Golf In My Favorite Gangsome

Artwork by Dave Baysden

“Well boys, I managed to get away for a few hours. Glad to be with you again. Hopefully, Tom won’t stick me in damn a fivesome. I need to get home at a decent hour.”

That’s a variation of the regular lines I deliver to my friends upon arrival at my golf club. I utter these words or something similar while my group warms up for another round together. The routine rarely varies. The range is always packed as we prepare for our regular game on the old home course. I walk up just in time to hear our teams for the day.

“Ok guys, we’ve got fifteen players. Three teams today.”

I shake my head as Tom shouts out the names of the teams. We gather round to listen for our playing partners and snicker when we are dealt a bad hand. Tom has the unfortunate duty of arranging the squads each weekend, but for some reason he loves it. I guess everyone needs a shtick even if it’s the only job more thankless than being the club president. Each week the gang gathers near the first tee in anticipation of knowing who they’ll blame the loss of twenty dollars on later that afternoon. All eyes on Tom.

The group plays at 10:30am each Saturday and Sunday. The dew sweeping super-seniors go off early, but the middle of the day is reserved for us. We like to occupy the course during the hours set aside for guys whose wives detest their golfing habits the most. When you play from 10:30am to 2:30pm you wipe away the hopes your wife had for any kind of spousal productivity that day.

I’m in the camp that can’t get away with two days of golf in a weekend anymore, but many of these guys still pull it off somehow. These days I’m more of a once a month participant in our habitual outing. This is good for my marriage but my frequent absences further reduce the weight of my arguments against Tom’s proclivity for fivesomes.

Many of my weekends get filled with the honey-do lists and other matters of husbandry, but sometimes I still hit the marital lottery. When I get a free pass to play with the guys I try to make the most of it.

I’m a want-to-be golf purist, but I still like to wallow in the spoils of a Saturday at the country club. I’ll argue against five players in a group and I always walk, but I still like a few frothy beers, some first tee smack talk, and a generous gimmie or two on the greens. This gangsome offers those attributes in spades.

We indulge in a bit of gentle gambling as well. Our game is a twenty dollar buy-in and there are four bets in play. We have the best one ball from the team on the front and back nine, the best two balls from the team on all eighteen, and a simple skins game as well. These bets are just big enough to trigger some emotion on the course, but most outbursts are incited by pride. Chest thumping the real tender of exchange among friends.

Throughout the hours of our battle, the screams of both frustration and achievement echo across our fields of play.

“Yaaaaddddiiiii”

“Son of a bitch!”

“Booooom”

The sounds of joy and sorrow are born from moments like an unexpected putt being holed or perhaps a hurried chip being flubbed. These most human of reactions create shrieking hymns that ring through the hills of our club like the bells of Rome.

When we march around the grounds of the club it’s easy to sense how the teams are playing. There are always signs to indicate the mood. If things are progressing as planned there will be the talk of strategy and chuckles of amusement between fist bumps and high fives. However, when the scoring gets sideways it’s more like being on the Bataan Death March with men whose mounting disappointment is only offered a reprieve from an oncoming cart girl. If you play with us long enough, you’ll get plenty of time to sample this full range of impassioned reactions on display.

Every time I make it out to play it’s like seeing another installment of my favorite sitcom. Each game is a singular episode in a long-running syndication that features the various mixtures of our golfing personas. Some guys pair well and others don’t, but no matter the arrangement there is side-splitting comedy produced from this four-hour affair. Pick any name from our regular roster and you’ll find a reliable source for a post-round story.

Once we finish playing, the settling of our wagers makes for a separate and equally unique variety of theatre. The action occurs on a table of draft beer and chicken wings and on this stage, we hash out who owes what over a chorus of heckling voices.

“I told you that back nine was a winner!”

“Thank god you made that putt on four!”

“Y’all shot what!?”

Drama builds when each troupe arrives in the grill to discover the fate of their fortunes. Some teammates are all smiles while preparing to soak themselves in raining cash. Others who were dealt a losing hand by Tom’s team making sulk into the sofa while clinging to some fading hope that the elusive birdie they made will hold up for a skin.

A sad voice from the back of the room utters, “Anybody birdie eight?”

No one is getting rich from our game, but the braggadocios nature of the scorecard roundup can make us feel like kings if only for half an hour. The room fills up for a feast of fools and the mixture of laughter and bullshit makes for a soundtrack that only good friends can produce. The topics of conversation may differ but the voices around the table don’t change much. These are the rituals that keep us coming back.

After the bets are paid and small bills are exchanged I start looking at my watch while checking for “time to come home” texts from my wife. Our beloved bartender knows the batting order for who has to leave first. He can write up your ticket based on where the clock hands are positioned. He looks at his timepiece and then back at me signaling that I’ve hit my limit.

I polish off the last drops of golden draft beer and start patting my pockets in search of my wallet. The chicken wings have been reduced to a platter of bone and the conversation around me turns to who is playing tomorrow. I may be leaving, but the meeting can’t be adjourned until the next day’s roster is shaped. This is when Marcus starts his call for an emergency nine holes.

“Hey boy, you stick around for the birdie game. Just a quick nine holes. Maybe eleven.”

I’m rising from my chair and collecting my items, but he persists.

“Tell her you’ll be home soon. Just a birdie game. $2 per pop. You got this. Let’s hit it.”

The vagaries of the grill Room make for predictable conclusions to each week’s follies, but regardless of the happenings of the day, the final outcomes remain the same. Usually, I linger a bit too long and scratch my head as I fork over the rest of my cash. On the way out of the door, I tell the boys “I’ll hope to see them next month” before I make a final remark to Tom about the teams he made that day. Meanwhile, the die-hards who have long since achieved endless golf freedoms through sheer will or divorce buckle in their bags for one more turn around the course.

When I walk towards the parking lot, I hear Marcus shout to me, “Ain’t too late to join boy! You better get home and be good for your girls though!”

He knows I’d love to put my spikes back on, but my time is typically up. I climb into my car and when I pull away, I see draft beer spilling from a cup holder as his cart bounces down the path to playing more golf. Some things never change.

I take comfort in knowing that when I’m granted permission from home, I can find and participate in this golfing circus on any given weekend. This gangsome plays across every season. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries or weather all be damned, there is always a group on the tee at 10:30 waiting for a playing assignment from Tom. The unmatched hilarity of it all makes for my favorite manner of amusement. Hopefully, I can make it out to play in the group again soon.

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 Zen of Backyard Golf

I am standing on the tee box of my new favorite golf hole. There is a club in my hand and hope in my heart. The crispness of the air wraps around me like a calming blanket as I watch the ball sail through the evening light. I observe the orb fall victim to gravity as it lands so close to the pin that my heart pauses to consider the possibilities.

There is glory at this moment and I am one with the game that I love. My connection to another plane of existence is only broken by the sound of a baby crying through the screen door behind me. Mentally, I am at a links course on the coast of the Scottish Highlands, but in reality, my feet are planted firmly in my backyard.

Suddenly the cliffs of the north coast turn back into boxwood hedges and I notice my wife is looking at me through the window. I can smell the pasta sauce wafting from the kitchen and hear my one-year-old daughter break into a series of baby sounds. I wiggle my toes to make sure this is real and I look back at the red flag waving in the gentle breeze some twenty paces away. For ten minutes each night, I come to this place to get lost in my golfing mind. Standing in my yard I search for some sliver of inner peace while sorting through the list of things I still have to do before the sun goes down.

A few swings of a golf club each day are good for my mental health. Golf is much more than recreation or leisure for me, it’s a form of meditation and a release of stress. I don’t need eighteen holes to find some stable ground in my mind, but I am a better man when I get some dosage of golf into my system. There is something euphoric about the moment when the club meets the ball and the chemicals released in my brain bring me to a place of balance and tranquillity. Being a father, husband, and full-time executive is not conducive to finding time for golf course therapy, but those duties make me need it more than ever. That’s why I built a golf hole in our backyard.

At a certain age life just starts to accelerate. Family happens, the office consumes you, and at some point, every part of your life feels like work. That is especially true for golf as now I have to make a serious effort just to play. I don’t have the luxury of playing whenever I want anymore, instead, I have to negotiate that time against all my other responsibilities. That means that golf gets put on the backburner, but because of my dependency, I have had to make other arrangements. A backyard golf hole allows me to find the mindfulness that only the ancient game can create for me.

I’ve always been a bit of a schemer and one night while scooping up some dog poop in the yard I devised a plan to bring golf closer to home. I drew my inspiration from some of my favorite accounts on social media that showcase unique golf holes only a few steps away from where folks live. Backyard golf holes are not a new phenomenon, but it seems as if the idea is having a renaissance in the age of Instagram. Like many who have come before me, I found myself drawing up ideas for a golf hole just off our back patio.

I had to have a golf hole that I could utilize during the moments in between changing diapers and doing dishes.  Space is limited in the back yard, but after a few walks around with a beer in hand I was able to conger up an ideal layout. It had to be more than just grass though so I called up the superintendent at our golf club to gain some needed supplies. After explaining my plight to him, he gave me some proper tools to help create my architectural debut. I found some old tee markers and a flag in the cart barn and proceeded to put things in motion.

The hole I designed for myself is a short pitch shot playing downhill from East to West. I built the tee box in a patch of grass between a pathway of brick pavers and the dusty trail my dogs have created. The green site is pitched from left to right between a large pine tree and a small garden bed. The hole is framed by boxwoods and azaleas and if you squint a little at sundown you’ll swear that it resembles Augusta National. To create some added character I put up a cast iron bell that is to be rung only in the case of a hole in one.

The variety of grass is not ideal but it suffices for a playing surface at my low budget course. It actually has responded quite well considering that it receives natural fertilizers from the dogs and I cut it at the lowest setting possible with my Honda push lawnmower. There is nothing fancy here, but I have found that when I need some minutes to myself and time at the golf course isn’t in play, I can retreat to the yard for just enough swings to keep my mind sharp. It is in those brief interludes away from my daily stresses that I remember all that I am grateful for.

What I have created is a place where I can improvise my moments of Zen. Maybe its some form of escapism, but whatever you want to call it I have found it to be therapeutic. One small pitch shot for golf, one giant leap for Jay’s mind.

I visit my short hole at odd hours. Some mornings I wake up early, pour a tall cup of black coffee and venture out into the yard in my black robe and well-worn slippers for some peaceful swings before the baby wakes up. Other days I show up at home on my lunch break and hit pitch shots before having to return to the office. There are other times as well like after my wife and I have a debate in the kitchen or I just need to listen to some music and make swings to calm my nerves. In every instance I find myself standing on the tee box of lawn turf focussed on the hole and making a small turn to advance the ball toward the target. The simple rhythms of this are soothing to my soul.

A little bit of golf can go along way towards finding happiness in life, business, and relationships. For me to be effective in any of those realms I have to be able to be in a good place mentally. Golf gets me there. Despite not being able to run out to the course and play on a whim, I have found a convenient way to create a golf outlet in my very own yard.

My neighbors must wonder about me when they see me standing in my yard holding the finish on a pitch shot. They know I’m up to something related to golf because they see a flagstick waving and balls scattered across the lawn. I doubt they realize its just my version of yoga.

When I wrap my fingers around the grip of my old rusty wedge I can tune out my troubles and transport to places far away. Somedays I’m walking the fairways of Augusta and on other occasions, I’m standing on the cliffs of Scotland’s north coast. Maybe I’m listening to the birds chirp through Georgia pines or perhaps I’m smelling the salty air and gorse blooms near Dornoch. Either way, I’m at ease with the world around me and I can still make it back to help give the baby a bath.

Golf can be anywhere you want it to be. The benefits of the game, in particular, the mental side of it, are not reserved for 18 holes on a Saturday morning. Instead, golf can be unpacked quite easily just about anywhere you need it.

There are so many variations of the game and as my time for playing it increasingly disappears  I have found new joy in chasing golf just outside our bedroom window. I think my wife likes this version of the game much better as I’m always within earshot and I’ve found a whole new motivation for keeping the grass cut. When she hears the bell ring she knows I’ve made another ace and perhaps that I’ve found some peaceful moment before dinner. Thanks to a backyard golf hole, I’ve got everything I love all within the confines of home.

-J

 

 

 

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