Jim Apfelbaum's nearly 20-year career in golf started with a hickory putter.
In his early 20s, on a nostalgic visit to the farm where he grew up in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, Apfelbaum stumbled across the golf club, left by a family that had lived there before. He wasn't a golfer; his only experience with the sport was hitting balls over the barn as a boy.
But that glimpse into the game's centuries-old history sparked a sudden, inexplicable curiosity that hasn't waned in the two decades since.
"I'm not sure I can explain it," the 47-year-old said by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. "The history of the game fascinated me, and it still does."
Apfelbaum has made a career of that history, turning himself into a cross-media observer and commentator on golf.
His byline has appeared in Golfweek, Golf Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. His sixth book, Golf Unplugged, a series of historical and humorous essays on the game that includes a frame-by-frame analysis of how Tiger Woods removes a ball from the cup, will be published next year.
Asked to describe the career he's shaped for himself, Apfelbaum replied, "I'm a freelance bottom-feeder."
Maybe so, but he's become a respected Texas golf institution, twice winning the Southern Texas PGA Media/Public Relations Award.
Despite the recognition, Apfelbaum, like many golfers, is still humbled by the game.
"If it can befuddle Tiger Woods, what does that mean for the rest of us?" he said. "I think it's a fascinating pastime. I don't wish it on anyone, but for those of use who are smitten with it, it's a wonderful vice."
A six-handicap, Apfelbaum plays weekly. The highlight of his playing career came off the course, when he sank a miniature-golf hole-in-one to win a bet with his fiancée on setting their wedding date.
"It was the best pressure shot I've ever made," he said.
Apfelbaum and his wife, Sandi, married in 1988. In '89 they moved from Manhattan, where they'd lived for years, to Austin, where Apfelbaum could really begin indulging his golf jones.
"People don't think of Texas as a place to play golf, but it's an outstanding place to play and enjoy the game," he said, naming Jimmy Clay Golf Course and Barton Creek Resort & Spa as favorite local tracks.
Apfelbaum started taking lessons in the early '90s, around the time he began writing about the game. He'd had a long, on-again off-again association with the media, starting as a seventh-grade football prognosticator on an in-school radio station.
Years later, at the University of Vermont, he hosted a radio show called Broad Street, named after Philadelphia's main drag. After graduating with a degree in political science he got a job as a reporter with a New York newspaper.
"You don't get paid a lot, and you eat a lot of meals out of your car," he said. "But it's great training.
He tried a few other jobs, but Apfelbaum said he knew writing was his future. Golf gave him something to write about.
Golf Etiquette, his first book (co-authored with Barbara Puett), was published in 1992. Two years later AOL asked him to contribute content for its new site iGolf. Other gigs, including the KVET job, followed.
Golf has taken Apfelbaum all over the world, but making a career out of it hasn't been easy. It still isn't.
"For me, the hard part is finding assignments and getting work. The fun part is writing," he said. "I still struggle financially. It hasn't been a lucrative business, but it has been very satisfying."
Apfelbaum said he's always tried to focus on the less commercial side of the game. He's interested in history, etiquette and travel, not the players and the money.
"People have been playing this game for so long that we tend to focus on the present day," he said.
That's Golf focuses on the sport's history; fans include Austin native Ben Crenshaw, who has called in several times with compliments.
Golf Unplugged, Apfelbaum's soon-to-come book, also revisits the game's storied past. One of the essays reveals the sixth lesson omitted from Ben Hogan's popular book, Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.
Apfelbaum has made his living mining golf's past; the future is less his domain. As a writer, he said, every day is different. This is one of the thrills of the profession, but also one its drawbacks. The only thing he knows for sure is that he wants to continue indulging the passion sparked by that old-fashioned putter.
"To be honest, I don't know what's coming next," he said. "I hope I'm able to do this for a long time."
October 10, 2006