The staggering amount of beers and food and logo-studded hats defied the available surface area of the mahogany table. The number of guys—who went by names like Q-School, Swade and Lazstradamus—stuffed around the table’s edges far exceeded whatever the manufacturer envisioned. But sitting at a different table wouldn’t do: How else could they happily shout recaps of the day’s rounds to each other? Fortunately, they were in a safe place. The Ryder Cup Lounge at Pinehurst’s Carolina Hotel was made for these kinds of shenanigans. The high-volume laughter spilling into the hotel’s stately yellow-and-white lobby is part of the ambiance; to regular visitors, it would have appeared like any other late-September afternoon. Save for one thing.
There, on the floor under the sunburned revelers, lay a rugged, patchy, faded-green golf bag. While players bring big appetites and bigger stories into this famous watering hole, they certainly don’t bring their equipment. No one in the group batted an eye about it, though. I didn’t either. In fact, I tipped my glass toward it. Alex Shreffler’s bag had more than earned its place at the table.
The Refuge Traveling Sunday Bag has become something of a legend among this swath of diehards, a golf version of the 2005 movie Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Since Shreffler built it from scratch in the summer of 2019, an ever-growing number of players have volunteered to take it on a continuous golf trip that would make even the most ambitious jaws drop. Bandon Dunes, Streamsong and the Old Course at St. Andrews merely scratch the surface of its conquests.
“People have seen the bag go places that they’ll never go,” says Laz Versalles, aka Lazstradamas. “I’ll never play golf in Iceland, but the bag has been to Iceland. I’ll never see some of the exclusive clubs that this bag has been to, but the bag has been there.…It’s an incredible way to bond people.”
While Shreffler was hoping the bag would bring his golf friends together, he never imagined it would have this effect.
“I’m extremely surprised at how it’s taken off,” he says. “I thought we’d have a core group that thought it was cool and we’d struggle to find people that wanted to carry it, and it’s been the complete opposite. So many people are reaching out and asking how to get involved.”
That Shreffler is the man behind the bag is perhaps an even bigger shock than the bag’s exploits. In 2016, he was still very much a golf neophyte. Though some of his favorite memories of his grandfather come from rounds together as a child, Shreffler never got heavy into the game. He never considered playing high school golf. As he got older, his golf experiences were mostly limited to driving ranges and a few local tracks, with buddies who were no more than casual players.
“Weekend scrambles counting drinks, not strokes,” Shreffler says.
But the more he played, the deeper the game’s hooks got into him. Frustrated with infrequent playing opportunities and limited practice, Shreffler decided he was “done sucking.” With that, he accelerated into golf puberty. He invested in online lessons through a swing app and received instruction via slow-motion videos of his swing with voiceover. With a freshly registered handicap and a slowly declining digit attached to it, his curiosity transformed into fervor. Golf quickly supplanted hunting and fishing as his favorite pastime.
His online golf-viewing habits also changed, and some new media entered his life.
“I felt this awakening happening,” he says, “which led me to YouTube. I went down the rabbit hole.”
The deep dive led him to No Laying Up (of which I’m a founder) and The Refuge, the message boards on our website. In short order he became a regular, posting often as @alexshreff and getting out with his newfound friends. In 2019 alone, Shreffler estimates, he played with close to 100 people from the boards, none of whom he had ever met in person prior to teeing it up.
“I’ve got zero friends in my real life that are golf junkies or sickos,” Shreffler says. “And that’s fine. I love playing golf with those friends. But The Refuge is the place where I can send out a post and say, ‘Hey, it’s 35 degrees and there’s no snow. Who wants to play golf?’ And I’ll have a handful of guys that will drive five hours to go play with me.”
It was this spirit of participation that sparked the idea for the traveling bag: Shreffler saw a post from someone volunteering to send a long-sleeve polo to anyone who wanted to play in it, as long as they paid the shipping. The semi-serious jokes poured in about turning it into a traveling T-shirt for the group.
Shreffler took them seriously. His mind immediately went to a similar idea he had seen on a hunting forum. Every year, a bow manufacturer would donate two bows, which were passed from member to member for one month at a time, predetermined by a sign-up sheet at the start of the year. Each member would hunt with it, document any animals taken, then sign it and pass it along to the next person on the list.
Shreffler had already purchased the materials to make his own Sunday walker bag, and realized he had enough for two. He made up his mind then and there about the traveling bag and explained the idea to the group. “I know what I’m going to be working on for the next few weeks!” he giddily posted in the thread.
The community quickly rallied to share ideas on how to schedule the transfers of the bag, what towel would be required, what kind of strap it needed and the courses it should visit. In June 2019, Shreffler created the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Refugee Sunday Bag” thread, complete with a spreadsheet for players to sign up for loops and a series of rules for transfer (“If you mail it, please cover shipping.”) and even care (“If something breaks, please fix it. If you can’t sew or repair it, find a girlfriend/wife/uncle/brother/grandma/JoAnn Fabric store who can.”).
There was only one problem: Shreffler had no idea what he was doing.
Purchasing the right materials in the first place was a challenge. He had to do the research to find something durable enough to take a beating on the golf course and also repel the elements of nature—mostly water. He went with function over style and found a sturdy, 20-ounce wax canvas. Once he had the materials and a sewing machine, he still didn’t know where to start. He wasn’t much of a handyman and had never attempted anything this ambitious.
“I thought he had too much time on his hands,” said Versalles, “and that the bag was likely gonna fall apart. But when I saw that he had some engineer-level drawings, scaled pockets and [had] started to consult with other people in The Refuge, I thought, ‘Maybe he’s [serious about this].’”
Through trial and error, Shreffler learned how to handle the sewing machine. He learned how to cut the canvas. Most importantly, he figured out the order in which to sew.
“Certain flaps needed to be done first,” he said. “If you accidentally got one step ahead, you’d need to seam-rip all the stitches and do the whole thing twice.”
In less than two weeks, the wax canvas went from being a pile of loose material to surviving nine holes on Shreffler’s shoulder. With its leather reinforcements along the top and bottom on the inside, the bag featured a pocket large enough for a water bottle, a smaller “goodies” pocket and even a mesh pocket that could hold a wireless speaker or a sweatshirt. The final touch: a journal that would remain permanently in the bag for players to document their adventures.
For its debut loop Shreffler traveled 30 minutes from his home in Warren, Pennsylvania, to nine-hole Chautauqua Point Golf Course in Dewittville, New York. He had always wanted to play its lakefront layout, and this was the perfect excuse: The spirit of the bag was exploring new courses. The project passed its first test easily, and the guys in the pro shop were so impressed that they gave Shreffler a logoed ball and marker, the first entries into the goodies pocket.
It was time to introduce it to the world. Shreffler made the first Instagram post for @TravelingSundayBag on July 4, 2019. “I will be updating the bag’s travels here on this page,” he wrote, “and hopefully inspiring some of you along the way to get out there, meet new people, explore new places, and enjoy the walk regardless of score whether it’s at your local par 3 course or on a once in a lifetime trip.”
The bag’s first trip was the latter: Community members Tilly and Snellspace took it straight to Bandon Dunes. The whirlwind hasn’t stopped since. The bag has visited more than 20 states. Author and Golfer’s Journal senior writer Tom Coyne sported it during the first-ever round played at Brough Creek National, the hand-built course outside of Kansas City, Missouri. It’s been carried in Canada and Dubai. On a trip to India, the bag was looped in Mumbai and even took part in some urban golf in the streets of Bhubaneswar. It’s been to Pebble Beach, Scotland, Sand Valley, Ireland and Bethpage. In a November 2019 Instagram post, Shreffler wrote, “When I die, please reincarnate me as this bag.”
The community has stuck to Shreffler’s rules, passing it along on time and even making emergency repairs. Earlier this year, a pocket flap was partially torn off the bag. Before sending it along, the player recruited his grandmother to sew it back into place.
“Part of the ethos of the bag is that it’s not mine,” Shreffler says. “I’m more than happy to repair it when necessary, but it’s the community’s bag.”
Pinehurst was checked off the list in September 2019, as was the bag’s first trip into the Ryder Cup Lounge. It was an honor to have my first loop with it.
“I actually hadn’t met any of those guys before that weekend,” Shreffler says. “I almost felt bad asking my fiancée if it was OK: ‘Do you care if I go to Pinehurst two weeks before our wedding and spend however much money to go play golf with a bunch of internet strangers?’”
In truth, they weren’t unfamiliar. No one who carries the bag is a stranger.