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Claudia

What does it take to make it in golf when you’re different? Patience, tenacity and, in this case, sensibility

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“Look,” the woman in the secondhand sweater once told me, pointing to the library’s computer screen. “I now have 35,308 words for the book.” 

Not that there’s anything unusual about measuring progress. Writers do it all the time; it’s what the word-count function is for. But for Claudia Mazzucco, the numbers aren’t mile markers so much as they’re a balm—a necessary salve for the constant crashing of the outside world.

For seven years I’ve been in regular contact, via email, lunch or the occasional sit-down chat, with Mazzucco, one of the most brilliant and confounding golf historians and aspiring journalists I’ve ever met. She also happens to be autistic.

During our relationship I have been respectful in the extreme of her privacy, and, outside of her unwavering devotion to the twin religions of golf and Catholicism, I still know relatively little about her. But it is clear she relates to the world in a very different manner than the rest of us. This has created two unavoidably linked truths: Her perspective allows her to see wonderful aspects of golf in ways many others cannot, and her inability to conform to societal norms is a massive roadblock to her getting a foothold in the industry. Mazzucco remains a talented outsider looking in.

While she is yet to be publicly rewarded in terms of permanent employment, recognition, financial success and the accumulation of material goods that are traditionally associated with “making it,” I’ve come to believe that says more about our difficulty as a society in respecting difference than it says anything about her. 

The golf world in particular is great at according status upon those who are winning. In the wake of celebrity success, however, is a long trail of the less recognized—folks like golf course superintendents, teaching pros, caddies and (dare I say) media, who don’t make a fortune in the game, but take pride in the work they love. Despite a long string of frustrating closed doors, something like that continues to motivate Mazzucco. And while I want to help, she doesn’t need a savior. But I believe that her path should be accorded more respect.

portrait by Yehyun Kim

For a woman who doesn’t play golf, Mazzucco spends a lot of time studying those who do. She says she has no interest in trying to learn. Rather, she’s concerned with detailing how the world’s greatest players fit into her grand theory about the game. It’s something she’s distilled into a series of papers and one book, Legendary Lessons (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), consisting of 100-plus excerpts from elite golfers and golf writers interspersed with her own (all-too-brief) commentaries. 

She’s nearing the completion of a second volume—this one more in her own terms—about the lineage from Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen to Roberto De Vicenzo and Tiger Woods that forms the crux of her theory: the “Theory of Sensibility.” It accounts for the transcendent skill that goes well beyond mechanical swing mastery to embrace the full creative artistry of hitting fine golf shots under pressure. The technical golf swing proper and the literature of instruction are matters she finds of little interest. To Mazzucco, they miss the larger point of what it takes to play well.

As she puts it in an unpublished paper with the enticing title “A One-Man Show and His Quixotic Theory of Golf”: 

There is a distinction between ‘preliminary’ knowledge—which concerns the technical principles of how to swing a club—and “sensibility,” which is concerned with the knowledge that comes through experience to know, for example, where the dangerous spots are located.

Sensibility, then, is a multifaceted sort of knowledge. It involves a general knowledge through the preliminary science of golf, grip, stance, balance, and pivot, which are common factors in every good swing, and the development of other abilities: intuition, imagination, visualization, touch, concentration, killer instinct—all of which will allow golfers to gain a feeling of certainty and steadiness on the golf course. The topography of the course has also its part to play. You must think out the shot carefully, in terms of the topographic conditions.

Attempting to solve the mystery of sporting greatness through in-depth reporting and writing is ambitious for anyone, let alone an autistic 54-year-old native of Argentina who now lives in Hartford, Connecticut, with the assistance of her local church. She hails from La Banda, 680 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. Her childhood was plagued by frequent illness, possibly a result of a botched blood transfusion in infancy. School authorities attributed her unsteady classroom performance to her recurring sickness rather than making any formal diagnosis of a cognitive condition. In a 2009 book that is part memoir, part theological treatise (The Windows of Saint Joseph, Xulon Press), Mazzucco writes that her parents “knew very little about my inner states and never were sure whether I was a genius or retarded.” Had it not been for the help of four aunts, all of them teachers, Mazzucco says, her education would have been even more problematic.

For someone with her kind of sensory dysfunction, certain everyday occurrences can be nightmarish. She grew up in a country where soccer is a national obsession, and had to essentially take cover whenever a big match was played. As Mazzucco writes, “Nothing seemed to shatter my world more than the roar of the multitude celebrating a goal.” 

A chance encounter as a teenager with a golf course near central Buenos Aires opened up a new world. In “Hands of an Artist,” an unpublished paper from 2015, she describes her epiphany:

One day I came across the Campo de Golf de la Ciudad, which is in the middle of Palermo Park in Buenos Aires. There was something beautiful in this solitary game. The golfers had the appearance of being in an ideal world of their own. I walked on the green in a hopeful and satisfied frame of mind, finding purpose in the natural splendor of a golf course. There was no going back to an expressionless existence; through golf I had a unique and necessary role to serve, I found my voice, together with the desire, the power and the obligation to express myself.

While formal learning and daily communication were always awkward, Mazzucco was at home with pictures and words. She began reading golf magazines and found she could recall everything she read and saw about the game. This took place during a stint in journalism school, where she turned her attention to golf writing. A meeting with Argentine golf hero De Vicenzo led her, at his encouragement, to read every back issue of El Golfo Argentino, a magazine published from 1931 to 1962. 

Her experience with De Vicenzo has become a guiding principle in her life. His understanding of the creative, artistic side of the swing—as opposed to a strictly technical approach—greatly influenced her beliefs. It led her to intuitive swing geniuses like Hagen and Seve Ballesteros; she has also found the same element of sensitivity in Jones. As Mazzucco puts it in one of her essays, she’s intrigued by “the nature of the ‘hidden’ mind—to situations involving patterns, unwanted lies, mysteries of mind over matter and the vagaries of a spherical ounce-and-a-half of rubber ball and its potentialities of devilishness.” 

She landed a job in 1989 with the Argentine PGA as an instructor in golf history at its school for professional golfers. Soon after, she went to work for the Argentine Golf Association, building a historical database. 

“Given my photographic memory,” she says, “I’ve learned to preserve an obsessive desire for sameness by going through [Argentine newspaper] La Nación, copying the complete leaderboard of each pro and national amateur championship organized by the Association of Argentine Professional Golf and the Argentine Golf Association from 1905 to the 1970s. I’ve got a phenomenal rote memory for scores and Anglo-Saxon names, and a good precise recollection of every champion of the modern Grand Slam of Golf.” Asked all of a sudden who won the Argentine Open in 1947, she hesitates for about three seconds as her internal computer goes to work. “Enrique Bertolino,” she answers. Correct, and not much slower than a Google search. 

Along the way she taught herself English and ultimately covered golf events for an Argentine newspaper, including Ryder Cups in 1995, 1997 and 1999. Believing she had discovered something unique about the game that American golfers would be interested in, she came to the U.S. in 2005. But her work has been repeatedly stifled due to limitations in her ability—and possibly in her confidence—to communicate her ideas. 

Since then, employment has been sporadic. She landed some freelance magazine work and a stint as a researcher with the startup cable TV golf channel Back9Network in Hartford—a job she left, she says, because the office environment and her responsibilities were too disorganized for her. She also did occasional work as a researcher for Feherty on Golf Channel, drafting background bios on the likes of Patrick Reed, Mark O’Meara and Phil Mickelson.

Bobby Jones. All swing photos by PGA of America via Getty Images

It’s difficult to quantify how much of the last decade Mazzucco has spent in the library stacks and at the computer terminal at Hartford Seminary, a theological institute and graduate school. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the library was temporarily shuttered, and she spent even more time in her apartment near downtown Hartford, working remotely. She occupies a modest second-floor walkup, an arrangement made possible with assistance from the local Catholic diocese.

We met around 2012, when I responded to her Facebook post about an interest in golf history. When it became clear through messages and emails that she was serious about publishing her work, I offered to help. Thus began our occasional meetings, perhaps three or four times a year, most often in the Hartford Seminary library, where she seemed to have taken up a kind of permanent residence. We talked a little on the phone—a medium she dislikes because she feels it constricts her ability to express herself. Early on, she bluntly announced she was autistic, much as one might tell you how tall they are or how much they weigh.

I’d bring her books, sometimes duplicates from my own golf library or volumes on the swing or golf history that I thought she might be interested in. We’d talk about her work, her efforts to get published, her often-disheartening forays to get the attention of editorial gatekeepers. I supplied her with names, phone numbers, email addresses, strategies for reaching them and getting their attention without having the attempts disappear. “Call between noon and 1 p.m.,” I’d tell her. “Or late on a Tuesday afternoon.” 

I must admit my interest in her wasn’t completely altruistic; I have no doubt it was in part piqued by my father’s fate. He was an engineer, mechanically minded, all too often emotionally in turmoil and, eventually, subject to the standard regimen of 1960s psychiatric therapies including everything from hospitalization and electro-convulsive treatment to heavy doses of Thorazine, lithium and various mood stabilizers. Underlying all of that was a good man, but a distant parent, and it became my role to remind him to be my father, too. 

There was an amusing if frustrating part of him, which I later learned would have placed him on the spectrum for Asperger syndrome had the therapists bothered to be open-minded. He was more conversant with steam tables and metric charts than my report card or Little League games. By the time I reached junior high school, he had taught me how to use a slide rule and an oscilloscope and to make gunpowder in the basement. But when I would ask him about a problem I was having or his opinion on something, he would respond with a kind of empty look and a phrase that became a cliché between us: “What do you want me to tell you?” Eventually I stopped asking for advice and began exploring who and what he was. 

 It wasn’t an easy lesson, but I came to understand his view of the world was more embedded in mechanics and physics than in human feelings. I’m not sure my mother or my brothers really saw that side of him, but it gave me access to him on his terms and enabled me to construct a relationship that held up well enough for decades.

Photos by Leonard Kamsler/Popperfoto via Getty Images

How severe is Mazzucco’s autism? She’s never been clinically diagnosed. But even going to lunch with her is no simple task. Too often there’s so much ambient noise in a restaurant that she gets distracted and asks if we can find another, quieter place. The quality of the food matters less to her than feeling comfortable enough to communicate. Broadly, autism is defined as a cognitive spectrum disorder having to do with irregular or non-linear perception and articulation. Mazzucco has a simpler, more realistic explanation: “Autism determines everything.” Words seem to hang in mid-air for her, always slightly disconnected. “I cannot put things in sequence,” she says matter-of-factly. Normal back-and-forth conversation is a chore for her, though when she takes the time to fashion a thoughtful response, the words take on a much more extended, complete tone. She describes it with remarkable candor in The Windows of Saint Joseph:

My brain was barely bound. So I needed something central that compensated for my split mind—Stories. Sequences of pictures that appeal to the senses as well as the mind, devoid of emotions and imaginative resonance, were the more satisfactory means of explaining reality.

I’m not sure she’s ever made the connection, but the same capacity of cognitive survival that has enabled Mazzucco to create a place in the world informs her evolving theory of sensibility about golf. For her, words alone do not suffice to constitute the game. Mechanical instruction, how-to guides and technical advice on club position and body movement can’t build a truly complete player. As she writes in “A One-Man Show and His Quixotic Theory of Golf”:

Mind takes over from mechanical steering: The human brain cannot read and follow the directions at the same time. You cannot read the directions in a book or magazine, study the stance, grip, the swing, etc., and then transfer your attention to the club itself and hope to remember more than a part of what you have read.…This is one of the big problems with the theory of golf. The game cannot be learned from a linguistic articulation of words. That is why a lot of language about abstract concepts of swinging the club does not actually specify anything concrete to think in terms of. That’s why you cannot use a technical golf book to learn the swing.

Similar to her experience with editors, efforts to make contact with potential producers of golf documentaries have thus far not yielded the results Mazzucco has hoped for. “I need to find the right person who will notice that my research is important for the history of American golf,” she tells me. “Or the right person who will take my research and transform it into a saleable product that American golfers would love.”

Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images
Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images

Mazzucco also believes that the potential of her work remains underappreciated because of her lack of social skills. Absent visual cues on response and interaction, her difficulties over the phone make introductions into that world a challenge. Her English is solid, but it’s clear when talking with her that evocative or metaphoric language doesn’t elicit a response. A fellow writer’s advice to “keep bugging editors,” or that “success is in the details,” meets with a blank expression. Through our many conversations, I’ve come to adjust my tone to be as clear and as literal as possible.

She has all but concluded that it will be impossible for her to develop the project she has dreamed of since she moved to the U.S. What she has always wanted is to have conversations about sensibility or creativity with the likes of Peter Thomson, Jackie Burke Jr., John Jacobs, Gary Player, Bob Toski, Ben Crenshaw and Butch Harmon. 

 The obstacles are profound. “It is not possible to achieve this goal from outside, as the solitary entrepreneur that I am,” she says. “It has to be done from the inside of a recognized golf network or medium by a production team. My yearning is to join a production team that would complete and develop a different way to look at golf.”

And yet she presses on. While most found the forced isolation of the pandemic to be a major inconvenience, if not a complete disruption, Mazzucco reveled in a kind of leveling of the playing field. “Social distance is a dream come true,” she says. It plays right into her basic mode of being, which is to keep mostly to herself. “When it became clear that we needed to stay isolated, I actually went down to the local park and felt like dancing. I was totally free. It made me feel like Julie Andrews in the opening scenes of [The] Sound of Music.”

Like most everyone else, Mazzucco became reliant upon her computer and the delivery by surface mail of books and magazines. She used the time well, completing seven short biographies of golf greats: 5,000 words each on Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Tiger Woods. Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Severiano Ballesteros and Babe Zaharias remain on her list, along with parallel profiles of each of the four professional majors. The plan is to publish these separately as children’s books, appropriately illustrated—introductory stories to interest youngsters in the game. She has already arranged sales of several hundred copies of each volume. The trick now is to interest a larger publisher or golf association. 

To meet expenses, she’s taken a job in a local printing shop, where she photocopies, faxes and prepares materials for printing. She also steadfastly keeps up with her religious commitment. When her church canceled Easter services in April last year due to the pandemic, it led her into what she calls “a deep and total trauma.” Relief came when she found another local church that had resumed services. Then, another challenge: Her pastor, Thomas Gallagher, relocated from Hartford to New York City. Every two weeks or so, she now boards an Amtrak to make a two- or three-day visit to midtown Manhattan to celebrate mass with him at Church of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street.

“He is my pastor,” she wrote to me in an email before a trip there late last year. “He changed my life. He gave me a home. I learned to depend on him and look to him for protection. He taught me to embrace change. He is a gift that God gave to me twice: When he moved to Hartford where he was pastor at St. Patrick–St. Anthony Church for 12 years, and now as the new pastor of St. Francis.”

portrait by Yehyun Kim

Back in Hartford, Mazzucco volunteers a few hours a week at Grace Lutheran Church, which provides daytime refuge for the area’s needy. She sorts through the clothing donations to “Jane’s Closet” to make sure the goods are well kept and on good display. It’s where she finds some of her own attire. 

She also continues to hone her theory on the sensibility of golf’s greats and to explore ways to share it with others. It would be nice if she finds a public response, but the internal breakthrough has already come.

Maybe one day she’ll even take up the game for herself. During the photo shoot for this story, we went to our local municipal course, Wintonbury Hills GC; on her way to the practice green, she stopped at the pro shop. She barely glanced at the racks of flashy colored, moisture-wicking shirts and the sun-protective outerwear. From across the room her eyes fixated on an object suspended from the ceiling that I had never noticed in my decade-plus coming to the course. It was an old, tattered canvas bag holding niblicks, mashies and woods with hickory shafts.

Outside, by the green, Mazzucco fingered through a bag of modern clubs that the pro let her borrow. She pulled out a 7-iron, instinctively gripped it and showed off her hands to the photographer. “Interlocking grip, you see. I’ll show you an overlapping one too.” Then she held out the club, made a few perfunctory swings in the air with no golf ball around and confidently proclaimed, “This wouldn’t be hard. I could become a golfer too.”