One day some years ago I somehow found myself playing golf with Bob Woodward. It's just one of those things that can happen in Washington without warning. Your first thought when you see someone like Bob Woodward is: "Bob [freakin'] Woodward! Holy [freakin'] [stuff]! Wait till I tell my buddies from [pathetic hometown]!"
And then social pressure takes over, and you force yourself to act as though playing golf with Bob Woodward is something you do routinely. You can't make a fuss! You can't badger him the entire time about Deep Throat. You're just a coupla buddies, whacking around the dimpled ball. Indeed, the social pressure to be nonchalant is so great you find yourself treating Woodward as though he's your caddy. ("Bob, hand me my 3-iron.")
It's hard not to be in awe when in the presence of Washington royalty. Like you're at a party, and suddenly there's Ben Bradlee, with the gravelly voice and the big forearms, the testosterone fogging up the room, and he's always saying something manly and witty, like, "Yaaarrr, but nothin' clanks when he walks!" And you nod your head, and laugh, and squeeze your own forearms when no one's looking, wondering what it would take to be like Ben.
[I am a horrible name-dropper, so while I'm at it: Once I was at a party and saw Alan Greenspan. This is a true story. I walked up and asked, point-blank, if he had the power to order me to take the cash out of my pocket and give it to him. Like, couldn't he, as Fed chairman, just say, "Give me all your money"? He looked at me for a moment and then looked away, and that was the end of the encounter.]
So I'm playing golf with Bob, on the Eastern Shore. There's another member of the group, someone I will call "Dave," because that's his name. Of the three of us, Dave ought to be the best golfer, because he drives so well. I am speaking now of the golf cart. He's terrific at staying on the cart path.
Dave also has excellent golf clothes. Pleated shorts! That takes years to master. He is absolutely brilliant -- I am talking PGA Tour caliber -- at repairing a divot. The only time he gets in trouble is when he attempts to hit the ball. Countless times, as he has taken his stance over the ball, imagining its glorious flight, I've had to speak up (as a friend!) and remind him, "Nothing good can come of this."
To be sure, he's a much better golfer than I am. I spray the ball into the woods, into the creek, into the snack bar, and into exotic geological features that have gone undiscovered until I hit a ball there (tar pits, sinkholes, volcanic craters, etc.). But whereas I have accepted that my golf game is an abomination, and am not terribly bothered when I putt the ball completely off the green and into a previously unknown fissure in the Earth's crust, Dave retains the thing that is most dangerous on a golf course: hope. He's always thinking birdie. A bogey, for Dave, is an indictment of his character. A double bogey is a war crime. If he makes a triple bogey, he gets on his knees and prays for death.
But this is not how my close chum Bobby W. plays. His game is very . . . conservative. He attempts no miracle shots. He doesn't try to hit the Greatest Drive of the Modern Era. Indeed, it appears that he uses only two clubs from his golf bag: the 3-wood and the 8-iron. He trusts those clubs. He hits those clubs well. This is clearly a man who knows the central truth of success: You must play to your strengths.
Over the course of the round, Dave would be staging his golfing psychodrama, finding new ways to turn a golf shot into a metaphor for personal failure, and I would be in the deep forest, exploring a prehistoric Indian mound that my ball had discovered, but Woody would be whistling and sauntering and sort of tapping his way down the center of the fairway, and when the day was over he had shot a very respectable round in the mid-80s, the best of the three of us.
Any journalist could learn a lot from watching Bob Woodward play golf. After Watergate, he could have become a dilettante, could have written novels or hosted a talk show or become a full-time social butterfly. Instead, he stuck to what he did well. He asked good questions, cultivated sources, wrote best-selling books and kept hitting the ball down the center of the fairway. All anyone really needs in life is a trusty 3-wood and a dependable 8-iron.
Though a really good source at the FBI doesn't hurt.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.