There are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t get a tattoo. What if your tastes change? What if it ages poorly? What if it makes you look like a dirtbag and you can’t get a job? What if your skin gets all wrinkly and it looks like a raisin? Valid points. But perhaps the best reason not to let somebody stab at your body with permanent ink is that once you have one, you’re going to find elaborate excuses for another.
My first tattoo was an act of rebellion. My parents loathed them, and I never fancied myself as somebody who’d get inked. Doing so at 25 felt like a genuine act of autonomy. But my most recent one is different: It’s an attempt at inclusion. Yes, it’s a symbol to remind me of a cherished place and pastime, but it’s also meant to be a signal for others—a marker to help my people find me. At least that’s what I told myself when I sat in the chair to have someone needle gun an 8-inch-tall Port Orford cedar onto my left forearm for all eternity.
Not just any old cedar—a gnarled, wind-whipped dead one. The ghost tree that guards the left fairway on the third hole at Bandon Dunes’ Old Macdonald Course is not what most people would describe as classically beautiful. A fungal root infection killed it decades ago and stripped it of its wispy foliage, leaving behind a stark, naked, ashen tangle of branches that look like nerve endings. Now it perches ominously on a grassy dune, one long branch extending out over the hillside like a crowbar coming out of a Swiss Army knife while another juts out, then takes a violent 90-degree turn to the sky like a dagger. It is awesome in the literal meaning of the word: When you step onto the third tee box, you’re taken and intimidated by its ugly beauty. The first time I saw it, against a horror-movie-gray sky, I felt as if it was going to come to life and swat my poorly struck Pro V1 back at me. Love at first sight.
At a golf resort that has no shortage of postcard-level scenery, the ghost tree has become the unofficial symbol of Bandon. It is a physical embodiment of one’s experience on the grounds. Walk the property for five rounds, through the punishing winds, unpredictable rains and demanding, undulating dunes, and you may find yourself feeling like the ghost tree looks: battered, exposed, but proudly still standing. That feeling of sparring with nature, the course and yourself is why Bandon and the lesser-loved Old Mac are sacred grounds to me. What is golf if not a blind and loving commitment to resilience in the unyielding face of nature, physics and the rest of the game’s countless adversities? Catch me in the right mood and I can get even sappier. Stuff about how my forearm cedar is a constant reminder of the friendships that sustain my annual pilgrimage to Oregon, or the way that golf has become a load-bearing part of my identity and sanity. That’s true. But it’s also true that I wanted others to see it and know that, like them, I’m a true golf sicko. I want people to know that I don’t just have the bug; chasing the little ball means more to me than a chance to throw back a few beers. So far, it’s worked great. When those who don’t know about it ask, I tell them it’s a tree I love in Oregon and they usually say something nice. But those who know, know. I’ve been stopped on golf courses, but also at the supermarket. One time, at Target, a man brushed past me in a Titleist hat and gave me a knowing look and a solemn nod—the closest I’ll come to a secret handshake.
But the real test came in March—my first trip to Bandon since getting the tattoo—and I was anxious. For the first time, I went through the various stages of tattoo regret. Out in the wild, the ghost tree is my own thing. Having it at the resort felt at best like a cliché and at worst galactically douchey—the exponentially cornier version of wearing a band’s T-shirt to their concert. Worse yet was the news that a nasty December storm had unmoored the tree from its already precarious position. It was leaning so badly that a picture of it went viral. “Everyone was honestly shocked by the outpouring of grief on social media,” one Bandon caddie told me. “That was a really sad day.” Suddenly I worried my tattoo would appear like some weird in-memoriam tribute. A grown man crying about an already dead tree.
At the Old Mac pro shop, I winced when the man behind the counter told me mine was the second bit of ghost-tree ink he’d seen. I felt like a tool. But on the first tee, my caddie saw the mangled branches peeking out of my sweatshirt sleeve and flashed me the first real smile of the trip. “You’re one of us, I see,” he quipped. Tool status revoked.
I’ve never been more nervous on a golf hole than on that third tee. Hitting around the ghost tree is an intimidating drive, even when you’re a capable driver of the golf ball (and I am not). I stepped up, knowing fully that there’s nothing lamer than tattooing a golf hole on your person, then stepping up to that hole and rifling a drive OB. I steadied my breath, launched into my backswing and piped the best drive of the trip, 15 yards right of my forearm doppelgänger. Walking up the hill, I noticed the cables keeping it up, and, as one does on a golf trip, I contemplated my own mortality for a moment. My second shot was a lazy wedge, leaving an uphill 50-footer.
As I addressed the ball, it started to drizzle. I took back the putter, eager to lag one close and preserve my dignity with a gentleman’s par. The ball skipped and tottered its way toward the hole. From a distance, I heard a faint “No fucking way.” It felt too good to be true. It was. But I made my face-and arm-saving par. An hour later, I shot the best nine holes of my life. On the 13th green the day’s rain gave way to the final hour of sunlight, and a perfect, incandescent rainbow framed the course. At the center of it was the ghost tree, still standing.
Photos by Nathan Kahler/courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort