Lorne Rubenstein: As rare as a double eagle
When he announced his retirement in July, Lorne Rubenstein was surprised at the reaction he received from readers; he was a unique and invaluable voice in the world of golf, consensus showed. Jeff Krever sat down with Rubenstein to talk about how the 32-year veteran golf columnist began writing on the now-unique beat, and how he changed his mind about retirement, showing he isn’t quite ready to give up writing about the sport he loves.
By Jeff Krever
Canadian golf almost lost one of the last of a dying breed this summer, when admired columnist Lorne Rubenstein announced his retirement from The Globe and Mail after 32 years.
But something – and he still can’t put his finger on how or why – changed for Rubenstein, and suddenly, the man who shares part responsibility for the tremendous growth of the sport in this country isn’t going anywhere.
His original announcement came after the U.S. Open at the start of July, when the 64-year-old Toronto native told The Globe’s Bruce Dowbiggin that his engagement with the Tour was waning, and that it was time to move on to other things.
“I always said that when I couldn’t get excited about a major [tournament] then I’d know it was time to go,” Rubenstein told Dowbiggin. “When I got to the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, I just found I couldn’t get engaged with the pro game anymore. It was an easy decision to make that way. If I’m not engaged in the subject it’s not fair to the readers and to the paper.”
His tune changed quickly over the next month, and part of that, he said, had to do with how readers responded to the news.
“Lorne, you have given me a new outlook on golf,” one reader commented at the conclusion of Dowbiggin’s piece. “Even though I struggle with a 17 handicap, it's time to put the fun back in the game and play for the heck of it.”
Added another: “You will be missed, Lorne. Your insights, breadth of coverage, and palpable love of the game made you an invaluable commentator. Big shoes to fill.”
Rubenstein said he knew after 32 years he could assume he had readers, but the din of admirers grew louder after the announcement.
“There’s been a lot of reaction, a lot of e-mails, a lot of tweets and stuff on Facebook,” he said. “It’s really hard to know what motivates you in some ways, but had I only had two e-mails or people had written me saying ‘good to see you go,’ then it might’ve been a little different.”
And after some deliberation, Rubenstein’s role with the newspaper will resume like nothing even happened.
That means in a country that continues to have one of the highest per capita golf participation rates in the world, he’ll remain one of Canada’s few full-time golf columnists in mainstream media.
“People really love what Lorne does,” started SCOREGolf editor Bob Weeks, who hired Rubenstein as a columnist for the magazine. “I think because he does something a little differently.”
“He has a lot of passion in his words, whether he’s writing about Tiger Woods or about an amputee golf tournament,” he said. “I think people respect that.”
Rubenstein’s career as a golf writer has been well-recognized through his many columns, 13 published books, and several other awards, including a National Magazine Award in 1985 for his piece “Caught in the Trap” that was published in City Woman.
Most recently, he received the Canadian Sports Media Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, joining the likes of famous Hockey Night in Canada commentator Bob Cole, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame writer Bob Elliott, and current hockey broadcaster on TSN, Dave Hodge.
A member of the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA)’s Hall of Fame as well as the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame, Rubinstein has won top honours for four different columns from the Golf Writers’ Association of America.
But the University of Guelph and York University alum came to golf firstly as a golfer – he’s lived the game almost every day of his life ever since he first started swinging the clubs at age 11.
From playing at a young age, Rubenstein went to caddying, and eventually, to becoming a weekly freelancer for The Globe, which he grew up reading with his parents’ subscription.
In 1980, he went to then-sports editor Cec Jennings to ask about contributing an occasional column, but when he returned from caddying at the Canadian Open, Jennings asked him to write for the paper on a more regular basis.
There was no hesitation.
“I think my original motivation was that I’m a golfer and I want to read a lot more than what’s being written about the game,” said Rubenstein. “I don’t want to only read about the latest tour event or the current tour event – there’s so much more that’s of interest.”
So without ever officially being on staff, Rubenstein started writing a weekly column as a regular freelancer.
Today, he continues to leave a lasting mark in Canada’s golf media.
Readers don’t turn to his column just to see the results of the latest tournament, or to brush up on the game’s newest technology.
Rubenstein puts the sport in a different light.
“The one thing that you saw in Lorne’s writing that you was something that went a little wider and a little deeper,” said Weeks.
Today, he added, most stories focus only on golf’s biggest celebrities such as Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, or on tournament wins and scores.
“You don’t see a lot of articles that might touch on different things besides just the professional game,” Weeks, who calls himself a friend, continued. “There are fewer and fewer out there, and the people who wrote them are disappearing from the golf-writing circles that you see across North America.”
The decline of writers like Rubenstein is mostly due to the changing business of mainstream media, which focuses resources more on covering North America’s other major professional sports – a little bit curious considering golf’s footprint in Canada.
After all, golf is the number one recreational sport in the country, played by an estimated 6 million Canadians each year according to a 2009 report by Strategic Networks Group.
The same group estimates that 70 million rounds of golf are played by Canadians every year, with the sport accounting for an estimated $11.3 billion of Canada’s GDP and creating 341,794 jobs, although the numbers may have slipped recently with the economic downturn.
Weeks points out that Canada still has the sport’s highest participation rate in the world, but admits participation and readership are two different things, meaning just because someone plays golf doesn’t mean they’re interested in reading about it.
“I don’t think you can question the measurement tools of something like TSN or The Globe and Mail,” said Weeks. “They know what their readers are looking for and that’s what they provide, and that’s why hockey, hockey, hockey seems to be there all the time.”
However, Weeks said after they read about the NHL, readers may also want to know about what’s going on with a new golf course being built in Cape Breton, for example.
“I think it’s a little myopic to not believe that people will be interested in one or two or three things,” he added.
At least that’s what readers seemed to be saying when it looked like Rubenstein would be putting out on his career at The Globe.
“I think people would love to see more golf information, and it just shows you when Lorne said he was disappearing and how many people reacted to that, that there is a demand there for it,” said Weeks.
Yet Rubenstein is quickly becoming as rare as a double eagle.
Dave Perkins was a long-time golf writer for the Toronto Star, but left a couple of years ago. He stayed on in a reduced capacity, covering major tournaments as a freelancer.
Most papers now are getting their golf coverage from general sports reporters, who also have to focus their attention elsewhere.
Weeks said it’s just the way mainstream media’s changing – that people want shorter stories.
“I think there’s still a market for the deep-dive article and I hope it never goes away, but it’s certainly not how it was in mainstream newspapers and media like it was five years ago.”
While he said he’d like to someday publish a 14th book, Rubenstein still somehow makes time to get out on the course and play a couple of times a week.
His love of the game is likely a big part of the reason he’s been able to have so much success in his work as a writer. It’s allowed him to connect so closely with his readers.
“I’m a golfer and I think that people who follow golf are participants first,” he continued, recalling his connection with the game when the column originally started. “People have told me the tour could disappear, and people would still play golf. And 32 years ago, because I was a golfer, I just wanted to read a lot more about the game, including the tour.”
Whether it’s the allure of a fresh scorecard, the glamorous sightlines, the divine approach on your favourite hole, or the bliss of hitting that perfect shot, something about golf makes it so beautiful that words can barely do it justice.
And for that reason, Weeks said he isn’t surprised at all by the outpouring from Rubenstein’s followers, after hearing news that he would no longer be writing for The Globe.
Golf is an impossible game that’s tormented the minds of even the greatest golfers the face of the earth’s ever seen – but Rubenstein has spent most of his life making sense of it all.
Luckily for the sport in this country, it appears that he still has a lot to give.
Jeff Krever is a recent graduate of Carleton University's journalism program, and is now a digital media intern at the Canadian Football League. A native of Brampton, Ontario, he's freelanced for the Brampton Guardian and the Ottawa Citizen, covering major junior hockey and varsity athletics. Jeff also spent two years co-hosting a weekly radio show at Carleton on the school's men's and women's varsity hockey teams.