- What inspired you to write about golf in general and the Masters in particular?
To begin with, I was incensed by an article in the New York Times protesting that golf had no place in the Olympics; that it was merely a game for fat, middle-aged white men. Perhaps that contributed to my setting the story in 2016, though the year is never mentioned. I wanted to talk about the “upcoming” Rio Olympics, but I was writing in 2010-11 and thought I might be tempting fate.
As for the Masters, my parents loved watching it, my mother in particular. She didn’t play golf until she retired but for years, April in Augusta meant spring was here, and she loved the beauty of the course, and the flowers. She died while I was still researching and writing, but it became a way for me to work through my grief.
At some point during my research Augusta National announced that they were setting out to broaden the international aspect of the game. That led me to consider having a protagonist outside the traditional “Ryder Cup” golfing countries.
The real spur for Ang Tak, though, was the widely debated question of whether an an amateur could win the Masters, in the tradition of Bobby Jones. When I began my research, that idea seemed unlikely—and it still does. The field of pro golfers gets stronger every year, talented amateurs are encouraged to turn pro early, and the course doesn’t get any easier, regardless of equipment. So I set out to examine what key characteristics I felt any golfer had to have to earn a green jacket. Then I constructed a kid who had some of those traits. Then I threw him at the course, gave him some controversy and waited to see what would happen. I had no idea if Tony could win. I just wanted to see what would happen when he tried.
- The characters in Ang Tak were very interesting and complex. Talk about them, especially the two main ones, Tony and Kat.
Following on from the first question, Tony had a lot of good qualities, many of them coming from his Sherpa heritage. When I first started to consider what country the kid would be from I had to weigh research time. I was already up to my ears in golf lore and Augusta National layouts and strategies. I needed a country I could relate to somehow. India was too big. Thailand too foreign, ditto Vietnam and Cambodia. I came across Nepal . . . Edmund Hilary . . . Sherpas and Gurkhas. I knew Gurkhas fought in the British Army. But Sherpas? . . . then I found a marvellous school, SMD School for Himalayan Children, and discovered one of their graduates was studying in Vancouver, where I live. When I heard his story and those of others like him, and learned about the extreme poverty and harsh environment from whence they came, I realized a Sherpa might well have the necessary character to scale the mountain called Augusta National.
Tony has his father’s grit and ambition and his British mother’s temper. After his dad dies, he’s raised in England (which made my job easier). He was well on his way to a fine career in smash and grab when, quite by accident, he discovered golf. Of course, as any golfer knows, that’s merely the point where all your troubles begin. And so it was with Tony. He was too small and too quick-tempered but he kept at it until, some eight or nine years later he won the British Amateur and a berth at the 2016 Masters.
Because he was small until his late teens, he couldn’t overpower a course with his driver. Instead, he was forced to hone his iron and short game. He had a spotty amateur record, partly because of his temper and also because his uncle would not allow him to use a club if he threw it. Consequently, he seldom competed with a full bag of clubs.
Like many Buddhists, he became very good at using meditation to sharpen his focus. And he did everything he could to learn about Augusta National, but there’s no substitute for local knowledge.
Which brings us to Kat.
Fuzzy Zoeller won a green jacket his first time at the Masters, in 1979. He was a fine golfer but he’d probably be the first to say his caddie was a big part of his win, because his caddie knew the golf course inside out. He knew how the putts break on the 12th green, and how the wind can fool you on the fourth tee. So I reckoned if Tony was going to stand a chance, he needed a caddie like that.
Why is Kat from Vancouver? To cut down on the research. And why is she female? Because you need something to interest female readers. I thought long and hard about giving Tony a tempestuous love life but realistically, I didn’t think it would work in these circumstances. Besides, most of his time during the round is spent with his caddie. Notwithstanding his stable relationship with his girlfriend, however, Tony does have an emotional crisis at a key point, and that was more than enough to derail him. Stress takes its toll during a major.
Kat was unable to make it as a pro herself but was lucky enough to find work with a top-line golfer who had already won a green jacket when she joined him. So they were always guaranteed a spot in the Masters and she spent twelve years learning the course. Tony would never normally get the help of an experienced caddie like this except that her own player was out with a bad back and he persuaded her to help the kid out.
Players and their caddies can form very strong attachments—after all, they spend hours and hours together, sometimes off the course as well as on. The story tries to show the relationship between a young player and an older caddie, formal to begin with, then relaxing, then completely falling apart as stress takes its toll. Then rebuilding and trying to move forward.
- Do you play golf? If so, how would you rate your game?
I’m a mediocre golfer, thrilled if I can score in the 80s, although now that I’m playing regularly I will probably start to want more. All golfers always want more.
I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher and to benefit for years from my dad’s insights into players and swings.
- Do you have any other stories or books with sports as a main theme in the works or as an upcoming project?
If you wish to take Helen up on her offer, you can reach her here: