Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Floyd golf author Neil Sagebiel savors success from blog to book

FLOYD - Picturing this guy running down a flight of stairs, shouting and pumping his fist, is not easy.

Neil Sagebiel fits the profile of the mild-mannered, introverted golf writer. He speaks in thoughtful, measured tones. He loves the history of the game.

Envisioning this 54-year-old gentleman in the archives of the USGA, scouring old documents as he researches a book? Yes. That makes sense. But not fist pumps.

Yet there Sagebiel was, in his Floyd home on first day of June, celebrating as though he'd just aced a par-4.

"It was like something you would dream, but it happened," Sagebiel said. "It was a pinch-yourself moment."

The New York Times had just released its review of "The Longest Shot," Sagebiel's book that chronicles Jack Fleck's shocking playoff victory over Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open.

Sagebiel was proud of his debut effort. Until the reviews come in, though, you just never know.

This review - and many that followed it, including one in The Roanoke Times - hailed the book and the author.

"[Sagebiel] makes a strong bid to create shelf space for himself alongside 21st-century golf literati like John Feinstein, Mark Frost and Don Van Natta Jr.,"wrote reviewer Bill Scheft, among other plaudits.


"To get that kind of review in the New York Times was just beyond anything I could have imagined," Sagebiel said. "It just couldn't have been any better."

Or could it? In the weeks that followed, Sagebiel saw Bob Costas hold up his book on NBC, moments before the leaders teed off for the final round of the U.S. Open.

Sagebiel also got invited to do a 15-minute radio interview about his book with WFAN host Mike Francesa in New York City.

Francesa's other guests that day? NBA commissioner David Stern, NBC lead golf analyst Johnny Miller and Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez.

Good company.

Right around Father's Day, "The Longest Shot" moved to No. 2 on the list of best-selling sports books on Barnes & Noble's website and ranked in the top 25 nonfiction books overall.

Yes, it's been a whirlwind couple of months for Sagebiel. And it started with a simple blog.

"This has all been sort of organic," he said.

After moving to Floyd from Seattle nine years ago, Sagebiel was doing marketing work and promotional writing for several companies, but he was looking for a creative outlet.

Golf always has been one of his passions. Although he doesn't play much any more (he'd probably shoot between 80 and 85 at Great Oaks in Floyd, he said), Sagebiel competed in high school and junior college and would spend entire summers on the course as a youngster in California.

So essentially on a whim in 2005, Sagebiel launched the Armchair Golf Blog, where he would post musings on tournaments, players and history.

"I didn't really know what I was doing at first," he said with a smile. "But after I'd done it about a year, it was fun, and things started happening. I started noticing a little more traffic. It wasn't this big huge thing, but I started making connections in the golf world."

One of them: Fleck, an Iowa municipal pro who rallied from nine strokes back in the final 54 holes in '55 to force an 18-hole playoff with Hogan. The victory often is cited as one of the most stunning upsets in sports history.

Funny thing, though. There was no book about it.

A reader gave Sagebiel Fleck's phone number. Sagebiel made the first call to Fleck in March of 2007 with no intentions of writing a book. He just wanted to chat and do a blog post.

"It's funny," Sagebiel said. "He's still trying to defend his victory over Hogan, really, 50-plus years later, and really wanted to get the attention of bigger media. I'm just this blogger living in a small town.

"The more I found out about his story, I thought, 'This is really an amazing story. Hollywood couldn't make this up.' I'd always had a book on my list of things to do as a writer, but I think a lot of people do. I knew it'd be really difficult, but I felt like this is something worth tackling."

Sagebiel proposal was rejected by more than 20 publishers before St. Martin's Press stepped up and offered a modest advance.

The book was published May 22. Recently, it got a second printing. Sagebiel, who's married with two daughters, has seen the project consume about half of his working hours, with numerous promotions, book signings and media appearances.

He's even started preliminary work on a second book, also on an iconic moment in golf history.

"Every phase of this has been something I've never done before," he said.

Or something he does infrequently - like pump his fists and sprint down the stairs.

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