A Golfing Life
For the daughter of a teaching pro, the game has been a constant while traveling the world as an eagle-eyed editor
By Ellen Cannon
Four decades ago I was hitting balls on the range at the Lost Tree Club in North Palm Beach, Fla. I lived in New York City and was pursuing a career in magazine journalism, but I was on a spring trip to visit my parents. My dad, Joe Cannon, was the director of golf at the club, where Jack Nicklaus lived and played.
Although Dad had taught my three siblings and me to play when we were young, none of us had fully embraced the game. The range was crowded with members warming up before their rounds, and Jack was there to practice. He and my dad were chatting when my dad called out to me. “El, come over here,” he said. “Jack, you remember my daughter Ellen.” Jack greeted me, we chatted a little and then he said, “Don’t let me interrupt your warmup.”
When I returned to my spot, everyone on the range stopped to watch me hit, including my dad and Jack. I teed up a ball and then announced rather loudly, “It’s a lot of pressure to hit with my dad watching.”
Laughter all around. My heart was pounding, but I striped the ball down the middle.
This is why I didn’t play golf when I was growing up and Dad was the director of golf at the Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. Few girls played back then, and the eyes on me as the golf pro’s kid were too much for a self-conscious sort. I preferred competitive squash and tennis, which I believe irritated my dad a little. A tennis match, he liked to say, was like playing the same golf hole over and over.
My real passion was magazine journalism. After graduating from the University of Delaware, I started at TV Guide in the Philly suburbs. I married a professional squash player—yes, those people exist—and continued playing competitively until my career became more important. In early 1983, I had the opportunity to join the start-up staff of Time Inc.’s TV-Cable Week, which the company hoped would rival TV Guide. It was based in White Plains, N.Y., and I schlepped from the city to the ’burbs every day.
That spring I visited my parents in North Palm Beach and played golf with my dad a few times. I suddenly developed a passion for the game. Dad shipped me a set of clubs and a bag, and I couldn’t wait to play.
At TV-Cable Week, a couple of colleagues loved the game and we would often play nine holes before or after work at one of the public courses in Westchester County. I was getting to be an OK player.
I also began teaching my husband how to play, and we both became obsessed. We played everywhere in the NY metro area, but our favorite course was Split Rock in the Bronx. It was built as a WPA project during the Depression, but by the ’80s, it was scruffy and borderline dangerous. The attendant who collected green fees sat behind a metal mesh barrier in the clubhouse. Still, I was consistently breaking 90 and felt at ease playing in front of anyone, including the many colorful characters at Split Rock.
That golf routine was short-lived. TV-Cable Week folded after just nine months, and I went to work as a copy editor at Time in Manhattan. Over the next few years, I had a series of more demanding jobs at various magazines, and golf was relegated to vacations or weekends out of the city.
By 1989, I was the managing editor of House & Garden. That April, while playing squash with a friend during lunch, I whiffed the ball repeatedly. I couldn’t understand why that was happening. I returned to work, but walking home I stumbled and nearly fell. Over the next three weeks, I became increasingly ill. I had vertigo, which caused me to vomit regularly. I developed a headache worse than any migraine I’d ever had. A CT scan revealed a venous angioma at the base of my brain had bled. I spent a couple of weeks at NYU Hospital in intensive care and in the neurological ward until I was deemed well enough to go home.
After I recuperated, I moved to a new Time Inc. magazine, Entertainment Weekly. Start-ups are intense, especially weeklies, but I love the work. As my role at EW evolved, I worked with writers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, the art and photo departments, even ad sales. I set the daily deadlines and managed the workflow. It was the best job working with the best people.
In 1991, Time Inc. decided to launch an Australian edition of People magazine. I was asked to move to Sydney to be a part of Who Weekly, doing the same job I had done at EW. Newly divorced and always ready for a new challenge, I moved to Australia in January 1992.
I felt at home the moment I landed in Sydney. I loved the people, the food, the landscape, the animals, the culture. While the magazine had all the urgency of a start-up, the job was more laid-back than in New York. Australians work to live, not live to work. I took to playing golf in the afternoons and weekends at munis in the Sydney area. Occasionally, I might be asked to play with a magazine advertiser at a private club such as the Australian and Royal New South Wales. But the public courses were fine and the people were friendly and the weather was conducive to playing year-round. My female colleagues often complained that Australian men could be chauvinistic, but I never encountered that on the course. I think they respected that I was out there at all.
In January 1993, I awoke with familiar dreaded symptoms: vertigo, nausea, headache. An MRI showed the angioma was bleeding into itself, and I underwent surgery a few days later. I went almost a year before I teed it up again.
When I first tried to play again, putting was the tricky part. The hemorrhages and surgery affected my balance and caused short spurts of vertigo. When I would bend down to mark my ball, I’d get the somersault-in-the-stomach feeling that preceded vertigo. I had to move my head slowly to look at the hole and then back to my ball to avoid inducing vertigo. That lasted for about a year. At least I had a pretty good excuse whenever I missed a short putt.
I am incredibly fortunate that those are the only residual effects I’ve had. Today, when I’m especially tired or if my head is in a certain position, I get a little bout of vertigo, which lasts only a dozen or so seconds. Otherwise, I’m well.
I returned to full-time work at Entertainment Weekly in the fall of 1993. Six months later, I got a call from a former colleague who told me she was doing some freelance work for a company called Bloomberg. She said the owner, Mike Bloomberg, wanted to start a magazine, and she recommended me. I left Time Inc. and embarked on a 10-year run at Bloomberg, launching magazines, books and the website. The print publications were based in Princeton, N.J., and finally I was healthy and living in a place with tons of good public golf options. One of my favorites was Mercer Oaks. You never knew who you’d be paired with there: a Goldman Sachs trader, a Trenton cop, a pharma scientist, a college kid. Golf introduces you to so many people you might not otherwise cross paths with.
After Bloomberg left the company to become the mayor of New York City, I decided it was time to move from the print world to the web. I took a job with Bankrate.com in North Palm Beach, Fla., and relocated to one of the golf capitals of the world. Working online was different from print, but the pace was similar and I loved editing and writing about personal finance. Palm Beach County has more than 160 golf courses, and I played a lot of them. Few of my colleagues played, so I joined the Executive Women’s Golf Association (which is now the LPGA Amateur Golf Association). Among others, I played with retired executives, former college golfers, PGA of America employees, schoolteachers and nurses. Some of the women were very competitive, and some of us just wanted to meet new people and play different courses. All of us loved the game. During the summers, a group of us would play nine holes on Wednesday evenings and then have dinner, usually at the North Palm Beach Country Club. We were working women, and this was a perfect way to break up the week.
My parents spent the winters with me in Florida. Dad and I played nearly every weekend, and he gave me a lot of lessons, especially on course management and green reading. If we weren’t playing, we would go to the practice green at Abacoa Golf Club in Jupiter and play two balls against each other in a putting match. I treasured that time with my dad. And I learned to putt well.
I moved back to Delaware in 2016, when I was working for NerdWallet.com and they said I could live anywhere. As soon as I decided to move, my sister nominated me for membership at Wilmington Country Club, where she, our dad, her daughters and their families were all members. For the first time in my life, I joined a private club.
Many people now know Wilmington Country Club as one of the courses President Biden plays. In late May, the President played our North course, his first round since he was elected. My group had teed off mid-morning, and as we came to the 18th hole, we were greeted by four Secret Service agents and a sniffer dog. They apologized for the intrusion, but explained that the President was about to tee off on 13, which parallels 18. They wanded us and looked in our golf bags, and the dog sniffed for whatever it sniffs for. Then the agents accompanied us as we played the hole. A lot of the members complain about the disruption the presidential entourage causes, but I think it’s fun to have POTUS as a member.
Sadly, a year after I moved home, my dad died at age 94. I played his last round of golf with him. We only got in nine that Sunday, and, as always, he didn’t write down his score; he kept it in his head. I think he shot 2 over. Dad had a classic, Hoganesque swing (although his idol was Bobby Jones, the ultimate golfing gentleman). I’ve always tried to swing the club like my dad but could never match his grace.
When we finished our round, we went to the driving range to say hi to his great-granddaughter Lucy. As we approached, an old friend stopped him to chat. One of the top real estate agents in town—who didn’t know Dad—came over to introduce himself. Then a couple I play with often walked over from the 1st tee to see him. Lucy, 9 at the time, was waiting patiently to show her great-grandfather her swing. Finally, she whispered to me, “Grandpa Joe’s like a rock star, isn’t he?” Yes, he was.
I think of him every time I tee it up, and I wish he could see me play today. I’ve played more golf in the past five years than ever before. I play in the Women’s Golf Association of Philadelphia team matches. I’m finishing up my term as president of the WCC 18-Hole Women’s Golf Association. I’m on the Golf and Grounds Committees at WCC, and I’ll be volunteering in the media center when Wilmington Country Club hosts the 2022 BMW Championship. I am finally a full-time golfer.
If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering how I wound up here, editing for the Fire Pit Collective.
Several years ago, I started following Laz Versalles on Twitter because he made funny and smart comments on No Laying Up tweets. Then I started seeing his posts on the Refuge. And then his byline showed up in The Golfer’s Journal.
When I read that Alan Shipnuck (whose work at Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine I’d read for years) and Matt Ginella (whose golf travels I envied) were forming the Fire Pit Collective, I started reading/watching/listening on the site. And then Laz was there too! So I reached out to Laz and said, “If you ever need any editing help…”