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Bill Reynolds: Star of this golf threesome is a Hacker

From the Providence Journal | Friday, April 22, 2005

The caddy sells drugs. The hotshot young golfer has just been found dead on the 14th hole. The groupie is acting weird.

The chaplain is acting weirder.

The setting is a PGA Tour event in South Carolina.

Everywhere you look, there are suspects all but crawling out of sand traps.

And the detective is a former golfer named Hacker.

Can you make this up?

James Y. Bartlett did.

It's called Death Is A Two-Stroke Penalty, and it's the first of three golf mystery novels that Bartlett has just released, three very readable little novels that are a peek inside the world of professional golf. They all feature Pete Hacker, who once walked away from golf because he couldn't find the joy anymore, but became a golf writer for a newspaper called the Boston Journal.

And the premise is the U.S. Golf Association forced Hacker to retire because it knew that one day he would win big, and it couldn't have a headline that says, "Hacker Wins Open."

More than simply mysteries, though, the books also are a celebration of golf. About the game's traditions. About its code of behavior.

"There's not a whole lot right with the world these days," Hacker says. "Our cities are full of drugs and death and despair. More than half the world lives in abject poverty . . . Life is basically chaos everywhere you look. But golf is still a world of order. It's based on a system of honesty and values."

And you thought it was simply trying to fudge on your handicap.

So who is James Y. Bartlett and what is he doing in Tiverton?

Welcome to the vagaries of being a golf writer in America.

He is 53 now, and has been a writer for roughly 30 years, a succession of jobs that began in 1973, when he left Boston University with a degree in journalism and began working for a weekly paper in Atlanta. Reporting. Editing. Laying out the pages. All of it. Journalism 101.

"About the only thing I didn't do is cover high school football," he said.

About a decade later, he started writing about golf, a game he had played as a kid growing up near Lowell, Mass. He did a newsletter for a while. Then he became a golf columnist for one of the Forbes magazines, one of those dream writing jobs where he could write about anything he wanted. He caddied for Nicklaus. He played with Palmer. He went everywhere. He did this for 13 years.

By the late '80s he wanted to write a novel. And the first rule of novel writing? Write about what you know.

"What I know is the world of golf," Bartlett says. "But the name came to me first. I carried Hacker around in my head for years before I ever wrote anything."

The writing took about a year, and was published in 1991 by St. Martin's in New York. A couple of years later, he did another one, called Death From The Ladies' Tee. They sold reasonably well for first novels, but St. Martin's passed on the third, and that was that. Publishing can be just as tough a business as trying to make the cut on the PGA Tour. For all the John Grishams and Dan Browns who hit it huge, the real story of book publishing is too many books that get buried forever in the stacks, too many that never have a chance.

But Bartlett is nothing if not resilient. He went back to freelancing, which is not for the faint of heart. He also wrote a non-fiction book called Golf Gurus.

Then, in the summer of 2001 he and his wife Susan decided to live in New England, eventually finding a house in Tiverton that looks out over the water.

"It's a state full of weird people," he says with a laugh. "We fit right in."

Recently, he started his own publishing company. He calls it Yeoman House, it has its own Web site, and he's now in the book-selling business. He has re-released the first two Hacker novels and come out with a third. It's titled Death At The Member-Guest, set at a New England country club based on the one he grew up on.

The plan is to do more Hacker novels, more specifically ones centered around the four majors. The plan is to try to do for golf what Dick Francis did for horse racing.

So get ready for Death In A Green Jacket.

"The only thing I know how to do is write," Bartlett says, "and I'm going to keep doing it until I either get it right or someone hits me on the head and tells me to stop."

Fans of both mystery novels and golf should hope he doesn't.