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That Evening in Aspen

Hunter S. Thompson introduced Terry McDonell to golf with LSD, liquor and live rounds.
Hunter Thompson

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An excerpt from The Accidental Life, by former Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell:

George Plimpton and I decided to visit Hunter after he sent me a photograph of himself sinking a thirty-foot putt at the Aspen Golf Club. He signed it to me with “Res Ipsa Loquitur” across the image, and there was a message on the back: Come out and play golf with me sometime—bring George—and money; I will beat both of you like mules.

Hunter’s Owl Farm had seen numerous visitations far more exalted than ours. Jimmy Carter and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, had passed through, sometimes shooting clay pigeons and improvised targets in the meadow next to the house. After all, Owl Farm was designated a “Rod and Gun Club” on Hunter’s stationery. Bill Murray had come close to moving in when he was preparing to play Hunter in Where the Buffalo Roam, and Johnny Depp actually did before he filmed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter liked to play host—even picking you up at the airport in the ’71 Chevrolet Impala convertible he called the “Red Shark.” When John Belushi died and there were rumors he had been visiting Hunter, the wires quoted him saying John was “welcome at Owl Farm dead or alive.”

Friends of friends can’t bring friends was taped to the refrigerator; but they did. Hunter complained but when you saw him playing his games with new guests you knew he loved it. They would tell him how much they were influenced by this or that in his work and he would ask them to read a little of it aloud. Just a paragraph to start but it would become a page and then a chapter. “Slower,” Hunter would say, “slower.” Some people wondered if they’d ever get out of there.

I had visited Owl Farm before and told George there would be distractions, but we arrived hopeful about our connected missions. My plan was to get Hunter to write a piece for the premier [sic] issue of Smart. George was there to interview him for what he planned to be the first interview for “The Art of Journalism” series for the Paris Review. Hunter said first we had to play golf.

We played that first evening, in the dying light, at the municipal Aspen Golf Club, which was closed. Hunter just waved to a guy in the pro shop, who brought us a bucket of balls. Hunter had a 12-gauge shotgun in his golf bag and we had Heinekens in a cooler on the cart—also a fifth of Chivas, a fifth of Jose Cuervo, limes, a fifth of Dewar’s (for George) and an extra cooler of ice.

“Here,” Hunter said, holding out three white tabs of blotter paper with an unfamiliar red symbol on them. “Eat these.”

He put one on his tongue and stuck it out at us. I took my tab and did the same back at him. When George said he wanted to concentrate on his golf, Hunter licked the third tab. “Ho ho…last of the batch!”

Following Hunter’s lead, we used the first tee as a driving range to warm up. His swing was explosive if not smooth and his third drive was solid and long. George had a fluid swing and drove each of his balls successively farther. I had never played but wasn’t pathetic. Hunter accused me of sandbagging. After we had each hit five balls, Hunter said it was time to get serious and we rode the cart to his favorite hole, the fourteenth—a short par 3, straight shot over a large pond. The Aspen course is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary and the pond was full of geese.

“Goddamn geese,” said Hunter.

“Branta canadensis,” said George.

“You’d like George’s bat trick,” I said to Hunter.

“No fucking bats!” Hunter said.

“Alas,” George said, and made himself a Dewar’s and water.

Hunter always said (and wrote in Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga) that his acid-eating experience was limited in terms of total consumption, but widely varied as to company and circumstances, and that he liked the electric atmosphere it put him in, especially when taking it with the Angels.

Hunter S Thompson. Photo: Courtesy of Terry McDonell
When Hunter Thompson sends a photo of himself sinking a 30-foot putt, it’s not always clear whether it’s an invitation or a provocation. The Latin inscription reads, “The thing speaks for itself.” Photo: Courtesy of Terry McDonell

“They just swallowed the stuff and hung on…which is probably just as dangerous as the experts say, but a far, far nuttier trip than sitting in some sterile chamber with a condescending guide and a handful of nervous, would-be hipsters.”

We, on the other hand, were playing golf. And gambling. Each of us would hit five balls in a row off the tee and then proceed to the green to putt. Only our best ball would count. We were all in for $1,000, Hunter said.

George put all five of his balls on the green, three close enough for makeable birdies. Hunter put three in the water and two on. I managed one on the green but didn’t care. I didn’t know golf but I knew a little about acid. My college roommate for a year was Steve Lambrecht—Zonker of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the suave stoner portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as getting “higher than any man alive.” Zonker talked me into going to class on acid, which turned out fine. Tom had also written that LSD made the Hell’s Angels strangely peaceful and sometimes catatonic, in contrast to the Pranksters and other intellectuals around, who soared on the stuff. I was now peacefully soaring.

When we got to the green, George put two of his balls in for birdies. Hunter had one ball left to tie, if he could sink a thirty-foot putt like the one he was celebrating in the photo he had sent. He walked back and forth between his ball and the hole several times. I was on the other side of the cup, holding the flag. It was dark now, as dark as it gets in Aspen on summer nights, and although the sky still had a glow, I could barely see his ball. George was by the cart, making another Dewar’s and water. The ice tinkled in his glass.

“Silence!” Hunter shouted. “I know your tricks.”

Hunter took at least another two minutes lining up his putt, then struck it quickly. He missed the putt by about a foot and, charging after it, let out a howl as he winged his putter into the pond. The geese started honking and Hunter ran back to the cart, pulled the 12-gauge from his golf bag and fired over the geese, and they lifted off the pond like a sparkling cloud of gray and white feathers. It occurred to me as I watched the glitter blend into the fading sky that having a story to tell about acid golf with Hunter and George was probably good for my career.

Hunter looked at me and said, “You’re higher than I am, goddamn it.” I started laughing. Hunter seldom laughed, but he did then.

“Maybe I should have, well, ‘eaten’ some myself,” George said.

On the way back to Owl Farm in the Red Shark, George told us that playing ahead of Arnold Palmer in the San Francisco pro-am had been like being chased by a migration. Of geese? I wondered. George also said that when he’d played in the Bob Hope Classic at Indian Wells, his ball had almost hit Hope and the popular comedian Phyllis Diller in their cart at the fourteenth. He remembered that both comics had been wearing “sullen frowns.”

“Fuck Bob Hope,” Hunter said.

Terry McDonell in Beirut, September 1970. 

A Quick 9 with Terry McDonell

Interview by Brendon Thomas

As the man at the helm of sport’s biggest mouthpiece during the Tiger Era, Terry McDonell had the most revered names in journalism on speed dial. He also had the inside track on golf’s boom years.

1. Was your round with Hunter the start of your golfing life? Or the end of it? 

Hunter loved golf and George [Plimpton] was an accomplished golfer, but it was pretty much my first time golfing. I liked it and I played golf after that. When I got to Sports Illustrated, I played a lot more, but with a different frame of mind.

2. What were some of the highlights? 

Because of my job at SI, I went to many of the tournaments, The Masters being my favorite. I went several years in a row and just loved that. I also edited some of the best golf writers ever, especially Rick Reilly. There were many: Alan Shipnuck, Michael Bamberger—the list goes on. 

3. Being that your first round involved LSD and shotguns, did that in any way shape your view on what golf is, or what it could be? 

[Laughs.] No, no. It confirmed my view of Hunter. It was just wonderful to see how good George was. He loved to play and was really good. That shaped my view on golf.

4. The drug-taking and firing of shotguns aside, it seems that golf is relaxing its standards, getting closer to the more casual approach you experienced on your debut outing. In your time at SI, did you see a similar change in the attitude toward golf? 

Well, the Aspen Club, the public golf course there, is at the heart of all that. They had wonderful players. Jimmy Buffett used to have a tournament there. They had their own very loose brand of golf, but they were good players. I think television helped, but more than that, the more diverse golf becomes, the more popular it will be. It helped a lot that we had players of color rise up in the game and all kinds of changes in the decades since that evening in Aspen. 

5. Has writing and editing golf deepened your appreciation of it? 

There is such a great literature around golf. Reading about it and editing golf writing made me appreciate the game and made me really appreciate my time on the courses I got to play. I had no hope of becoming a distinguished player in any way, but it was satisfying, and knowing so much about the game made it even more so. 

6. What, in your opinion, is the finest piece of golf writing? 

Almost anything that Rick Reilly writes about is wonderful. He can break your heart but at the same time be very, very funny. In his book Who’s Your Caddy? he plays with numerous celebrities. He says Trump cheated at golf and, the only other person who he remembered cheating was Bill Clinton. 

Alan Shipnuck’s book about The Masters is a classic of real reporting. It’s about golf but also about social changes that had to come to the game, including the importance of knocking down some of the elitism that was always associated with it. Then Shipnuck and Bamberger wrote that parody about a golfer, not unlike Tiger Woods, which is hilarious. My favorite, though, would be George Plimpton and the pieces in The Bogey Man. 

7. Sports writing has changed in the internet age; how do you think that’s affected golf coverage? 

I think the big difference is access to the players. Twenty or 30 years ago, the players and the people who covered them knew each other well and were friends. More and more, because of the management styles of big-time sports, how much money is involved, the way that agents have worked to manipulate the images of their clients, [that has] all made it more and more difficult for reporters to see inside the game and inside the lives of the players that they covered. 

8. Do you think that lack of access could mean we’re unlikely to ever see megastars like Arnie and Tiger again? 

I don’t think so. I think everybody wants those kinds of heroes and they also want their heroes to come back. They want redemption. It’s hard to watch someone get older and their game diminish because it reminds us of what is happening to us. So we want our heroes to be younger and we’re always looking for a new one, but we also love it when someone who we have seen go to the top and then have a fall get back up and be triumphant again. There’s nothing like that. That’s the secret of sports, really. It’s the way we tell each other what our values are and what we care about.  

9. I assume you’re referencing Tiger. Do you think he can be triumphant again?

I always have. I was on “Charlie Rose” a couple years ago and that was exactly the same question that he asked, and it’s becoming less likely, but I still root for him.