The Longest Drive: Part 4 - The Fall

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

Here's Part 4 - The Fall

"Today marks the start of Round 1 of the Metroland Championship at the Double Eagle Golf Club in Michigan. In fact, the course is basically the backyard of State University and tournament organizers are expecting a lot of students over the four days to create one of the most fun, rambunctious atmospheres on any tour stop this season."
                "That's right. It should be a great week. Now, typically going into a tournament, we identify players that we think have a chance of standing at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday. But today, we're talking about a player who hasn't even played on a weekend in his last six events. But the Metroland Championship is a home game for him--native Michigander Mark Madden."

                "A fall from grace for Madden would be an understatement. How much would he give for a time machine to take him back to last year when he was the toast of the golf world?"
                "Now it just looks like he's toast! But you're right, Madden looks lost on the golf course right now. He was having problems with his driver since the start of the year, but those issues have been exacerbated in recent weeks."

                "I don't know if the catalyst was being put on the clock back in Georgia, but since then his play with the driver has almost become a sideshow."
                The Golf Network's flagship show, Golf Now, cut to a highlight pack of Madden's play in his past six tournaments. The footage was gruesome. Anytime Madden took the driver out of the bag, the ball didn't come close to the fairway. And the misses weren't even consistent. Shots went left and right. Balls that were supposed to be fades became draws. The metronomic swing that had defined Madden's young career had become a ill-timed mess.

                Stan Madden, Mark's father, watched the Golf Network in the basement of the family's home.
                "So, what are you seeing from those shots? Is there anything to provide some insight into Madden's struggles?"

                "Honestly, I don't know where to begin. Those swings do not look good. The difficult thing is, in each swing, the issue is something different each time. It's consistent inconsistency. Part of me hopes that Madden is dealing with some physical issues that are impacting his ability to replicate a consistent pattern. It's better than the alternative."
                 "Which is?"

                "That the problem is between his ears."
                "Stan, turn that off!" Madden's mother, Luanne, entered the basement. She glanced up the stairs. "Mark's still here. He doesn't need to hear that stuff when he's home too!"

                "I was finished watching it anyway," he replied, flipping to a different channel. "It's garbage. They're just trying to fill time with nonsense. What time is Mark is heading to the course?"
                "Should be soon," she said. "His tee time is at 2:30."

                The Maddens' home was just over an hour from the course. Mark typically stayed at home during the Metroland tournament because it gave him an opportunity to recharge from the travel grind in the middle of the season.  Besides the majors, it was Madden's favourite event on the calendar as the state swooned upon his homecoming: the prodigal son returns.
                Upstairs, Madden stood in his childhood bedroom surveying the walls. All four sides were chockfull of championships trophies from all levels of junior and amateur golf. The room was now, in essence, the Mark Madden museum. And that's how it felt to him.  Like he was staring at the successes of someone else's life.

                Things were so much simpler then. He played golf, he won, and then he went home to live his life anonymously. But things were different now. Madden was a known commodity, a celebrity, and while that came with many advantages, it also had its fair share of drawbacks. It was no longer just about golf. It was about his 'brand'. Madden was being pulled in every direction trying to please sponsors, fans and the media. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced before. There was no course on how to handle it. It was trial by fire.
                And Madden wasn't handling it well, as evidenced by his poor performance on the course. He felt drained. Madden sat down on his bed. The mattress's springs groaned beneath him. Madden recalled a conversation with Knight they'd had on the plane days earlier on their way to Detroit.

                “Look, we can keep ignoring this, but I think it’s time we talk about it,” Knight began. “It’s gone on long enough, don’t you think?”

                The flight attendant interrupted. “Can I get you gentlemen anything?”
                “No.” Madden shook his head. He turned in his seat to see who else was sitting in the cabin.

                “Nothing for me, thanks,” Knight answered, apologizing with his eyes for Madden’s curt response. The flight attendant left with a smile.
                “Can you keep your voice down?” Madden said. “Someone might hear you.”

                “Fine,” Knight whispered, leaning into his friend. “But we still need to address what’s happened to your swing.”
                “Why?” Madden looked out the window.

                “Because you can’t keep playing this way!” Knight rasped. “I’ve never seen you drive the ball like this before. Even when we got drunk in college and snuck into the simulator in the athletic centre, you’d always nut the driver. That’s always been your club. But what’s happened this year . . . it’s hard to watch.”
                “Yeah, well it’s not so great being the one with the club in his hand either,” Madden snapped.

                “I know. That’s why we need to figure this out.” Knight hesitated, toeing the water. “You look lost out there.”
                “I am!” Madden spat. “It feels like I’m driving without brakes. I have no idea where the ball is going after I make contact.”

                “What’s changed?”
                “It’s not just one thing. I just--every bad shot just pulls me deeper and deeper into the muck. I can’t not think about it. It’s just there.  I’m scared I’m going to kill someone in the gallery. Once I’m off the tee box, I feel okay. But being that close to the gallery on the tee, I can hear what people are whispering. I read the stuff online.”

                “Well, stop reading that shit. You shouldn’t care about what those keyboard warriors think even if you were winning every tournament.”
                “Everything is just so loud around me all the time. It feels like I can't get any peace and quiet. Every time I come to the course recently, I get this pit in my stomach. It’s hanging over me like a dark cloud. I just feel tight, you know. Like I can’t breathe properly.”

                “Are you having fun?”

                “It’s a simple question,” Knight answered. “Are you having fun playing?”
                Madden shook his head.

                “Maybe think about skipping this week? Just get away and recharge.”

                “I can’t do that! I’d be letting too many people down.”
                “Like who?”

                “My parents for starters.”
                “Your parents? Why?”

                "They've put so much into my career ever since I was a kid," Madden said. "They've given up vacations, things for themselves, so I could have whatever I needed to play. And now this is the time when I'm supposed to repay them for all of their hard work. And I started to do that last year, but now I'm a disappointment."
                "They don't think that," Knight admonished. "You can't honestly believe that."

                "Well, that's how I would feel! And my mom was such a great athlete. She was the MVP of the College World Series. She played great under huge pressure. And I--I can't put it together. I can't slow things down on the tee, everything gets going so fast and the next thing I know I'm snap-hooking another drive."
                Knight searched for a response, but Madden kept going.

                "And now I've got all these companies paying me big money for literally doing nothing except to continue to play golf and it feels like I'm wasting their money. They don't pay me to play like this. Other players and fans, the media, they all probably think I'm some one-hit wonder. Shit, the way I'm playing right now, they're probably right. What is it? Six tournaments without a round under par? Three rounds in the 80s? I couldn't make a high school team playing like this. I feel like a fraud."
                  "You know, maybe this week is exactly what you need," Knight offered. "You know you're going to be the fan favourite. Every single person in that gallery will be cheering for you. You can feed off of the crowd's desire for you to get back to where you belong. Not to mention some home-cooking at your parents’ house. This will be a turning point for your season."

                Knight was right. The Metroland tournament would be a turning point—for all the wrong reasons.
                Madden's knuckles were white as his fingers gripped the armrest. The SUV was nearing the Double Eagle course entrance. Knight and Madden's parents were accompanying Mark to the course for the first round of the tournament.

                Knight and Stan chatted comfortably, but Luanne could sense Mark's unease. She placed a hand on his arm.
                "Mark, are you okay?"

                Madden's breathing was shallow, his eyes transfixed on the course that had appeared around a bend in the road. "Yeah," he said unconvincingly.

                "Do you feel sick? What is it?"
                Truthfully, Madden wasn't even sure what the issue was. He just knew that what once began as nagging doubt at the back of his mind was now a constant source of stress on the golf course. He felt heavy and slow, a knot of despair in his chest.

                "I'm fine," he said.

                "It's the heat, I bet," his mother replied. "It's very warm in here. Excuse me," she tapped the driver's arm. "Can you roll the windows down? Let some fresh air in here please."

                The blast of air did little to quell the sweat pooling on the back of Madden's neck.

                It was just after noon and the grounds at Double Eagle were filling with fans. After the majors, this tournament was one of the most popular tour stops of the summer and many Michiganders were there to catch a glimpse of Madden. There was a palpable buzz of anticipation as the SUV parked in the player's lot. For a Thursday, the crowd was immense and Madden had been given a prime afternoon tee time to maximize his exposure on the course with the biggest crowds.

                Ten minutes later, Madden stood alone in the player's locker room. He looked at the reflection in the mirror. Madden didn't like what he saw. His skin looked ashen and waxy; his eyes red from a lack of sleep and his cheeks gaunt. Madden looked sick and felt cold. Physically, he knew he was healthy, but the mental war waging in his mind had manifest in his body.
                He didn't want to go out there. He didn't want to play, but he felt like he had no choice. He was a golfer, this is who he was. This is what he had to do.

                The locker room door nudged open.
                "Mark, you ready?" Knight called. "Time to hit the range. We tee off in 45."

                Yeah," was Madden's weak reply. "Be there in a minute."
                He wanted to cover up, to shield himself from the prying eyes that would be watching his every move.  Madden slid on a pair of mirrored sunglasses and wrapped a light, hooded sweater around his torso.

                "Way to go, Mark!"
                "Kick some butt!"

               "We love you, Mark!"
                The grandstand crowd serenaded Madden's appearance on the driving range. But all he noticed were hundreds of heads moving in his direction, watching his every move as he made his way down the line of players warming up.

                He saw Knight about halfway down the line beside his bag and a pyramid of balls. Madden's hands were stuffed tightly in his pockets and his shoulders slumped forward. He was the polar opposite of the rest of the players warming up.  Madden longed to feel like them.
                Knight watched Madden approach. Concern was etched across the caddie's face. Knight saw the cameramen situated around the range simultaneously converge on their spot like buzzards hovering around a carcass.

                The caddie pulled an iron out of the bag, pasted a fake smile on his face for the cameras and moved in toward Madden. 
                "Just start with the 9," he whispered. "Nice and easy, get a few balls out there. And you'll just blend in with the rest."

                Madden nodded feebly. He took the club and held it close to his body, the club head extended skyward, perpendicular to the ground. He squeezed the grip tight, feeling the stares from the crowd penetrate his sunglasses. Madden glanced to the player on his right.
                It was RJ Hayes. The third-ranked player in the world and the longest driver on tour. And he had the driver out now. Tall and muscular, Hayes looked better suited to the defensive backfield of an NFL team instead of a golf course, but he used his strength and athleticism to crush golf balls into oblivion.  On a normal day, Hayes was half a head taller than Madden, but that discrepancy was enhanced on the range at that moment.

                Hayes stood tall and confident, in full control of his powers as he launched another ball into the cloudless blue sky. On the contrary, Madden's shoulders slumped forward with his head tucked to his chin, his body bereft of energy. He seemed frozen in place, like a statue.
                The assembled media on the range, as well as the fans directly behind Madden's warm-up area, had begun to take notice of the odd sight. A hunched-over Madden, still wearing the hooded sweatshirt, appeared to stare at Hayes while he hit the driver. Madden hadn't moved in a couple of minutes. Every muscle in his body strained inward, like he was going to collapse on himself.

                Hayes grabbed a towel from his caddie and mopped his brow. He now noticed Madden as well.
                "Hey, Mark, how's it going?"

                No answer.
                Madden acted like he didn't hear him. In fact, Madden hadn't heard him. He couldn't hear anything, but a cacophony of static that flooded his brain. The sound was unrelenting. It seemed to reverberate throughout his body. He wasn't looking at Hayes. His gaze was transfixed at a cluster of trees beyond the driving range. Madden tried to focus on the trees. He tried to slow his frantic breathing. He just wanted the noise to stop.

                "Mark?" Hayes tried again.
                Still no answer. Hayes raised a confused eyebrow to Knight. The caddie nodded with a grimace. Knight could feel the attention on the range shifting to his player. He wanted to just wrap Madden up and get him away from prying eyes, but it was too late for that. Slowly, he approached him.

                Knight reached a hand out and placed it gingerly on Madden's shoulder. Madden, stuck deep in his mind's inner turmoil, recoiled. He didn't meet his caddie's eye.
                "Mark, it's okay, it's just me," Knight said. "Look, I know you're going through a lot right now, but we just need you to hit a couple of shots. That's it, just a few. Everyone's attention will go elsewhere and we'll get you out of here, okay? I promise."

                Knight hooked his free hand under the crook of Madden's elbow and led him to his bag.
                "Okay," Knight's voice was soft and smooth, "now I'm going to do a little dance for the cameras. You just listen to my voice, Mark."

                Knight plastered a massive smile on his face and playfully slapped Madden on the back. One eye was focused on his friend, while the other ensured that the assembled horde watched the details of their interaction.
                Knight leaned toward Madden. "I know you're hurting and it kills me to see you like this." He let out a great big, belly laugh. "I want to help you, but you have to tell me what's going on." Knight laughed again and continued smiling. "Just hit a couple of balls, we'll get you out of here and I'll tell them you have food poisoning or something, okay?"

                The caddie bent down and picked up a ball from the pyramid. He forced it into Madden's hand. "Come on, Mark, you can do this."
                Madden finally released the club from its perpendicular perch. His hands and arms were sore from holding the flexed position for so long. Timidly, he addressed the ball. The noise that enveloped his mind seemed to get louder, building in crescendo until it felt like it was going to knock him off balance. Madden drew the club head back, but stopped before he reached the top of his swing.

                He let out an anguished cry.
                The murmurs in the crowd grew louder. Even other players on the range stopped hitting and watched the scene unfold. It was like a car crash. No one could look away. A man's inner torment was now on display for the sports world to witness firsthand.

                Panic gripped Madden's chest. His ears burned in embarrassment. His breath was short and laboured. He was losing control.
                "Goddamn it, what is wrong with you?" Madden hissed to himself. "You are such a failure."

                He tried to address the ball again. He looked down. The ball seemed to be nothing more than an infinitesimal speck of white on the green grass. He couldn't see anything. Every muscle in his body ached. His mind screamed at him, fear and insecurity figuratively slapping his thoughts back and forth against his skull. Madden staggered, using the club as a cane to hold himself upright.
                Angry, Madden tossed the club to the ground and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, wanting to disappear. He collapsed into a squat, driving both hands into the ground, digging into the earth. His fingers tore at the short grass, frustration boiling over.

                Knight rushed over and slung his arm around Madden's back. He pulled his friend up.
                "Okay, Mark, we're leaving," Knight said. "You don't have to be out here anymore. You'll be okay."

                Madden's eyes welled. He bit his lip to stem the flow, but it wasn't enough. He looked at Knight. The caddie saw a thick glob of tears slide out from underneath the sunglasses. Madden's body shook involuntarily. Knight bore the brunt of his friend's weight as he searched frantically for an exit.
                Half-dragging, half-carrying his player, Knight took a step toward the back of the range. The burgeoning crowd around them took a step forward, wanting to get closer to the carnage.

                "Get these people out of here!" Knight screamed at the tour officials nearby.
                Cameras flashed, people shouted, and the majority of the crowd watched in shock. The officials tried to corral the media members to one side, but there were too many people. Knight tried to shield Madden's face as they limped across the range.

                Photographers pushed forward, wanting to get that perfect shot. Officials, other players and caddies pushed back, wanting to shield one of their own. Madden and Knight were caught in between. Cameras were shoved right near Madden's face. Knight slapped them away with his free arm.
                "Move back!"

                "What is wrong with you?"
                "Give them room!"

                It was pandemonium.
                Knight, sweat dripping down his face, pulled Madden closer. "We're almost there, Mark. I promise. We're almost there."

                Madden, the noise in his head now matched by the insanity on the range, was despondent. In a whisper, he muttered one word.

Part 5 - The Bottom