A Simple Game for Troubled Times

Life is hard and so is golf. I suppose that makes it odd that I use one to escape the other. When things get overwhelming, I always look for my clubs and a good long walk to save me from myself and the world around me.  I run to the golf course in an effort to create separation between me and whatever might be troubling my mind. I have found peace through playing alone, but it is when I play with others that I discover just how wonderful people are to be around. It is in those moments when the problems of our lives are put on the shelf that I find great joy in being with my fellow man. Golf is a game meant to bring people together and god knows we need more of that these days.

The world we know today is filled with difficulty and unrest. Things don’t quite seem right and I think we can all feel that change is needed. The news stories we find on our timelines and TV screens seem to get worse each week. Shootings at home, tensions abroad, and a never-ending stream of disagreement among political factions are all symptoms of the same problem. We have lost our ability to treat each other with respect and dignity.  In these troubling times, we need to forge new ways for people to find one another and enjoy our common traits. For this reason, I believe we could all use a little more golf in our lives.

Despite the occasionally grim realities of our time, hope has not been lost. The good people still outnumber the bad and if history tells us anything, we will someday find solutions to sort all this madness out. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but in order to make a course correction, we have to learn to be around each other again. In my experience, that is exactly what golf offers the world.

Golf is a means for spending time with your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Our game has always been intended as a pastime and today we need social agreements like this in the worst of ways. I have known many truths about golf over the years and the greatest of these is that because the game strips us of our differences, it opens a window to create new and lasting relationships.

Golf offers those who play it the chance to see others as fellow travelers on the same journey. Golf reminds us of our shared struggle and connects us through a camaraderie which only our agonizing game can create. On the golf course, we all have much more in common then our backgrounds and beliefs would allow us to appreciate. To put it simply, we are all just trying to move the ball down the fairways of life and golf serves as a way to see that truth.

This past weekend, when greeted with another morning of disturbing headlines, I picked up the phone and called my parents. In that call, I invited my dad to come over and play golf with me. We made some plans for a quick nine holes and dinner afterward at the house. Perhaps it was because the horrifying stories of another mass shooting got me thinking about my family, or maybe I just wanted to see my folks, but either way, I set up some time for golf and I sure am glad I did.

Dad and I have had our differences over the years. Sometimes they have been over politics and on other occasions, it may have just been family issues. Our relationship is great these days and golf is a meaningful way to spend time with him. When he and mom got to my house, I took him up to the course for a brisk evening walk before dinner. With my dog at our side, we walked nine holes under a brilliant summer sunset.

During our round, we spoke about the joy my daughter has brought us both, my budding career, his pending retirement, and other matters of interest to the two of us. No debates, no bother, just a father and son connecting on the course. The walk was splendid and our dinner afterward was delightful. Having my family sit down at the dinner table and enjoy a meal and conversation was exactly what I needed after a weekend filled with bad national news. As my parents left for the night, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful the time together had been. It made me consider how fortunate we all are to have each other. I was also reminded of how much the world could use the kind of fellowship Dad and I shared on the course that night.

Spending time playing with Dad and enjoying a nice dinner with my family left me with a peaceful feeling. When I woke up the next morning to start my week, I felt a renewed hope for a better world. Imagine what more of that feeling could do for us all. 

Having golf in my life has granted me an improved mental state and more stable relationships. Through the years, golf has taught me how to build new friendships and rekindle old ones. The game has shown me how to overcome my prejudices and led me to build upon my best qualities. Golf has saved my life on more than one occasion and it has unquestionably made me a better man.

I don’t have all the solutions to the world’s problems, but I do know this – if we can all commit to spending time with one another in search of our better angels then things will certainly improve. To do that, we need systems that allow for a certain kind of nearness with the ones we love, folks we know, and even those we disagree with. Golf is one of those systems.

I want to play more golf because the game makes me feel better about myself and the world around me. It’s therapeutic and it activates the best of my thoughts. I believe that to be true of others who play as well. Beyond self-improvement, golf gives us enough time together to see how much we have in common. If I can make a commitment to playing more golf with my family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors then perhaps I can have a small impact on the world.

Our times may be troubled, but we have to avoid the convenience of isolation. We must choose to lean in and engage with one another. I propose that we spend less time in the bowels of the internet and more time crossing paths on the fairways and greens of the local golf course. Golf can be a mechanism for change and it starts with those of us who play the game deciding to bring more people into it.

The world may be in peril and the situations of our daily existence often seem dire, but there are still means for bridging our divides. My preferred method involves a small white ball and club with which to hit it. The pursuit of this game has always been a path to my best self and if a lost soul like me can find a way to improve so might others. So the next time you read a bad headline or experience a tense moment in your day, think of someone you know who may be in need of nine holes and a walk with a friend. Go play golf and remember all the things right with the world and with the people in it. The game we love is a simple one, yet its impacts on those who play it can be profound. Golf can’t solve all our problems, but it is certainly a good place to start. 

 

 

Relentless Ben Rides Again – Bates is someone to root for at the US Senior Open

If you like underdog stories in golf then Ben Bates is a good man to root for this week. Ben is a 58-year-old golf professional who spent the majority of his life chasing  mini tours and golfing glory all across America. That pursuit hit its peak during the turn-of-the-century years when he spent four seasons on the PGA Tour. Before and after that stint, he was busy racking up a record-setting amount of starts on the often renamed Korn-Ferry Tour. Today, he’s part of a company that manages four golf courses in Pensacola, Florida, but this week he’s back on the road en route to try his luck at the U.S. Senior Open.

Ben earned his way into the Senior Open via a runner-up finish in the Montgomery, Alabama sectional qualifier earlier this summer. Staying busy with his duties in the golf business, he doesn’t have time for practice and playing much these days. Not exactly a recipe for winning the Open. However, after a long hiatus on the professional circuits, he was able to find lightning in a bottle and make it in on the number for the chance to compete for a national championship. The Senior U.S. Open kicks off later this week at the Warren Course at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana and for the first time in four years, Ben will be making a start at the highest level of Senior golf.

I should mention that I have a familial rooting interest in Ben’s career. He is my uncle on my mom’s side of the family and seeing him return to competitive golf at the Open is a big deal for those of us in his small but dedicated fan club. In my childhood, our family spent many days watching closely online to see where he would finish each week. These were the days when we got our golf news via dial-up internet, flip phones, and print journalism. Once on a Sunday, we spent hours in front of a Comfort Inn computer station in Dothan, Alabama hitting the refresh button as he plotted his way through a seven-hole playoff to capture his second win on the Korn-Ferry Tour. This week family and friends will be watching again but with much-improved technology and a hunger to see our guy play well in the big leagues once more.

Ben hardly has any business playing in a major championship these days, but sometimes the golf gods smile down on forgotten sons like him and offer another chance to prove their worth. To say that his presence at the championship is a long shot at this point would be an understatement. He is particularly proud of the fact that he made it in the Open using clubs and balls that are a decade old. Both are remnants from the last days of his tour contracts with Callaway Golf. He still has a closet full of unused gear that he plays with including his “brand new” Nike shoes that were made twenty years ago but are just now seeing daylight. Despite aging equipment and a rusty game, Bates still has the drive to compete and some serious ball striking skills. That’s what got him to the Open and if he has any success there it will be because he can still call it up when needed.

I spent a few hours with Ben last weekend at Marcus Point Golf Club, the blue-collar course that has been his office these past five years, as he was preparing to depart for the Open in Indiana. We played a few holes on a hot Saturday afternoon as he put in a few final swings before taking off for what could be his last shot at making a big splash in golf. Driving around the property, we hit a few shots throughout the course as he found openings between a busy tee sheet that day. It was tough to play much though because everyone wanted to say hello. Due to his qualifying for the Open he was getting even more shout outs than normal. Ben has a huge personality and everywhere he goes people wave for him to come over and talk or tell a story. On this day, those short visits were all filled with good luck wishes and other congratulatory remarks from the players that frequent his club.

Ben has always been beloved by the golfers he surrounds himself with. On tour, he was always the life of the party and a repository for side-splitting jokes. You might think of him as a dream Pro-am partner. Whether he is in the locker room at a tour event or the grill room of a Golf Now paradise, he is still the guy that folks flock to. This was evident as we sat around the bar at Marcus Point having a few beers as the men’s golf association was tallying the scorecards for the day. Sitting there next to him I watched player after player stop by to extend a fist pound, handshake, or call for him to “kick some ass” at the Open. It was quite the pep talk for a guy about to chase his dream again.

Life has brought Ben a long way since his days on the big tour. When he was coming off his final days as a PGA Tour member he was a brand new father. Now, he’s heading to the Open with his son Angus slated to caddie for him. Angus is a high school graduate as of earlier this month and will most certainly be the most green of loopers at the Warren Course this week. Fortunately for him, he will be carrying for a seasoned old pro who won’t need much advice. Ben’s support group goes well beyond just young Angus though. He’s got folks from all over the country watching from afar and a few special fans are making the trip. In the crowd will be his parents, Ed and Louise(my grandparents), who are thrilled at the prospect of taking another road trip to see their son tee it up.

Back in the late 90’s we all made a ritual out of traveling to watch Ben play. My grandfather had a old Dodge travel van that we all called “big red” and every summer we took trips to hunt down the chance to watch Ben go up against the big guns on tour. I remember those days well as they were the beginning of my decent into golf infatuation. We had clubhouse passes and an all access life for a few years and it was glorious. Especially for me as a kid just shy of being a teenager and meeting my heroes at each stop. I can’t make the trip this go round, but Gramps and Weezy wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Ben last teed it up on the Champions tour in 2015 at the event in Biloxi, Mississippi. He had to qualify his way into that outing as well. There just isn’t much room on that tour for guys who don’t have a healthy resume of winning. He spent some time chasing out there though. He damn near got a spot via the limited Q-school tournament and one season he even set a record for most successful attempts at Monday qualifying. It’s hard to describe just how on brand that is for him.  Either way, those swings and misses led him home to Pensacola and into a new role in golf.

Ben is the perfect guy to run a golf course. He has never met a stranger and he makes everyone feel at home. When he and his partners took over Marcus Point it was closed and in serious disrepair. It still isn’t perfect, but the tee sheet now stays full every week. I believe Ben to be a major part of that success. If every club in America had a Ben Bates behind the counter there would be no issue growing the game. Despite such talents I know he misses the old life on tour and he is definitely happy to be back in the game this week.

When I asked Ben what excited him the most about the opportunity to play in the Open, he surprised me with his answer. He didn’t mention the cheering crowds or the swanky accommodations for players at the course. There was no talk of luxury courtesy cars or the thrill of the chase either.  “I’m most excited to be back on the road…even for one week” he told me. “Its been a long time and I’m glad to be able to get out on the road and go after it again.” I think that’s where he has always felt most at home.

It’s a twelve hour drive from Pensacola to South Bend and for Ben he’s got plenty of memories to keep himself entertained. He has burned up more than his fare share of miles over the years, but this road trip will be different. He will have his son riding shotgun and perhaps one last shot at immortality laying in front of him. Odds are he will go through the vast array of the Elvis catalog while singing along the way and there is a good chance this trip will be the end of his career, but no matter the outcome he will be able to enjoy one more opportunity to let it fly with the best in the world. For some folks that can be a lot to think about during a long ride, but for Ben its just one more chance to chase what he loves down the open road. His love for golf has kept him in the game for decades and the pursuit of his passion has always remained relentless. In my heavily biased opinion, that’s what makes him worth rooting for.

How I’d Improve Pebble Beach – strategic concepts for enhancing the experience at America’s most famous golf resort

 

The seventh hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links by Dave Baysden

Pebble Beach Golf Links is turning 100 this year and despite playing host to the US Open, I can’t help but feel like the course and renowned resort are falling behind the times. The sprawling resort on the shores of the Monterey Peninsula is home to a number of breathtaking golf experiences, but compared to other places in its peer group there isn’t much to celebrate these days. Golf resorts have entered a new kind of arms race in which courses are being renovated, varied amenities are being added, and fun is the new driving force for golf based entertainment, yet the Pebble Beach Company who owns and operates the resort doesn’t seem to be in the game. Every major resort in the country is seeking to create new means for attracting guests via reimagined golf facilities, but the folks at Pebble Beach seem to think they don’t need to.

I’ve written before about my opinions on Pebble Beach Golf Links. The course is majestic, yet it still leaves me wanting. The details seem overlooked to me, but I do love the place. In fact, I’m planning a return trip as I write this. Pebble Beach occupies my golfing thoughts on a frequent basis and I find myself pulled into debates about it often. Some folks think I’m crazy and others see the nuance in my thinking, but after some further reflection, I decided to author some thoughts on how the resort can make some much-needed improvements.

Not that they asked for my opinion, but as a repeat customer of the resort and its many delights I feel compelled to share my thoughts. For the purpose of this exercise, I am assuming the position of an experiential consultant. My background in placemaking with passions for golf design and travel give me a unique perspective on how Pebble Beach can secure its position as America’s best golf resort. I believe that if the Pebble Beach Company would give some of these ideas further consideration they’d see some seriously good press, illicit strong customer reactions,  and inspire travelers to revisit the resort more often.

As a means for constructing some strategic priorities for Pebble Beach,  I began with a simple SWOT analysis from the perspective of how the resort measures up to the competition. I also considered what today’s golf resort customers are looking for in a destination.

Let’s dive in…

Strengths

  • The Pebble Beach Resort is located on one of the great landscapes in American golf.
  • The Pebble Beach brand is one of the most recognizable in all of golf.
  • The resort controls four 18 hole golf courses and one short course.
  • On-site lodging and dining are top-notch.
  • Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill are routinely ranked among America’s best courses.
  • People dream of spending a vacation at Pebble Beach.

Weaknesses

  • Round times are too long across all courses, but especially Pebble Beach Golf Links
  • There are hardly any golf activities that can be viewed as added value for guests( Putting Course, Short Game facility, etc)
  • The Peter Hay Par 3 course is treated as an afterthought and not a focal point.
  • The architecture and presentation of the four golf courses are in need of renovation and stylistic upgrades.
  • There is a significant fall-off in perceived quality from the resorts best course to its worst.

Opportunities

  • Design and build the world’s most scenic putting course at Pebble Beach Golf Links between the 18th green and The Lodge
  • Redesign the Peter Hay Short Course utilizing an up and coming architect with an exciting resume.
  • Enlist one of the “Big 4″(Doak, C&C, DMK, Hanse) architects to reimagine Del Monte Golf Course as an English inspired sub 70 par course.
  • Hire an in-demand consulting architect for each course who can guide strategic changes, stylistic upgrades, and improvements from year to year.
  • Establish a strong walking culture and a faster pace of play across all courses by eliminating and or sharply reducing golf cart usage.

Threats

  • The costs to play golf at the resort’s premier golf course are exorbitantly high and its sister courses are also expensive outings.
  • Competitor resorts are investing millions to create more enjoyable atmospheres and compelling golf amenities while Pebble Beach has little to point to in that arena.
  • The painfully slow pace of play across all facilities flies in the face of what modern golfers are looking for.
  • There is a lack of personalization that permeates through the Pebble Beach hospitality.
  • In an age where consumers are seeking “handcrafted” and “live like a local” experiences, Pebble Beach still feels more like an amusement park.
Imagine an afternoon on a putting course laid across a massive green with this view.

——-

Based on this simple SWOT analysis, I have prepared the following suggestions on how the Pebble Beach Company could begin to turn the tide as it enters a new century at America’s most famous golf resort.

I recommend the resort adopt a set of guiding principles for its golf business that can serve as the reasoning behind every investment and improvement for years to come. These guiding principles can become the bedrock for which strategic priorities can be established moving forward.

Below each guiding principle is a list of strategic priorities that are aimed at achieving the stated goal of the principle.

Build the best golf experiences in America

The Pebble Beach Golf Resort will invest in both new and existing golf facilities as a means of creating experiences that define excellence in the industry.

Enhanced golf experiences will include…

  • Putting on “Morse’s Hill” – Guests will be able to enjoy the best golf view in America on a new 18 hole putting course located between the Lodge and the 18th Green of Pebble Beach Golf Links.
  • Playing the new Del Monte Golf Course – Guests can play on the oldest golfing grounds West of the Mississipi while enjoying a reimagined routing and the superb architectural features of one of America’s most interesting new courses designed by(Insert Big 4 name here).
  • Enjoying an extra nine holes at the new Peter Hay Short Course – Guest will be able to play the best “emergency nine” in golf on the scenic short course that is designed to reflect the atmosphere of the early days of Pebble Beach.
  • Exploring the grandest golf landscapes in America – Guest can enjoy a wide array of changes to Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill, and Spanish Bay that are designed to highlight the architecture and natural features of these world famous golf courses.

See an outstanding vision for pebble beach golf links improvements from architect Brett Hochstein.

Create a golfing culture that promotes the very best aspects of the game

The Pebble Beach Golf Resort will be a place where golf is a fun and sporting pursuit which is enhanced by the on-course experience, uncompromising attention to detail, and world-renowned hospitality.

A new golfing culture will offer…

  • The best walks on earth – Guests will have the opportunity to walk the most scenic golfing grounds on the planet with fewer distractions and more intimate experience.
  • Select play during twilight hours – Golfers staying at the Pebble Beach Resort will be eligible for reduced rate replay opportunities on all courses in the twilight hours. Subject to availability after all full rounds are in play each day.
  • Foursomes play during Winter mornings – During the months of December through February resort hotel guests are eligible for foursomes play at a reduced rate on all courses before 9am.
  • America’s best caddie program – Pebble Beach Caddies will be versed in the details and history of the golf course and the surrounding areas serving as in round concierges during every playing experience.
  • Creators in Residence – Guest will be able to enjoy unique lectures and art showings that feature the work of America’s best golf writers, photographers, and artists who are staying on site at the resort during seasonal residency.

….

My vision for Pebble Beach may sound like a pipe dream, but I honestly believe that with a few strategic changes the resort could elevate itself far beyond any of its competitors. The Pebble Beach Company has every piece needed to create hands down the best golf destination in America, but to achieve that level of prominence there need to be a series of smart enhancements to the overall product.

There are few places that inspire golfers to obsess over the possibilities as Pebble Beach does. Count me among the many that hope to someday see improvements like these made to one of the most amazing places for golf in America.

Cheers,

-J

I am Tiger Woods…again

Finding new inspiration in an old champion. How Tiger Woods has once again inspired us all. 

Tiger Woods - Legend
Tiger Woods as depicted by Dave Baysden

Most folks don’t make it back from the brink, but Tiger Woods has done just that. After a tumultuous eleven years, Tiger Woods is a major champion again. He has won the Masters for the first time in fourteen years and his future looks brighter than anyone could have imagined when he hit the rock bottom reality of a DUI arrest just a few short years ago.

Somehow, after the affairs, the divorce, the spine, the drugs, and the yips, Tiger Woods has returned to win the biggest golf tournament in the world. Relishing in his victory, Woods, the 43-year-old aging champion, stood in front of an adoring crowd draped in a green jacket that he first put on at the age of 21. For the first time in over a decade the man we now know stepped back into the legend we used to love. This is the opening scene of his third act and perhaps the beginning of the most inspiring sports story ever.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be like Tiger Woods. I was one of the millions of young golfers who were part of the “I am Tiger Woods” generation. I’m referring to the famous Nike commercial in which multitudes of children repeat the line “I am Tiger Woods” as they carry clubs across varied existences to play golf. I spent hours and days and weeks and months and years chasing golf because he made me want to play like him. Like the vast majority of junior golfers, I never made it to that mantle, but I can’t forget the inspiration that Woods afforded me as a kid. Now, he is inspiring me and millions of others in a whole new way.

Woods’ excellence shaped my love for golf, but instead of playing for a living, I write about the game. It’s not my day job, but instead a new dream for how I can live a golfing life. Somedays I find it hard to balance the many elements of it all and on other days I wonder if I’ll ever make it to where I want to be. We all have our struggles and Tiger Woods has become a symbol of that. When Woods won the Masters for the fifth time, I felt the blossom of a long ago hope return to my heart. After the tournament ended I stood in my back yard with a wedge in my hand and suddenly wanted to be Tiger Woods again.

I’m not gunning for the tour this time though. What Tiger Woods makes me want to be this go-round is resilient. Seeing him plot his way around Augusta National and capture another major championship was remarkable. I can’t imagine anyone except Woods will ever be able to comprehend just how bad things got for him. How close did he come to reaching depths that cannot be returned from? We may never know in full, but when the big cat let out a primeval roar on the 72nd hole of the 2019 Masters anyone watching could feel the pride returning to his posture and the glory emitting from his gaze. Should I ever hit rock bottom, miss the mark, or even just have a bad week, I want to think of what it took for Tiger Woods to make it through his ocean of failure and arrive at that moment.

It would have been much easier for him to just quit. The audacity of Tiger Woods’ desire to return to the zenith of golf is startling. There were reports of him spending long days stowed away in dark rooms playing video games because the pain was too much to bear and even he made comments at the Champions dinner about never being able to play again. After his arrest, his mug shot was plastered around the globe and his ability to be a spokesperson evaporated. The road from those places to become a Masters champion again is slim and hardly navigable. To make it, he had to have an incredible sense of want to. For me, that is what I will strive to remember about this most improbable victory.

Maybe his kids have been his great motivation to return. It certainly seemed that way when he greeted his son after holing the winning putt. Woods has made mention of his desire to show his young son Charlie and elder daughter Sam that he was more than just a guy from youtube videos of the past. Everyone needs a spark. It makes me wonder if that was the moment he has been seeking when training each and every day. Perhaps the vision of hugging his children in the celebration of a grand achievement is what carried him out of the darkness. Watching Woods embrace his family was a sign that anything is possible if you dedicate yourself to achieving the outcome you most desire.

Just like we did when Woods won his first Masters in 1997, my entire family huddled around a living room television in order to witness the history of his latest achievement. I was ten years old then. Now, I’m 32, a husband, and a dad. The world has changed so incredibly much since then and Tiger Woods has transitioned through it to once again stand on top. He is living proof that anyone can, as his swoosh yielding sponsors say, “just do it.” My family cheered and applauded as the champ made his way through the crowd to a chorus of celebratory fans. This time, instead of being a wide-eyed ten year old, I held my daughter and thought about both her future and mine. I can do it. She can do it. Anyone can do it. That is a moment and a mantra I’ll always remember.

Shortly after the final putt dropped in Augusta, there was a new commercial running online portraying the latest chapter in the Tiger Woods saga. Nike has always had a way with words in these moments, but this one felt like the sequel to “I am Tiger Woods.” The company has made some of the most iconic ads in sports history and when Woods won his 15th major and 5th green jacket at the 2019 Masters they released another stunner. The new ad painted the entire picture of Woods’ career and brought things full circle with an image of his three-year-old self declaring “I want to beat Jack Nicklaus.”

This ad was depicting the resurrection of a childhood dream. The message was clear: what once was lost can indeed be found again. I’m not sure if Tiger Woods will catch and surpass Jack Nicklaus’ most unreachable of records, but after watching him win the Masters one more time it sure seems possible.

We have heard the old story many times before. When Tiger was a kid, he had a poster of Jack Nicklaus on his wall. Besting the golden bear has always been the intent for Woods, but after falling so far that idea just seemed out of reach. Back in his prime, it was clear that Woods was chasing the records for himself. In this reincarnation, Tiger has a new motivation. He wants to show his kids what he can do. If that means inspiring me and the rest of the world along the way then that’s what it will take.

Seeing my childhood hero chase down his last remaining dream while propelled by a love for his kids gives me a new perspective on my own goals. I don’t care so much about winning golf tournaments, but I  want my daughter to know that I’m capable of doing things that seem daunting. I’d like for her to see that I can reach my dreams too. Not as much for my achievement, but more so to prove that she can reach her own goals someday.

Tiger Woods has fallen short of the role model many saw in him, but today he has offered us all a different way to look at his story. It’s not about being the best. The Tiger Woods story is about fighting and climbing and clawing and never giving up.

In the heart and mind of the world’s greatest golfer there sits a new hope for what comes next. His fans feel the same way. Where there once was despair there now is joy. For Tiger Woods, he has answered the most pressing question and is now positioned to make the history he has always aimed for. His motivations are different, but his intent is the same. He is inspiring, yet in ways, he nor his fans could have ever imagined. A broken compass has been repaired and now points to a true North that can help guide us all. Woods has shown us that we can stand up again. He has proven that we can work our way back. He is showing us how to win for the right reasons. We all want to be Tiger Woods once again.

The Joys of Augusta – Why we all love a day at the Masters

Augusta National Golf Club – Watercolor by Dave Baysden

Today’s world moves fast and at times it seems as if there are no boundaries left in our society. We are expected to always be available and never make a false step. Somehow our species has managed to turn the human condition into a constant pressure cooker. Yet, in golf, there remains one place the world is yet to swallow up. The Augusta National Golf Club offers a select few of our global population the opportunity to remember what life is like when you put all of those worries to the side. Each Spring, when the Masters returns to our calendar, those who hold tickets to the club’s signature event are treated to an invitation to experience something that has been largely lost in our time: a full and complete retreat.

Augusta National may be the last bastion of civilization to hold out from the demands of modern life. The members there still hold tradition close to their hearts and expect patrons of their Masters tournament to abide by rules that may seem archaic but are actually a joy to participate in. The tournament and the club operate under the expectations set out by their founder, Bob Jones. Even in our modern times, they stand firm. No cell phones, no yelling, no running. Respect the property and space of others. Remember where you are and observe the world as we have prepared it for you to enjoy. Relish in your detachment.

That was the aim of Bob Jones when he set out to create what has become the world’s most famous golf club. In Jones’ retirement from golf, his celebrity often kept him from the quiet life he enjoyed. At Augusta National, he established a place where he and others like him could find the life they so desired. With the Masters, Jones opened his paradise to the world for a few days each year and thankfully it still serves as a chance for many of us to discover his original intent.

A day at the Masters is the best vacation on earth. It is the only experience imaginable where everyone you know will accept the idea that you are unreachable for a day. The phrase “out of pocket” comes to mind and in the case of Augusta requires a literal translation. There are no phones allowed on the property and somehow everyone survives. The world keeps turning even if at a slightly slower pace.

With no screen to block your view, the sites and sounds of the natural world return to caress your senses. If with friends, you notice little things about them that you had forgotten while buried in an email or lost in a twitter feed. It’s fun to have a conversation and see the ways in which people smile when forced to remove themselves from their worries for a day. The colors are brighter, the bird songs are more decipherable, and the details of the world around you come back into focus.

The joys of Augusta go beyond just a lack of devices and distraction as the refined simplicity of the place is always a treat to participate in. There is an appreciation for an old world there. It feels like going to your grandmother’s house where egg salad and pimento cheese are always in the fridge and the living room is without a television. Many a politician and salesmen has found success by harkening back to older and more golden days in their speeches and pitches, but only at Augusta National can you actually live in that mostly imaginary world for a time. The menu goes beyond simple sandwiches though as politeness, manners, and decency are all served daily. There is an order to it all that has largely gone the way of the dodo bird, but somehow at Augusta has been kept alive.

The club that hosts this simulation-like experience is not without its shortcomings, but even as they evolve over time their most treasured traditions still resonate. It is as Bob Jones declared it should be. His spirit still lives on in the event and at the club he founded. We can all still be ladies and gentlemen there and despite an unforgiving world around us we are allowed to find our better angles on those most desirable of grounds.

Standing in a sea of green, your blood pressure plummets.  A day spent at the greatest garden party on earth is a much-needed reprieve from the burdens we have placed upon ourselves. Spouses, children, jobs, bills, projects, bosses, parents, and problems all seem to fade away for a few hours. Perhaps we store them in our glovebox next to the phone before walking in. With each step closer to the gates of Augusta National the issues we confront each day slip further from view and more out of mind. When your feet hit the ryegrass carpet you are transported and transfixed.

At the Masters, the golf course will always be the star of the show, but the seclusion of the host club and its tranquil setting is one of the most attractive attributes of the event. That is not always apparent upon the first visit. Like many of life’s finest discoveries, the most impressive points of a day at Augusta National are only derived through multiple trips to the same familiar place. Once the initial glow of the grounds wears off, it is the remoteness in which you can find there that shines through.

The members of Augusta National are among the most successful and accomplished leaders in the world. They are no strangers to stress. Therein lies the beauty of their club and of their tournament. The rules set in place by Bob Jones are meant to offer both the members of his club and the patrons of his tournament a place to put their troubles away. There is no way Bob Jones could have ever predicted what the world would be like today, but somehow his rules for Augusta National and the Masters have found a way to grow in importance over time. He founded the club as a place to be with friends and to find the joys of isolation and although his tournament welcomes thousands of patrons each year, it still serves as the retreat he envisioned.

A ticket to the Masters is a coveted possession. There are many reasons for which they are hard to obtain, but the true demand goes far beyond the golf. To have your hands on a Masters badge is to hold a right of passage to an escape of the rarest variety. Like most of the items for sale at the Masters, the peacefulness of Augusta National is drastically underpriced. In that special place, we are permitted, even if just for the day, to retreat.

Golf Needs Rules We Can Recite

A set of simple rules for the everyday player could change the trajectory of the game.

Golf is a fun and challenging game, but often times players find themselves frustrated with the complexity of the rules. Most players, I’ll call them the common men and women of golf, play the game on a daily basis within the spirit of the rules, but with a loose interpretation of the specifics. In practice, many players play to a more relaxed set of rules that make the game more simple and fun.

The game of golf was founded with the establishment of only 13 rules. In fact, those early rules could be written on one page of paper. Over a few hundred years and through the continuous evolution of the game, that rule count has grown to 34. This may seem like a small number, but those rules have mutated into something incredibly complex. So much so that the rules books are now voluminous. Unfortunately for our ancient game, the rules of golf can be confusing and hard to understand for both beginners and life-long players.

The United States Golf Association and it’s global partners at the R&A have recently come together to undertake an effort to simplify the rules of golf. Those governing bodies should be commended for their attempts, but still, the game needs a refinement and reduction of rules. Golf needs a new set of rules for the common player. The rules for everyday golf should be short and simple. In fact, golf should strive for rules that every player can recite.

As minimalism continues to rise as a trend in golf course architecture, it may be time to establish a minimalist version of the rules of golf. One model has stood out as a potential guiding light for such a set of rules. Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg, Tennessee has a small set of local rules that could be the beginning of something big for golf.

In short, those local rules are aimed at achieving a few key objectives for players on the golf course, play fast and have fun. Sweetens Cove, known for its unique and beautiful architecture, maybe the greatest nine-hole golf course in America. The team at King-Collins Golf Design that designed the course and now has an interest in the club set out to establish some brief and basic rules that allow players to simplify and better enjoy their experience at Sweetens Cove.

Their experiment is working. Every bunker plays as a waste area in which clubs can readily be grounded. There is no out of bounds. If you lose a ball anywhere, treat the lost ball like a lateral hazard. The penalties are not burdensome and the rules are easy to adhere to. The appreciation for Sweetens Cove has continued to be elevated among many golf enthusiasts. The reputation for Sweetens Cove, its architecture, and its simple rules, is now bordering on the occult.

That simple sheet of local rules is one of the reasons why the remote course in Tennessee is so popular. Much like the folks at Sweetens Cove, courses should consider taking the rules into their own hands. Providing rules that any player can easily remember is a meaningful way to create a friendly environment for the game to grow.

The USGA and the R&A convened committees of experts and panels of passionate golf enthusiasts to shape their new rules reforms. They could have just taken a trip to South Pittsburg, Tennessee and found the answers they were seeking. For that matter, they could have gone to any small club and just watched how people play the game.

When I was a junior player my grandfather used to quiz me on the rules of golf. He taught me the game when I was a young child and he worked to ingrain the rules in my memory. I know the rules of our ancient game much better than most and I still get them wrong almost every weekend. As much as I treasure the memory of our afternoons together studying the rules of golf, I wish I could have a set of rules that were memorable and easy for anyone to recite.

Rules are important in golf. Players believe in the rules and adhere to them in overwhelming numbers during competitions around the globe. That is a great thing for golf and a testament to those who play. An important reality though is that most players play for fun and not to compete. Most golfers are at the golf course to have a good time. The rules should never get in the way of that basic desire.

The Sweetens Cove rules are a great place to start restructuring the rules of golf. Let’s make penalties more easily administered and keep players focused on playing. There is much to be decided on the rules of golf in the years ahead, but fortunately, some good folks in Tennessee have given us a jump start.

Let’s look to Sweetens Cove and the many hundreds of courses and clubs where players are pursuing golf for fun. Those are the common folk of golf and they are the ones who have it figured out. They drop when they need to, hit it if they can find it, and they play with a big smile every day. The rules are never in the way and we should all strive to play our game like that.

Bunker the Beloved Ballyneal Cat Passes Away

There is sad news to report out of Holyoke, Colorado as Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club has announced the passing of Bunker, their longtime resident cat, and special friend of the club. Anyone who has visited Ballyneal can attest to the unique presence that Bunker had at the property. The affection shared for him by both members and guests of Ballyneal was readily apparent. The famed cat was often the first to greet anyone arriving at the club and he was an unforgettable part of the Ballyneal experience.

The club shared the news on social media with a heartfelt message on Instagram that has received over sixty comments and 400 likes from all over the golfing world. More than a mere mascot, Bunker may best be described as the spirit animal of Ballyneal. Bunker lived his days against the backdrop of the rugged beauty of Eastern Colorado where he was considered part of the club’s family. Bunker took in the world from his perch on the pro shop porch and proudly roamed the common areas of the club in search of members and guests to visit with.

Ballyneal is one of America’s great golf clubs and Bunker was one of the many reasons why. In addition to the charm of this fabled cat, the golf courses there are of a rare and spectacular variety. Recently, the club’s Tom Doak designed golf course was ranked #46 in Golf Digest’s top 100 courses in America. There is a unique quirkiness to the club that fits well with its otherworldly location and the presence of Bunker was a distinct part of that. Ballyneal is one of the most remote clubs in the country, but for many staying there Bunker made the club feel like home.

Bunker was a real-life legend in golf’s wild West. Ballyneal sits in the chop hills of Colorado and that distant setting was the perfect place for the adventures of a cat like Bunker. He was known to venture into the dunes to forage for smaller mammals and his expeditions on that frontier were often discussed on the course. Tall tales of his adventures on the property have been told by many a caddie and enjoyed by every player who frequents the club. During my visit there, I asked a looper who was friendly with Bunker how the cat had lost his tail and he told me, “It was a prize fight with a local coyote. The odds were stacked highly against him, but you should see how bad the other guy looks.” As they say in the West, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Bunker spent many years at Ballyneal, arriving there during the infancy of the club. His curious personality and comforting demeanor made members fond of the feline. A search of Instagram images taken at the club shows the vast popularity that Bunker enjoyed. His likeness appeared on t-shirts in the pro shop and the club’s signature craft beer was even named in his honor. Bunker enjoyed distinctions that were uncommon for golf club cats.

Kent Hiller, Director of Operations at Ballyneal reflected warmly on Bunker’s time at the club. Hiller said of his favorite cat,  “Bunker usually started his day by playfully stealing golf balls from our visitors on the Commons putting green and ended it by lounging in his favorite chair awaiting groups to approach the clubhouse after a day on the links. His presence will be missed, but he will live on forever through his dedicated clothing line and draft beer which is served daily in the Ballyneal Turtle Bar.”

Sunset over the Ballyneal Commons

They say cats get nine lives, but if any of them was ever deserving of nine more it would be Bunker. The club celebrated their courageous cat and proclaimed him to be an essential part of the experience there. I was proud to meet Bunker while exploring Ballyneal last year and I’m confident that he will be sorely missed by the members. We should all hope that heaven looks a lot like a Ballyneal sunset and that if we make it there a friendly feline like Bunker will be there to greet us.

So long Bunker, you will be missed by many.

Cheers to a fine feline… swing, walk, and repeat.

-J

 

 

One Last Walk – A Farewell to My Favorite Clubs

A good set of golf clubs can be hard to let go of. Replacing old clubs feels a lot like breaking up and I’ve never really been any good at that. I’ve got a new set of irons that just arrived in the mail and once again I have found myself wondering how to bid adieu to a beloved collection of hard used forged irons.

My old set has been with me for a few years now. They have a buttery feel that I can sense in my fingertips and their faces are worn brown in a spot the size of a quarter. They bare the marks and bruises of thousands of miles traveled and many hundreds of holes played. Each of those blemishes represents a swing or a memory from some of the best golfing years of my life, but it’s time to turn the page.

I’m quite excited about my new clubs. The steel has an untouched look to it and they almost have that new car smell. They don’t know it yet but they will see the shores of distant lands and soon strike the ground of foreign soil. I needed something new for the next chapter of my travels and I’m confident in my selection. Yet, my old clubs still arouse a feeling of trust and longing when I walk by them in the garage.

I like to keep my old clubs around in case I decide to take them for a spin again. As my wife can attest, I have an ever growing collection of clubs that occupy almost as much garage space as her Christmas decorations. Every club that I’ve ever hit a significant shot with still lives in one of my varied golf bags that lean against the wall between a water heater and a shelving unit. My latest addition to that space hasn’t quite gotten comfortable there yet. When I walked by them on New Years Eve they asked me in a whisper for one last walk.

The afternoon of the last day of the year was fading fast and I got permission from my wife to go out for a few final swings. I didn’t tell her that it was a walk aimed at giving my clubs a proper send off. She already thinks I’m crazy. No need to confirm it. The clouds of winter had parted and the sun was flirting with the horizon in a beautiful way. I loaded up my dog Leon and grabbed my clubs to head to the course.

The parking lot was emptying and the first tee was wide open. My dog led the way and my clubs got to clang their way down the hill one more time. My game has been as rusty as the faces of my irons, but after finding the first few greens in regulation I began to get the feel of it again. The old clubs were showing me they still had some magic.

Something was clicking and it wasn’t just the dog tags. My swing was in rhythm and my clubs were reminding me of all the places we had been together. In each approach I could recall the swings we made on the Monterey Peninsula and the steps we took around Kiawah Island. I was hearing the call of Colorado again and humming the song of Sweetens Cove. The sunset was lighting up the sky and I remembered all the ones these clubs and I had seen together.

I knocked it stiff on the fifth and remembered holing out for eagle there the day after my daughter was born. These clubs were with me through life as well as golf. There was the tournament I won with my brother and the nine holes I walked with dad when we found out my grandfather had his stroke. There were some good days and some difficult ones but we were together for them all.

Before I knew what was happening I had made three birdies in four holes. My trusted old friends were showing me what they were still capable of. Maybe they thought it was an audition for another year in the bag. Things just came easy that evening. Much like it did for the few seasons before fatherhood that saw me learn how to win again. It was these clubs that made that run happen.

When we walked up the ninth hole the sun was all but gone. The kids in the neighborhood were starting to lite firecrackers and my beloved dog was getting twitchy. My clubs and I had made some fireworks of our own for our last nine holes. When it was over I had managed to shoot one under par for the walk. It was a score that was not only unanticipated but one I likely would have forgot to keep had I not snapped out of my trance.

These clubs had put a spell on me again. They let me swing them once more in the way that I once knew how. I hit all but one green and smiled from start to finish. Had the sun not disappeared into a new year we would have probably stayed out all night. Unfortunately we were done with the round and done with our time together.

I gave the clubs a good wipe down before we headed home and Leon kept them company in the back of the car. When we got to the house I opened the garage and there in the corner my old clubs found their new home. The next time I walk they won’t be with me, but I’ll always have them close by just in case.

I’ve had a few fun nights on New Year’s Eve in my life, but I think the nine holes I played with these old sticks was my best. December 31st isn’t an ideal date for a breakup, but then again I’ve never really been good at that. You never know when I might need them again.

Cheers to a new year and new memories on the course. Keep it simple in 2019, just swing, walk, and repeat.

-J

Happy Trails Forrest Fezler

Forrest Fezler has passed away, but his impact on golf and on me will be felt for many years to come. I was fortunate to get to know Forrest in recent years and after a few meetings he agreed to let me tell his story. Forrest was a world class player, a risk taking entrepreneur, talented golf designer, and all around good guy. He lived a life in golf that was always played slightly out of bounds. Like his best friend and partner Mike Strantz, he was a maverick until the end.

I first met Forrest when I was President at Capital City Country Club in Tallahassee, Florida. Forrest had taken a liking to Capital City in his final years and we talked him into building a few bunkers for us. I had long known the highlights of his life story but I was curious to know more. We scheduled a lunch that turned into a long afternoon conversation about his career. That conversation led to another lunch and even more conversations about golf.

I asked Forrest if he would mind me writing his story and he agreed. Through a few months of chats and texts I got a great sense for who he was. The story became a narrative about his life, the life of Mike Strantz, and how the fates brought them together to build some of the most interesting new courses in golf. Together they made Maverick Golf Design one of the most cutting edge firms in the game.

I spent a couple of months building out their story and I couldn’t wait to share it with Forrest. The day I sent him the final draft was the day he told me about his tumor. I remember sinking in my chair when I read his message. I could tell it was a bad diagnosis from his tone.

Forrest was struggling to read the story due to the effects from the tumor, but he trusted me to go ahead and release it. I published the story and it quickly became the most read piece I had ever written. A few days later I got a text from Forrest. He had finally gotten through the story and he let me know what it meant to him.

This is what he sent me:

“It has brought tears in my eyes all night.

Especially reflecting on this new chapter in my life. Your kind words are more healing now than you will ever know or appreciate

That means the world to me.

Thanks for being there when I needed it so.

Forrest”

I’ll never forget that text and I’ll never forget my talks with Forrest.

I’m so glad that I got know his story. I found Forrest to be a humble man with many talents and someone who clearly loved everything about golf. He was a champion in the sport but he will likely be best remembered by friends as someone who championed them and the game many of us adore.

If you’d like to learn more about Forrest Fezler, his life, and career you can check out the story here.

The Maverick Lives On

Happy trails Fez. Golf will surely miss you.

-J

Saved by the Only Caddie on the Course

A good caddie never stops believing in his player. I brought a caddie to my club championship and even though he was 16 years old he taught me a lesson.

My country club doesn’t have a caddie program, but occasionally I like to find a friend to carry for me in some of our annual tournaments. Usually, that means employing the services of a player from the local high school golf team.

For our recent club championship, I secured the services of a young local golfer named Mason. We struck up a quick friendship over a chat about golf and made a deal for him to caddie for me in the tournament.

Mason met me at the driving range before our first round tee time and the wisecracks from my golf buddies immediately ensued. These guys roll their eyes at me a lot and the smack talk is in keeping with the true spirit of our club. Besides the enjoyment of walking my home golf course with a caddie, part of me wanted to do it just to give everyone a stir.

“Oh here comes the tour pro with his caddie” and  “I sure hope he’s paying you well for this misery” were the kind of things Mason heard as we walked to the first tee. I was feeling pretty good despite not playing much of late, but our first tee is right next to the practice facility. Each player in the tournament started their round amid the glaring stares and snickering comments of their fellow competitors who were warming up to play. It’s a difficult theater to perform in.

The first tee jitters are real at our club, but I can usually handle it just fine. Not so much this go round. I would love to know what Mason was thinking as I made a hefty swing with my three wood and sent the ball rocketing straight up in the air. I hit a dreaded first tee sky ball and it quickly made for a few chuckles in the peanut gallery. I looked down at the fresh dummy mark on the club head and handed it back to Mason with a nervous smile. The game was on and it was ugly front the start.

I managed to keep things somewhat respectable for a bit by making a couple redeeming swings and a few pars to balance out the early onslaught of bogeys. Mason was full of encouragement even though the bad breaks were starting to mount against us. I could really feel the wheels getting shaky as I had to line up my third putt on the sixth hole. The golf gods were calling my number and not in a good way.

Mason kept rooting me on,  but the problems persisted. A hard hooked hybrid at the eighth hole made for a double bogey and I soon matched it with another thanks to a fried egg lie on the eleventh. Twelve was a disaster and I lipped out another par on fourteen. I then bogeyed the easiest par five in America and followed it up with a triple-bogey 6 on the seventeenth where I missed my tap in for a double.

I limped home to an earth-shattering 86 in round one. My score was so bad that it probably won’t even count for my handicap. Mason walked with me from the scoring table to the parking lot and somehow was all smiles. When he loaded my clubs in the car he looked at me and said, “Maybe we will flip that number around tomorrow. 68 sounds like a winner.” The pep talk was much needed.

I wasn’t angry or embarrassed about my poor play, but like anyone who cares about competing, I was disappointed. My caddie made sure I didn’t sulk though. He tells me, “I shot an 86 in a tournament a few weeks back. No big deal. Tomorrow is a new day.” Mason still believed.

I don’t get to play golf on back to back days much anymore. My wife and young child don’t yield that kind of time for me. Quite frankly, I was lucky to be playing in the club championship at all so for me to let one bad day bring me down is just dumb. When I pulled up to the course on Sunday I kept that in mind. I arrived with a smile and a sense of joy derived from the wisdom of a teenager. It was indeed a new day and I was going for a walk on my favorite course.

The golf didn’t start much better for the final round as I made a double bogey straight out of the gate. I shrugged it off and told Mason, “Not my hole, but the next one may be.” My swing started to settle after the first hour and things gradually improved as we walked our way around the course. I made some good swings that day and as the round progressed I earned a couple of solid fist pounds from Mason. A few birdie putts even burned the edge of the cup and he reminded me that things were looking up.

When you shoot a big score in your club championship its easy to get down on yourself and a bad attitude will make you miss out on how wonderful it is to be able to play at all. I’ve got an awful lot to be grateful for and there was something about having Mason walking with me that reminded me of that. I suppose youthful optimism can rub off on you when you listen to your caddy.

Mason was upbeat and he had a positive attitude from start to finish. During our Sunday walk, we talked about all things in life and golf. I kept looking for birdies and we both had a bunch of laughs listening to jokes from my over-served playing partners. We were a mile behind the leaders, but I’m thinking our group had the most fun.

By the time we made it to our final hole I was much improved from the first day, but still without a birdie for the tournament. We walked up the steep hill on the eighteenth hole and found my ball in a great place to attack the pin from. Mason looked at me with a grin and said, “Let’s get one for the road.” I liked what he was thinking.

Despite all the missed shots and messed up bounces Mason was there to make sure I powered through. I’m not much for quitting and we both wanted a birdie to finish. “I think you’ve got about eighty-five yards here and you are straight into the gas” he said. “Let’s stuff that sand-wedge,” he told me as he handed over the club. After a long weekend of bad swings, I finally flushed it.

We crawled up to the green to find that I had an uphill ten footer for birdie. I called him in for the read and made sure to give the putt my purest roll all weekend. A smooth stroke landed the ball in the back of the cup and a raised putter and fist pump soon followed. Mason’s smile grew across his face and with a firm handshake, I thanked him for sticking with me.

The birdie didn’t help my position on the leader-board much, but it damn sure made lunch taste better. My game was in shambles most of the weekend, but I had a great walk with some good company. Most people saw me bringing my own caddie as a cheesy gimmick, but it turned out to be my saving grace. Mason reminded me about the many reasons why golf is the best game there is. His adolescent optimism even made me feel better about the future of our country. When the whole world is still ahead of you shooting an 86 doesn’t seem to matter so much.

There were many reasons for me to give up over the course of the club championship, but Mason kept me in the game. I could have quit, but his persistent support kept me in it. He was the only caddie on the course and luckily he had my bag on his shoulder. Mark Twain’s famous line was that “Golf is a good walk spoiled”, but with Mason’s help, I didn’t let bad golf ruin a great walk.

Like Mason said, “Maybe we’ll get’em next time.”

Until then friends swing, walk, and repeat.

-J