along the way, it is surprising to learn how quickly it was put together. “On May 4 – Dottie and I had been locked in the middle of what became 87 consecutive dinners together, which was wonderful, and she was thinking about how she was going to restart on the PGA Tour with CBS,” Normoyle said. “She was thinking about … driving not to all but to quite a few of the tour stops in the old-fashioned way. I knew I needed to be in California in mid-June for a work trip and I also knew I was scheduled to be in Sand Hills in late June. Out of the blue I just said: ‘What if I just drove to California?’ By the time you’re finished saying the whole thing you’ve decided you’re going to do it.
“There was a second thing. I needed to get back to work. I was able to keep up with projects and things I was working on from home but what I do requires me to be on site and in the presence of the people I work with and in the places I work. Within 36 or 48 hours, the potential for what I thought the trip could be had crystallised itself. It began on May 4. By the end of that week I had put it all together.”
And the letters? How did that idea come about? “At first I had no intention of writing letters,” Normoyle said. “I had packed my car a week in advance but it wasn’t until 36 hours before I left that a friend suggested I should write an occasional remark to let people know where I was. I thought it would be my little journey, out there on the road for 40 days seeing clients.”
His prologue, which he wrote on the Sunday before he set off, begins: “Tomorrow morning, June 1st, I begin a 40-day journey through American golf. Some of the people receiving this letter are expecting to see me soon along the way; others have been instrumental in preparing me for such a journey; others may have no idea that I’m leaving, or why. There are even some people receiving this note with whom I have not spoken in many years. But all of you have played an important role – for a day or for decades – in my life: either my personal life, my professional life, or my life in golf. If I have been very fortunate you’ve been part of all three.”
He went on to explain the three reasons that drove him to do the journey. The first was the practical, the fact that he had to go to work. The second was an intellectual aspect. “How many people get to go to these amazing places not once in their lifetime but in 40 days during the summer of a pandemic and to do it in the context that I was, namely to be invited in. I wasn’t a tourist coming through. I was invited.
“The third aspect is the personal part. It was to be 40 days for a reason because I wanted to spend 40 days in a kind of wilderness for my personal faith in the hope that by doing that I might encourage other people to take their own journeys, 40 days or otherwise, in whatever point of their lives interested them. It didn’t have to be their faith. It could be their golf game.”
The response to this prologue astonished Normoyle. “It was deafening. I saw how desperately people were telling me they needed this. A friend of mine called me on Day 21 and said: ‘I have some bad news for you. You can’t stop.’ What I learned from the responses from people every day from around the world is that one hand does not clap itself. If I just went and did this thing and I wasn’t talking to you, what’s the point?”
What marks out these letters are Normoyle’s observations about America and its people, about his family, his deep knowledge of American golf – the non-travelogue stuff if you like. This is the cement that binds the bricks, the travelogue stuff, together and makes his writing so enjoyable to read. This is a trick not given to all writers. Furthermore, he has the ability to make his writing appeal to non-Americans as much as Americans. For example, driving from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Dallas, Texas, he was struck by the size and flatness of the Mississippi River Delta. “Having never been to Egypt, I wonder if this is what the Nile delta is like too?” he wrote. “I would imagine there’s little that distinguishes the current landscape of the delta from that of several thousand years ago. More things grow here, it’s just that not many are particularly tall.”
Or consider this passage about his time in Pinehurst: “Tom Stewart and I hit it off immediately. I don’t even really recall what we talked about as the minute hand on the clock kept going round and round, but I remember the feeling. It was the feeling you get when you’re watching a never-ending tennis rally that actually leaves you more exhilarated than exhausted. It was the feeling that comes from connecting with someone on a far deeper level than you get most Mondays when you walk into a shop you’ve often thought about but never visited. Then again, most old golf stuff sellers don’t tell tales about meeting Mother Theresa in Calcutta and trying to learn her ways.”
This is not just good travel writing. It is good writing.
“The good thing about David is that he is able to contextualise for Brits things in the American context and the other way round,” said Richard Fisher, who is vice president of Royal St David’s Golf Club at Harlech in mid Wales as well as of the Royal Historical Society. “He is one of the relatively few non-professional writers who can make sense of each other. That is a great skill. Hundreds of our friends followed his odyssey. It was an American thing, the American road trip, the search for self-knowledge. With British reticence you wouldn’t do that but Americans do. The rhetoric is very different.”
When Normoyle got home the first thing he did was to walk around his garden. “What did I learn on my trip?” he said rhetorically. “That there are two governing forces in my country and around the world. One is fear, at least in my country, and the other is anger. How do we move forward in an environment of fear and anger? On the fear side, I have a deeper understanding of the pandemic than I could have got from sitting at home because I went through 24 states and 9,000 miles and met hundreds of people and always did so in a safe way. I am not afraid anymore.
“Regarding anger, every day you have a number of opportunities to interact with another person, no matter what colour they are or what they look like. If in every opportunity to interact with somebody else you find a way to make their day better than they made yours … then all the hurt that we are experiencing right now wouldn’t go away but it would be diminished.”
For a story on David Normoyle’s thesis on golf correspondent Bernard Darwin, click HERE.
Photos courtesy David Normoyle
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?