Hole in One: Alan Shipnuck’s Journey to the Top of His Game
While most 13-year-old boys “read” Sports Illustrated for the Swimsuit Edition, Alan Shipnuck’s love affair with the magazine was a much more serious affair. For the past two decades, he’s been in a committed relationship with the iconic sports magazine—traveling to exotic places (every continent except Antarctica), meeting some of the greatest athletes of the 21st century (Peyton Manning or Marshawn Lynch, anyone?), writing countless cover stories, and four books (one of which is being turned into a screenplay). He does it all, while still managing to get in the occasional round of golf (at only the most exclusive resorts of course). But the senior writer and resident golf expert at Sports Illustrated wasn’t an overnight success. His successful career, like many of the athletes he’s interviewed, was many years in the making.
Shipnuck explains, while sitting in the comfort of his airy home in Carmel-by-the-Sea. “I started covering sports for The Californian.”
Growing-up in Salinas, Shipnuck always knew he wanted to write. But he didn’t want to just write for anyone. He wanted to write for the best—specifically, he wanted to write for Sports Illustrated.
“When I was 13 years old, I would make flow charts of Sports Illustrated articles,” Shipnuck says. “I would diagram and think about it. You can read for pleasure or you can be like a quarterback and analyze it like game film and you can really break down stories and think about why the writer started here, and went there, and ended here.”
So just how did Shipnuck make the Hail Mary from small town newspaper to world’s most revered sports magazine? Similar to the subjects of his interviews, he did it with drive, hustle, born talent, and finding that one influential person who believed in him as much as he believed in himself.
“My summer job my senior year at Salinas High was as a customer service representative at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Those less delicate with the language would call me a cart boy,” he says. “It was definitely the coolest summer job ever. I used to make so much in tips I’d forget to pick up my paycheck. And we could play golf pretty much whenever we wanted back in those days. Pebble Beach is really where I learned to play golf. A line I’ve used before is, it’s really like losing your virginity to Angelina Jolie. It’s all downhill from there,” he laughs.
Aside from the big tips and prime golfing, Shipnuck’s summer job had other perks too—meeting celebrities, athletes, and prominent editors.
“My first summer, we used to get printouts of the next day’s tee times and I would always flip through them because it was always full of famous athletes and actors and whoever was coming out. And I saw the name Mark Mulvoy,” he whispers reverently, letting the name hang in the air before he continues. “He was the Managing Editor of Sports Illustrated.”
Shipnuck’s blue eyes sparkle at the memory, even today.
While most people wouldn’t have recognized the name, Shipnuck did. A devoted reader since 8 or 9-years-old, he used to devour each monthly issue—reading it from cover to cover, including the infamous Letter to the Editor, where Mulvoy’s name was prominently displayed.
“I was very tuned in to the personnel at the magazine,” he says. “Early on, my dream job was to write for Sports Illustrated. So I knew Mulvoy. [When] he came out [to Pebble Beach], he kind of patted me on my head and sent me on my way. But he gave me his card and said ‘Keep in touch kid.’”
So Shipnuck made sure he did. And chose a college that would help nourish his writing passion, which he hoped would later help him to earn a seat writing for Sports Illustrated.
“I chose UCLA because of The Daily Bruin,” Shipnuck explains. “I mean I got into Northwestern and I went to visit. First of all, it was freezing but their school paper was like this eight page pamphlet. The Daily Bruin, they had more sports pages than The LA Times!”
Every few months, Shipnuck sent Mulvoy a letter. For two years, Shipnuck sent the letters and for two years, he never received a response. Nevertheless, Shipnuck was undeterred, and Mulvoy’s silence only made him hungrier.
“Mulvoy comes out again [to Pebble Beach] and I saw him on the tee sheet,” Shipnuck says. “I wasn’t even supposed to work the next day but I switched my shift just so I could be there. So he comes out and he says ‘Oh yeah, you’re the kid that sent me all of those letters’. Even though I don’t think he ever read one.”
As luck would have it, Sports Illustrated was expanding its golf coverage, creating a new product called Golf Plus. Mulvoy realized an intern might be required for the project and offered Shipnuck the break every writer dreams of—an 8 month internship with a world-renowned magazine.
“So I dropped out of school. Arrived in a blizzard on New Years Day in 94’. My first day was January 2nd,” he says.
Going from small town living in California with his parents to living alone in New York City was an entirely new experience for a young Shipnuck. But it was novel for the execs at the magazine too. While interns in the summer weren’t news to anyone, interns in the winter were an entirely different ballgame.
“Mulvoy was the top guy. His title was Managing Editor. He could do whatever he wanted,” Shipnuck explains. “He just created this position. So they had to find me a place to live. He sent his secretary out and they found me this really killer studio on the Upper East Side, which they paid for. And then I got a salary! I got like a $400 a week salary without any rent! It was like the greatest internship ever. But the golf editor, I was like this huge imposition for her. The last thing she wanted to do was deal with this intern. So for months, I read The New York Times and all these back issues. I’m probably one of the few people on the earth who’s ever read every Sports Illustrated ever printed,” he chuckles.
Golf Plus seemed to be an overnight sensation. Advertiser dollars were pouring in and they needed something to fill the pages—quickly. While Shipnuck may have seemed second string to his editor, they needed more people out in the field writing articles.
“Since I was kind of [Mulvoy’s] pet project, [he] would send me out to do these little stories,” Shipnuck recalls. “So I kept writing more and more stories and I wound up doing a cover story before my internship was over. I wasn’t even 21 yet, so I couldn’t rent cars, I was taking like $100 cab rides all over the place. I wasn’t even eligible for a corporate express because I wasn’t a full time employee.”
After his cover story, Mulvoy pulled the young journalist prodigy into his office and wanted to offer him the job of a lifetime. There was just one thing stopping Mulvoy from pulling the trigger—Shipnuck didn’t have a college degree.
“[He] said, ‘You know, I’d hire you tomorrow but your parents would hate me. Go back and finish your degree and we’ll save a job for you,’” Shipnuck remembers. “The day I graduated, they hired me. That was in 96.”
Two decades later, Shipnuck is still batting a thousand. He recently traveled to Augusta, where he accepted his 6th writing award from the Golf Writer’s Association of America—the record to beat is 8, which Shipnuck should break in record speed, as his career doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon. But despite the awards, the fame, and many accomplishments, at the end of the day, Shipnuck credits his wife and family for his continued success.
“They need to have [an awards dinner] for the wives of the writers,” he says, gesturing to the many family photos sitting on the bookshelves and hanging on the walls of his home. “They’re really the ones that deserve the recognition. We’re the ones that get to go to fun places and hang out at golf courses and we eat the free food and walk around in the sunshine. Writing and deadline can be really, really, hard but it’s still a fun life. But the family we leave behind, it’s harder for them. We should organize a dinner sometime for those we leave behind at home—the kids, the husbands, the wives, the babysitters, whoever because it’s a challenge.”
All that to say, Shipnuck hasn’t let his wife of 13 years miss out on all the fun. The crafty writer has devised some pretty good boondoggles, convincing his editors to send him to places like Italy so he could do some “investigative” journalism.
“I made myself the European Tour correspondent and for a month, Frannie and I traveled in Europe,” Shipnuck says, a huge grin spreading across his tanned face. “No coincidence that it coincided with the National Championships of Italy, Spain, and Portugal so we drove around and I just wrote stories as we went. It was like being Bonny and Clyde.”
And while Shipnuck may have flirted briefly with the idea of covering other sports, when it comes down to it, the golfing lifestyle is pretty hard to beat.
“I’m kind of top of the food chain now,” he muses. “[Golf’s] a great beat. You know, you start your year in Maui, then you go to La Jolla, then to Pebble Beach, then to Scottsdale, then to South Beach. Whereas, if you’re covering the NBA, you go to Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit and it’s snowing the whole time. So it’s kind of seductive in that you’re always in nice places. The sun is always shining.”
The expert in his field, Shipnuck is a valuable asset to the magazine. But his status doesn’t stunt his curiosity. For Shipnuck, the story isn’t necessarily about golf or sports at all for that matter—it’s in the humanity of it.
“Sports writing to some degree, some people dismiss it. We’re not writing about national defense, but what brings a community or big city together like a sporting event? You see the way San Francisco rallies around the Giants. There’s nothing like that,” Shipnuck expounds. “There’s no political protest, there’s no social issue that could mobilize a whole city like that. There is a communal aspect to sports and I see it when I go to these events. Rarely do I write stories that are deep analysis of a guy’s golf swing. You’re really writing about the human element. That’s universal. The struggle to be the best, to overcome your personal demons, to achieve your potential—these are things we all deal with in our own lives. It’s why we get inspired by athletes. It’s not just the physical gifts. You watch a basketball game, you know you can’t dunk like LeBron James but what you can relate to is that quest to get better. The physical aspects are unique but the struggles are still the same.”
And just like LeBron James, Shipnuck is also constantly sharpening his skills. Being a golf writer for Sports Illustrated is like being a center fielder for the Yankees—there’s a great legacy. But no legacy is built without an enormous amount of discipline and training and Shipnuck is no exception to the rule.
“I subscribe to probably a dozen magazines. How do you learn how to write? A lot of it is reading and thinking about what you read. It starts with reading and you have to find your own voice,” Shipnuck concludes. “It’s like any other job. You have to put in the man-hours and even though it’s not physical labor it takes discipline. It takes a certain amount of commitment. On some level, I feel like writers are born, not made; sort of like painting or being able to play a musical instrument or a golf swing. Some things you’re born with and it’s a gift. But you have to develop it. Whether you’re Tiger Woods, Mozart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, you’re born with something special but you need to put in the time.”