Interviews are, by necessity, artificial encounters among individuals. After all, where else do you get 15 minutes (or less) to fire questions at a subject in the hope they’ll offer some insight into anything. People often ask if I “know someone,” after i interview a subject, or whether I “liked someone” after I spend 10 minutes on the phone talking to a sports celeb or businessman. Usually I get asked these questions about the more famous people I’ve interviewed — Bill Gates and Brian Mulroney in the world of politics, or Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh in the golf world (these are just examples off the top of my head).
I tell my interrogators that you never know someone after speaking to them for 15 minutes, and rarely do I even get a sense of whether I’d like to have lunch with these people. Interviews are artificial constructs and you rarely get more than a superficial take on your subject. That’s the truth. And the subjects know they are being interviewed and act accordingly, often media trained to answer most questions in the most innucuous fashion possible. That’s why most sports features — where the journalist tosses out a bunch of questions at a half-naked athelete in front of a locker or a golfer coming off the 18th — are facile and predictable.
Which is why I find interviewing Stephen Ames so refreshing. Now part of this comes from the fact I’ve interviewed Ames dozens of times over the past eight or so years. We’ve debated whether his swing coach is “a wanker,” talked about whether he would really skip The Masters after he won the Players Championship, and discussed why he used to dislike match play so much. From Ames you get answers that are heartfelt and that often run contrary to the responses you’d get from the herd of other pro golfers. You may think some of the things that come out of the Calgarian’s mouth sound a bit off, but he’s anything but predictable.
All of this is a way of setting up an interview I conducted with Ames on Thursday. The interview was scheduled for Wednesday, but Ames had some housing issues (he’s building a new house that was supposed to be complete months ago. He claims to be living under the near-finished house now.) Twenty-four hours late, Ames calls and I pick up just an instant before it clicks to voicemail.
“I was going to leave you a nasty message,” Ames says.
If this had come from Ames five years ago, I might not have realized he was joking. He often delivers quick one-liners with a straight face or a slight smirk. Hard to pick that up over a phone call — so I quickly let him know he was supposed to call a day earlier. He laughs, tells me he’s between practice sessions and has time to talk.
“Aren’t you at Wacchovia (now Quail Hollow?” I ask.
“Oh, God, no,” he replies, like you might catch an infectious disease from playing in the Carolinas.
“But doesn’t everyone love the course?” I respond.
“Yeah, I guess they do,” he says. “But it doesn’t do anything for me.”
With that we’re off — tallking about Ames’ year (“Not bad at all”), his current mindset (“My head is not where I need it to be”) and a wide variety of other topics, including a rule that would force golfers to tee it up at a tournament once every fourth year.
“The only one you need to play one in four times is Tiger,” he says, before I add a comment about Mickelson. “It would be a Tiger rule.”
The great thing about interviewing Ames is that you can push him on his responses, especially if they seem trite or tossed off. He can come across as glib, often when he doesn’t mean to, which gets him in trouble with those who don’t know him. That happened after his Players win when he told the media he might skip The Masters to go on vacation. Of course what he didn’t feel the need to explain was that his wife had just recovered from a battle with cancer and the vacation had been planned for a while. Lacking the context, the media seemed baffled by him — who would skip The Masters?
Or there was the time the Toronto Star got Ames to complain that Angus Glen’s North Course, then hosting the Canadian Open, was too wet. Star columnist Dave Feschuk used that to jump all over Ames, saying he was shooting off his mouth only days after the course’s superintendent had died suddenly. It was unfair and out of context. What Ames had said was exactly true, the course had been sopping wet, something confirmed by a half dozen players including Mike Weir. But The Star thought he was a loose canon and used the opportunity to jump all over him.
Ames’ reputation as a loud mouth means some (re: Toronto Star) try to goad him into saying things the media might consider controversial. That’s something I find fascinating. My peers often complain that golfers like Weir don’t stick their necks out on any topic and are simply not very interesting. But when Ames does speak his mind they jump all over him for being controversial. I’m not sure you can have it both ways.
As for Ames, I’ve come to enjoy speaking with him every few months. Sure you have to push him on some of his answers, but he’ll engage in a conversation. And if you get him on a topic that he feels strongly about, he’ll provide you with a perspective that is often outside the norm.
Controversial? Sure he is on occasion. Refreshing? That’s my take.
My interview with Ames will be part of this week’s column for MSN Sympatico.