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Funny Because It’s True

Charles Lindsay’s hyperbolic images make light of golf’s nightmare situations

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In 2003, Charles Lindsay leapt from his bed in the guest room of his father’s Florida golf-course home. Shocked awake and inspired by a too-vivid dream, he immediately went to work. When Lindsay’s book Lost Balls was released in 2005, its pages of nightmare-golf scenarios—real and imagined—looked almost identical to his original vision.

“I dreamt the whole friggin’ thing to a bizarre level,” Lindsay recalls. “I woke up in the middle of the night, storyboarded it with the title, then went out and shot like a dummy and got publishers interested in bidding on it.”

A whimsical golf photo book may seem like an outlier for someone educated as an exploration geologist and now serving as a program director at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. Lindsay, who labels himself a “conceptual-artist adventurer,” won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010 for a groundbreaking hybrid-imaging process that synthesizes photography and drawing. 

But Lindsay insists the core of Lost Balls is an extension of these pursuits.

“I was interested in golf as a game in nature,” he says. “We’ve evolved from spearing and shooting animals with bows and arrows to a place where it’s a game where you don’t actually get any meat from it, depending on how you break it down.”

Humans in nature: This ever-present theme led Lindsay to Tokyo in his early 20s to work as a photojournalist, to remote parts of Indonesia to embed with a native tribe and, eventually, to golf courses scattered around the world. 

Born in San Francisco, California, Lindsay grew up in Canada and hustled his way to a 6-handicap while working at Toronto-area golf courses as a teen. He soon gave up the game to travel the world in pursuit of his passions. It took coming home to find golf again. 

Photo by: Charles Lindsay
Leo With His Ball up on the Pool Screen at My Dad’s House, Monarch Country Club, Palm City, Florida

“I was visiting my dad, basically living in a gated golf community in Florida while he was about to die,” he says. “I hadn’t been close with my father after my parents divorced. But then, around 40, we started making up a bit, and I’d come around Florida and we’d play together. I got interested again.

“There were terrific wetlands around the course, because it’s Florida. So I went looking for turtles and snakes and shit, and there were just so many golf balls 15 feet into the marsh because all of the seniors were terrified of cottonmouths or a fucking alligator—who knows? It just seemed bizarre. It was this future layer of stratigraphy of golf balls because it was unigenerational; there were no kids collecting and selling them.”

Down the hall from his ailing father, Lindsay drafted the plans that would consume his next 18 months. From Montana to Carne to Askernish, with plenty of stops in between, Lindsay recreated the hellacious lies of his dreams one by one. 

“We’re representing an idealized half-truth. Nobody’s representing the game in a way that seems very true to the experience.”

Charles Lindsay

The vision was clear; the commercial value of it required some digging. 

“I went looking to see what was out there in terms of coffee-table books on golf, to see what the competition was like,” he says. “Maybe that wheel had already been invented. What I found in those books [was that] the imagery was all from the point of view of down the middle of the fairway.…I was familiar with the woods, and just thought, ‘This is a fucking lie!’

“I thought, ‘Isn’t this weird how we represent these sports?’ We’re representing an idealized half-truth. Nobody’s representing the game in a way that seems very true to the experience.”

To hammer this notion home, Lindsay used his dry sense of humor to play with golfers’ wildest nightmares: a shitty lie in a cow pasture, a plugged priest.

No one would be blamed for questioning the authenticity of Lindsay’s scenes. Even for an early 2000s production, digitized images or a Photoshopped animal were not off the table.

As it turns out, every shot is indeed real. The trick wasn’t in an editing program; it was in coordinating with subjects both human and otherwise. 

Charles Lindsay
Father Kevin in the Tiny Bunker, No. 16, Carne Golf Links, County Mayo, Ireland

“The whole book was shot on medium-format film,” he explains. “The grizzly shot was one of the few that is a setup; that is a bear that was used in beer commercials. It was shot at the Yellowstone Club in Montana. One of the men on that green is Tim Blixseth; he was the billionaire who [co-founded the club]. 

“The guys were on the green and I was setting up. Troy, the animal trainer, said, ‘When you’re ready, I’ll give the bear the signal.’ So I got ready and gave him a nod. The bear did its fucking holler and those guys jumped out of their shoes.…I shot it with a motor drive on a film camera. We reshot probably six or seven times, but it was absolutely the first holler that gave me that picture. That is the real posture of fear.”

Lindsay’s vision resonated with golfers worldwide. He received an honorary lifetime membership at Carne upon the book’s release.

“For me, that place is golf,” he says. “With the winds blowing so hard, every so often your golf ball lands behind you? I friggin’ love that.”

To his knowledge, Lost Balls has sold more than 100,000 copies and has been reprinted at least 13 times since its 2005 release. 

Perhaps it was the handwritten foreword by John Updike that he received in the mail—coerced over a lunch date at Myopia Hunt Club—or the novelty of seeing ants commandeer a Titleist that triggered a stream of royalty checks still coming to this day. 

Or maybe it’s because bears don’t walk down the middle of fairways, and neither do we.