The Longest Drive: Part 5 - The Bottom

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

Part 2 - The Slip

Part 3 - The Slide

Part 4 - The Fall

Here's Part 5 - The Bottom

                     "We can continue sitting here in silence, Mark, or you can start talking to me. I'm getting paid either way and this is a lot of money out of your pocket for a staring contest."

                Madden's brow furrowed, but he remained silent. He broke eye contact and scratched at an imaginary speck on the arm of the leather chair.
                "I was contacted by you, remember?" The voice continued. "I didn't ask for this appointment. You did."

                "I didn't call you," Madden countered. "My mother did."
                "She called me and said you needed help. I saw the video. I'd be inclined to agree with her."

                Madden shifted uneasily in his chair as the Metroland incident from three months before raced back to the forefront. He looked at the two large frames that hung prominently on the dark-green wall. The frames displayed the credentials of Dr. Karen Sweeney. One was a doctoral degree in psychology. The other was a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State.
                "Of course you would," Madden said. "You're friends."

                "I haven't seen your mom in over twenty years," Sweeney replied. "We lived on the same floor in residence in freshman year. We'd hold each other's hair back if one of us drank too much on a night out. But things get busy in undergrad, especially with your mom and softball, and you drift apart. I was quite surprised when I got her phone call."

                "Surprised that it was her son that," Madden threw up air quotes, "’went crazy on the golf course.’"
                "Is that what you think happened?"

                "That's the whole world was saying," Madden answered. "I had to shut down all of my social media accounts. I had to stop watching TV. I had to stop going online. I even had to change my phone number."
                "Truthfully, I had no idea what she was talking about," Sweeney said. "I'm not a sports fan. I didn't even know who you were."
                Madden eyed her warily. "Seriously?"

                "I think sports are misplaced energy that could be better directed elsewhere in society," she said.  "No offense."
                "Yeah, none taken," Madden quipped. "Then why did you agree to see me? How can you help me get back on the course?"

                "I couldn't care less if you ever play golf again, Mark."
                Madden shook his head. "Then why I am here?”

                "Well, you've spent the last three months holed up in your childhood bedroom," Sweeney retorted. "You don't go out in public, you hardly eat," she looked at Madden's unkempt hair and scraggly beard, "and your personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. You don't do anything except wallow around in self-loathing. That's no way to live, Mark. That is barely surviving."
                "Anything else?" Madden snapped.

                "We need to dive down to the root cause of your issue. What caused the incident at that tournament? We need to help you function properly again. We need to dig deep, Mark. And I'm telling you right now, it's not going to be easy. You will need to be completely honest with me and with yourself. "
                Madden remained silent.

                "I'm not going to sugar-coat this. There is pain coming, Mark. You need to be ready for it."
                He nodded.

                "That's it for today. I'll see you on Monday."
                "What do you think, Ben?"

                "Left edge. A touch downhill though," Knight replied. "Put this baby to bed."
                Confident in the read, Knight moved from the centre of the green to the fringe, waiting for the final shot of the day to be struck. He snuck a peek to the leaderboard situated in the middle of the man-made pond that hugged the finishing hole. The signage appeared to float in the water as the stanchions affixed to it disappeared beneath the surface.

                Surveying the tournament's top ten, Knight found his player alone in seventh. But much like the last five events he had caddied, Mark Madden was nowhere to be found. Instead, for the better part of the summer and now into the fall, Knight had essentially become a looper-for-hire. With Madden's blessing, Knight had offered his services to the rest of the tour, caddying for players whose own caddies were unable to be on the bag for one reason or another.
               Knight appreciated the work, and the money, but it still felt odd to him to be on the course without Madden. He missed his best friend.

                The pair had spoken infrequently since the Metroland episode—cruelly, the alliterative ease of the phrase 'Meltdown at Metroland' had ensured a long news cycle for the incident in not just the sports world, but mainstream media at large—as Madden had largely gone radio silent.
                Knight had kept in touch with Madden's parents for updates on how Mark was doing, but those updates unfortunately were all were too similar: he wasn't eating, he wasn't talking and he wasn't going outside. But the fact Luanne Madden had finally convinced Mark to visit a psychologist provided Knight with a glimmer of hope that he'd get his friend back.

                The putt fell and the gallery erupted in cheers, jolting Knight back to the present. He removed his cap and slapped five with his player and then shook hands with the opposing player and caddie as well. Knight collected the bag and walked off the green behind the group. He wanted to get off of his feet, get something to eat, and rest for the final round.
                But as he looked toward the clubhouse and the reporters gathered near the side entrance, Knight knew that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Most caddies were apparitions to the press. They were ignored. But not Knight. He was now a hot commodity for two reasons: one, he’d had a ringside seat to Madden's breakdown and was with him in the immediate aftermath, and two, he was the only member of Madden's camp that was currently visible in the public eye. And even now, over three months later, Madden's absence still loomed large over the golf world.

                "Ben! Ben! Can we get you for just a few minutes?"
                Knight gritted his teeth and nodded. His player bypassed the cameras unimpeded on his way to the scoring room. Knight wished he could join. He dropped the bag and awaited the queries with his hands on his hips.

                "Is it weird being on the bag for a player other than Mark Madden?"
                Knight was perturbed. "Guys, this is the fifth week in a row you've asked this question. The answer hasn't changed."

                The reporter kept her arm outstretched waiting for an answer.
                "Okay," Knight snorted. "Here we go again: I just enjoy being out on the golf course. It's like home to me. Do I wish Mark was out here with me each and every week? Of course I do. He and I are a team. And I think it was tremendously gracious of Mark to give his blessing for me to loop for some other guys on tour while he's away. And these guys have been great to work with, too. I'm enjoying myself."

                "When's the last time you spoke with Madden?"
                Knight ran a hand through his slick hair. "We've been in touch," he said, avoiding the question. "Mark needs this time away from the game. I think it's good for him. I think the added pressure of being anointed 'the next one' on tour was difficult for him to manage. He needs to focus on himself right now, not on golf."

                "Any timetable for when he'll be back?"
                "Nope, none." Knight shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. But as soon as he's ready to go, I will be here waiting for him. I want to get our team back together."

                "Let's go back a few weeks," another reporter began, "to the Metroland Championship and Madden's panic attack--"
                Knight interrupted. "Who said it was a panic attack?"

                "Wasn't it?"
                "I don't know. I'm not a doctor," Knight said, an edge creeping into his voice. "Mark wasn't feeling well."

                The reporter furrowed his brow. "That's putting it mildly. Truthfully, it looked more like a nervous breakdown."

                "Oh, it did? Well, that kind of speculation is well above my pay grade." Knight stared at the reporter. "And I'm sure it's well above yours too. Seeing as how we're at golf tournament, it would make sense that we talk about golf. And since Mark Madden isn't playing golf right, there's no need for him to be a topic of conversation. Now, unless there are questions about what happened this afternoon on this golf course, I think we're done here."
                Knight surveyed the media, none of whom wanted to meet his eye.

                "Okay, have a good day, everyone," he said, grabbing the bag and pushing through the crowd.
                "Let's go through this together now, Mark, to make sure we're on the same page," Dr. Sweeney said, checking her notes. "Last year was the most successful year you've ever had on a golf course. You won one of the top tournaments on the tour and you had one of the best seasons among your peers. Fame, money; it all comes rolling in. This was the culmination of years of hard work, of blood, sweat, and tears etc., and you finally climbed the mountain."

                "Yep," Madden answered. It was hard to believe that the doctor was describing his life. To him, it didn't seem real. Like the story belonged to someone else.
                This was Madden's third session with Dr. Sweeney. Besides his parent's house, this office, tucked away in a non-descript office park an hour away from the family home, now ranked as his most-visited location over the past few months. And Madden had no desire to add anywhere else to the list.

                "It should have been, by all accounts, the happiest time in your life," the doctor continued.  "But it wasn't, as the next few months proved. Why?"
                Madden shrugged.

                "Did you think you didn't deserve the accolades?"
                "No, I know how much work I've put in over my career. How much I gave up to get to the top of the mountain, as you called it. Winning a major was everything I had dreamed it would be and more."

                "So, what was the problem?"
                Madden folded his arms across his chest. "Well, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be here in this position, would I, Doc?"

                Dr. Sweeney stopped writing and clasped her hands together on her notebook. She smiled a toothy grin at Madden.

                "Mark, I told you this process was going to be difficult. Well, it's going to be impossible if you're not willing to be honest with me. Or yourself."
                Madden was annoyed. "What are you talking about?"

                "I know why you weren't happy after your success and you sure as hell know why."
                He swallowed. After a beat, he spoke. "Well, why don't you enlighten me then?"

                "Pressure!" Dr. Sweeney thundered. "It was the pressure of success, Mark. You couldn't handle it!"
                Madden gritted his teeth. "Yes, I could."

                "No, you couldn't," she retorted. "But that's okay, Mark. There's nothing wrong with that. Mentally, you weren't strong enough to deal with the new normal of increased expectations."
                "I am mentally tough." Madden's eyes narrowed into slits as he glared at her. "How could you say that?"

                "I am speaking the truth, Mark. You need to hear this. In fact, you know it! Before I can help, you need to admit this to yourself."
                He seethed in silence.

                "You are mentally weak, Mark," the doctor continued. "You need to face facts. But, just like a muscle, you can become stronger. You can work to increase your mental toughness. If I was your personal trainer and I told you that, to hit the ball further, you needed to get your legs stronger, you wouldn't have this reaction. You would ask what do you need to do make it happen."
                Madden stared at the floor, tears welling in his eyes.

                "Don't let the stigma surrounding mental illness affect you, Mark." Dr. Sweeney's voice softened. "That stigma is bullshit. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you have a mental health issue. If your body was hurt, you would take time off to fix it. This is the same thing. Your mental state is injured and we need to fix it. But we need to work together and identify the problem before we can start working on a solution."
                "No," he whispered. "There is not a mental health issue. I am not injured. I am not hurt."

                Dr. Sweeney closed her notebook. "Well, Mark, it looks like we're at an impasse. I'm not going to push you any further right now. But you need to look inside yourself, way down deep inside, and have an honest conversation. You know what I'm saying is true, but until you stop resisting, this isn't going to work."
                "What? We're done? That's it?"

                "I've told you what you need to do," she said. "Once you do it, you are more than welcome to come back and we can continue. But I need honesty, Mark. And you're lying to yourself."

Part 6 - The Climb