Will Bardwell lives Mississippi. It would be easy to drop an “in” before “Mississippi,” but that would water down the point. Those four words define who he is, how he lives, and what he values. Bardwell is an attorney that specializes in civil rights litigation. If you know an attorney, especially a litigator, you recognize an inexhaustible passion for language. During the stress of a trial, it’s critical to cast off all the words that might convey a point, in favor of the one word that does convey the point. Bardwell takes his linguistic talents to his golf site, Lying Four, where he writes about golf in Mississippi, golf people in Mississippi, and the occasional sojourn beyond the state lines. It’s our pleasure to start 2021 with a quick nine interview with Will Bardwell. After you read his words, visit his site, where you shall find original thoughts and stories about golf in the Deep South, written by a fifteen handicap; in other words, one of us.
1. Introduce yourself and discuss how you got into golf as a yute (I hope you get the reference.)
Actually, I didn’t really get into golf until I’d grown up. My stepfather was a golfer, and I remember going to a scrubby little par-3 course with him one time and really enjoying it — but that was pretty much the extent of the golf I played as a kid. I got a little deeper into it when I started college, but it was still just owning a cheap set of clubs and swinging at balls on the driving range every now and then. It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I got more serious about it. I got fitted, started taking lessons, started practicing, and all that. I’m still not very good — I break 90 about as often as often as I don’t. But I’m minimally competent now, and that’s really all you’ve really gotta be to have fun with it.
2. You don’t give much away in the “About” section of LyingFour.Com. “Civil Rights Attorney by day” leads us toward your enthusiasm for language, which comes through immediately, no matter on which article we break the seal. How do your “by day” and “by night” endeavors collaborate to fulfill your destiny?
God, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about it quite that explicitly. But it has always bothered me that there’s a gap in our country between its promises and its realities. And the reason I went to law school was that I wanted to be part of bridging that gap — trying to help make our country a fairer, more just place for everyone. And I think about golf writing the same way: the stories I’m most interested in are the ones that shine a light on the gap between golf’s image of itself and its reality. Golf is a great game, but the reality is that it’s still wildly inaccessible for a lot of people. And there’s no way that’s gonna change until golf is honest with itself about those problems. When I’m working on the stories that I think are most important, my hope is that I’m holding a mirror up to golf to show people a part of the game that they haven’t seen or thought about before.
3. You’ve succeeded in distilling the trajectory of your site to four meaningful categories: Stories, Places, Conversations, Wanderlust. Do us a solid and break down the purpose behind each heading.
Well, originally it was just three categories: Stories, Places, and Conversations. The Conversations category was for Q&As with people that I thought were interesting and wanted to talk to; the Places category was for under-the-radar golf courses that I wanted to tell people about; and the Stories category was for more long-form, feature-type stuff. And eventually I added a Wanderlust category that’s basically just the Places articles but about less affordable options. I don’t do a ton fo traveling, but I wanted to have a reason to write about those courses too. I mean, Pinehurst No. 2 is never going to be considered an affordable option, but it’s one of the best golf courses in the world, and I wanted to have an excuse to write about it — so I created an excuse.
4. You’re not shy (nor editorial) about letting salty language enter the conversation you have with your subjects. Does that put them at ease, and free them up to speak in their authentic voice?
I try not to overdo it, but it’s just how people talk. I mean, when Rob Collins is describing the Road Hole at the Old Course and says “you hit over a fucking hotel” — then, as a writer, don’t you lose something by cutting that out of your story? Profanity is kind of like salt, right? Too much is gross and unbearable, but a little bit can go a long way. My first job out of college was writing sports for a tiny daily newspaper in east Mississippi, and one of my editor’s rules was that everybody had 10 exclamation points to use per year. You could use them any way you wanted: in a quote, in a column, in a headline, whatever. But you couldn’t do it more than 10 times per year. And his reasoning was that it only grabs people’s attention if it’s rare. And I try to use the same approach toward profanity in my writing. If you overdo it, then it loses its potency; but if you’re not gratuitous about it, then it can be a valuable writing device.
5. Final question on language, then we’ll get back to golf. It would be too easy to suggest Faulkner as a literary spirit guide, given the Mississippi connection, so we shan’t. Instead, who have been your linguistic mentors, living or dead, and what do you find compelling or necessary about them?
God, it’s hard to answer a question like this without coming off like a jackass. But I’ll try. Honestly, when I think of great writers that I’ve tried to emulate, the first person who comes to mind is Curtis Wilkie. Curtis was a national political reporter for the Boston Globe for 25 years, and then moved back home to Mississippi to teach journalism at Ole Miss. His first semester teaching was my junior year, and it was the best class I took in college. He has an economy to his writing where he’s not using any more words than he has to, but he still manages to be really descriptive. He wrote a memoir called “Dixie” that is just incredible, and he wrote another one about 10 years ago about a judicial corruption case in Mississippi called “The Fall of the House of Zeus.” They’re both unbelievable. I also love Cormac McCarthy, although 2020 has been a little too dark already to heap any of his work on top of it.
6. What inscrutable elements of a golf course should be obvious to every golfer?
Well the most important element of a golf course’s design is also the easiest to understand: are you having fun? If you’re having fun, then it’s probably a great golf course. If you’re not having fun, then chances are it’s not a good course. I remember walking about Mossy Oak in northeast Mississippi with a buddy of mine who was playing it for the first time, and I kept wanting to ask him what he thought of the course, but he wasn’t playing very well so I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to sneak in the question. And finally, unprompted, he said, “You know, I’m not playing worth crap, but this course is so much fun.” The more golf courses you can find that are fun, the more you can start to put your finger on what design elements you find fun: maybe you like centerline bunkers or maybe you hate them, or maybe you like crazy greens or maybe you hate them. But to me, the thing I enjoy most about visiting objectively great golf courses is that you can think afterward about what exactly you liked, and then take that back home and look for lower-profile places that have some of the same features.
7. What siren song brings you to play a golf course?
It’s funny you ask that, because I think I only figured that out this year. It occurred to me that golf is a form of meditation. It allows you to block everything else out and focus singularly on the task in front of you, whether it’s hitting the left side of the fairway or getting a putt started with the right speed or whatever the task of the moment is. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to value those opportunities to get away for a few hours and just clear out my head. And you can get that out of a round of golf no matter how good or bad you are.
8. If you were going to make an impact on Brazen Head, a course that calls to you, what features would you insist be clear and present?
Accessibility, more than anything else. When you talk about communities that traditionally haven’t had access to golf — people of color, folks from low-income backgrounds — Jackson is home to a lot of those folks. They deserve a great, affordable public golf option, and right now, Jackson really doesn’t have that. Hopefully, Brazen Head will be the sort of place that brings together a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds and gives them a chance to get together when they otherwise wouldn’t.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that we damn well should have? Please ask it (don’t hold back) and answer it, and thank you for your time.
Do you want to hear my Pinehurst take?
OK, here’s my Pinehurst take. I think Pinehurst is unbelievable. I’m crazy about the whole area, especially the resort. But the resort’s portfolio of courses is way too top-heavy. No. 2 is one of the best courses in the world, obviously. And No. 4 is really, really good — not on No. 2’s level, but a worthy companion. After that, though, you face a pretty steep drop-off. A lot of people like No. 8, and if you like Fazio, you’ll enjoy it — but to me, it’s just OK. And I know No. 3 has gotten some good attention since its facelift a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t crazy about it. No. 7 is average. Basically, you’ve got No. 2 and No. 4 — and after that, you’re sort of wasting your time, because a round spent on one of the other courses is a round that you could be spending on a vastly superior golf course. On top of that, Pinehurst has a bit of an identify crisis: it bills itself as a traditionalist throwback, but the resort’s best elements — the No. 2 restoration, the No. 4 reboot, the Cradle — all of that has happened in the past 10 years. So ironically, you’ve got this place that bills itself as your grandfather’s home away from home, but its best offerings have all come when the resort has leaned into innovation. And I wish they’d do more of that. I’m sure there’s a reluctance to getting too far away from the traditionalist vibe, but I think there’s room to do both. For example, you could blow up No. 5 and No. 6 and do some really cool, cutting-edge stuff over there, and there’d still be more than enough offerings for folks who enjoy the more Twentieth Century, country clubbish kind of thing.