Cape, Redan, road, Leven: A certain sect of intense golf fans know them like you know your state capitals. Probably better. You can find these diehards on Instagram or Twitter or in some Reddit black hole, arguing about golden-hour golf at The National versus St. Andrews. Somewhere, on one of their walls, a list of top-100 courses is prominently displayed with neat little check marks for the ones they’ve bagged. Often the loudest ones have the fewest number of checks.
The internet, as we know, has not only put us in bubbles, but allowed us to find the bubble we love most and become evangelical—zealots of the highest order. Fazio sucks. Minimalism is the way. I’ll only play a Doak routing, a Coore & Crenshaw shaping and a Hanse renovation. And what’s that you say? Andrew Green? Yes, yes. Solemn nods all around.
I know this culture because I was once in deep too. I know more than I ever intended about golf course architecture. I once walked a course with Tom Doak, which I imagine isn’t too far off from being in the room when Martin Scorsese edits a movie: You learn how much you know and how much you don’t know, and the gap between the two is vast. I wrote a long story for TGJ about the history of the Biarritz hole template.
Last year, things changed. I realized that I didn’t particularly like being one of those people skulking around the internet, looking to argue the merits of C.B. Macdonald versus Harry Colt. Why? Because I was standing on a golf course and it had become clear that what I really love about this game is actually playing it.
“I like making the swings. I don’t care where I play; I can shoot 90 anywhere.”
My best golfing memories are not at Pinehurst No. 2, which is my favorite course. Instead, they’re at a little course outside Mechanicsville, Virginia, where I lived with my late brother, Tim, when we were both still in our 20s. After work, we’d race home, throw on our ratty polos and head out for an evening 18. The course was as new to the area as we were then, and as new to the game as I was. The fairways weren’t completely grown in. Some of the tee boxes looked like cubist Picassos, but I was learning and I was with my big brother. Being with him mattered most. Learning from him mattered as well. We never griped about tree placement or blamed the setup for a bad swing; I fell in love with the game there simply because we played together so much. I had no money and Tim always had to cover my greens fees. We always played for a milkshake, though he never collected his winnings.
The eighth green was bordered by tall pines and tulip poplars, and a dairy farm sat behind them. In the heat of summer, the air was so rich with manure we’d pull our shirts up to cover our mouth and nose, but the stench was just too much. One day we were getting ready to putt and a swarm of gnats blitzed the green. Both of us had to step back several times. Tim ripped off his hat and swatted at them, yelling, “I feel like Pigpen!” We howled with laughter.
There was plenty of cussing, too. Often Tim would bust a drive 280 or even 300 yards, then airmail the green. I cringed in the cart when he stepped over a 50-yard approach shot because I knew a blade into the woods was just as likely as a green in regulation. “Goddamn it,” he’d snap to himself, then storm off toward his errant shot. All brothers know there is an art to needling your sibling, knowing when to dig deeper and when to back off. Early or late in the round, but never in the middle, I’d slip in the knife after one of those rockets. “You want me to bring your putter?”
“That’d be nice, thank you,” he’d usually say in mock appreciation.
He was often kinder to me. When I sulked through a roll of bad shots, he would say, gentle as can be, “You’re not playing very well.”
“You seem frustrated by it.”
He refused to let me stay angry, and always looked for ways to make us laugh. Once, when I growled that I wanted to hurl a club down the fairway, he replied, “I’d Braveheart it,” raising his driver over his head with both hands as if it were an ax.
We had our share of top-100 moments. At No. 2, I hit a bunker shot to a foot and he shook his head in admiration and astonishment. “Nice shot, Seve,” he said and raked the ball to me. Even the caddies liked that one. We chased down the clubs we could play, just as anyone who loves this game does, and when he passed last year, his wife said she found his own magazine pages ripped out with courses checked off.
This year I’m visiting some great places, enviable ones, and I’m not turning down any invites to Pine Valley should they arrive. But what I mostly want to do is play golf and think of my brother, his all-too-short life and the days I have ahead. I can tell you the best version of the Leven hole, or how the paspalum plays in the spring versus the summer at The Ocean Course, but I’d rather not. I’m not good enough for any of that to make a difference.
I like making the swings. I like watching that ball fly. I don’t care where I play; I can shoot 90 anywhere. Give me good friends or give me solitude and the expanse of grass that makes a golf course and I’ll be happy. The smell of the sea, the smell of cow shit—as long as holes are cut into greens, I’ll make the walk.