Master of the Improbable

When they say something can't be done, trust Turk Pipkin to say, 'Wanna bet?'

Master of the Improbable
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Turk Pipkin is about to tee off on the legendary 18th hole of Pebble Beach Golf Links. The view is grand, with the azure waters of Carmel Bay to the left, a wall of monumental pines to the right, and the Santa Lucia Range at the golfer's back, like a distant gallery watching his shot. But Pipkin isn't thinking about the scenery. He's thinking about those 543 yards between him and the pin, about how to play the fairway that hugs the curving shore just feet from the water line. He's thinking about the time he played it a year ago and his tee shot vanished beneath the waves. He's thinking about the 89 he shot that day and the promise he made to return in a year having taken 10 strokes off his game. He's thinking about the months that he's dedicated to the pursuit of that unlikely goal and how close he is – six measly strokes – to pulling it off.

When Pipkin conceived of this yearlong quest, he announced it to the men he'd played with that day over a drink in Pebble Beach's Tap Room. They all salute the idea with a toast, "but when I glance up at them," he reports in his new book The Old Man and the Tee, "I can see they think I'm crazy."

They weren't the first to look at Pipkin that way. Countless audience members had done the same in his performing days, whenever he'd announce from the stage that he was going to juggle ping-pong balls with his mouth (a stunt of his now preserved for the ages in the film Waiting for Guffman). No doubt his family looked at him that way the day he quit college to make his living as a street performer. I expect I looked at him that way the day he told me he was going to play a born-again narcoleptic on The Sopranos. And I'm willing to wager that somebody gave him that "he's crazy" look when he let fly that he was going to make a movie of interviews with Nobel Prize winners.

But time and again Pipkin has proven himself capable of meeting challenges that are beyond the reach of most folks. They aren't impossible exactly, these challenges, but they're just hard enough and far enough out there that success seems, at best, implausible. And yet, he is able to master them. He could spew ping-pong balls out of his upturned mouth like a geyser, catch them in his mouth, and shoot them out again. He made a 15-year career out of juggling and comedy, working his way up from the Drag in Austin to club gigs in Vegas and Los Angeles and concert openings for everyone from Willie Nelson to Rodney Dangerfield to Count Basie. He parlayed that into a writing career, spinning out television and film scripts, magazine articles, and a pair of well-regarded novels, including one about, improbably enough, caddying in West Texas. He dozed off on the shoulder of Tony Soprano. And his interview with Desmond Tutu is in the can. If Turk Pipkin says he's going to do something, no matter how far-fetched it sounds, only a sucker would bet against him.


Going for the Juggler

So what's the secret to Pipkin's success? Maybe it helps to have an improbable name hung on an improbable frame. Although he came by his moniker honestly – his full name being Clyde Turk Pipkin, just the same as his grandmother, who was christened with old family surnames from Scotland and Ireland – he still sounds like some racetrack habitué dreamed up by Damon Runyon. And considering that he's about as long from head to toe as the road from Austin to San Angelo (where, incidentally, he grew up), Pipkin has a natural bent for the unusual.

Then again, maybe once you've survived getting hit by a school bus as a kid ("Apparently, I flew like E.T."), you figure you can set your own agenda in the world.

That's more or less what Pipkin did, although to hear him tell it, there wasn't much to it in the way of design. In The Old Man and the Tee, he laments his lack of self-discipline and credits his achievements in life to "a manic commitment to doing what I enjoy." He learned to juggle, he writes, "just for a lark," but when he discovered how much he liked it he got so good at it that he could go pro. Then, some 3,000 performances later, he decided he was done with it, and that was pretty much that.

By then he was writing and liked it so much that he just kept stringing words together for whomever he could wherever he could. "I ended up writing a lot of different things in a desperate attempt to make a living as a writer," he told me recently. "So I wrote for magazines, and I wrote nonfiction, and I wrote fiction, and I wrote television, and I wrote film, and I wrote speeches for politics. As it turns out, that was a lucky stroke. It's enabled me to write about what I wanted to write about."

Master of the Improbable
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Like fishing in the Sea of Cortez off Baja and catching a fish that talked. (A creature of great common sense, it said, "Put me back, pendejo!") Like traveling to Cuba to share a cigar with the Old Man – the Old Man, from Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Like joining a hundred Austinites in dropping trou and mooning the KKK at the state Capitol. And playing golf (and chess!) with Willie Nelson. And caddying as a kid in San Angelo. And now, spending a year getting his golf game down 10 strokes.

In doing what he enjoys, Pipkin has given himself no end of material for writing what he wants to writes. "If I didn't ever come up with another idea, I think I probably have enough to last me the rest of my life," he says. "But that's not going to be what happens. I'll come up with another hundred things I want to do."


Driver's Ed

Case in point: his quest to better his golf game. That wasn't something Pipkin initially set out to do. It just grew out of an impulse to play a round of golf in tribute to his late father, the man who first put a golf club in his hand, dropped a ball, and told him to "hit it in the hole." But when that round turned sour, Pipkin felt he hadn't honored his dad at all. That's when he hatched the plan to spend 12 months slicing 10 strokes off his handicap and learning to love the game again. Now that would be a fitting tribute to the golf-loving "Pip" Pipkin.

It also would be, as his fellow players in the Tap Room instantly understood, totally nuts. Taking 10 strokes off his game was supposed to be one of Hercules' 12 Labors, but the level of difficulty was such that Herc asked if he could clean the Augean stables instead. Pipkin, however, was willing to do something the Greek demigod wasn't: get help. And that's one thing that Pipkin does consistently to aid him in his improbable quests: He goes to those who knows. When he was first performing on the street, he hooked up with Harry Anderson, who seemed to know every con, card trick, racket, swindle, cheat, bar bet, and grift in the English-speaking world, the knowledge of which Pipkin, shall we say, absorbed.

So, in taking on the incredible task of taking 10 strokes off his golf game, he approached every pro, every instructor, every devotee of the game he could get within 10 feet of to gain their wisdom. As documented in the book, that was an amazing array of teachers, from the true pros such as David Leadbetter, David Cook, and Dave Pelz, to a few illustrious amateurs such as George Plimpton, Willie, and some savvy Scots caddies to legends of the game such as Ben Crenshaw, Byron Nelson, and even Arnold Palmer. With so much advice from so many sources, information overload can be a problem, and over the year Pipkin struggled to integrate everything he learned into his game.

Still, he was motivated, and that too seems key to his success. In devoting a year to golf, he was driven by a love for his father, and that made all the difference. Images of Pip came to his son again and again through the year: taking Turk to the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, watching the Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach on TV, playing the San Angelo Country Club course, praising the four-wood, loving the game, passing along that love to his son. Call it sentimental – Pipkin won't mind at all if you do – but there's a force there that can inspire a person to do just about anything.


For Whom the Nobel Tolls

Case in point: Make a documentary film out of conversations with Nobel laureates. Pipkin had a longstanding interest in Nobel Prize winners and had read books by several of them, but the film might not have been sparked had it not been for seeing one talk to his daughter. At a party a few years ago, Pipkin's elder girl, Katie, who was 10 years old at the time, struck up a conversation with Steven Weinberg, a man who can give you a nanosecond-by-nanosecond account of the first three minutes of the universe and is one of three winners of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. Pipkin saw the two of them talking about Texas fossils and geology and saw a genuine connection in their conversation. As a parent, you're always concerned for your children's future, what kind of world they'll inherit. Wouldn't it be great if we could get the smartest people in the world to look at that world of the future and tell us how we can make it better for them? An improbable idea, which may be why Pipkin embraced it and Nobelity was born. He's motivated to get that world for his girls.

To date, Pipkin has filmed interviews with Weinberg, Desmond Tutu (1984 Nobel Prize for Peace), and Richard Smalley (1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry). He's currently making arrangements to talk to Jimmy Carter (2002 Nobel Prize for Peace), Jody Williams (1997 Nobel Prize for Peace), Ahmed Zewail (1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry), and Harold Varmus (1989 Nobel Prize for Medicine). He asked them to give us their view of the world over the next 50 years, in the hopes that they can provide the rest of humanity with a desperately needed wake-up call.

"We're so short-sighted in everything," Pipkin laments. "Right now we can't think past next week's election, much less post-election, much less 50 years on. But our screwed-up fundraising system and our screwed-up political system and the Electoral College are such small problems compared to the shit we're going to be faced with in the next 50 years when there's 9-10 billion people on Earth and very little clean water and real extremes in weather conditions compared to what we have, which will benefit some areas but totally annihilate other areas economically. And no particular strategy for how we're going to deal with it all.

"The thing is, you talk to the Nobelists I'm speaking with, and there are tremendous solutions to all these problems. The solutions are there; we're just not spending the research money. They're curing every disease known to man. It's unbelievable the advances we're making. Solving pollution issues, a lot of it comes from just more knowledge, more understanding of what we're doing. There's optimism at every level – on the global human relations level and political relations level, too. But it's not just going to happen by accident. You have to choose to go there."

So the tall guy with the funny name from West Texas, the juggler/golfer/writer might hold the key to a brighter future? That sounds pretty, well, improbable. Yeah, Pipkin allows, "but everybody told me that you couldn't take 10 strokes off your golf game in a year." end story


As part of the Texas Book Festival, Turk Pipkin will appear in the panel The Write Way to Parent with authors Carl Lennertz and Paul Collins on Saturday, Oct. 30, 10:45-11:30am, in Room E2012 of the Capitol Extension. He will also have a solo reading on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2:45-3:45pm, in the House Chamber of the Texas State Capitol. For more information, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.
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