Interview in my hometown newspaper (January 2, 2010)

This story appeared January 2, 2010 in the Press Enterprise of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Original version here (subscription required).

Golf writer: Woods aloof

But Bloom native covering Shanghai tournament says focus makes Tiger the world’s greatest player

By MICHAEL LESTER
Press Enterprise Writer

SHANGHAI, China — Bloomsburg native Dan Washburn shadowed Tiger Woods around a golf course here during a November tournament, observing the superstar’s every move for stories he was writing for ESPN.com.

“I guess life was much simpler back then for him,” Washburn joked.

The Shanghai tournament preceded by less than three weeks Woods’s notorious Black Friday SUV crash that set off round-the-clock media scrutiny of the world’s greatest golfer and spawned reports he had cheated on his wife.

With Woods facing top rival Phil Mickelson in Shanghai, Washburn followed them for 18 holes, documenting their interactions (or lack thereof) with each other and fans.

Washburn, 36, wrote on ESPN.com that Mickelson came off as the good guy — outgoing and approachable. Mickelson won over both fans and media.

Woods, meanwhile, was the player most fans wanted to see. But Woods was standoffish, disappointing his admirers. He was described in one Chinese publication as “cold-blooded.”

“They didn’t exchange one word,” Washburn said of Woods and Mickelson. “There’s definitely a rivalry there.”

While Mickelson playfully chatted up fans at times, Woods kept to himself, said Washburn.

“He’s just so focused on the task at hand,” Washburn said of Woods. “The reason he is the golfer he is is that everything else is secondary.”

Washburn fired a few questions at Woods during a press conference, but he didn’t get any one-on-one time.

‘Smoking a cigar’

Washburn has also become preoccupied with golf.

The 1992 Bloomsburg graduate, who grew up on Market Street in town, doesn’t play the sport. But he did take lessons a few times.

(As a kid, he was always the designated cart driver, “smoking a cigar,” while his buddies golfed at area courses like Arnold’s.)

Washburn has become a guy U.S. media turn to for perspective on golf in China.

Besides ESPN.com, the freelance writer has had articles published in Baseball America, Golf World and Outside magazine’s Go publication.

Washburn said he has a cover story in the works for the January edition of Financial Times in the United Kingdom about efforts to turn Hainan, a tropical Chinese island, into a golfing resort. The U.S. edition of the magazine will publish the story in an inside section, he said.

“What Dan brings to his reporting is a perspective and an expertise to golf in a portion of the world that, by all accounts, is expanding exponentially during a worldwide economic slowdown,” said Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com’s senior editor for golf.

“Dan’s coverage of golf will certainly continue with great storytelling of the up-and-coming players from the world’s most populous nation.”

‘Less of a sports story’

On the same day Woods crashed his Cadillac Escalade, Washburn provided his insight on the future of golf in China for a story published in the Wall Street Journal.

“Golf will continue to grow in participation in China as the economy grows,” Washburn told the Journal. “But I don’t think it’ll become a mainstream game because of the resources necessary. It’s going to be an elitist and prohibitively expensive sport in China for the foreseeable future.”

Washburn has been writing about golf in China since 2005, and he has been researching the topic for a future book.

Golf is a relatively new sport there. It’s been played only about 25 years, Washburn said.

“It’s less of a sports story,” he said. “It’s a story that says something about the changes China is going through today. Golf is a very symbolic activity, symbolic of the country’s economic rise. It also runs up against many of the issues China is facing today. Land use issues. Environmental issues. The gap between rich and poor. It’s a very politically charged activity. ”

Asked if he is the media’s go-to guy in China when it comes to the development of golf in that country, Washburn said, “I’m reluctant to call myself an expert in anything.

“There are few other people, especially journalists, covering this issue. There are definitely people involved — architects, construction companies, executives. I guess I would be the person that people would call. Nobody else is doing these stories. It’s a window into China that not many people have thought of yet. It’s quite a unique topic that delves into so many issues.”

Meeting with love

A chance meeting in Hawaii with an ESPN.com editor led Washburn to the Chinese golf beat.

Washburn, in China since 2002, was visiting family in Honolulu, where his older brother Dave is an executive director for Habitat for Humanity. The Washburns’ father, retired Bloomsburg University education professor David Washburn, also lives in Hawaii since his retirement.

The editor, Jason Sobel, a nephew of a family friend, happened to be there, and Washburn discussed a possible job.

As a freelance writer, Washburn says he has to be persistent in pitching story ideas to editors, if he wants to stay busy and pay the bills. Sometimes editors approach him with ideas.

A chance 2002 meeting in Shanghai also led Washburn to his wife, Bliss Khaw, a native of Washington state.

Shortly after moving to Shanghai, Washburn arranged to have dinner with a guy who ran an English-only Web site about Shanghai. Washburn wanted to meet him and thank him for his help getting acclimated to the city.

The Web guy invited Bliss to dinner that night too. He knew Bliss because his nephew was in an orchestra with her.

‘Friendly town’

Like Bliss, Washburn had connections to Georgia, so the Web guy, turned match-maker, figured they’d get along just fine.

Washburn worked for The Times, a daily newspaper outside Atlanta. Bliss had lived in Athens, Ga.

During a visit home for New Year’s 2006, Washburn proposed to Bliss at the Inn at Turkey Hill near Bloomsburg.

They’ve been married since September 2006. (Bliss kept her maiden name.)

Dan and Bliss have no children. They have two dogs – mutts: Ozzie and Tux.

Bliss works in corporate investigations. Her job involves looking into Chinese firms for Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. looking to do business in that country.

Dan tries to get home at least once a year.

His mother, Sandy, still lives in the Market Street home where he grew up.

“Bloomsburg has some of the nicest people in the world,” Washburn said. “It’s a friendly town. Coming from a city like Shanghai, you learn to appreciate open spaces. One of my favorite things to do when I come home is to pick a small country road, and I just ride my bike. I just love that area.”

Washburn said a return move to the states is always in the back of his mind.