Lessons in survival, putting and hope, delivered by a video-game golfer in basketball shorts
Words by Spencer HallPhotos by Stephen Denton
Light / Dark
Ray Ray Whitley has zero majors to his name. He missed the cut at the 2020 Masters in his only appearance, bombing out badly in the first round and hacking up Golden Bell for a horrifying 12. At the British Open at St. Andrews, he seven-putted a hole. Ray Ray Whitley did that—in public, and on internationally broadcast television—all without committing ritual suicide on the spot.
That is fine by Ray Ray. He has been through worse, and endured more than his fair share of life’s heartaches. Seven-whacking a treacherous Scottish green is nothing compared to getting evicted twice in the same year. Missing the cut at the Masters pales in comparison to the pain of his third marriage dissolving in one very bad weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi. Golf at its worst cannot hurt Ray Ray Whitley more than life already has.
Ray Ray’s soul has seen rivers. His body has woken up in, or next to, a few literal ones, mostly in cars. Those cars have appeared on insurance claims filed against poorly documented and highly selective “floods.” He can’t hide. Mistakes have been made.
Ray Ray Whitley doesn’t want to talk about it. His past is one reason why he does not do interviews. Ray Ray has stories. He doesn’t want to share all of them with just anyone. He’s seen what people have done to the others—to John Daly, to Beef Johnston, to Boo Weekley. Ray Ray doesn’t want to be your working-class punchline, your fish out of water spitting dip onto the greens at Pebble Beach like the cartoon yokel you want him to be.
He’s living that exact thing, sure. He’s just smart enough not to validate your elite condescension by talking about his pants-optional, open-toed-shoe lifestyle with people who will never, ever understand it. Being free of all that is one reason he doesn’t talk to the press.
Another is more troublesome. Ray Ray exists only on the hard drive of my wheezing old Xbox 360. He is my create-a-player for the quarantine, my ticket to Augusta in a world with a postponed Masters, and my other. I made him in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012: The Masters, and carved every deeply unhandsome feature on his face. His basketball shorts are in Lakers colors, purple and gold. His heart, though, is red, white and blue, because he is American, and also because he has a few stents hanging out in there from a life-saving triple bypass a few years back.
Ray Ray Whitley is my quarantine champion. I’d like to share his inspiring—and, at this point in history, dare I say necessary—story with you.
It’d been years since I’d played a golf game not named Golf Story, and longer than that since I’d actually played golf. My own backstory is at work here: Golf is my dad’s sport. It was supposed to be mine, if I hadn’t 1) hated playing it, and 2) lacked coordination and talent to the point where watching me play probably took years off my father’s life.
I still distinctly remember the light going out of his eyes every time I topped it off the tee, or quit altogether around the fifth hole when he’d paid for the whole round for two. Sometime around high school—when it became obvious that I was useless at everything, not just golf, and that it wasn’t personal—he gave up completely on the dream of sharing the sport with his son.
Still, the amount I absorbed by osmosis is shocking in retrospect. I watched the ’86 Masters with my dad, saw Seve Ballesteros catch on fire multiple times as only he could and got a pretty decent scratch education whether I wanted to or not; I’m not a ringer in a round of mini-golf for no reason. The one thing I could do when I played golf was putt, and I always tried to do it like Tom Watson did: with crazy aggression, and always straight at the cup, consequences be damned.
So, over the years—sneakily, quietly and never with much fanfare—I’ve played golf games on whatever console was around. I played Tiger Woods PGA Tour, mostly, never as a real golfer, but always as some hideous create-a-player of my own making.
My usual character was a guy named Red, an underachieving club pro who got hot after 30 for no reason and lucked into a Tour card. Red played the Tin Cup version of golf: He never laid up, and stocked all of his experience points into driving distance. Red played power golf, which is why I usually destroyed par 5s and, on higher-difficulty settings, put second shots on par 4s straight into the skulls of the gallery waiting behind the green.
Red made it through a few variations of the game, then disappeared when I got bored with the franchise. That seems pretty normal based on the people I know who play the game in any form, virtual or otherwise. It never really fades away from their frame of reference, but it never stays on the forefront, either. Friends let their clubs go dusty in their garages for long spells. My dad is as hardcore a golf freak as I know, and even he has taken long trips away from the game.
I, too, put away the only version of golf I played. I took out the virtual sticks only for a bizarro Aussie version of the game, Golf Story, a game I binged over three days in 2019 that features golf, but also a rap battle between old Scottish pros and Aussie skate punks. Either reading this explains why the game was so good, or it doesn’t, and that’s fine. Golf Story is there for you either way.
Otherwise, I let golf go back to its special, neglected, indelible spot in my heart. I closed the course for the season, and for the next, and then just left the lock on the gates while the greens turned brown and the fairways grew into the second cut.
Then the spring of 2020 happened. The real Augusta closed. The only thing to do was unlock the gates on the virtual one.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012: The Masters is not the best version of EA’s flagship golf franchise. Some of that is by design, or by lack of decent execution thereof. The woods and irons are too easy. Putting is a horror and feels less like hitting a ball with a club and more like slapping at it with a pool noodle. Specialty shots are either cake-simple to pull off or utter impossibilities. Hitting a 90-yard fade that bends a full 45 degrees and lands softly on the green is child’s play. Punching out of the woods, however, instantly turns anyone into Kevin Na at the Valero Open.
The main attraction is getting to—and I want you to read this in the breathiest, most awestruck Jim Nantz voice imaginable—Augusta National. Make the top 100 in the game, and/or play out any number of challenges from actual Masters tournaments, and the invitation arrives with bells and whistles attached.
Full disclosure: This is not really an attraction to me under normal circumstances. I covered the Masters under normal circumstances once and felt vaguely repelled by Augusta National. I grew up following my dad on muni courses and shaggy private clubs with decently priced subdivisions attached to them, and Augusta is, in every sense, not that world. There are sculptural wires in the trees where birds and squirrels should be, and volunteers bluntly warning people not to go barefoot on the nuke-green fairways because “you don’t know what’s on that grass.” Golf courses are always sort of artificial, but if the antebellum vibes weren’t enough to put me off, then the extreme artifice of the place finished me completely.
Augusta as a place on TV, though? That’s something—a completely separate experience. Augusta is supposed to be experienced on TV, and the Masters should come packaged as a story a television producer weaves together. The tournament, for better or worse, is a herald of spring, a rite, a signal to take the first deeply felt and appreciated nap on the couch when the world is starting to bloom and the wind is blowing at exactly the right pace through an open-screened window.
Even I—an apostate who really didn’t like seeing the place up close—have to acknowledge that. When the pandemic shut down Augusta, I hit up gamestop.com. For 14 bucks and shipping, I got a copy of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012: The Masters. If I couldn’t watch someone melt down at Amen Corner, I’d just have to do it myself.
Or get Ray Ray Whitley to do it for me.
I made Ray Ray Whitley what I needed him to be in the darkest hours of 2020. In the create-a-player, I made what a lot of Americans see in the mirror every day. He’s overweight. He wears basketball shorts every day, in the colors of the Los Angeles Lakers because, like most Americans, Ray Ray likes to root for winners, and also doesn’t keep up much with the news. (Ray Ray might not know about Kobe. Please, for my sake, do not tell him.)
He wears socks with sandals—slides, to be specific, the kind of shoe some people wear in locker-room showers and others wear to do everything else. He wears a Scottish soccer jersey as a top. He does not know it’s Scottish. He only thought it looked cool in the bin at the consignment shop. Ray Ray has to answer few questions about it, because he covers it up 98% of the time with a generous gray hoodie zipped up to his sternum.
You’d think he was a flat-bill man, but no—he wears a bucket hat because his family history of skin cancer, and a long stint in landscaping, pushed him to opt for the maximum coverage he can get without wearing some dorky broad-brim hat. His shorts and socks are both long enough that he sometimes appears to be a huge toddler let loose from daycare too soon. His lumbering gait and graceless swing only reinforce the impression that Ray Ray needs a juice box, a snack and a nap.
He has the face of a pockmarked catfish, the sun damage of a longtime Sun Belt resident who once believed sunscreen was a communist plot. His head is covered by a solid but not showy mullet.
His game is almost the opposite of what one might expect. Ray Ray is by body type a power-hillbilly artilleryman, someone who aims and prays somewhere in the direction of the flag and takes it from there. By practice, Ray Ray is at his heart a finesse player. I put almost all of his points into the short game, especially putting. I figured Ray Ray, a late bloomer in golf, would rely on his cunning and control to stay in tournaments and avoid competing with younger, longer hitters altogether.
In sum: I made Ray Ray a man doing his best with limited time and even more-limited physical gifts, someone confined by circumstance to just doing the best he can, and then on special occasions maybe even a little bit more than that.
I started him on Tour Pro difficulty and discovered two things: 1) putting in this game is impossible, like trying to hit a water balloon with an old car antenna, and 2) Ray Ray may be the most sympathetic and believable athlete I have ever covered.
He started his career at a baseline of absolutely hype-less. With me playing, he certainly didn’t deserve any. Even in simple events like amateur tourneys, Ray Ray struggled to make the cut, much less grind his way into the top five. His putter felt like a cricket bat. His drives lagged 30 to 40 yards behind the competition. He hit a 45-yard drive on a par 4 at Whistling Straits. Sometimes Ray Ray just looked hopeless—even more hopeless than I’d already made him look, playing tournament golf in baggy basketball shorts and a hoodie.
Sometimes the mere sight of him made me want to cry. Yet Ray Ray survived. Enough terrible losing eventually piled up the experience points needed to get Ray Ray’s putting up to something like “merely average.” He finished in the teens first, and then inched into the top five.
Then, one brilliant day at East Lake Golf Club, Ray Ray fought through indifferent iron play and some truly wild chipping to pull off what anyone looking at his sad, lumpy form might have believed impossible: Ray Ray finished his final round with a bogey, an ugly finish that still left him sitting atop the leaderboard.
I was elated. I didn’t even feel like I’d been playing him. It wasn’t me at all, actually. Ray Ray had won, and he’d keep on playing ugly, desperate and somehow successful golf through the end of the year. A few top-five finishes later, somehow, in his third season as a professional golfer, Ray Ray finally managed to crack the top 100.
Augusta called, and when they did? You better believe Ray Ray answered on a battered old flip phone he’s had since 2007.
I want to give you a tale of triumph. But I cannot. Or, at the least, I can’t give you old Ray Ray’s ideal story here. I can’t tell you about him becoming something like the caddie who could, the help putting one in the big boss’ eye by beating him at his own game.
That story hasn’t been written yet because that isn’t how life really works, and also because I haven’t been able to play the Xbox 360 for a while because my kids have been at home during quarantine and need the TV more than I do. Golf, evidently, has to wait for homeschooling and videos of screaming Dutch teenagers streaming GTA V on YouTube.
Ray Ray got to Augusta, yeah. He was even playing decently until he hit the 12th, Golden Bell. Ray Ray, perhaps because he forgot himself in all the excitement, didn’t heed the cautionary tale of, like, 80% of professional golfers who get their hopes and dreams nuked by a deceptively simple par 3. No, Ray Ray got loose and tried to stunt on Augusta, fired right at the pin, confident his solid play so far would not put him in the water, over the green or in the bunker.
Ray Ray would find all three, eventually. I lost count, to be honest, of how many putts it took to hole out. I only know that when it was over, Ray Ray saw the cops and called 12, and 12 answered with a quickness. A dozen strokes on one hole, and Ray Ray’s day was over.
Ray Ray missed the cut, finishing at 4 over. I was streaming it for an audience—the same people who, like me, wanted to get some azaleas into their eyeballs in the spring even if the real ones wouldn’t be blooming for anyone to see. I needed to finish with something positive for them. But I also needed it just as much for Ray Ray. Even though Augusta National wouldn’t let him play in them—pants and proper shoes only for ANGC players and patrons—I felt like he’d walked too far in his shower sandals to stop now, here, after just one round in Golf Disneyland.
So I fired up match play to regain something like dignity. Ray Ray didn’t win there, either. Bubba Watson was his adversary. Despite firing off an 8 himself at No. 13, Bubba had reserves and moves Ray Ray couldn’t counter. Every time I pulled close, the CPU put Bubba 3 inches from the hole off an insane approach shot, or landed him in the bunker only to have him hole out. If watching Bubba Watson in real life is an exercise in mixed frustration and awe, then the best compliment to the programmers of Tiger Woods 2012 is that he’s exactly the same in the game, right down to moments where it really looks like he’d rather quit than keep playing.
Yet Ray Ray didn’t exactly lose, either. He hung tough. He pushed Bubba to the limit, so much so that after 17 holes of tough, exacting golf at Augusta, Ray Ray walked onto the 18th tee tied with Watson. For a moment, looking down the long path past the loblolly pines to the right of the tee and down Holly’s fairway up to the sugar-white sand of the waiting bunkers, Ray Ray stood eye to eye with his supposed betters. He had earned the respect of the course, the fans and the champions watching him. Ray Ray was not trespassing at Augusta. For the first time in his life, he belonged—a member if only for that moment.
Ray Ray’s errant tee shot and a spin through a bunker put him on the green in four. Watson hit some ludicrous shots, including an unreal one from a greenside bunker, to save bogey. Ray Ray came agonizingly close to holing out to force a playoff, but his Achilles’ heel—the buttery, erratic putting—again failed him. He made 6, doubling the hole and losing by just a single stroke to a two-time winner of the holiest of holy tournaments.
Ray Ray tipped his hat to the cheering crowd. The two golfers shook hands in all their digitized glory. For a minute, I swear I saw real respect and admiration in Bubba’s pixelated eyes, and why wouldn’t I have? Both golfers came to the sport in their own unorthodox ways. They owed little to golf’s traditions and power structures and endless swing coaches and gurus. Both made it at Augusta, though in very different ways. Bubba won the tournament outright; Ray Ray won simply by making it there, and holding his own for almost long enough.
Ray Ray, unlike Watson, is still waiting on his own champion’s dinner. He’s like so many of us in that, and in so many other ways, too. He rarely holds the trophy, but is a champion in the important ways: a survivor, someone whose worst enemy is himself, but whose chief asset is also the man in the mirror. Ray Ray has no choice but to make the best bet he can make, and also the most dangerous one. He has to bet on himself at all times, and, when that fails, make the same wager again, but heavier. Sometimes he has to take just being in the building as victory, and getting another shot to do it all over again—win or lose—as triumph. Generally speaking, he’d prefer to be wearing shorts.
Those little virtual people at the green at Augusta inside my Xbox know all that. They have to leave the club when the gates shut, just like Ray Ray does. There will be no dinner waiting for them in the clubhouse, no locker reserved for their jacket. But they’ll get back next year, or the next. However long it takes to get back, really. That’s how long they’ll keep showing up, waiting to see greatness, or, failing that, to get a peek of another spring.
Oh, and if you’re still wondering, I remember what Ray Ray shot in his final exhibition round against Bubba Watson at Augusta.
It was a 69. Because of course it was what Ray Ray would shoot at Augusta.