The Longest Drive: Part 2 - The Slip

I've written a 15,000-word novella entitled, The Longest Drive.

The story follows the fictional exploits of 25-year-old Mark Madden and his ability, or lack thereof, to navigate life as a professional golfer.

While the sport of choice in The Longest Drive is golf--and how Madden deals with added pressures after winning the U.S. Open and being anointed the Next Big Thing--parallels can easily be drawn from what Madden faces to any professional athlete in any sport in 2016. 

Part 1 - The Win

Here's Part 2 - The Slip


               "What city are we in again?"

                Madden pulled his sunglasses down to the bridge of his nose and glanced out the tinted window of the Town Car.

                "San Diego," Ben Knight replied, his fingers dancing across his cell phone. "We were in New York last night."

                "And tomorrow is Florida?"

                "Yes sir." Knight stopped typing and looked over at his friend watching the palm trees fly by along the freeway. "To pick up all of your awards."

                It had been a whirlwind offseason for Madden.  And this three-day, three-city sojourn criss-crossing the country was the finale of two months of craziness.
              The day before, in New York, Madden had appeared on the Late Night show for a sit-down interview and a mini-putt competition with the host, the catch being that Madden was forced to compete blindfolded. Tomorrow, after a red-eye flight, Madden and Knight would be attending the Golf Tour's annual awards dinner.  A dinner in which Madden's date—he was going stag—should have been a wheelbarrow.

                He was predicted to pick up three major awards: top player, lowest scoring average, and top ball striker. While the last award was undeniably superfluous—a driver manufacturer had paid an obscene amount of money to get the company's name on the award—it still recognized Madden as the most accurate and most complete (precision and length) driver of the ball on tour.  He used those skills to follow up his first major championship with two other victories last season, before finishing second in the end-of-the-year playoff by mere percentage points.
                Madden yawned loudly. "That will be fun."
               "Whoa, sorry Mr. Big Time," Knight quipped. "Is being worshipped everywhere you go getting too boring for you?"

                "Shut up." Madden laughed. "I'm still allowed to be tired. It feels like all I've done the past two months is either sit in a car or sit in a plane. I'm looking forward to getting back to a somewhat normal life." Madden tried to stretch his extremities in the cramped quarters of the Town Car.
                "I think that ship has sailed, Big Cat," Knight replied. "You're playing too well. Even though I kicked your ass on the course in freshman year."

                "Oh, Christ, not this again." Madden winced. "You beat me once. Out of the hundreds of rounds we've played together over the years."
                "They don't ask how, just how many."

                Madden shook his head. "Exactly. We're talking about one time. A winning percentage that is basically a rounding error."

                "It still counts."
                Madden rolled his eyes. "Maybe you should run this exhibition instead? Make sure the people get their money's worth?"

                "That's the smartest thing you've said all day."
                The same company that had paid big cash to get their name on the top ball striker award had also backed up the Brinks truck for Madden's appearance today. It was a question-and-answer session with some of the company's biggest clients who wanted to rub elbows with golf's new wunderkind.

                "Where is it?" Madden inquired. "In the clubhouse?"
                "No, on the range. They want it to be a more 'memorable' experience for the clients. So, you'll hit a few balls, crack some jokes, and fix some peoples' swings.” Knight shrugged. “I don't know, you're the star."

                The Town Car turned down the long driveway of the country club.          
                "And what are you going to do?"

                "Take pictures for your social media accounts. As your social media guru, it's my job to get the most exposure possible."

                "Yeah, it sounds better than expert. I'm thinking of getting some business cards, too."

                "Easier than giving your number out I guess?"
                "Exactly. I'm betting on a couple of lonely divorcees being here today."

                A course representative hurried out the front entrance of the clubhouse and approached the Town Car.
                "Okay, take it down a notch, Benny," Madden said before opening the door.

                "Mr. Madden, welcome," the rep began with an outstretched hand. "We have lunch waiting for you in the dining room."

                "We're so happy that you were available to do this, Mark. Is there anything else we can get you?"
                The media relations director of the driver manufacturer stood beside Madden on the club's patio. They were behind a grandstand that faced the driving range. The company's president was delivering opening marks to the crowd.

                "No, I'm fine," Madden replied. "How many people are here?"
                "300. We wanted to keep the number somewhat manageable so they are really able to engage with you." The director continued, her voice rising an octave, along with her excitement. "You'll notice that the grandstand is very close to your position. And it's curved, so there will be people on all three sides, kind of like they're right on top of you! It's a really intimate setting."

                Madden's breath got short as he tried to reply. He reached a hand to his chest.
                "Are you okay?"

                "Yes!" Mark said. He fought to force a weak smile onto his face. "Probably just the jet lag."
                "Well, there's water out there if you need it. And if there's anything else you want, just let me know."

                "I'll be fine."
                 "And now the man you've been waiting to see: Mark Madden!"

                Raucous applause accompanied Madden underneath the grandstand tunnel. He stopped, took one deep breath, and emerged onto the driving range with waves to the crowd. 

                "Wow, they told me it was going to be a good crowd, and they weren't kidding!" Mark exclaimed. "It's great to see all of you here. Let's have some fun and hopefully I can teach you a couple of things while we're at it."
                "And what better person to divulge tips to improve your score than the top striker of the ball on tour!" The company president interjected. "We strive to make clubs that will shave strokes off your game. So, even though your natural talent will never be that of a pro like Mark, our equipment can help you close that gap just a little bit."

                "It sure can," Madden agreed. "Although, every time he and I play together, his best shot is always the foot wedge. Not to mention an inability to count higher than 6!"
                The crowd laughed at Madden’s joke, putty in his hands.  

                "Okay, that's not fair, Mark. You can't be funny and charming AND great at golf. You have to leave something for the rest of us." The president let the laughter die down before continuing. "Why don't you tee up and let a few fly to let these people see just how accurate you are with the driver."

                The president stepped off the tee box and motioned to the brand-new set of clubs to Madden's left. Mark approached the bag and lifted the driver out with two fingers. He studied the club and addressed the crowd.
                "After I'm done with these beauties, I sure hope they are going to find a new home with one of you." Madden looked expectantly at the president, who quickly nodded in agreement. "I'll have to think of a creative way to see who goes home as the winner," Mark continued.

                He teed a ball up and then turned back to the crowd. With both hands on the driver’s shaft, he worked the club down to his waist and then rotated his arms over his head and back down to the bottom of his tailbone. 

                "Piece of advice number one: Don't immediately start hitting balls after a cross-country flight with no warm-up. Always make sure your body is loose and you have the blood flowing before you start hitting balls. A flexible body is a powerful body is a healthy body. So, today, do as I say, not as I do."
                Madden did some quick of trunk rotations and touched his toes a couple of times. "Okay, rather than all of you watching me stretch for the next 20 minutes, I'll just take my swing speed down from 11."

                The faces in the crowd were warm and welcoming, eager to see Madden in action. But Mark didn't see that. From his perspective, he could only feel the immensity of the crowd on top of him.
                Madden addressed the ball, but the grandstand was still in his periphery. It appeared to climb impossibly high into the sky, like it was threatening to block out the sun. He felt tight, constricted. Madden took a couple of uneasy practice swings. Something he had done thousands of times in his life suddenly felt unknown. Foreign.

                Get with it! You're on a driving range, for Chrissakes. Just hit the ball!
                Angry with himself, Madden hastily started his backswing. It was a poorly timed mess. Stiff shoulders and a herky-jerky take-away from the ball led to a low top position. Then Madden’s downswing was too steep and too fast. The club head came through the ball early and he duck-hooked it 150 yards into the protective fence lining the driving range. The shot would have made a weekend duffer cringe.

                Madden stood frozen in his finish, unable to compute what happened. The crowd’s reaction ranged from stunned silence to awkward laughs.
                What the hell was that? Cover it. Now!

                “See what I mean about the proper warm-up, Folks,” Madden said, turning back to face the crowd. “Your body needs to be ready in order for you to play your best golf. And so you can leave shots like that here on the range where they belong. That’s lesson number one.”

                Madden saw a few heads nod affirmatively, buying the half-baked explanation for that horrid shot. He decided to double-down.
                “Okay, so we got the duck-hook out of the system. Now it’s time to calibrate the swing before you spend most of the round in the trees.”

                Madden teed up another ball, but his hand shook as he did. The crowd seemed to close in on him even more. He could pick up distinct voices on three sides, everyone watching his every move.
                In tournament golf, Madden had always been able to keep his focus between the ropes. The fans walking the course were just a blur. Sure, he’d hit loose shots before; every golfer in history has and would continue to do so. But the difference between a pro and the average Joe was that the pro knew how to self-correct a physical flaw in the mechanics of the golf swing.            

                Unfortunately for Madden, the fans on the range now weren't a blur. It felt as though they were in HD. He could feel their probing stares and hear short snippets of their conversations. Madden was suddenly a jangle of frayed nerves.
               This isn't even golf! It's show and tell. Why are you so nervous?  You're a professional, act like it!

                 He addressed the ball. The driver reached the apex of the swing later than the first shot and the follow-through was late as well. The club moved tentatively through the plane toward the tee. The club face was wide open at contact and the ball immediately checked to the right. It was a classic duffer's slice. But at least there was distance to this shot. So much distance that the ball disappeared OVER the netting and onto the first fairway.
                Madden's neck felt very hot as he, and the rest of the incredulous crowd, watched the ball sail right. His cheeks flushed and his mind raced, searching for an explanation. He came up empty.

                I have to stop. I can't keep doing this. This will end up online if I keep hitting.

                "I think that counts as a fairway in regulation," he said, hamming it up for the crowd. That's some good, ol' fashioned army golf, right there. Left, right, left."
                The crowd laughed, everyone fully believing Madden's shots were a part of the 'show'. Everyone except for Ben Knight. He had seen the swings, but more importantly he had seen the look in his friend's eyes after he had hit those shots. Knight could tell something was amiss.

                Madden kept trying to baffle with bullshit. "The problem is that I watched him," motioning to the company president, "hit a few balls earlier and I think his god-awful swing got imprinted on my brain. I'll have to get that fixed before the season starts. The man can make great clubs, he just doesn't know how to use them!"
                He moved closer to the crowd. "Now, let's get a few of you up here and show how us how it's done."

                "How about one more round of applause for our special guest today. Mark Madden, everyone!"

                The company president moved aside, letting Mark take centre stage, signalling the end of the exhibition. Madden waved to the crowd and then disappeared underneath the grandstand where Knight was waiting, his arms folded across his chest.
                "Good job." Knight handed Madden his phone. He checked his messages. Knight lowered his voice. "You want to explain what happened on those two shots?"

                "Nope," Madden said. "And if you ever mention it to me again, I'll fight you again like we did at Homecoming during sophomore year."
                Madden didn't even wait for a reply. He was gone before Knight could open his mouth.

Part 3 - The Slide