In the days before digital and drones, photographer Stephen Szurlej made it look easy
Words by Travis Hill
Photos and captions by Stephen Szurlej
Light / Dark
Stephen Szurlej is an expert on helicopters. He knows their specs, the size of their rotors and which doors to take off and hang from to get the shot. He’s spent a great deal of time in them, because before drones were invented that was the only way he got course aerials as the staff photographer for Golf Digest and Golf World.
“An R22 helicopter,” he explains, “is small, with a piston motor. It’s built for training and has no backseat. It isn’t really the safest or easiest helicopter to fly, but in deference to our budget, I used them. So I was about to do Pine Valley one morning in an R22, and we had just left the pad—maybe 3 feet off the ground. And suddenly the engine went and we just plopped right down. After that I said I’d only work in 44s.”
As you might expect, this is but one of many helicopter adventures for Szurlej, who worked for 30 years covering golf and tennis all over the world.
Like the time in 1999 when he had to make an emergency landing in a barley field outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, as he raced to get film of Jean van de Velde’s epic collapse at Carnoustie back to the States.
“We had a helicopter chartered to take us from Carnoustie to Edinburgh, where we’d get the last commercial flight to London,” he says. “Then we’d have a lab open to process the film on Sunday night, and I would get on the 8 a.m. flight from Heathrow to JFK, where a courier would meet me to take the film back to the office. That’s how we did it back then.”
Turns out the weather didn’t cooperate and the helicopter pilot had to make an emergency landing—on his own property.
“Bill Fields, our writer, is with me and the pilot is weaving all over because of the poor visibility,” he says. “Well, Bill’s sweating and my armpits are getting warm too. The pilot suddenly says, ‘We’re gonna land in my back garden.’ Sure enough, he put down in a little field; his wife put on a pot of tea and they called a cab.”
They missed the last London flight, but, using a bit of his New Jersey ingenuity, Szurlej plunked down his AmEx and chartered a private plane to London to catch the one to New York.
“The funniest part? Digital finally broke through as a practical thing the next year,” he says with a laugh. “And everything changed.”
Szurlej, who is nearing 70 but still runs frequently, rides his motorcycle and occasionally surfs, is now enjoying the perks of being semi-retired. Most of his golf work now is course photography.
“I don’t want to feed the social-media beast,” he says. “I don’t want to blog, I don’t want to promote myself. So if good work comes, I take it. If it doesn’t, I go do other things. I’m going to Africa soon because I want to get the big animals.”
You would expect nothing less from a man who did whatever it took to get the big stories.