How I Learned to Play Faster Golf – an evening with Ran Morrissett

GCA founder Ran Morrissett sets the pace at Southern Pines Golf Club

 

You can learn a lot about someone by playing golf with them. The ways in which a person conducts themselves on a golf course is a window into their character. Golf provides an ample display of one’s disposition and playing with others is an invitation to question our own comportment. Every so often, I have been graced with the chance to play golf with someone who challenges my assumptions and provides a model for how I might improve my own outlook on the game. Ran Morrissett is one such person.

Ran Morrissett is the founder and proprietor of Golf Club Atlas. CGA, as it is commonly called, is a website made for the study and discussion of golf course architecture.  Instituted in the early days of the internet, GCA has become the go-to place for golfers to gain a deeper appreciation for the design of the best courses in the world. I have been a fan and message board member for a few years now and Ran’s writing and opinions on golf are among my favorite things to read. When the opportunity arose for me to travel to his home town near Pinehurst, North Carolina, I reached out to Ran to see if he may be available to talk some golf.

Ran is the kind of gentleman golfer with whom I find great delight in sharing a conversation. He is well-traveled and fluent in the language of the game. These attributes became apparent upon my arrival at his home for our afternoon appointment. Ran was kind enough to take me up on having a chat and he extended me a sincere and warm greeting. Ran suggested an itinerary for the evening that included a few holes of golf and some dinner. I was thrilled to join him for both and it turned out to be quite the learning experience.

After a tour of his home and a brief walkthrough of GCA world headquarters, Ran and I loaded into his car and headed for his favorite golf hang – the Southern Pines Golf Club. On the ride over, he gave me some backstory on Southern Pines and its current state. The club has a rich history. Donald Ross designed its first nine holes in 1906 and eventually expanded the golf there to include 36 holes. Only 18 remain in play today. The club is owned by the local Elks lodge which at one time made for steady traffic and a healthy level of revenues. Today,  the club is dealing with the many effects of the ever-changing golf market.

When Ran and I pulled up to the club I could immediately sense the aging of the place. In many ways, it reminded me of my home club. Time had moved on, but the club stayed behind. The large hulking and empty Elks lodge casts a shadow on the first tee and serves as a monument to days gone by. Beyond the parking lot and the lodge, the property falls away into a pine forest that is populated with rolling hills. It is over those slopes that the routing of Donald Ross and the many charms of Southern Pines comes alive. It’s the perfect place for Ran to have a hit in the fading sunlight of the Sandhills each day

After checking in we were joined on the first tee by the delightful Chris Buie. Chris is one of the great resident writers and historians of the Pinehurst area. He also serves as Ran’s regular playing partner at Southern Pines. Between the two of them, they figure to have logged a few thousand holes played under the evening sun there.

The preferred game for Ran and Chris is a fast-paced walk around the course. The score is largely irrelevant. Some nights they may only play a handful of holes, but most times they aim for around twelve. It is just enough golf to get some exercise and have a well-rounded conversation between the swings. For me to join them in this ritual was a great treat.

To say that Ran and Chris play briskly is an understatement. Even as a seasoned walker, I found myself having to adjust my pace to keep up. I would classify their methods as “reactionary” golf. The process of each shot was short and decisions were made quickly. Approach the ball, pull a club, swing, then start walking. It’s that simple.

The way in which these gentlemen play is sporty and is in keeping with the traditions of the game in the United Kingdom. That can be attributed to the amount of time these gents have spent pursuing golf experiences around the globe. As Ran told me, “In other golfing nations the pace just isn’t an issue.” Playing quickly is just common courtesy. “Nobody wants to see folks take two minutes over a three-foot putt. Just hit it and keep moving.” During the course of our time together at Southern Pines, it occurred to me that this was a mindset worth emulating.

If I conjure an honest assessment of my game, I have to admit that my pace is often too slow. Perhaps it is due to the lingering effects of my junior golf career and all the crap I got fed about pre-shot routines and other manners of dragging on. Then again, it may just be that my inner demons won’t allow me to carry as quickly as I should. Either way, my pace has been and remains something I must work on.

My conversion back into a walking golfer these past few years has helped a great deal. If you are the lone walker in a group that reality necessitates you play fast enough to keep up. My pace has steadily improved, but it was my evening with Ran Morrissett that allowed me to see what I should be aiming for.

As we ventured around the course that evening I became intoxicated by the rhythm that we were enjoying together. This was a pace in which many of the game’s best aspects were made more readily enjoyable. For Ran and Chris, the golf being played was secondary to the pleasure of the walk with good company over a stunning layout.

There were times during my walk with Ran and Chris that I felt myself falling behind. Those guys really flew around the course. To tell the truth, It made me feel a bit inadequate. I can certainly see how newcomers to the game may feel completely lost in such a dizzying pace, but that was not an excuse that I had any room to enjoy. As a seasoned player, I needed to be better and as I watched my playing partners, I picked up on a number of customs that could easily be transferred to my own game.

The key to keeping up with Ran and Chris was to never stop moving. They showed me what is possible if you go to play with the intent of moving quickly around the course. For those of you wondering how this might play out in your own game, it means three things:

  1. Be ready to hit as soon as it is your turn
  2. Once you start putting don’t stop until you hole out
  3. If you lose a ball, drop one and keep playing quickly

Thanks to Ran and Chris, I found a strategy to improve my pace of play while having more fun on the course. The pace of play in golf continues to be a hot topic in the game and with today’s ever-growing social media conversations, there seems to be real momentum for speeding play across the globe. That is a good thing. For many years I shrugged when my friends commented about my pace because I didn’t believe them. “Surely it isn’t me,” I thought. But guess what – it was. Like anything else in life, I had to want to change if I ever hoped to improve.

By the time I arranged my meetup with Ran and round of golf with him and Chris, I was already on the path to improvement. They helped further my education and ever since I have made serious headway in reducing my round times. With a hard-working wife and rambunctious toddler at home, I need to gain back all the time I can. It’s still a work in progress, but I like where things are headed.

When Ran, Chris, and I finished our round at Southern Pines we scurried over to a local pub for some beers and a meal. For a guy like me, I could sit there and listen to their tales of golf trips all night. However, much like the way they play golf, dinner was straight to the point. We enjoyed every second together, but we all had other things to get to. That’s the kind of golf I try to play more of these days. Fun, faster, freewheeling, and far from caring about too much about the score.

I’m not sure we will ever see that kind of pace catch on across the entirety of the American golf landscape, but it is an idea worth spreading. The concept of playing quickly is something golf and the folks who play it all need to embrace. I’m still working on it, but it feels good to play faster. For those who may need a lesson in picking up the pace, I suggest stopping into Southern Pines some evening and see if you can keep up with Ran and Chris.

 

 

 

A Simple Game for Troubled Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Into the Mystic – hangovers, metaphysics, and the round of my life on the Kiawah Island Ocean Course

Artwork by Dave Baysden

The hangover was a serious problem. I felt it as soon as the alarm went off and it hit me right between the eyes. Reaching for a glass of water by my bed, I climbed out of another hazed awakening in the rental condo that was ground zero for my golf vacation. Our annual guys trip always makes for a few tough mornings, but that day was the worst yet. We had a high noon tee time on the hardest course in America and my head felt like I had been kicked by a mule. 

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort has one hell of a reputation. It hosted and roasted the best players in the world during both the 1991 Ryder Cup and the 2012 PGA Championship. From the tips, it boasts the highest course and slope rating combination in all of America. Architect Pete Dye carved the course out of the South Carolina coast, creating a Molotov cocktail of sand, water, and wind. From its debut in the Ryder Cup matches to everyday resort guest play, the Ocean Course has been dismantling golfers for nearly three decades. Trust me when I say that trying to tackle such a place while battling the demons of the night before is ill-advised. 

The steady decline of my alcohol tolerance had been brought on by my rapid acceleration into marriage, fatherhood, and life in my early thirties. I am reminded of this each time I travel with our gang. As I shuffled my way through a muddled morning routine it became increasingly evident that I may be trading birdie putts for blowing chunks on the Ocean Course. It was a terrible feeling. 

The first time I played the Ocean Course was on my honeymoon. It was a glorious day with my new bride and I loved the golf course, but my game was not up for the test. I’ll never forget how much the wind blew my shots around while inflating my score that afternoon. I spent four years dreaming of a redemption round and as that tee time finally approached I was laid up on a couch watching the ceiling spin. 

The heat index was creeping up on triple digits as we pulled up to the bag drop and the stiff wind made it feel like we were under a hairdryer. I was headed for sweaty mess territory, but I had to press on. If I bailed on our group of fifteen guys I’d never live down the shame. The only way through that black hole was straight on to the other side. 

After consuming an anecdote of Gatorade, Aleve, and CBD oils,  I managed to make it to the driving range for a warm-up session. That’s where I met Mike, my looper for the day. We made some small talk and he chuckled as guys were giving me hell for my obvious struggles. The ball was flying all over the place and the pounding headache made it hard to find any rhythm at all. The sun was straight above our heads and I was sinking low as we boarded the transport to the first tee. 

Nausea did seem to displace the nerves at least. I remembered the first hole well and I asked Mike to hand me a hybrid to start the day. “I need to ease into this thing,” I told him. With a deep breath and a slow turn, I sent the ball on its way. Through my squinting stare I watched the shot sail out in front of our group and I found the first of many fairways that day. I grabbed another water and prayed that I could repeat that move a few more times. Luckily someone was listening. 

The bogey-bogey start was less than impressive, but I felt like the ball was going where I wanted. On the third hole, I faced dire straits when my approach bounded over the buried boxcar green. I needed an up and down to get a par on the board but my wedge game was feeling less than great. “Let me see that putter Mike.” My caddie companion obliged and from twenty feet off the green I rolled the ball up to within a snuggly distance to the pin. It was just the spark I needed. Mike gave me a nudge of encouragement and we pressed on. 

Somehow I was able to string together a series of par saves that included a wide variety of results. I putted from off the green a few more times to kick in range and even managed to clip the pin on an overcooked bunker shot. I knew that the scores were being authored by a shaky hand, but somehow they kept coming in at par. I was managing my game and my condition about as well as I could have hoped for. There was no way to know what would happen next.

The wind continued to intensify as we walked up to the ninth hole. It was blowing something fierce and through the clouds of my mental state, I recognized the prevailing winds from my first time on the course. As my playing partners sized up their challenges I stood on a hill facing the same shot I had four years prior. That’s when I heard a faint voice whisper “Ride the wind.” I’m not sure if it was Bagger Vance, Shivas Irons, James Earl Jones, or God, but something told me what to do and suddenly I was overcome with calmness. The peaceful feeling was unlike anything I’ve ever felt on a golf course. 

I focused on the shot at hand and made a mighty swing of a six iron. The ball climbed high up against the gusting wind to form a towering draw. I could see the flight pattern illuminate before me and the ball nestled to within ten feet of the cup. I missed the putt, but when we climbed into the shuttle for the tenth tee I became convinced that I had just unlocked some new form of my highest potential. 

If you have ever found this feeling before you will know what I mean, but if not you may think I’m nuts. My mind was entering into what felt like a trance. I had experienced this before, but it is rare and I never know how long it will last. On a day when my body was ready to give up on me, my mind found the extra gear I needed. Dare I say it, but I was in the zone. 

The ensuing back nine was a bit of a blur. Facing 30 + mile per hour winds I was sliding into some sort of hypnotic state. There was chaos all around me as my playing partners were losing their balls and their patience, but I barely saw them. Mike was there with me for yardages, but in hindsight, I don’t remember a word he said along the way. While my friends were battling the course, I felt like I had found the cheat codes to a video game. 

Then the putter got hot. 

After a series of swings that set me up for scoring, I made birdie putts at 11 and 12 while nearly clipping a “turkey”- three in a row, at the 13th. The cup was starting to look like a basketball hoop and on each stroke I saw my immediate future. I could visualize my arms raised and a confident fist pump gesture following another holed putt. All I had to do was let it happen and I did. 

In those moments my hands weren’t my hands. In my mind, I was Seve Ballesteros. There was new and radiant energy emitting from my body as I glided from shot to shot. The feeling was euphoric. 

At the 14th hole, we turned our backs to the wind and began the home stretch march to the clubhouse. I could sense that the round still had much to give. There was more joy yet to come and it was predetermined to be my day. Despite a bogey, I rebounded by pouring in par putts at the 15th and 16th to keep the momentum alive. As I walked over the dune to the difficult 17th hole I found myself wandering in and out of consciousness. The everyday noise that stifles my thoughts had gone silent and at that moment I was one with the game. 

From the tee box, I could see the ocean to my right. The waves were crashing up and down the beach and the timing of it all acted like a metronome in my mind. Perched on the horizon was the stately clubhouse with a series of flags waving at a frantic pace. This would be the site of another special moment. I unleashed the smoothest of swings and the ball carried dutifully towards the flag. It landed in the center green and careened off a slope towards the hole. I walked up to the green knowing I would make the putt. 

In the pond between the dunes and the green, there was the largest alligator I’ve ever seen in my life. My confidence had reached such a level that  I felt like I could ride him in the same fashion as the mechanical bull I vanquished the night before. Everything was in slow motion and once again the people playing with me disappeared. The putt slid slightly down the hill and found the center of the cup. I stuck my putter in the air and turned my attention to the finale. 

Mike the caddie pointed to the left side of the clubhouse and said, “put her right there and let it ride.” I just nodded at him with a quiet affirmation. Like many swings that day, I made a pass at the ball that resulted in something magical. The cut spin on the shot was shaping the ball flight perfectly into the fairway and I looked back at my caddie as if the day would never end. Unfortunately, there was an end and as we walked up the 18th hole it was clearly in site. 

We walked at a steady but slowing pace up the fairway of the final hole. The crowded clubhouse veranda was now populated by the late afternoon onlookers who watch golfers come off the course each day. Draped in summer attire with cocktails in hand they were the gallery who bore witness to the best round of my life. But like many stories, the ending was amiss. 

When I arrived at my ball in the 18th fairway I looked up to take in the scene around me. For the first time in hours, I became cognizant of my friends. They were looking at me from forty yards away in the same manner that baseball teammates stay away from a pitcher with a perfect game on the line. Seeing them and the crowd of onlookers and the sea crashing nearby brought me back to where I was. I’ll never know why, but as I took a long gaze at my surroundings the cloud I was on seemed to lower back down to earth. 

My approach the final green came up well short and I could feel myself returning to my body. I wasn’t watching from above anymore. I was on the ground and in my shoes again. Perhaps it was because I realized a birdie would yield an even-par round, but either way, the golf gods had determined that my time was up. 

Instead of a perfect finish, I tapped in for a bogey. It didn’t matter though. I had just come through something that defied logic. It was supernatural. I had floated and glided and sailed gently around the hardest course in the country while battling a hangover and a two-club wind. Mike put on a big smile and congratulated me on a special round. My friends stood and stared at me like I had just performed some sort of miracle. 

“Holy shit man.” 

“That was really something.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that.”

We exited the green and the round came to an end. The sun was beginning to lay down over the dunes and happy hour was in full swing. I strolled up the gentle slope to the clubhouse veranda and finally paused to appreciate what I had just done. My score was 74. It wasn’t the lowest of my life, but that round was by far the best I ever had. By this time, my hangover had subsided and our larger group was anxious to know how our foursome had fared. After all there was money and pride on the line. I walked into the Ryder Cup bar and a smile climbed across my face. It was the happiest I’d ever been in golf. 

What began as a dreadful morning had morphed into a day that I’ll never forget. I don’t know what happened out there on the Ocean Course, yet I’m confident that it was metaphysical in nature. People will call me crazy for suggesting that the game of golf left me with an out of body experience, but it happened and it was incredible. My round of golf that day was only possible because I allowed myself to go into something that I didn’t fully understand. I’ve got a feeling that the hangover from those feelings won’t be so easily shaken. 

There is no way to know if I’ll ever find that state of mind again. The golf gods are cruel and fickle. They tease us all with a poor sense of humor, but on occasion they breathe some powerful wind into our sails and carry us to newfound places. Such magic is real, but fleeting. Just when we think we have harnessed its power, it disappears like a kite lost on the breeze. On my day at the Ocean Course, golf became a portal to another plain of existence. Perhaps, if I’m lucky and mix my spirits just right the night before, I can ride that wind again someday. 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.