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That golf would seep into the storytelling was a gimme. Isleib was exploring her own issues with the game, from the status of women to the pressure of competition. Her profession, though, was the bedrock: The more she wrote, the more she found parallels between unraveling a psyche and unraveling a crime. "Both present puzzles," she says. "In one the symptom might be depression. In the other it's murder. Both require exploration. In mysteries the loose ends get tied up and the bad guys get punished. Good therapy can feel like that."
The trouble was, her initial attempt wasn't very good and it went unpublished. Other than introducing a group of layered characters that would ultimately survive, Isleib acknowledges, it misfired. "I barely had two suspects," she says. Moreover, Cassie was avoiding testing her own game and, improbably, was caddying. Isleib's own research should have raised a red flag. She had persuaded her swing coach, Don Gliha, to let her caddie for him at the 1999 Connecticut Open. "It was strenuous," he says--for him. "I carried the bag myself the last three holes," Gliha recalls. "At least I didn't have to carry Roberta too."
Nevertheless, the book's characters showed enough promise to earn Isleib a three-book deal in 2001--later renewed for two more--from the Berkley Publishing Group. "Roberta was so good at balancing action with introspection," says Cindy Hwang, Isleib's editor. Hwang had concerns about the market for a female-centered golf mystery, but the potential won her over. "Roberta had a terrific voice, and I could see the complex layers of Cassie's psyche," says Hwang. "She was up-front about [Cassie's] issues," which have included excessive drinking, a complex family, an equally complicated love life, career conflicts, on-and-off therapy and an inability to let go when she stumbles onto a murder.
To research A Buried Lie, Isleib bought a spot in the pro-am before the 2001 ShopRite Classic and was paired with Lisa Hackney, the 1997 LPGA rookie of the year. Isleib doesn't remember how they finished but recalls that Hackney was intrigued by Isleib's project and her main character. For every question Isleib asked Hackney, the young pro had one about Cassie. What's her game like? Does she gamble? Where does she stay on the road?
Not surprisingly, Isleib's books have a following on the LPGA tour. "The golf feels right," says Donna Andrews, who served as Isleib's resident expert on Pinehurst for Fairway to Heaven, "and Cassie rings true as a struggling player, though we try not to get involved in murders."
No one had to provide inside information for Putt to Death. Isleib set the book at a course much like Madison and based parts of it on her own sometimes unsettling experiences as chairperson of the club's greens committee from 2000 through '04. As greens chair, she attempted to have Madison certified as an environmentally friendly Audubon course. "I don't mind brown patches," she says. "I learned that most people do."
Says Brady, "Roberta thought Audubon would be a slam dunk. She was naive. She simply couldn't understand [the] opposition."
Says Mike Chrzanowski, Madison's course superintendent, "A select group of guys made it clear that a male could do a better job than she could, but Roberta didn't take any flak from anybody."
Mystery writers don't have to. They always have the last word. "After I got over being so pissed off," says Isleib, "I channeled my anger in useful ways." Like literarily killing off a few of her naysayers at the club.
Putt to Death is filled with dialogue straight from committee meetings, and some of the doomed characters are recognizable. "When anybody asks, I tell them it's fiction," Isleib says. Adds Brady, "She could have bashed them worse than she did, but we have to live in this town. I actually expected more grief than we got."