Busted Golf Trip: 24 Hours of Unexpected Golf in Jacksonville, Florida

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A busted trip and busted glove…sometimes the golf gods just don’t let it happen.

Sometimes plans for an epic golf trip fall apart and leave you stranded with your clubs and no place to play. That happened to me and my friend Fritz recently when we attempted to meet up with some college friends in Dallas, Texas for a guys trip. Unfortunately, the folks at American Airlines couldn’t get our plane to fly so we found ourselves cemented in Jacksonville, Florida with time on our hands and an itch to play golf. Despite the disappointment in not making the trip, we found a few stops to get some swings in on short notice. It wasn’t the trip we had planned for, but I had lots of fun hanging with an old friend at some awesome golf facilities that I may have never discovered otherwise.

Jacksonville is best known to golfers as the home of the Players Championship and its host course the TPC Sawgrass. Beyond those famous fairways, there are many golf offerings spread across the sprawling city and its surrounding areas. With no shortage of courses in the communities of Jacksonville, I was sure that we could find some golf to make our busted trip a little more tolerable. That search began after sunset on the day our flight was delayed and it led us to a unique setting for some night golf.

The first outlet for golf that we came across was a lighted driving range on the campus of the University of North Florida. Signs on the golf building read “Home of the Ospreys” and there were banners denoting the past success of the UNF golf program. The facility is a popular spot for students and it also serves as home the university’s golf teams. There is a driving range along with a short game facility that is all lighted and it stays open until 10pm each night. Inside the golf building, there are buckets of beer available along with balls and other supplies. When my friend and I pulled up we found a golf-loving crowd pounding balls away into the darkness of a North Florida night.

Hanging with the range regulars at the UNF golf complex

At this point, we thought we would still be going to Dallas early the next morning. Our hopes that the seldom dependable American Airlines would get us to our destination were slim but other than the Bud Light bottles at the “Osprey nest” we didn’t have much to hang on to. It seemed like the perfect play to work on our game a bit under the lights before we had to rise for an early wake-up call and head back to the airport. After a bucket of balls and some shot shaping contests, we made our way over to the putting green for a little closing time competition.

The putting green needed a little work, but considering the circumstances of our situation, we were not in a place to complain. The cold beers went down quickly as we cracked jokes and rolled putts over the illuminated surface. Our trip had started out as a means for reconnecting with old friends and as we laughed aloud that night I suppose we found that still intact. The UNF golf facility isn’t exactly the luxurious private club we set out for that morning, but nevertheless, we had a fun night and made some new memories.

The next morning we woke up before sunrise to get to the airport for an early morning departure to Dallas. Before I could even rub the sleep out of my eyes I saw the notifications on my phone that spelled disaster for reaching our destination. The 6:30am flight was now looking more like noon and our tee times in Dallas were slipping away. Fritz and I made an executive decision to pull the plug on the travel and try and find some golf in Jacksonville before we had to crawl back home with our still packed bags. I made a couple of quick calls and fortunately remembered that the Jacksonville Beach Golf Club had recently been renovated. The pro shop was incredibly accommodating and was able to pair us up with some fine folks later that morning.

The Jacksonville Beach Golf Club has gained some notoriety in recent years as the unofficial home of the No Laying Up collective, one of golf’s most popular group of content creators. The guys from NLU all live in Jacksonville Beach and have adopted the city’s municipal course as their new home track. Through stories, tweets, and Instagram posts they have helped shine some light on the course and its recent renovations. Fritz and I rolled up to the golf course and were immediately struck by the friendly small town coastal vibe of the place.

Jax Beach Golf Club is top notch muni golf. A great place to play when in Northeast Florida.

All of the locals call it Jax Beach Golf Club for short and the facilities are a good fit for the setting. If Jimmy Buffet hung out a municipal golf course this would likely be the place. The driving range is one of the first things we noticed as we pulled in because the beach themed targets are hard to miss. Instead of flags or poles on the range, there are lifeguard towers, surfboards, and even a rather large fishing boat. I had a chuckle when I laid eyes on this setup, but it was easy to see that those who were warming up or just smacking balls were having a lot of fun aiming at these beach town targets.

Fritz and I got ourselves checked in just in time for our slot on the tee sheet and met our playing partners. We were paired with a father and son who were regulars at the course. They were quick to fill us in on some of the details of the recent renovations. The original Jax Beach Golf Club was designed by Sam Snead in the late 1950s and over the years the course had lost some of its luster. In the past few years, the city and a number of local golf boosters worked in tandem to create a plan for a significant renovation aimed at creating a more interesting and attractive course for local golfers.

Those plans came to fruition in 2018 and resulted in a $2 million renovation project that closed the course for 10 months. The renovation was led by local resident and golf architect Harrison Minchew. Minchew’s vision was carried out by the contracting team at MacCurrach Golf Construction who also regularly works at the TPC Sawgrass. As part of the renovations, all of the greens were rebuilt and many were moved to new locations as Minchew made adjustments to the routing. A number of holes were lengthened and the finishing holes of 16,17, and 18 have a completely new look.

The new greens feature Platinum Paspalum grasses and are undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of the reimagined course. One of the aims of the design team was to create firm and fast putting surfaces with surrounds that offer a variety of shot options. They succeeded mightily. The greens and short grass approaches are made particularly challenging by the swales and movement that has been incorporated into the ground. The course feels like a municipal facility for sure, but the greens give everyday players the opportunity to experience first class design features.

The Jax Beach Golf Club features some great strategic holes where players are asked to decide between playing on hazard lines for distance or laying back for proper positioning and an accessible approach to the green. I found that the new greens allow for the ground game to be played as I chose to hit a bump and run shot on many of the shorter par four holes. There is a fabulous group of par three holes that provide for exciting moments in the round. The par five holes require an aerial approach as the site’s many water hazards come into play for anyone daring to attempt the green in two swings. The appeal of the course culminates with an exciting new closing stretch leaving Jax Beach golfers of every level something to remember.

Fritz and I made our way around the course with our new friends at a blazing pace. We finished our round in just over three hours which was refreshing to find at a busy municipal course. We both played to our handicaps for the round and enjoyed seeing the new golf course. Jax Beach is an incredibly fun track, but make no mistake it has some teeth. Each of us fell victim to a few big numbers at the hands of the looming hazards and contoured greens, but there were also many highlights from the day. Fritz hit some stellar approaches through the round and after all of our troubles with a failed trip to Dallas, I was thrilled to see my eagle putt drop on the par five 18th hole.

A fist pump felt good as I watched that eagle putt fall and all we could do was laugh as we noticed it was nearly time for us to tee off in Dallas. As Fritz and I were walking off the course we both got notifications that the flight was finally canceled and we were comforted to know we chose wisely in playing golf versus waiting at the airport for more disappointment. We had set out on a golf trip 24 hours earlier and even though we completely missed a luxury golf experience we still found some great places to get our golf in before returning home to our wives and the sadness of not seeing our other college friends.

As we walked to the car I looked up to see Tron Carter and DJ Piehowski of No Laying Up taking aim at the big boat on the driving range. I walked over and struck up a chat about their home course. They asked me what I thought about the place and I told them that after the roller coaster of missing a trip their course looked like paradise. It’s good to know that places like Jacksonville Beach are investing in golf for the everyman and its even better to see that some of the golf’s leading millennial voices are all in to support it. If you get a chance to play there you should make a tee time and go.

Fritz and I trekked back across Jacksonville and I dropped he and his still packed bags off at his house. We said some quick goodbyes and I was on the road back to my house a few hours away. Our plane to Dallas never got off the ground, but we were still able to have a golf trip, it just wasn’t the one we intended. Jacksonville is a big town with lots of golf offerings and I’m glad I got to sample a few that I wouldn’t have made it out to in other circumstances. When life gives you golf, you take it, no matter how it comes your way. Fritz and I may never make it to Dallas for golf, but we’ll always know about a few good hangs in Jacksonville.

 

 

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.

A Strategic Plan for American Golf

How to reposition the game for the next generation of Americans.

Golf is, at its best, a game for the every-man. Unfortunately, the American version of golf is often the opposite. Somewhere in the last century, our nation’s golf industry decided it could “improve” upon the ancient traditions of the game by prioritizing things like exclusivity, lackluster courses, and golf carts. Those policies may have resulted in a temporary boom for the golf industry, but it was unsustainable and today there are more courses closing in America than opening.

Golf in America is not dead though. The game has found new life in a generation of players who are finding joy through the sport in a variety of non-traditional ways. Golf has a growing presence on social media, short courses and Topgolf are all the rage, and municipal facilities are suddenly cooler than country clubs. We live in a time which American golf is changing for the better and there is an opportunity at hand to increase the game’s popularity. Millennials are now the majority of the workforce and Gen Z is quickly coming of age offering golf a window to show both generations that the game can be appealing to them. In order for golf to capitalize on these changing demographics, there needs to be a plan for how to move the game forward in ways that are attractive to these generations.

I believe that can be accomplished by making the future of golf in America resemble the best attributes of the game in Scotland. In Scotland, golf is a resilient game because it is a community pastime. In America, the game was turned into a commodity, strapped on to a cart, and placed behind fences as the result of misguided policies that have been detrimental to the sport. The resulting state of the game is something that is too expensive, unnecessarily slow and needlessly detached from everyday life. It’s time to reexamine how golf in America is offered to the masses. I have great hope that the courses, clubs, companies, and organizations involved in golf can create a bright and thriving future and it starts by making the game more oriented to the common man.

There are numerous solutions to turning the tide for American golf, but I’d like to offer up a few that I think should be moved to the front of the list. In my belief, the key to creating a new surge in American golfers is to build a nationwide network of courses, facilities,  and clubs that are inviting places for passing time with friends and family. American golf should be affordable, walkable, and flexible. We must endeavor to make golf a game that people will choose to play. Golf should be a part of people’s lives, not some expensive escape from it. Let’s look to create a better golf culture in America and position the game to be a community pastime.

In order to achieve this lofty goal, American golf needs a strategic plan in place to shape how the next two decades should unfold. To begin, the stakeholders of the game need to understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the game today.

Strengths

  • America has an immense amount of golf courses and millions of players
  • Golf is a unique way to discover the variety of American landscapes
  • There are more outlets for discovering good golf than ever before
  • Current new course construction is generally in good taste

Weaknesses

  • American golf is too dependent on golf carts
  • The vast majority of courses lack interesting design
  • Golf courses have become removed from everyday life
  • Too many clubs and courses hold a rigid interpretation of what golf is

Opportunities

  • Golf has many attributes that can appeal to millennials (exercise, travel, unique experiences)
  • There are thousands of golf courses that could become great community assets with some creative design changes
  • Golf can be offered in small doses all across the country (short courses, putting courses, top golf)
  • Golf has a fabulous and ever flourishing relationship with social media

Threats

  • Golf takes too long to enjoy for many patrons of the game
  • Exclusivity is not an appealing attribute to millennials
  • Failed developments, struggling clubs, and a right-sizing of the game have resulted in a sense that “golf is dying”
  •  The cost to enjoy interesting golf is generally too high.

Understanding these factors and their potential impacts on the realities of the sport is critical to completing a successful handoff of golf to new generations. American golf is at a crossroads and in order to create a thriving future, there must be clear and identifiable target outcomes that drive decision making among stakeholders. Golf’s critical stakeholder groups must create a set of imperative priorities to serve as a guiding light in the coming years.

Imperative Priorities

America’s golf stakeholders need a universally accepted set of Imperative Priorities that are widely regarded as the compass for which we all use to steer the game. Based on the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats outlined above, I offer the following four suggestions:

  • Create open and inviting environments for golf
  • Frame golf as a pastime instead of a privilege
  • Change the look of golf to better reflect millennial and Gen Z preferences
  • Invest in places that promote fun, walkable, and flexible varieties of golf

Strategic Initiatives

In order to achieve these desired outcomes, there need to be a set of initiatives that can appeal to golf’s strengths and opportunities while correcting weaknesses and neutralizing threats. American golf needs a combination of both simple policy level changes and more intensive overhauls that require large scale investments. When making a change of this magnitude, small victories are critical to building momentum for larger systematic shifts. The sum of those actions can lead to improved perceptions and newly activated markets for golf. In that spirit, I submit eight strategic initiatives for golf:

Walking must become the preferred way to play the game

As Shivas Irons said, “the game was meant for walking”, and it is high time that American golfers got back to this mindset.  One of the most important attributes of golf is the time spent walking between shots. It is in those moments where a player can find the unique peace of mind that only a walk on the golf course can offer. When you walk a golf course you can hear the sounds of nature, see the contours of the land, and better enjoy the company of your companions. The golf cart has ruled the courses of America for far too long. A golf cart is necessary for some who otherwise couldn’t play, but most American golfers wrongly see the cart as a must-have accessory. Golf carts make for long rounds and constantly do damage to the course. Meanwhile, walking is great for your health, highly enjoyable, and actually can help you focus and play better. Ameica needs to ditch the cart and encourage the carrying of clubs. To promote walking is to promote the best version of golf.

Private clubs should allow more access

Private golf clubs play an important role in the game. Clubs often serve as the guardians for the traditions and history of golf. Many clubs are also regular hosts to championships and other important tournaments in the sport. The difference between the great clubs of Scotland and the most prestigious clubs in America is how they view public access. In Scotland, clubs see sharing their courses with the public as part of their duty to the game and healthy for the bottom line. Many clubs open their doors a few days a week as a means of sharing the charms of their club and driving outside revenue. Imagine the possibilities if the most important clubs in America adopted such policies. More golfers would travel, fond memories would be created on special occasions, and players could reasonably aspire to someday play the great works of golf design. Now is the time for American clubs to open the gates and share the joys of golf. Golf cannot flourish with its best grounds locked behind gates and hidden from the masses.

Municipal golf must become more interesting

In the next twenty years, the greatest opportunity for golf course architects will be the re-imagining of municipal golf. Let’s face the facts, there just aren’t many new courses being built these days and that trend has no end in sight. Course architects must partner with municipal governments as a means for rethinking how golf is offered as a service to taxpayers. There is a growing list of projects across the country today that provide a blueprint worth following. Municipal golf should be interesting and diverse. There need to be more short courses and nine-hole offerings in urban areas where land is limited. The biggest opportunity is renovating existing courses that either under-perform or simply don’t deliver a compelling layout.  The future of municipal golf is directly tied to the prospects of the broader game. Architects need work, the game needs new players, and citizens need great options for recreation. If we can re-position how governments offer the game then we can reach millions of potential players. Municipal courses can become the breeding ground for the golf’s next generation and a godsend for architects.

Match play should be actively promoted

Golf is best played in a match against friends. Match play offers an ideal structure for enjoying competition over a golf course. The scorecard and pencil crowd will find this blasphemous, but golf is more of a sport when played head to head in a thrilling match. Match play also lends itself to a variety of formats that are best enjoyed when players are prioritizing the winning of holes versus the final score. Match play makes any course immediately more interesting and allows for a speedy pace of play. The great match play golfers are a dying breed and that is a real shame. Match play calls for daring shots and bold decision making at times while also rewarding the strategic and patient golfer in other moments. Momentum is a real thing in a match and to watch it swing only increases the intrigue. Every club and course should host regular matches across a variety of formats as a means for filling the tee sheet. It’s time to promote match play as the preferred method for playing the game. A regular round of golf is leisure, but a match is a sporting pursuit. That way of thinking is worth courting to our American game again.

Courses need to be dog-friendly

It is hard to imagine a better pairing than dogs and golf. One of the greatest joys that I have found in the game is playing with my dog at my side. In Scotland, a dog is a welcome companion on the golf course. American golf courses would be wise to embrace our four-legged friends as part of the culture of the game. If golf is to become a great pastime in our country then dogs must be allowed to walk at our side. Golf is the perfect opportunity to “take the dog for a walk” and courses could see added rounds by allowing such activities. Owners must keep their end of the bargain and make sure dogs are well behaved, but most courses have golfers that treat the grounds worse than a dog would. There aren’t many games that allow pets to tag along, but golf is well suited for the canine. What a fun notion to think that both a dog and an owner can find equal enjoyment in a sport like golf. Dogs make for great playing partners and inviting them to the course is a great way to make any round more enjoyable.

Kids under 15 should play for free

Children should always be allowed to play golf for free. No matter the course or club, kids need to be openly encouraged to become golfers. The potential loss of small amounts of revenue has a marginal impact on the bottom line, but the gain of new golfers is desperately needed and can be undoubtedly lucrative for all. Kids that learn the game early in life stand a strong chance of staying in the game for decades to come. An added bonus is that children who get hooked on the game while playing free will likely insist on playing with their paying parents more. If we are going to talk about growing the game then we must be serious about how we offer our courses to children. Like any budding relationship, the first impressions we make on children who are interested in golf will dictate how well they take to the game. I suggest the cut off for free golf be after age 15 because I believe that teens should get a job at the course to earn free golf and learn more about how courses work. It’s time to get serious about recruiting the next generation of golfers and offering kids free rounds is a great place to start.

Golf style should adopt a more casual appearance

Golf needs to loosen up a bit if we want to attract new and younger players. There is nothing wrong with playing in a t-shirt and not every top need to be tucked in. Forgive my intrusion into traditional clubs and courses that have strict dress codes, but it is time that we allow a bit more leeway in the attire of our game. The business world is continually changing what kinds of dress are allowed at the office and the golf courses of America need to do the same. Instead of promoting certain types of clothing, why not promote the idea of being stylish. Stylish attire should be the mark we aim for as we broaden the game’s appeal to millennials and members of Gen Z. Let’s not tell people what they can or can’t wear. A better path is to show people that golf is an opportunity to express your personal style while enjoying a great recreational and communal activity.

There should be new varieties of golf offered across the country

Golf can be played virtually everywhere. The game is played anytime there is a club, a ball, and a hole available. In today’s world where time constraints are a constant, we must strive to provide opportunities for golf on smaller scales and in more convenient places.  Golf should not be relegated to the open spaces on the edge of cities or on remote rural backroads. Why not create community putting courses in city parks or pitch-and-putts tucked into urban greenways? Playgrounds across the country offer basketball hoops and swing sets so there could also be a space for a small chipping green. Office parks could have three to five one-shot holes available for people on their lunch break and apartment buildings could offer a synthetic green on a pool deck or roof. If we want to bring more people to golf in the future we may just have to bring more golf to where they are. Let’s get creative and build small doses of golf all around us.

Golf in America has a promising future, but in order to arrive at the best possible outcomes, we must be willing to make a few needed course corrections. Golf needs to be promoted as a pastime and made open and affordable to the masses. The game should resemble the diverse tastes of new generations and we must prioritize having fun through the sport in varied ways. If America’s golf stakeholders are committed to growing the game then we must be strategic in how we advance the best attributes of it. American golf has had many years of growth in its past, but in order to grow again, the game has to evolve in ways that better reflect the true spirit of the game.

Champions Retreat prepares for its partnership with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Augusta, Georgia is a golf town in which the legends of the game are remembered with a particular reverence. Each Spring, Augusta welcomes the world to the Masters tournament and the unofficial beginning of golf season. No other event or host community celebrates the game and it’s champions on a grander scale. It is in that spirit that a unique golf club called Champions Retreat was founded just outside of Augusta.

Champions Retreat is a private club with a direct connection to some of golf’s greatest ambassadors. The club was founded at the turn of the century with the idea to create a retreat near Augusta with golf courses designed by three of the most beloved Masters Champions. Today, Champions Retreat is the only golf club to feature designs by each of “The Big Three”; Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player. The club is widely known in corporate circles and among golf personalities as the premier place to stay and play during Masters week.

This Spring, there will be a new tradition in championship golf beginning in Augusta and Champions Retreat will play a major role. The week before the Masters will now include a new tournament called the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in which a different crop of the world’s best golfers will compete over the fairways of Augusta. The event will be produced and hosted by the Augusta National Golf Club and the opening rounds of the tournament will be held at Champions Retreat.

I believe the Augusta National Women’s Amateur(ANWA) is already one of the most important tournaments in golf and not a single shot has even been struck. The Augusta National Golf Club is changing how it interacts with the broader game of golf and this new championship is a big part of that. The ANWA is a bold initiative and it will undoubtedly have an impact on how golf fans see the women’s game. I am fascinated that Augusta National is adding a tournament to its calendar and that they have partnered with another club to make the event a reality. This April the world will be watching as the best women amateurs in the game play in the inaugural ANWA and the majority of the competition will be at Champions Retreat.

I know the event will be a resounding success and as a father to a young daughter I’m excited to see where the tournament goes in the future. I’ll be there in April to see it all first hand and in order to better understand the setting I traveled to Champions Retreat to get to know the course and club as they prepare for the ANWA. After spending some time on site, I’m happy to report that the ingredients for something special are all in place.

A culture of comfort and camaraderie

When I arrived at Champions Retreat I was immediately struck by the old world setting. Instead of a large clubhouse, Champions Retreat has a collection of rustic buildings that create the feeling of a small village. The pro shop, locker rooms, and grill occupy the main buildings that surround a small green space and each has a wraparound porch that offers views of the club’s golf courses. The golf village at Champions Retreat will serve as the hub of all activity during the ANWA and the setting will certainly create a memorable ambiance for both players and patrons.

Everything about the setting of the club is designed to inspire members and guests to enjoy their stay. The cottages are all within short walking distance of the golf village and there is a beautifully crafted barn that serves as a gathering place and event space. During my stay I couldn’t help but feel as if I was at someone’s private estate with an invitation to make myself at home.

I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to speak at length with Cameron Wiebe, General Manager at Champions Retreat. When I asked Cameron about the culture at Champions Retreat he told me that his mission was to “lower the barrier to comfort” for anyone who comes on property. I can attest that he and his team are succeeding in that work.

Beyond the buildings in the village and the cottages, the laid back culture extends to the golf courses as well. I was thrilled to discover that the golfing members of Champions Retreat have created a culture that is built on the traditions of the game and decorated with their own tastes. For example, members are inclined to play matches not for money, but for the pride of taking their opponents golf ball. The loser of a match at Champions Retreat signs his or her golf ball and offers it to the victor as a memento of the match. Many members maintain bowls full of balls in their homes and offices to remember their victories and the friendships in which they forged.

There are also a number of rituals at Champions Retreat that the members regularly participate in. When a guest or potential new member plays the course for the first time they are invited to hit a drive over the Savannah River from the tee box of the sixth hole on the Island course. The river serves as the border between Georgia and  South Carolina and this ritual offers players the chance to hit from one state into the next. There is also a large cast iron bell at the golf village that is intended to be rang only when a hole in one is recorded. Typically this signifies to all members and guests that the bar in the grill house is open until further notice. I imagine it will be a memorable scene should  a competitor ring the bell during the ANWA.

The Island, the Bluff, and the Creek 

Champions Retreat has many splendid amenities, but the main reason for visiting the club will always be the golf. The story of how the club came to be has become a legend of sort for those who know the place. In 1999, Gary Player approached his good friends and fellow Masters champions Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus with the idea of creating a new club near Augusta. This conversation at the champions dinner led to each of them and their respective design companies coming together for a one of a kind project.

As the story goes, Player devised a blind draw process for who would get which pieces of land to design their nine holes over. Player drew up three index cards to denote the varied features of the property. Arnold Palmer pulled the first card as the most senior member of the group. His card read “the island.” Jack Nicklaus went second and drew a card that read “the bluff” and finally Gary Player was left holding a card indicating “the creek.” Each team had their land and set forward to design a course that spoke to their varied approaches to the game.

The three courses share similarities, but they are also decidedly different from each other. During the ANWA the competition will take place over the Island and Bluff courses. That decision was made largely due to logistics and should not be viewed as any indication as to preference of the designs. I played both the Island and the Bluff courses to experience what the players will see during the ANWA and I was impressed by the routing.

The composite of these course creates a layout that will take players across the property in an adventurous fashion. The Island course will serve as the front nine and the Bluff as the back. Players will venture from the golf village down towards the confluence of the Savannah and Little Rivers where they will play over the small island that is created there. Palmer’s Island course features fabulous views of the rivers that run through the property. These will be the holes that many will remember from watching the ANWA on television.

The Island course returns to the golf village and players will move over to the Bluff and its pine covered hills. The Bluff course has a rolling topography and the Nicklaus team created nine beautiful holes that climb and dive over and down through the wooded landscape. This is the course that most resembles the Augusta National Golf Club. Player will be challenged here with uneven lies and testy greens as they come down the stretch in search of a score good enough to make the cut for the final round.

Players competing in the ANWA will finish their rounds on the final hole of the Bluff course which ends adjacent to the golf village. As I walked up this hole, I was delighted to imagine the area filled with patrons and surrounded by the excitement of the inaugural ANWA. Those who earn their way into the event will surely walk away with a collection of special memories at Champions Retreat and a select few will exit the courses knowing that they have punched their card to the final at Augusta National.

Welcoming the ANWA

Champions Retreat has built a strong reputation for providing world class hospitality to its members and guests. The club is home to a fine collection of cabins and amenities that fill up each year during the Masters and now the club will have an opportunity to showcase their hospitable nature on a grand scale when the ANWA begins in April.

Every golf fan knows of Augusta National and their reputation for precise execution and for them to choose Champions Retreat as its partner for the ANWA is quite the endorsement. The event is large in its scale and ambition yet it is clear that the aim is to create a intimate environment for the competition to unfold in. In that effort, Champions Retreat will be the perfect paring to Augusta National.

The format for the event will undoubtedly create some drama for both players and patrons. The field will be comprised of 72 competitors and after 36 holes at Champions Retreat only the top 30 will advance to the final round at Augusta National Golf Club. There will be no ties for the final 30 spots so it is highly likely that a playoff will occur to determine who gets to move on.  The team at Champions Retreat is paying special attention to insure the staging of the tournament and its early rounds is as perfect as possible.

Players will be greeted by a world class staff and a first rate environment for golf. The team at Champions Retreat is preparing an ideal setting for this important new championship to be held. Although competitors will be playing with the hopes of reaching Augusta National for the final, most will only have their time competing at Champions Retreat to remember the event by. Cameron Wiebe and his staff are well aware of this and they are on a mission to make sure every moment at Champions Retreat is unforgettable.

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur may be the most intriguing new golf event in the world. As time draws nearer to the opening shots, golfing enthusiasts are starting to turn their attention to this ground breaking tournament. Champions Retreat will take center stage as golf fans will be watching closely to see which players earn the right to play at Augusta National. Because of the ANWA, Champions Retreat will soon be known as an integral part of an important and unfolding chapter in the history of golf. After a few days on the property, I am convinced that the club will flourish in that reality.

Be sure to tune in this April for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur as the event is broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC. The tournament takes place April 3-6, 2019.

If you are interested in learning more about why I believe this event is so important for golf, you might enjoy a previous piece I wrote about my perspective as the father of a young daughter. See Winnie Could Win at Augusta for more.

-J

 

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

 

 

Golf on Common Ground

There is no bond quite like that which exists between brothers. It is also true that there are few arguments as intense as those that involve siblings. Often times those disagreements can last for years if not decades and I’ve always been afraid of that happening in my family.

My brother and I could probably pass for strangers. Our parents insist that we are of the same blood but upon first glance, most folks might need some convincing. Sometimes I do too. We don’t look alike, act alike, or think alike, but we do have one great commonality…we both love golf.

Hilton and I live and often feel far apart from each other but golf remains our shared language. Even still I’m certain that we speak different dialects. However distant our worldviews and idiosyncrasies may be, we have found some ability to bridge our divide when golf serves as our translator.

Hilton and I tend to be the yin to each other’s yang and that is especially evident on the golf course. The game brings us together in a way that we both need. Despite our differences golf allows us to be close with each other even if it’s only in four-hour increments.

When my brother and I play golf, we are separated from the worldly matters that drive our holiday conversations into debates. Golf provides us the chance to be together in deliberate isolation and find our common ground again. Although our differences are as stark as day and night, golf tends to blur the lines a bit.

Hilton has long dark hair and he wears it regularly in a ponytail or man-bun. He prefers hiking sandals to shoes and enjoys living in the lax Colorado legal environment with his longtime girlfriend. He’s about my height, but skinny and a naturally gifted athlete and musician. His politics are left of Bernie Sanders and he regularly speaks about offbeat political matters and conspiracy theories. He is nearly my polar opposite in every way.

I work for a business interest group in Florida and have a bit of what I call “office weight”. I’m a married man with an infant daughter and I can’t get enough of my family. I’ve got a mortgage and a country club membership to match my master’s degree and generally conservative disposition. My brother often looks at me like I’m an asshole and sometimes I’m afraid he might be right.

We act as most brothers do. Competing for parental affection and approval is a constant. We still like to bicker and fight over trivial things as we did in the back of mom’s Ford Explorer on the way to junior golf tournaments. I know I’m right and so does he. We are four years apart in age and from what I can gather that’s just the right amount of time for the habits and traits of one brother to not rub off on the other. We don’t have much in common besides our ancestry, but thankfully we grew up on a golf course and the gravitational pull of that childhood love still brings us together on occasion.

Golf is a release for each of us in very different ways. Hilton sees golf as pure fun. He checks out from work, forgets about the ring he’ll need to buy someday and looks to catch a buzz while chasing birdies. Meanwhile, I see golf as a meditation. I find peace in the solitude of the game, hear poetry in the sound of a swing, and believe that golf is uniquely tethered to my soul. Hilton equates golf to a Grateful Dead concert and I treat it more like a day on Walden Pond. When we play it is the equivalent of a disk jockey teeing it up with a transcendentalist.

Hilton normally plays where he can find a good deal. He hates golf shoes and tucked in shirts and plays barefoot when allowed. He enjoys nice courses and loves the game but couldn’t care less about my passion for its history and architecture. Based on his attire he could probably be a good stand-in at any municipal course in America, but one look at his game would give away his pedigree.

Our grandfather taught us how to play when we were kids. Gramps was the head pro at our small-town club and he nurtured our games all the way through high school. Our uncle played on tour and we spent many summers watching him on the road. Golf was an everyday obsession in our family. Most nights after dinner were spent in chipping contests with Dad and many days we played until dark while walking our dog. Golf runs deep in all of us and it remains the strength of my relationship with Hilton.

When Hilton and I play together it is as if the golf gods are overseeing peace talks between regularly warring nations. The golf course is sacred ground and no battles are to be fought there. When we cross the threshold from the parking lot to the grass, we enter a sort of demilitarized zone. Golf becomes a buffer between us and the bullshit that we have a hard time letting go of in other settings.

There were many years in which we didn’t play so much. We both became lost in the journey to who we are as adults and our days on the golf course together were seldom. It was in those times in which the differences we had developed on the way to adulthood became a breeding ground for animosity. Playing golf together became a relic of our childhood and I was worried about whether or not we’d ever reconnect. Fortunately for both of us, the maturity of increasing age has resurrected our feelings for both golf and each other.

Golf makes us more capable of being civil. We will always have tense moments, but an invitation to play with each other is an olive branch that we both can recognize. That revelation has opened the door to a whole new chapter in our lives.

In my office, I keep a vast assortment of golf memorabilia, trophies, and other objects that denote my adventures in the game. Among those treasures, my most prized possessions are from memories made while playing with Hilton. I have our small-town newspaper framed above my desk which features a headline about how the Revell brothers once won the biggest two-man tournament in town. In addition to that glorious achievement, I have a photo on my bookshelf of the two of us standing on a dune ridge in the vast reaches of the Colorado chop hills at Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club.

The newspaper clipping makes me smile because it was the first and only time, I won that tournament. Even more importantly it reminds me that in order to win, I had to partner with my oldest and best friend. That was the weekend where Hilton and I found out how to best overcome the barriers between us. Amazingly it resulted in a series of moments that I’ll never forget.

The photo on the shelf is another story entirely. Until we ventured to Ballyneal, the two of us had never traveled together on our own. We steered our way to a place that is as remote as you can imagine in America and the golf we found there washed away the layers of life that have made us seem so different.

Days like those enshrined on my wall are why I get excited to know when Hilton is coming home next. They are also the reason I stay up late and plot the potential places that we can visit for golf in the years ahead. The game will always be a part of who we are and it still binds us to our better angles. We have many more holes to play together in this life and there is still some room in my office for a few more memories to hang.

It is hard to pinpoint where my brother and I chose our different paths in life, but both of them lead back to a small-town country club and a home with our loving parents. I remember when our folks built that house for our growing family to live in. Hilton was just my baby brother and the golf course was just home. We likely would still be different no matter where we had laid our heads, but because of the game we learned there, we will always know how to find each other. Golf is at the root of our souls and because of that we really aren’t so different after all.

Maybe there is someone you are overdue for a walk on the course with too. Drop me a line and tell me how golf has helped you build a better relationship with either friends or family. Those stories are always my favorite.

I hope to hear from you…until then, swing, walk and repeat.

-J

Special thanks to my good friend Dave Baysden for providing a wonderful sketch inspired by these words. Dave is one of the most talented artists I know and his work in golf is the best in the game today. 

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

The Nine Virtues of Golf

The game of golf and it’s role in the life of those who play it is worthy of regular contemplation. In particular, the virtues associated with game require constant consideration. The golfer who seeks out these virtues is one who searches for a more properly balanced life.

Golf was created with specific etiquette and rules as a way of designing a game that mirrors life. Those rules and traditions are all modeled from virtues that are commonly believed to be the pillars of a successful existence. There are three sets of virtues that are inherently built into the fabric of golf. These are the Foundation Virtues, the Attitude Virtues, and the Realization Virtues.

The Foundation Virtues

Every structure must begin with the building of a strong foundation. The golfer is no different.

Accountability

Golfers must look inward to find the source of both good swings and bad. Only the player can swing his or her club in this game. The strokes that are tallied on the scorecard are made by the golfer and nobody else. Every golfer must understand this and make ample preparations through practice in order to find success. To be a golfer of any regard you must learn to be accountable to yourself.

– Patron Saint: Ben Hogan

Integrity

There are rules here and you are asked to enforce them on yourself. No task is more difficult in the chase of victory and no test is more revealing about one’s character. Integrity must be developed through a devotion to higher ideals. The golfer’s sense of honesty should be beyond reproach.

– Patron Saint: Bobby Jones

Patience

Good things take time. There are no shortcuts in golf and the game’s greatest hazards are disguised to entrap those who seek them. Golf is designed to challenge those who are hurried the most while rewarding the more methodical mindset. Golf requires a steady offering of the one thing we have the least of, golf asks us for our time. Well rewarded is the patient golfer.

– Patron Saint: Nick Faldo

The Attitude Virtues

Attitude is everything in golf. The mindset that you bring to a challenge will determine whether or not you can rise to conquer it.

Humility 

Humble thyself or the game will do it for you. No other sporting pursuit will bring an impassioned player to their knees like golf. The golfer must know the limits of their game and appreciate the will of the golf gods. Understanding the boundary of one’s ability and the fate of uncontrollable outcomes is the key to achieving the best possible score. Always be prepared for the bad bounce and the winds of misfortune as they find us all at some point in the game.

– Patron Saint: Roberto DiVincenzo

Gratitude

Be gracious at all times and remember that golf is a game for ladies and gentlemen. It is an honor to be a golfer and any day on the course is deserving of robust appreciation. The golfer should be thankful for the privilege of playing and conduct oneself in accordance with the knowledge that every round could possibly be their last.

– Patron Saint: Byron Nelson

Confidence

As a golfer, you must believe in your abilities in order to score well. To play good golf you must first believe that you can do so. The golfer must stand tall and swing with conviction. Pitches and putts should be struck with authority. Confidence is not an invitation to display bravado nor is it a tool of the braggadocios, but instead a fuel for a golfer’s best possible performance.

– Patron Saint: Jack Nicklaus

The Realization Virtues

Golf is a journey. The destination is not found but realized through a deliberate process. Inward reflection leads to outward improvement.

Generosity

To be a golfer is to be a giver. Remember that someone once gave you the gift of golf and it is your duty to share the game with others. Golf will offer you an endless amount of personal growth and only you can know how to best give back to the game. The golfer should be charitable with both their time and money as a means for helping others through the game. The rewards of such giving far outweigh any other achievements in golf.

– Patron Saint: Arnold Palmer

Respect

Be a golfer who subscribes to the golden rule. To earn respect one must first give respect to others. The game should be respected as well. Hold fast to this fading commodity and you will benefit while lifting those around you. Begin each round with a respect for the course, your fellow players, and everything that golf stands for and you will never have a bad experience. This begins by finding and appreciating the value in everything. Do so and others will find the same in you.

– Patron Saint: Payne Stewart

Wisdom

The journey of a golfer is a lifelong search for understanding. The game holds many secrets, but they can only be mined through years of careful study. The path to discovering the truths of golf is winding and erratic, but every step along the walk will yield some trace amount of wisdom. Heavy is the bag that is filled with the collection of these lessons from a lifetime in golf. The weight of this wisdom is no burden, but rather the ballast used to steady your vessel. Be ever seeking the wisdom that only golf can grant.

– Patron Saint: Ben Crenshaw


Golf reminds us that life is best enjoyed in accordance with the virtues reflecting the most laudable of human qualities. The well-lived golf life is firmly grounded in a strong foundation, an appreciative attitude, and a firm realization of what makes the game stay so uniquely tethered to our souls. The virtuous golfer will relish the opportunity to play the game knowing that it is a means to achieving the betterment of oneself.

Hopefully these thoughts will inspire some further contemplation in us all.

Swing, walk, 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