Experience Summertime In Aspen

Experience Summertime In Aspen

April 18, 2019

Known as much for its world-class culture and cuisine as its pristine, majestic surroundings, it’s easy to nurture mind, body and spirit in Aspen. The best- summer event is likely the Aspen Music Festival, which draws renowned classical musicians and top students for eight weeks of daily concerts, recitals, operas, master classes and other events.

Under the guidance of new music director Robert Spano, who previously oversaw the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the festival’s focus this year is “Made in America,” highlighting works by American composers and European immigrants. On Thursday nights, join Roaring Fork Valley locals who convene on Fanny Hill at the Snowmass ski area for free concerts programmed by Jazz Aspen Snowmass. The regional and national acts range from folk to funk. Pack a blanket and a picnic, and plan on buying a bottle of wine at the concert.

The Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival brings world leaders in politics, science, technology, the environment, health, education, and the arts to town for lively discussions and seminars on today’s current issues. Passes generally sell out in advance, but your Destination Concierge can likely snag an individual event ticket. And keep an eye out for familiar faces around town during the fest. You might spot Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton dining at an outdoor patio.

Aspen’s budding restaurant scene is continually evolving, with classics like Cache Cache, Matsuhisa, and Pinons joined by at least one newcomer each year. Among this year’s freshmen is Justice Snow’s in the Wheeler Opera House. The Colorado-inspired menu reflects the current trend for local ingredients. The extensive vintage cocktail list is part history lesson, part inspiration.

Finbarr’s Irish Pub has quickly become a local’s favorite since opening in late 2011, with updates on traditional pub fare like shepherd’s pie and fish and chips as well as specialties like curried prawns and potatoes. The Ajax Tavern at the base of the Aspen Mountain gondola has a well-earned rep as the see-and-be-seen place to lunch. A hip alternative is poolside dining at 39 Degrees at the Sky Hotel, one block away. Pair the tuna wonton tacos with a Corpse Reviver 39 and while away an hour or so on a warm, sunny afternoon.

This summer’s hottest table—and most intriguing new concept—will be at Chefs Club by Food & Wine magazine, the brand-new restaurant at the St. Regis Aspen slated to open during the annual FOOD & WINE Classic. The seasonally-inspired menu will be created by select recipients of the culinary magazine’s annual Best New Chefs awards.

The town’s casual dress code extends to all facets of the town, as locals bike to Music Festival concerts, sip a margarita on an outdoor patio after rock climbing near Independence Pass or grab an early dinner on the way home from a hike. Classic Aspen hikes such as the ones to American or Cathedral Lakes or to the base of the Maroon Bells are justifiably popular. A favorite locals’ workout is to hike up the lung-busting Ute Trail, which starts off Aspen’s Ute Avenue and switchbacks up 1,700 vertical feet in the first mile, then snakes across Gentlemen’s Ridge on Aspen Mountain before connecting with ski-area service roads. Acclimated hikers reach the summit in about an hour and a half, though there’s no shame in taking longer. Save your knees and ride the gondola down for free. (Dogs are allowed, too.) For a mellower workout, take the gondola up to join one of the thrice-weekly yoga hikes—downward dog at 11,212 feet, anyone?

After hiking, Aspen’s biggest summer sport may be road biking. A veritable peloton heads up daily to the Maroon Bells and the Ashcroft ghost town, two of the most popular rides. To really get in your mileage, hit the Rio Grande Trail, a 42-mile multi-use path from Aspen to Glenwood Springs; other than a few-mile packed dirt section near Woody Creek, it’s paved.

With stores like Gucci, Fendi, Burberry and Louis Vuitton—along with longtime favorites such as Distractions, Nuages, and Pitkin County Dry Goods—Aspen can cater to the most sophisticated fashionista. But there’s more than designer labels to hunt down among the many boutiques within the town’s historic core. Two Old Hippies combines a comprehensive selection of guitars with an eclectic mix of home décor and fun clothing and accessories for the whole family—even the dog. Many of them embody the store’s motto: peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. 

Aspen women in the know go to Harmony Scott to stock up on delicate handmade jewelry with colorful gemstones and pearls. Don’t miss Souchi, which offers gorgeous women’s knits in silk, cashmere, linen, cotton and bamboo. All are hand-loomed in Portland, Oregon, where designer Suzi Johnson lived until recently when she relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley. A few blocks away, Danemann-Pure is the only U.S. outpost featuring the fresh, modern looks of German women’s wear designer Petra Danemann. The Little Bird has a carefully curated selection of vintage women’s clothes and accessories from every A-list designer you can think of, plus some new items.

The Most Beautiful Gardens in Italy

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The Most Beautiful Gardens in Italy

April 8, 2019

The fjord-like beauty of the three great lakes of northern Italy—Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda—have inspired artists, writers and gardeners since they were born from glacial melt hundreds of centuries ago. The ancient Romans built holiday villas with magnificent gardens here, a tradition renewed by the northern Italian aristocracy during the Renaissance.

During the 18th century, the lakes’ renown spread across Victorian Europe. This explains the unique landscape architecture and gardening style here today, a juxtaposition between the Renaissance love of order and symmetry and the Romantic penchant for a carefully crafted “wildness.”

For travelers looking to experience the beauty, there are many luxury homes and resorts to choose from. The sweeping 20 acres of gardens at Villa Carlotta were designed in the Romantic style of the 18th century and are notable for their azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons and citrus treesstunning plants and flowers that come alive with colors and scents that please the senses. Villa Balbienello is lush with wisteria, laurel and rhododendrons, along with centuries old magnolia, cypress and plane trees.

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The most original of the great gardens at the Italian lakes is found on the tiny and aptly named Isola Bella (Beautiful Island) in Lago Maggiore. These gardens were first planted in the 17th century and today include exotic plants and trees as well as resident white peacocks and a Baroque amphitheater topped by a statue of a unicorn. Some might argue that this is the most beautiful gardens in the world, and it would be a hard argument to disagree with. Once you see for yourself, we think you’ll agree.

How Two Men Are Revitalizing a Legendary Fishing Rod Business

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How Two Men Are Revitalizing a Legendary Fishing Rod Business

March 4, 2019

When Joel Doub is fly-fishing one of his favorite rivers near a club property—like the Frying Pan River near Aspen, Colorado, or the Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana—he enjoys using a fine, handcrafted fly rod. The difference between Doub and other fanatical fly-fishers is that Doub not only owns his fly rod, he also owns the company that built it.  Doub and business partner Matt Barber bought Bozeman, Montana-based Tom Morgan Rodsmiths (TMR) in the summer of 2016, just a year before Morgan, a legendary rod-builder renowned in fly-fishing circles, died of pneumonia. Following the purchase, Barber and Doub both moved their families from Denver to Bozeman, and the two are now taking steps to modernize TMR while still honoring the history of Morgan and his unique rod-building methods.

“We talk a lot about Tom Morgan and his philosophy as a rod designer,” Doub says. “Many rods at other companies have been designed by competition casters, built for distance or for a particular feel. But Tom—because he was a fishing guide first—always designed rods based on watching people fish. And for him that meant fishing on creeks in Montana. So the foundation of our rods is based on small-creek fishing because they are based on accuracy and presentation at shorter distances. They’re not really built with a 70-foot cast in mind.” Barber tells the story of Morgan giving a casting presentation at a fly-fishing show, when the guy standing next to him pulled about 70 feet of line off of his reel before starting to cast. “Well, now we know the reel works,” Morgan said to the man. “Now, why don’t you put half of that line back on the reel. If you’re trying to catch a trout beyond 50 feet, you should get closer.”

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While TMR has been in business for more than two decades, Doub and Barber are keenly aware of momentum in the modern “maker economy”— where the popularity of quality, small-batch products like their fly rods mimics the more general distaste for mass-consumer culture. “Many people are just looking for that throwback craftsmanship as a response to all the fast-paced technology,” Barber says. “It’s the idea of slowing down and getting to know the person who hand-planes bamboo for your rod, or who makes your leather belt. It’s the opposite of walking into a big box store or ordering off Amazon and having it show up on your doorstep.”

Doub feels their fly rods also offer a sense of longevity that’s increasingly rare in our throwaway consumerist culture. “One of our models is essentially the same rod that Tom Morgan designed 22 years ago, and that rod has a permanence to it,” Doub says. “If you buy a fly rod, and you buy it really well, then that should always be your fly rod, and possibly your kid’s fly rod. The idea is that, if you buy from a maker that you know and trust, and they’re making a semi-timeless good, then there’s a connection to history and excellence that maybe you don’t get when you’re buying the cheapest, newest, fastest, lightest thing.”

Practically every fly rod on Earth is built from one of three materials—bamboo, fiberglass, or graphite, with graphite being by far the most common. But Doub and Barber have continued the Tom Morgan tradition of producing rods out of each of the three materials, something rare among even large manufacturers, much less small-batch builders. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of their rods are graphite because it’s the most versatile material. And since it takes about 80 hours to build a bamboo rod, they limit those to just two a month. As for fiberglass? “Fiberglass rods are a niche that’s developed as a response to hyper-stiff rods, and people are nostalgic for the first Fenwick they ever cast,” says Barber. “It’s a fairly small category for us. We sell more fiberglass blanks to at-home builders than we sell assembled fiberglass rods.”

Despite the variety of methods and equipment available to modern anglers, enabling them to chase almost any species of fish, Doub and Barber intend to keep their focus primarily on building the best fly rods for trout. “I grew up on the East Coast and love fishing for albacore and stripers,” Barber says. “And we love going to Mexico and fishing for bonefish and permit. But as a company, we’re not trying to be every rod you own. We both love spey casting and salmon fishing, but we’re trying to do one thing and do it really well: build a single-handed, 2-through-7-weight freshwater rod. We know that the travel market has gotten big, and that saltwater is growing, but for right now, we’d rather not expand into things that may compromise quality because we may have to learn a new skill set.”

There are other reasons for sticking to smaller rods. With much of TMR’s customer base living in cities like New York, Denver, or San Francisco, finding solitude for your fishing is at a premium. And that solitude is most-often found high in river drainages, where longer, heavier rods aren’t practical because the fish are smaller and the space for casting is condensed.

“Being in the Adirondacks as a kid, I fished a lot of creeks,” says Barber. “Then I moved to Colorado, where small water is the key to your sanity. So if you can convince yourself to fish with a 3- or 4-weight rod, and get into small alpine lakes and small spring-creeky areas, you’re better off than trying to battle the masses.”

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This unpleasantness of battling the masses applies not just to fishing but to running a company as well. “As business owners, we talk a lot about waypoints and focus,” Doub says. “When we look around the industry we see companies trying to be everything to everybody, and it can be hard to figure out what they’re about. But for us, we’re still working on building the perfect trout rod. We want to make the best rod in the world for fishing for trout in Montana.”

How Country Music Star Brett Young Likes to Vacation

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How Country Music Star Brett Young Likes to Vacation

February 27, 2019

Three years ago, Brett Young was just another anonymous singer/songwriter hoping to make it in the country music business in Nashville. Today he’s the owner of a platinum album, Brett Young, and the recently released Ticket to L.A. He’s also newly married to his long-time girlfriend, Taylor Mills. Days after returning from his honeymoon and before he kicked off his winter tour across the United States, Young took some time to share how his overnight success, 10 years in the making, was due to hard work and the generosity and resolute support of Inspirato members Rutherford and Rhonda Polhill.

You were born and raised in Huntington Beach, California, aka Surf City, U.S.A. How did you ever become a fan of country music?

It was because of my older sister. We’d battle for shotgun in the car, and when I’d win she’d kick the back of my seat to annoy me. To get her back, I’d turn on the country-music station in the car. She hated country back then. (Now, she loves it.)

Then I heard Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl,” and I was like “Whoa, what’s going on here?” And I started listening to the storytelling in the songs and soon enough I was getting into artists like BlackHawk and Shenandoah. Country music just made sense to me.

It went from there. I was a bit of an outlier among my friends who were all into Southern California punk.

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Where and how did you develop your love of writing and performing music?

My dad is a pastor, so I grew up going to church and playing guitar at church services, learning to play worship songs. When I got to high school, which was a church school, I was performing in front of the whole student body on Friday mornings, playing worship songs, so that’s how I grew into a performer.

But music wasn’t my thing. I was on track to play pro baseball.

I was a pitcher for Fresno State University in California, but an elbow surgery put an end to that. About that time, I heard Gavin DeGraw’s Chariot, and he doesn’t do country, but I still fell in love with the songwriting—to be honest and vulnerable like he was.

It showed me that there was a path out there to write the songs I wanted to write. So, I set out to do it.

How did that go?

I was making a living as a bartender and resident musician in restaurants and bars around Los Angeles, mostly playing covers. One of the gigs was in the lobby bar of the Montage Beverly Hills, playing every Wednesday night from 8 to midnight. After paying my backup band and buying dinner, I nearly always lost money playing there, but I kept at it because everyone who was anyone would come through that lobby eventually.

One night, Rutherford “Ruddy” Polhill, a guy from Atlanta who was in town for an eye-surgery consultation, sat down to listen and told me he believed I could make it in the music business. Then a month later, he brought out his wife and daughters to hear me play, and soon after that, they flew me to Atlanta to perform at their birthday party. That’s how much the whole family believed in me.

We worked out an arrangement where they staked me, and we were going to figure out how to hack the Nashville music scene and get a recording contract for me.

What’s the first step to hacking Nashville?

Well, we eventually figured out you really can’t hack the system. It works like it does for a reason. What we did figure out, though, was that success starts with songwriting. In June 2015, we set up a weeklong songwriting retreat at a huge beachfront Inspirato house, Casa de Colores, outside Puerto Vallarta, figuring it’d be easy to get great songwriters to come down to Mexico for a free beach vacation and to collaborate with me on new material. And being an Inspirato set-up, we didn’t have to worry about anything except getting to know each other and writing music.

We had two songwriting teams come down for three days each, and we had a production engineer recording every session. First was Trent Tomlinson and Tyler Reeve. That first day, we wrote “In Case You Didn’t Know.” That song was released as a single about a year later and went to No. 1 on the charts and became a multi-platinum-selling single. [To date, the song’s YouTube video has been viewed more than 210 million times.]

The next songwriting duo to come in was the husband-and-wife team of Ben Caver and Sara Haze. We didn’t get too far, though, as I got my first and only case of sun poisoning in my life on the second day with them. But they’ve stayed close—they even recorded a cover of “Forever Young” for my wedding. Two months after that trip, I signed a record contract.

My career’s been going nonstop in the years since that week in Mexico. Except for a weeklong Inspirato vacation to Cabo last year with the Polhills, my then-fiancée Taylor, and two other couples who are special to us, my wedding and honeymoon this past November was the first time I’ve taken an extended break from music.

Speaking of your honeymoon, how did you and Taylor pick St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands as the destination?

Taylor and I love being warm and near the ocean, and she’d been to the British Virgin Islands before and wanted to show me the Caribbean. We saw the house that Inspirato had available on St. Croix and said, “That’s it!” We arrived in St. Croix and it was just perfect. Warm and sunny, and then we’re driving out to the house, and it’s at the end of this long drive, situated on a cliff with the waves crashing below. It’s just an insane property. The photos of it are incredible, but they don’t do the setting justice.

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And then it started raining—and it never really stopped. But whenever there was sun, we’d dash out to the beach for the hour or two it was out. We did have one perfect beach day at Judith’s Fancy, lounging on the beach with drinks in our hand. That was pretty special.

But as I said before, Inspirato thinks of everything. To distract us from the rain, Sarah, our Destination Concierge, set us up with massages right before dinner on the first night. The second night, we had a chef come to make us anything we wanted. I know it sounds corny, but I wanted chicken parmesan. That paired with a special bottle of wine I’d brought made it a special meal.

The weather wasn’t ideal, but it was still pretty dramatic, and when it’s your honeymoon, it was super romantic, as well. It’s not the worst thing to be stuck inside a gorgeous house over the ocean for a week, knowing that every last detail is, and will be, taken care of.

Can we expect a song to come out of the adventure?

You never know!

Vail and Beaver Creek Welcome Ski Racing’s Best

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Vail and Beaver Creek Welcome Ski Racing's Best Athletes

February 11, 2019

Keep an eye out for Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn today. Or maybe slalom wunderkind Mikaela Shiffrin. And we don’t mean on television. Over the first two weeks of February, these Olympic gold medalists—two of whom, Lindsey and Mikaela, call the Vail Valley home—will be among the 700 athletes from 70 countries racing at Vail/Beaver Creek in the biennial FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. It’s the first time alpine skiing’s biggest race (outside of the Olympics) has been in North America since 1999.

Other U.S. resorts might try to compete with Vail and neighboring Beaver Creek in grooming, views or terrain, but neither Jackson Hole nor Telluride nor Tahoe can claim the only U.S. stop on skiing’s annual World Cup racing circuit—Beaver Creek can.

“At all levels, Vail is in many ways the center of the ski racing universe today,” says Aldo Radamus, a former U.S. Ski Team coach and 1990 USSA Domestic Coach of the Year and, for the last 13 years, the executive director of the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), which counts Shiffrin, Vonn and at least eight other Olympians among its alumni. “Ski racing seems to be ingrained in this community’s DNA, and we’ve got two resorts that have the terrain and willingness to make it happen on the highest level.”

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And that’s why you’re here, to watch the best alpine skiers in the world race on some of the world’s most challenging courses. The only other North American resort to ever host the Alpine World Championships is Aspen. And that was back in 1950. 2015 is Vail and Beaver Creek’s third world championships (they previously hosted in 1989 and 1999).

Why does the international circuit come back? To race among some of the country’s most rabid skiing families, families much like Sounia Chaney’s. “This is the chance of a lifetime,” she says about the upcoming World Championships. Chaney, who, with husband Michael and kids Skylar, 18, Cameron, 15, Roxy, 13, and Dylan, 9, all skiers or snowboarders, moved to Vail in 2010 from Reston, Virginia. Roxy, herself an alpine racer, says, “Here I get to see pros skiing a lot, sometimes next to me, and it always makes me feel inspired that I can achieve my goals. I can’t even imagine how inspiring it will be to have all of the world’s best racers here.”

“When our kids started outgrowing the mountain closest to our home, Vail was a no-brainer,” Chaney says. “We didn’t think twice about selling our house, our ski boat, our RV—everything. Vail offers the best training and the best coaches and challenging academics, and it has 300 days of sunshine. It’s not just our kids who ski. It’s a dream come true for all of us.”

Get back to your own racing dreams on Vonn’s namesake run, Lindsey’s. A groomed ribbon of ice on the front side of Vail Mountain, Vonn has described it as, “definitely the most challenging run on the mountain.” As you look down from the top of the run, its pitch elevating your pulse and slowing your breathing, you won’t be surprised to learn it was the site of the women’s speed events during the 1989 and 1999 World Championships, when it was still named International.

As a teen, Vonn skied the run that would one day bear her name, but, more often, like SSCV racers today do, she did laps on Vail’s Golden Peak. “That’s where we did so much of our training and raced for girls and boys Nor-Am,” says Paula Moltzan, who moved to Vail from Minnesota to train during her junior year of high school and now, at 20, is on the World Cup tech team.

Abby Ghent, an SSCV racer who was 6 the last time the valley hosted the World Championships and this season has a World Cup spot for Super G, suggests you try Centennial at Beaver Creek. “We’d have Nor-Am downhills there. It’s a classic course,” she says.

And then, of course, there’s Beaver Creek’s famed Birds of Prey course and its new women’s course, Raptor. (Before the World Championships, the former hosts its annual World Cup race, The Audi Birds of Prey Men’s World Cup, Dec. 6-8.) The pros own both during the World Championships, but, at other times in the season, the public can ski them. Fair warning, “Birds of Prey is terrifying,” says Moltzan. “I just can’t imagine flying off any of those jumps at the speeds the guys are going. But watching it is something else.”

Skiers to Watch

“The Norwegians have always done well here,” says Radamus, who coached for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s ski teams, and was named USSA Domestic Coach of the Year in 1990, before taking over as executive director at the SSCV. “I’ll be watching for Aksel Svindal, Kjetil Jansrud, and their new young technical threat Henrik Kristoffersen, who exploded onto the scene last year. Past world and Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn, working toward a return to competition following two years of injury, is undoubtedly looking to add to her World Championship medal tally,” Radamus says. At the last FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, at Schladming, Austria, in February 2013, Vonn tore her ACL/MCL and fractured her tibial plateau in a horrific crash. By August, a month and a half ahead of schedule, she was back on the snow. But then in mid-November, she crashed during a downhill training run at Copper Mountain in Colorado and reinjured herself. “Lindsey has something to prove and she’ll be racing at home,” Radamus says.

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“Among the Americans, our six Olympic medalists are medal threats at Worlds. Any one of them could win,” Radamus says. “Julia Mancuso because she always steps up when it counts. Ted Ligety owns this hill (he has won four straight giant slalom events on Birds of Prey) and is working hard to become a threat in [slalom] again; the snow suits him here in Colorado. Bode Miller for his last hurrah. Mikaela Shiffrin to defend her title. Keep an eye on (two-time Olympic Super G medalist) Andrew Weibrecht too. He loves the hill and has done well here.”

Designated Speeding Zones

Unlike pretty much every other resort in North America, Vail and Beaver Creek have runs where going as fast as you dare is the whole point. Vail Resort’s social media/ski tracker app, EpicMix Racing, partnered with Vonn to design a course at Vail and a second at Beaver Creek. Vonn practiced on both until she had them dialed. Then the geeks at EpicMix timed her.

Now anyone with the EpicMix app open can race down either course—the Black Forest Race Area just east of the Avanti Express Lift at Vail or beneath Beaver Creek’s new high-speed combination lift that just opened at the beginning of this season—and measure themselves against Vonn’s time.

Good luck catching her; few skiers on the international stage can come close to her. EpicMix claims that the average racer is about 5-7 seconds slower than Vonn on either course and that it’s a rare skier who comes within three seconds of her.

Experience Florida Through the Eyes of Novelist Carl Hiaasen

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Experience Florida Through the Eyes of Novelist Carl Hiaasen

February 8, 2019

The real Carl Hiaasen doesn’t seem like he could be the novelist Carl Hiaasen. He has bleach-white teeth and Gulf of Mexico-blue eyes. His cheeks are dimpled, and his voice is soft, measured. He wears polos and button-downs, almost always in neutral tones. His silver hair, parted to the side, could exist on the head of a banker. Friends, who sometimes compare his look to that of a choir boy, say he is polite, seldom swears and drinks like a Baptist—so, almost never.

He is known to never be more thrilled than on the bow of a boat, with a fly rod in his hand, overlooking the still, emerald waters off the islands of Islamorada in the Florida Keys—possibly his favorite place on earth. The sight of a tarpon’s shadow makes him happy. The squeal of a reel’s drag makes him blissful. Hiaasen knows those waters so well that, if he wanted to, he could make a living quietly guiding other fishermen through them.

This is not the image of a hardened newspaper columnist who has described politicians in the following ways: “bum,” “cockroach,” “head clown,” “worthless blowhard,” “pernicious little ferret” and “affable, back-slapping, ribbon-snipping blob.” Nor is it the image of a fiction writer who, in his latest work, begins chapter one with a severed arm on the end of a fishhook, later highlights a spell-casting voodoo witch named the “Dragon Queen” and eventually introduces a bad monkey (for which the best-seller is named) that bites a man, well, in a bad place.

Take a moment to cringe, then consider that the innocuous image of Carl Hiaasen described above might also not seem fitting for one of Florida’s—real Florida’s—greatest crusaders…but it is.

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Though Hiaasen, 61, has been a journalist at the Miami Herald since the mid-1970s, he is best known for his zany, swift-moving novels, packed with sex and laugh-out-loud one-liners and detestable characters getting their comeuppance in all sorts of cruel, entertaining ways. Despite selling close to 14 million books in North America alone, he has never won a National Book Award, and he doesn’t seem to be trying. “His books are built of [flimsy] balsa wood, but they are beautifully constructed all the same,” said New York Times literary critic Janet Maslin. “And if they call for more comic distraction than honest emotion? Forget it, Jake; it’s South Florida. The truth is always stranger than fiction.”

But don’t be fooled by the parade of strange. The themes of his work, nonfiction or fiction, are profoundly serious. He is and has always been on a mission for which he cares deeply. Hiaasen wants to protect Florida—its Everglades, its beaches, its mangroves, its wildlife, its natural beauty—and for decades he has employed a sardonic wit to relentlessly fight on the state’s behalf.

“When you don’t speak up and when you don’t fight back and when you don’t raise hell, that’s the ultimate act of cynicism, and it’s effectively surrender,” he said in the introduction to Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen. “It’s saying, ‘Things are so bad that it’s now acceptable.’ It’s not acceptable, it can’t be acceptable.”

In 1953, Hiaasen was born in a place that, in many ways, no longer exists. Plantation, Florida, is 30 miles north of Miami, sandwiched between the Atlantic coast and the Everglades. The city was incorporated the year of Hiaasen’s birth with a population of less than 500. Now, it’s home to almost 90,000.

Back then, that area of the state was a wild, swampy place; ideal for a child with an affinity for things that creep and crawl. “He represents a dying breed of the people who were born and raised there,” said William McKeen, a historian of literary journalism and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University. McKeen, who also spent time growing up in Florida, described Hiaasen’s youth as a “Huck Finn” childhood.

But much of that wild didn’t last. Hiaasen watched as the dirt-bike path that once led him into the swamp where he and his friends caught water moccasins was turned into a road lined with shopping malls. He watched the Everglades shrink as development boomed. He watched animal species go extinct as their habitats were paved over. “It was just rampant destruction,” said Tim Chapman, a photographer whom Hiaasen met years later at the Herald.

Hiaasen, however, couldn’t just watch. In perhaps a first effort to protect his beloved home, he and friends would pull surveyor’s stakes out of the ground. “We were kids,” he said in Kick Ass. “We didn’t know what else to do. We were little and the bulldozers were big.”

He compared their rumble to the sound of greed, “the engine that has run Florida ever since there was a Florida.” Chapman shared in his youthful frustration. He used to cut down billboards with a chain saw and, once, even filled a developer’s storm drain with a cement plug to prevent pollutants from seeping into Biscayne Bay. “I realized I was going to be arrested and go to jail, so I picked up a camera,” Chapman said. “Carl, of course, wielded the sword of the pen.”

Hiaasen had been sharpening that blade almost since birth. The Herald’s sports pages taught him to read. At age 6, his father bought him a typewriter, and he used it to punch out stories about neighborhood kickball games. In high school, he produced a newsletter, More Trash, that, among other things, satirized his teachers and administrators. All the while, Hiaasen was developing his now-distinct world view, and it didn’t just result from the demise of Florida’s innocence, but also from the nation’s.

He grew up in the 1960s and bore witness to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. “It was a poisonous time to be coming of age,” he said in Kick Ass. “It seemed to me there was so much wrong in the world. I felt such outrage for so many years over those things happening that it wasn’t a hard thing to carry into journalism.”

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Hiaasen arrived at the University of Florida after transferring from Emory University in Atlanta. He had intended to work in broadcasting, but a news reporting class taught by legendary journalism professor Jean Chance helped alter the course of his future. “He was a very special student, no question about that,” said Chance, now retired.

She immediately recognized the gracefulness of his writing and the ease with which he completed assignments. “I would have to stretch to find some nitpicky thing to give him a hard time about,” she said. Chance told Hiaasen that TV journalists tend to focus less on writing and more on presentation. A career in front of a camera, she thought, would be a waste. She pushed him to work at the student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, where he began to write a column. “That,” she said, “was when he saw the light.”

He began his professional career at Cocoa Today, a small paper in Brevard County now known as Florida Today. Every few Saturday nights, Chance said, he would call her to complain about the owner’s rule that any time his wife’s name appeared in the paper—she was a state senator—he be told, so he could change or kill the article on her behalf. He wanted to do something bigger, more meaningful. She told him to be patient. He listened. After two years, in 1976, he got a job at the Herald.

In the late 1970s, Chapman recalled, Hiaasen got a tip that someone was illegally digging out mangroves near Key Largo. The two men hired a fishing guide with a boat to take them down to see for themselves. “They were literally selling properties and digging a huge marina, and conveniently no one who had the power acted against it,” Chapman said. “No permit, no nothing.” Hiaasen wrote a story that forced state officials to kill the development. Such scoops became a staple of his early career.

Years later, Chapman said, Hiaasen learned that a wealthy man in the Keys had hired someone to chop down the mangroves around his house so he could better see the water. “The owner of the house blamed it on some wayward surfers,” Chapman said. Hiaasen didn’t buy it. He wrote the story.

“Various counties in South Florida have always been subject to corruption,” Chapman said, “and it takes people like Carl to stand up to them.”

In 1985, Hiaasen started writing his column for the Herald. It began a nearly 30-year (and ongoing) career of keenly pointing out wrongdoing, those who were responsible and, most memorably, the weird and wacky and plain wrong ideas that make Florida so entertaining. In a March 1988 column, for instance, Hiaasen skewered the city of Miami Beach for its ridiculous plan to host horse races on its beaches.

On the topic of what the animals might leave behind, his biting sense of sarcasm was in top form: “It’s not so big a crisis, really. Tourists on South Florida beaches are used to quick-stepping around all kinds of daunting obstacles, from poisonous jellyfish to gobs of tar, to the occasional human torso. A horse dropping would hardly make them dash for the hotel checkout. Before allowing such a minor drawback to squelch an otherwise brilliant idea, why not try to turn it around and make something positive? One obvious solution is to ask the city commissioners themselves to clean up after the horses. They are, after all, vastly experienced in this area.” The horse races never came.

“I think Carl was probably the most hated man by the chamber of commerce in Miami history,” Chapman said. “They just hated the fact that Carl told the truth.”

Certainly, Hiaasen’s columns had a substantial impact on South Florida, but it was the novels that spread his message to the world.

So, how well does Carl Hiaasen really get South Florida? Consider the evidence in just the first four chapters of his latest sprawling crime novel, Bad Monkey, some of which might seem cliché, but only because the details are so consistently indicative of life in the Sunshine State.

On page 5, Hiaasen’s main character, Andrew Yancy, sits in a plastic lawn chair and drinks rum as he experiences one of the most repeated gripes of long-time residents: “the offensive buzz of wood saws and the metallic pops of a nail gun” on the obnoxious, view-disrupting house being erected next to his own.

On page 7, it’s explained that the local sheriff won election only because his two opponents were in jail on racketeering charges.

On page 8, the aforementioned sheriff orders Yancy to dispose of a severed arm caught by a fisherman for fear of the negative publicity that might befall his community, though Hiaasen quickly notes the greater truth: “Nothing short of a natural disaster discouraged people from going out on (or into) the water.”

On page 18, readers are introduced to a doctor who made his fortune by investing in a series of pain management clinics “that dispensed Percocets and Vicodins by the bucket to a new wave of American redneck junkies.”

On page 23, traffic is jammed on Florida State Road A1A because a gravel truck crashed head-on into a southbound rental car. Typical.

On page 34, Yancy, now a health inspector, gets served a plate of fries and a coffee by the manager of a restaurant: “By Keys standards it could hardly be considered a payoff.”

No doubt, Hiaasen understands that he has tapped into and perhaps even helped create the national perception that his home is an odd place. Type “why is Florida” into Google, and the first completed response ends in “so humid”—the second is “so weird.” That search returns 29.9 million hits. But it could be argued that all the allusions to Florida wackiness (and his novels’ wackiness in general) are merely a means to an end.

Millions of people devour Hiaasen’s novels because they’re fun and entertaining, but buried not so deep within his prose are the ideas he really wants readers to remember. “[St. Petersburg Times columnist] Jeff Klinkenberg once said of Carl’s writing that ‘People respond better to ice cream than to broccoli,” Keen said. “Hiaasen has mastered preachy-less preaching.”

“These are fanciful characters, but there’s an underying truth to what he’s talking about … these are morality plays in many ways,” said Thomas Fiedler, former Herald executive editor and now dean of Boston University’s College of Communication. “They are really rooted in the issues that he believes are important for Floridians to understand.”

Take page 35 in Bad Monkey, for example. Before the wealthy newcomer razed the lot next door, Hiaasen writes, Yancy spent almost every evening watching the white-tailed Key deer pick at hammock scrub and red mangroves. He explains that just a few hundred of the deer remain on the islands, but that motorists, ignoring warning signs, often run them over. He talks of the refuge created for the surviving animals and that Yancy, knowing what’s in their best interest, had left them alone. “He didn’t snap pictures, or whistle, or make up cute names for the fawns. He just sat there sipping rum and watching the deer do their thing.”

Hiaasen spends two-thirds of a page on the plight of white-tailed Key deer, which have exactly nothing to do with the story’s plot, but he still makes certain readers know they matter. “I think,” Fiedler said, “Carl is the voice for what is right in Florida, and he’s particularly the defender of Florida, not just as it used to be, but Florida as it should be.”

In this modern era of storytelling in which anti-heroes are so often celebrated (see: TV’s Breaking Bad or The Sopranos), Hiaasen’s novels offer little room for gray. Characters are either good or evil. They’re either destined to triumph, or they’re destined to die in heinous, hilarious fashion. Those clear outcomes may again well be rooted in the alternate reality of Hiaasen’s own world.

South Florida’s crusader has won his share of the battles, to be sure, but it’s hard to argue that he is winning the war. The state has continued to develop, and swampland has continued to disappear. Corruption still thrives. Many animal species and natural resources remain threatened. Recently, Hiaasen argued in his column that state politicians have allowed billions of gallons of toxic water to be dumped into Florida’s rivers because of the money their campaigns are getting from big business.

“Those people are always going to win in real life,” McKeen said. “I think he writes the books as therapy, and I think he wants the good guys to win somewhere.” And perhaps the idea is that, like Hiaasen, his legion of readers will someday want as badly as he does for the good guys—for real Florida—to win. And maybe, just maybe, one day it’ll actually happen and the state’s crusader can put down his sword.

How Chilean Author Isabel Allende Settled in the Bay Area

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How Chilean Author Isabel Allende Settled in the Bay Area

January 23, 2019

Halfway through an hourlong talk to a group of aspiring writers last August, Chilean author Isabel Allende was asked, “If you were a character in an Isabel Allende novel, where would you put yourself ?”

Without missing a beat the petite writer said: “First of all, I would have long legs, I would be beautiful, I would be stunning, and smart, very strong and independent. What was the question?”

“Location—where would you be?”

“In bed with someone,” she shot back. “It doesn’t matter the town.”

Hanging on the beloved author’s every word, the audience in Marin County ( just north of San Francisco) erupted in laughter. And just about everyone who asked her a question that day at Book Passage, a bookstore in Corte Madera, addressed her simply as “Isabel,” as if they were talking to an old friend.

The arc of Allende’s life could be the story of one of her novels. Born into a family of Chilean diplomats, she spent her first years in Peru. As a young child she returned to Chile, grew up in her grandfather’s spectral home, became a journalist, married young and had two kids. Then her world fell apart.

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Her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, had been elected president of Chile in 1970, but on Sept. 11, 1973, during a brutal right-wing coup, he shot himself, choosing to die rather than be captured. The dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power, and, in 1975, after several people she knew disappeared, Isabel fled Chile with her husband and two young children and settled in Venezuela (most of the rest of her family also left the country; her mother, who is still alive, has since returned to Chile).

Yet Allende’s most difficult days were years ahead. In her immediate future was fantastic success. As her grandfather neared death, she began writing a long letter to him, and kept writing after he died. Allende showed the letter to her mother, and though the matriarch was appalled that her daughter would reveal the family’s secrets, even as fiction, she encouraged her to publish a book.

That letter was the basis for Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits, published in 1982. Initially rejected by several Spanish-language publishers, the magically realistic book first came out in Spain and fast became an international bestseller. In 1993, it was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas.

“I started a letter for my grandfather almost knowing that he would never be able to read it, a spiritual letter—it was a letter to myself, really,” Allende told David Frost in a 2013 televised interview. “I wanted to tell him that I remembered everything he ever told me, and he could go in peace because it would not be lost. I think The House of the Spirits was like a crazy attempt to recover everything I had lost—my country, my family, my past, my friends—and put everything together in these pages. It was something I could carry with me and show to the world and say, ‘This is what was; this is my world.’ It gave me a voice. Incredibly it was a success from the beginning and allowed me to continue as a writer.”

In 1987, Allende came to the San Francisco Bay Area on a book tour and fell in love at first sight, with the place and with an attorney, William Gordon, who’d attended one of her readings (her first marriage had already ended in divorce). Gordon lived in San Rafael, in the heart of Marin County. Allende married Gordon the following year and made a home in the Bay Area.

“I have been living in Marin County for 27 years, and I love it,” she told me last fall. “Who wouldn’t? There is water, hills, trees and trails everywhere and good weather. This is a place of innovation, diversity, young energy and visionary creativity.”

There was a time when Allende, 73, never thought she’d find a place that felt like home. “I have always been a foreigner,” she said, “first as a daughter of diplomats living briefly in different countries, then as a political refugee and now as an immigrant.” In her 2003 memoir, My Invented Country, she writes: “Until only a short time ago, if someone had asked me where I’m from, I would have answered, without much thought, ‘Nowhere.’ ”

But that’s changed. In our recent interview, she said: “I came here as an immigrant with a sense that I didn’t belong anywhere and somehow here I found space, privacy; I feel very safe. There is nothing extraordinary about being an immigrant here.”

Allende is now an American citizen. “My roots are in Chile, but I have found my home in the Bay Area, where my son, my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren and most of my friends live, and where I have written 18 books,” she said. “I hope to spend the rest of my life in this wonderful place.”

Her time in Marin, however, hasn’t been all sunsets and chardonnay. In the early 1990s, her daughter, Paula, was struck by a rare disease and spent a year in a coma before dying in her mother’s arms at age 29. Allende says her memoir about that year, titled Paula, is her most deeply felt book and has had the greatest resonance with readers.

“It forced me to go inside,” Allende told me years ago when I interviewed her for my book, A Sense of Place, a collection of interviews with writers. “I’m a very out-there person; I’m into the story,” she said. “The whole experience of the death of my daughter and writing a book forced me to go on a journey into myself, which in a way was a threshold for me. I left behind my youth with that experience. That was the year that I turned 50. It was like throwing everything overboard in very deep ways.”

Paula was “an exercise in memory and love” and cathartic to write, Allende said. “That’s the book that was written with tears. It was so raw that people connect to it as a form of honesty.” Though she cried while writing every page, Paula wasn’t painful to write, she said. “It was so healing; it was wonderful.”

In an on-stage conversation last November in San Rafael, Allende said: “It seems as though Paula is still touching people throughout the world. She is still present and will always be present, which adds beauty and richness to my life.”

Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, said Allende’s presence, in the store and throughout Marin, has been transformational. “Isabel first came to speak at Book Passage almost 25 years ago. That night, something profound changed in my life and in the life of our store,” Petrocelli said. “By example she teaches kindness, forthrightness, commitment, giving and laughter. Each book she writes is so elegantly crafted that the reader is unaware of the work that brought the story to life. Her characters are so real that they remain with us long after we close the book.”

Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and was published in the U.S. last fall. It started with a conversation during which Allende’s friend said her 81-year-old mother had been close to a Japanese gardener for four decades. “I said, ‘Ya, they were probably lovers,’” Allende recalled. Her friend was aghast, but the idea stayed with Allende. It became the tale of a woman displaced by the Holocaust and her relationship with a California-born, Japanese-American man—a U.S. citizen whose life had been upended by forced relocation to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

For Allende, who has sold about 65 million books worldwide and whose work has been translated into more than 30 languages, writing has often been challenging, but she said this book came easily. “It should cost less,” she joked.

She starts all her books on Jan. 8—“It was superstition at the beginning, but now I need to organize my life”—and often puts in 10-hour days at her computer. She can become so immersed in the story that she loses track of time. “Writing is like falling in love: full commitment,” Allende said during last August’s conversation at Book Passage. “Having a day to begin gives me that chunk of time that I need. I show up every day and I try to work, but sometimes nothing happens. For two, three weeks I throw away everything because it doesn’t have the tone.”

She recalled shopping one day with another best-selling author, her friend Amy Tan. “We were trying hats, and she was putting on a hat and said, ‘It’s all about the tone.’ And I thought, wow, she’s speaking about literature. There’s a rhythm, there’s a tone, and then you start galloping—then you are in. And then things happen. The characters talk to you, the story develops, you get ideas. You start dreaming about the story. You can’t get it out of your head. You wake up in the middle of the night and take notes because it’s obsessing you. That’s why I say it’s like falling in love. So beware.”

Allende is enjoying writing in ways she never has before. “I’ve learned that I can relax,” she said. “That I can trust that I have the skill now, finally, after all these years and all these books, and it can be just joy. I don’t have to be whipping myself to do it. I always hear in my head the voice of my superego, the voice of my grandfather, that is always demanding more effort, more work [and saying], ‘You could be better.’”

Writing The Japanese Lover provided solace for Allende last year as her 27-year relationship with Gordon dissolved. “I think that what happened with this book, because it was written at such a painful time for me, I could ignore the voice,” she said, “and just enjoy the process. Let it be, let it flow. If I could write all my future books like that, it would be wonderful.”

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After the two world wars, Spain’s entry into the European Union 
in 1986 challenged Italian lemon producers with a flood of cheap citrus. But that same year, the Slow Food movement was founded in the Piedmont town of Bra; it helped Amalfi lemons. With Slow Food came an appreciation for geographically specific, traditionally farmed Italian produce, especially lemons bearing an Amalfi Coast I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), a label that legally attests to their authenticity as having been grown there.

The book explores the theme of love and passion among the elderly. “Can you have passion at any age? Yes, you can,” Allende said as the San Rafael audience, many of them seniors, cheered. “I was exploring aging also because I am over 70. I look good,” said the impeccably coiffed and stylishly dressed author, “but it’s from a distance.”

Becoming more serious, Allende spoke last November about the pain of her recent divorce: “When my daughter died years ago, my mother said, ‘This grief, this sorrow, is like a long, dark tunnel, and you have to go alone with a certainty that there is light at the end. Just keep walking, one day at a time, step after step, tear after tear.’ And I walked the tunnel, writing for a year, and really at the end there is light. So when this awful year started to unravel, I thought, OK, this [divorce] is a minor tunnel compared to the other one [Paula’s death]. It’s a shorter tunnel. Let’s walk, one day at a time. Suddenly I was on the other side, and I feel great. So I think that I am facing a luminous time in my life.”

Don George, the book review columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine, calls Allende “a lusty saint who makes the world a better place with her personality and her prose.” Although she’s a “best-selling author and global icon, Isabel remains astonishingly, inspiringly grounded, humble, open-hearted and empathetic,” he said.

Allende has long had an irreverent streak: In a 2007 TED Talk she said, “By age 5 I was a raging feminist—although the term had not reached Chile yet, so nobody knew what the heck was wrong with me.” When she was a teenager she asked her astonished family why her brothers could have sex with the maids but she couldn’t have sex with the gardener. And not long ago she met an oral surgeon at a party who said that when he retires he’s going to write novels. Allende shot back, “And when I retire, I’m going to do root canals!”

Though Allende has written several memoirs, including The Sum of Our Days and My Invented Country, most of her books are fiction. “When I write memoirs, my family gets very angry,” she said. “So it’s much easier to write fiction. Fiction gives me a freedom that nonfiction doesn’t. With nonfiction you have to be as objective and realistic as possible. I’m not objective in my life as a person; how could I be in my writing?

She sees her openness and honesty as strengths. “When I wrote my first memoir, my mother was horrified. She said, ‘You tell everything, you expose yourself completely, you are so vulnerable.’ And I said, ‘Mom, it’s not the truth I tell that makes me vulnerable, but the secrets I keep.’ By sharing, we all participate in the same experience of life and that’s what storytelling is all about. It’s the oldest, oldest art. So that’s why I love my job. I feel that I can say anything; I can share anything; I can grab any story. Words are free. I can use them all.”

Allende’s passion extends far beyond her writing; her commitment to justice infuses her life. After Paula died, she was traveling in India when a young mother thrust her baby into Allende’s arms, imploring her to keep the infant. Her driver returned the baby and the shaken Allende asked why the mother would do that. “It’s a girl,” said the driver. “Who wants a girl?”

At that point, Allende said, “I knew what my mission would be: to empower women and girls” worldwide. She created the Isabel Allende Foundation because she wanted to invest the proceeds from Paula in an endeavor that would have made her daughter proud.

Though she has strong beliefs, Allende doesn’t use her books to preach. “I’m trying to just tell a story,” she said. “When I read a book and see that the author is trying to teach me something or give me a message, I get angry. Let me find between the lines what is useful for me.”

The Japanese Lover examines the right to die on one’s own terms. “The right to be helped to die with dignity should be an option for everybody,” she said in her November talk. “Fortunately it’s starting to be legalized in the United States and by the time I need it, it will be legal everywhere, I hope.”

She doesn’t fear death, only dying without dignity. Allende once had a vision: She saw herself as an eagle in a white space with a single dark dot that she viewed as death. “I went through it like a bullet,” she said, “with no fear and with such curiosity. Then there was nothing. There was no whiteness, no darkness. There was a void, and I was the void, and absolutely no connection with anything that we know. I think maybe that’s death. And it’s not bad at all.”

Allende has received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to her by President Obama in 2014, and Chile’s highest literary prize. She was one of eight women to carry the Olympic flag in 2006 in Turin, Italy (she jokes that no one saw her because she walked behind the statuesque Sophia Loren), but what matters most to her is weaving a compelling tale.

Asked why she writes, she said: “It’s automatic. I can’t imagine my life without writing. Without writing to my mother [they’ve been mailing letters daily to one another for most of their lives], without writing what I see, what is important to me, to explore, the only way I can do it is writing. How do you exorcise pain? How do you find out who you are? How do you fight against bad memory to preserve what you want to preserve in life? Memory blurs everything if you don’t write it down.”

But Allende doesn’t keep a journal. “I cannot write to myself—I need to communicate. That’s what writing is all about: telling someone, one reader, ‘This is what I believe; this is who I am. Let’s share the story.’ ”

The Cutting Edge Golf Robot Created to Improve Your Swing

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The Cutting Edge Golf Robot Created to Improve Your Swing

January 15, 2019

“Hit another one,” says Blake Isakson, the director of golf at Boccieri Golf in Arizona. I oblige by rolling a ball onto a turf mat and thwacking another 7-iron into the screen in front of me. A red line traces the continuing arc of the shot as calculated by sensors in the mat and the screen, and I watch as the animated ball drifts right and winds up in a sand trap some 10 yards from the electronic green.

Isakson approaches with an iPad and shows me on video where my hands and arms were during the swing. Then he uses a finger to plot an arc where my hands and arms should have been. He explains that with a flatter swing plane I could get more distance. Armed with this knowledge, we step into an adjacent hitting booth and I get my first good look at the RoboGolfPro swing trainer, one of two at Boccieri Golf ’s North Scottsdale headquarters.

The contraption in front of me is like a 9-foot-tall robot, with two screens and four long metal arms holding a golf club. I take my stance and grip the club as Isakson moves the arms into position and programs the robot based on the data recorded about my swing in the other hitting bay.

Once everything is ready, the RoboGolfPro swings the club for me, forcing my hands to move back on a flatter plane for the backswing and then dropping my right elbow more steeply into the hitting zone as I swing down. It’s an odd sensation having my arms moved for me, but I have to admit it’s a swing that would indeed add distance to my shots, if I would take the time to learn it.

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This swing-teaching robot might seem a little over the top to nongolfers, but to golfers looking for any way they can find to shave strokes, the RoboGolfPro is part of the never-ending war for lower scores. Technology rules in golf, and as a spring trip to Scottsdale—with visits to Boccieri Golf and a couple of other cutting-edge companies— shows, robot golf instructors are far from the industry’s only high-tech weapon.

A Fit to be Tried

Not far from Boccieri Golf, in another part of North Scottsdale, the global headquarters of Cool Clubs is like nothing I’ve ever seen; it’s equal parts tech startup, driving range and Lego factory. Founded in 2007, and now one of the world leaders in the burgeoning field of custom club fitting, Cool Clubs has hitting bays outfitted with an array of computers, monitors and video gear, and bins filled with thousands of interchangeable pieces, including clubheads, shafts and grips from all the top manufacturers in golf. It’s a tinkerer’s dream come true.

A walk around the place reveals cubbyholes labeled with some of the biggest names on the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours. I’m told over 100 of them have their specifications on file at Cool Clubs. This plays into the reputation custom clubs have as being a luxury used only by tour pros and low-handicappers, but bespoke clubs are growing in popularity for average golfers. “The reality,” according to Cool Clubs founder and CEO Mark Timms, “is that the higher the handicap, the bigger the change. Give me a 25 handicap and we can probably drop him five shots immediately. It’s very easy to do.”

The reasons for getting custom clubs are fairly self-evident— certainly, a golfer who is 5-foot-4 and one who’s 6-foot-3 should use different sets—but, even after you focus in on clubs for your height, the array of choices and the brainpower that goes into finding the right ones for each golfer are astounding.

During fittings, Cool Clubs’ proprietary software and TrackMan—a radar tracking system that gathers data about things like clubhead speed, ball speed, launch angle and spin rate—analyze swings. Using this information, Cool Clubs pinpoints the best combinations of clubheads and shafts at a variety of price points. Decide on clubs and then they’re assembled right there in Scottsdale. For an additional fee, they can be picked up or shipped later that same day.

Vito Berlingeri, a former Bell Labs engineer who retired and is now Cool Clubs’ marketing director, shows me around the facility. In the back of the building, where the clubs are tested and built, I’m introduced to Simon Grondin, a young man who Berlingeri says was one of Canada’s top engineering students before coming to Scottsdale to head Cool Clubs’ research and development.

At the moment, Grondin is working on a machine he designed and built with Timms. It tests the flex of club shafts down to the nth degree. Each shaft test is recorded and analyzed by software that Grondin wrote himself. Behind him, a 3D printer spits out a new part he designed. It will be added to the machine.

It’s clear these people operate on a much higher intellectual level than I’m used to, and it’s enough to make me wonder why they’re not curing cancer or helping send someone to Mars. They love the game of golf so much they’ve devoted their professional lives to helping people play better. And the fitting process—which can start off feeling like a doctor’s visit, with a look at existing equipment and questions about hitting history—is a big part of this.

“We’ll first measure all the clubs they’ve got and see what they all are,” Timms says. “That gives us a lot of insight into what’s going on. Where are the big problems in their swing? What’s the big miss, and which club is it?”

If it turns out a player’s swing is the problem, Timms might recommend lessons instead of trying to sell them something they don’t need. But if the clubs’ fit is off, and Timms thinks a player would benefit from custom clubs, the fitting begins in earnest, inside one of Cool Clubs’ hitting bays. (It can also be done outside at nearby Grayhawk Golf Club or at one of Cool Clubs’ 20 fitting centers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, England, Korea and Japan.)

Getting the Shaft

Given all the clubheads at a place like Cool Clubs—drivers, hybrids, cavity-backs, musclebacks, blades and wedges—I assumed clubheads were the key element of clubs, but no. “We are firm believers in finding the shaft first,” says Hot Stix general manager Chris Marsh. “We may have a golfer try seven or eight shafts from different manufacturers, both steel and graphite. Once we find that shaft, we’re able to try it with multiple heads until we find the right combination.”

Headquartered a few miles away in another part of Scottsdale, Hot Stix shares a philosophy and parentage with Cool Clubs. Timms started his first golf company, Custom Golf of Connecticut, in 1990. A decade later, Timms moved to Arizona to escape the cold and launch a new company: Hot Stix. Rapid expansion prompted Timms to bring on partners, but later, when they didn’t see eye to eye, Timms left. He took a year off and then opened Cool Clubs.

In Timms’ absence, Hot Stix soldiered on and now has four fitting centers across the country. The Scottsdale facility is indoors, but Hot Stix has a fully wired fitting center at SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in nearby Fountain Hills and hopes to move all its Arizona operations there in April 2016.

At SunRidge Canyon, golfers hit off the driving range while Hot Stix software analyzes everything about their swing. Marsh says there are numerous shafts that can fit a client’s swing, but, after neutrally testing these, one will emerge with the greatest consistency and feel. To that end, Hot Stix fittings often allow golfers to keep their expensive clubheads but recommend replacing shafts. This will still lead to an improvement in a player’s game. “We’re crazy passionate about golf,” Marsh says. “Our fitters are, in my mind, the best in the world.”

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Cool Clubs may dispute that last point, but Hot Stix’s passion and approach have caught the notice of Golf magazine, which named Hot Stix as its official research partner for its annual ClubTest in Florida. About 40 testers are charged with evaluating the new equipment coming out. Hot Stix is there “as an independent testing company to provide data to the testers and Golf magazine,” Marsh says.

Heavy on the Innovation

Back at Boccieri Golf, a young woman who is there for a lesson has stepped into a bay, donned a training device called a K-VEST and is having her arms swung by RoboGolfPro. My session over, I putt around the putting-green floor with Stephen Boccieri, inventor of the Heavy Putter and the Secret Grip.

A structural engineer and 1-handicap, Boccieri transitioned into the golf business after starting a company called Engineered Golf in upstate New York in 1994. The company provided research and design services to the industry. “What I was doing was like forensic analysis on golfing equipment,” Boccieri says. “I was buying golf clubs and tearing them apart and trying to understand what kind of engineering was going into these things.”

Crunching all that data led Boccieri to start tinkering with putters on his own. He found that adding weight to the head of a putter helped him make more short putts but didn’t work very well for long putts. Looking for a solution, he added a weight to the grip end of the shaft as a counterbalance and was astonished at the results. “That was the ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Boccieri, who was on the phone when he first tested this idea. “I told my friend, ‘You’re not gonna believe this. I’m putting one-handed, and I’m sinking 10 putts in a row from 14 feet into the little cup in my office.’” That was 2003. Soon after, Boccieri refined the design into the Heavy Putter and launched Boccieri Golf. The putter received rave reviews and sold like crazy, prompting him to apply the same counterbalancing principles to other clubs. The Heavy Wedge and Heavy Driver followed shortly. Next, seeking to help golfers with their existing clubs, Boccieri came up with the Secret Grip, a weighted golf grip. It made waves when Jack Nicklaus endorsed it. In 2011, Boccieri Golf relocated from the East Coast to the more golf-conducive climate of Scottsdale.

I try out several Heavy Putters of various head shapes and shaft lengths while Boccieri shows me “the Stork.” This is a method of putting he invented. I split my hands wide on the shaft and place one foot in front of the other. “I have converts who cannot believe how well they’re putting with it,” Boccieri says.

The Heavy Putter and the other heavy clubs put Boccieri Golf on the map, but what has the engineer really excited is the potential teaching abilities of the RoboGolfPro. It can model an ideal swing to teach golfers’ muscles the right mechanics. “People get on it, they feel it, then they hit balls,” he says. “We do a before-and-after comparison, and they just are dumbfounded with the results.” Lessons on the RoboGolfPro are so popular that the company added a second one last October, making it one of only three facilities in the country with two of the machines, Boccieri says. “The RoboGolfPro is a whole new possibility,” he says. “It’s hope. It’s a possibility that this new technology is going to provide them with a feeling of what a golf swing is supposed to be.”

Racecar Driver Townsend Bell Owes His Passion to the Indy 500

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Racecar Driver Townsend Bell Owes His Passion to the Indy 500

January 3, 2019

For one week a year, 40-year-old racecar driver Townsend Bell gets to pursue his childhood dream. That’s when he returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana, climbs into the Robert Graham Special Indy car and works to qualify for and then race the Indianapolis 500. Bell saw his first Indy 500 at age 10, and the sights and sounds and smells of that race sparked his desire to race cars. He started with go-kart racing near his home in San Luis Obispo, California, and worked his way into open-wheel racing in Europe before returning to the States to race in the IndyCar series. Currently he has a full-time seat in the WeatherTech United SportsCar series, where he started racing Porsches, then Ferraris and now Lamborghinis on road courses from Daytona, Florida, to Le Mans, France, competing in endurance events where he swaps turns with two other drivers that can last as long as 24 hours.

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Driving sports cars—heavily modified vehicles that bear some resemblance to the versions one can drive on the street—keeps Bell’s racing synapses honed and sharp, but it’s Indy that marks his favorite week on the racing calendar. “Le Mans may be the biggest sports car race in the world in terms of spectators, but you’d never know it,” Bell says. “The crowd is spread out over 10 miles. Indy is an amphitheater of speed with 300,000 spectators and the fastest cars and bravest drivers. It’s so much more electric.”

It’s not an easy transition, though. Bell likens it to going from ground combat to air combat. “In sports car racing, 130 mph is about as fast as I take a turn, depending on the track,” he says. “At Indy, I’m doing 210-220 mph at a minimum through each corner. It takes magnitudes more finesse to do it well once, but I have to keep doing it well 800 times over the course of a 500-mile race.”

Racing at 200-plus mph gets to the heart of what makes Indy unique among the world’s great races. The 650-hp cars are purpose-built to do one thing: go as fast as possible for as long as possible. Unlike road circuits, braking in the turns is not a critical skill at Indy; there’s only a 20 mph difference in speed between the straightaways, where the car is going full speed, and the corners, where all Bell has to do to slow down is lift his foot off the gas.

After nine years of racing at Indy—his best finish was 4th place in 2009—Bell has learned to soak up the specialness of the competition, as well as appreciate the unique situation afforded him by his sponsor, upscale clothier Robert Graham, and the Dreyer & Reinbold racing team behind the Chevy- powered car. “I’m very fortunate to work with a strong team of known people and assets,” he says. Indeed, Indy is the only open-wheeled race the team enters all year, but it’s the most visible, and to make sure they stand out, Robert Graham’s designer is involved in every detail of Bell’s racing suit, the crew’s uniforms and the car’s graphics. The unveiling of the car’s paint job attracts almost as much ink as the car’s top speed reached during qualifying.

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“Robert Graham designs area favorite among race fans,” Bell says. “They love how we go bigger, creatively, every year.”

This year’s car and uniform will remain under wraps until late March, but Bell expects something special for what he hopes will be his 10th year racing the Indy 500. And while a win is always the goal, Bell has already enjoyed the cumulative dividends of his weeks in Indiana. One year, he and his teammates Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal won the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and placed third in the most famous endurance race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on their first attempt.

“Road racing rewards being aggressive, but Indy rewards finesse,” says Bell. “And the finesse that I pick up at Indy helps me be a more successful sports car driver, pure and simple.”