The Tee That Binds

The Outpost Club toasts its obsessive family of members at the Punchbowl
The Outpost Club at Yale Golf Course
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

“It’s the most fun shitshow you’ll ever see.”

On the list of famous golf quotes, those words from Melissa Bellomo, the tireless general manager for the invite-only national golf society called the Outpost Club, will never surpass “Be the ball, Danny” or “Better than most.” But know this: Truer words have never been spoken on a golf course.

So, welcome to that show, otherwise known as the 27th hole at the Outpost’s annual late-October competition they’ve dubbed the Punchbowl. The one-day extravaganza concludes on the celebrated par-3 ninth hole at the historic Yale Golf Course in the woods of New Haven, Connecticut. At just past 4:30 in the afternoon on a day that sees temperatures dip into the 30s and hover in the 40s, 102 hardy competitors—Outpost members and guests—stand together on the hole. Some don stocking caps and oversize gloves. Others remain bare-handed and in baseball caps. Their visible breath in the cool air mixes with the occasional puff of cigar smoke.

While the first 26 holes feature alternate-shot play, over the next hour each golfer takes their shot over the water to the 235-yard downhill Biarritz featuring an 8-foot depression. They tee off two at a time, swinging simultaneously, at least according to the plan. More often the twosomes lack military precision and each golfer swings seconds apart. Every 30 seconds two more players confront whatever demons invade their psyches, and whatever they’ve put in their bodies over the previous seven hours. They possess talent—handicap indexes range from 19.7 to plus-6—but don’t often play in front of a hovering, excitable gallery. The one rule on the 27th? No practice swings. Step up, grip it, rip it and pray the golf gods offer a timely gust or friendly bounce. The gallery shouts approval if a shot rockets toward the green and taunts players who misfire. Anyone who hits a hole-in-one automatically wins the event. But after 12 Punchbowls, they’re still waiting for the first.

This one hole on this one day on this one course stocked with golfing fanatics encapsulates everything about the Outpost ethos. The club’s mission, expressed on an understated website offering few clues to the adventures awaiting members, is “to cultivate a thriving golf society that signifies the very best in the game—where the golf course design is compelling, the camaraderie towards fellow members is genuine and the experience is always memorable. Above all else, The Outpost Club will allow members and guests the opportunity to relax and spend quality time with one another.” 

Since its 2010 inception, the Outpost has expanded from 12 events that first year to 92 set for 2019. Today the Outpost has held events on every continent except Antarctica and visited 27 countries. Though most also have a home club, there are more than 750 members from 45 states and 12 countries.

The most obvious selling point is access: Olympic Club, Los Angeles Country Club, Oakmont, Sand Valley, Pasatiempo, Pebble Beach, Old Town, East Lake, Hirono, the Old Course, Muirfield, Carnoustie, North Berwick and Swinley Forest are among the clubs that have hosted Outpost events. All of them, in the words of Outposters who speak the phrase like a mantra, are “architecturally significant.”

And while these are no doubt resplendent pieces of real estate, they’re not why so many Outpost members use near-reverential tones when speaking about the club, whose creation was modeled after British golf societies.

As he tours the Yale course, longtime member Kevan Gibson says, “If you ask people why they joined, and then ask them if they enjoy it for the same reason today, you’ll find a lot of people saw the golf benefits early. But then they’ll talk about the people they’ve met and the places you go and I can call up somebody and go, ‘Hey, I’m in town, I don’t have time for golf but do you want to get a meal or a coffee or a beer?’ It’s about that social aspect.”

Outpost Club co-founder Will Smith says, “People are very loyal to their home club. It’s where they hang out; it’s what they have a lot of pride in. But when they come to our Outpost Club trips, it’s a little bit more of an adventure; it’s a little bit more whimsical. We have competitions, but it’s not necessarily like the club championship, where everything is deathly serious.”

New Yorker Stephenie Harris partnered with Gibson at the Punchbowl. One of the few women in the Outpost, Harris says, “It’s much more inclusive than any boys’ club.…We get together, and I may not know you, but in 30 minutes I know I love you. I know we could be trapped together on an island and we’ll get along just fine. I can’t say that about my home club; I can’t say that about a lot of other things. But there’s a similarity amongst members that is unique and special.”

A decade ago, the three Outpost co-founders envisioned this type of community when they came together to build a single course. Circumstances forced them to change plans. But the vision remained. 

A meticulous buildup

In 2018, the Outpost held events in Mexico, Peru, Scotland, South Africa, Holland, Belgium and Japan. But when co-founders Colin Sheehan, Quentin Lutz and Smith first envisioned their dream project, they focused on a less-exotic locale: Nebraska.

Sheehan and Smith met at Yale, where Sheehan played on the golf team and snuck his buddy onto the university course with a story about him being a potential new player. Both have since carved out lives in the game. A golf renaissance man, Sheehan has done everything from playing in college to caddying to coaching his alma mater, a job he’s successfully done since 2008. He’s also planned and designed courses (including Castle Stuart Golf Links), operated as a businessman, edited at The Golfer and authored The United States Amateur: The History and Personal Recollections of Its Champions. Smith also immersed himself in the game, working in golf-course design and construction. The two maintained a website under the Punchbowl Golf heading, which included videos from their golf travels, and eyed careers together with a design firm. 

Their partner Lutz now classifies as a golf lifer, but he didn’t grow up with the game. “I literally didn’t pick up a club until I was 22, 23 years old,” he says. Lutz fell in love with golf while serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy when he was stationed in San Diego. He was on the USS Kitty Hawk and “played all the Naval courses out there for, like, $10 a day. It was during peacetime. It was a good time to be in the Navy, and I had an opportunity to play some golf.” Lutz also traveled with the Royal Air Force Golf society while in the U.K. “Before you know it, you get hooked,” he says. “To this day I love the places it takes you. It takes you to some of the most amazing properties on the planet.” As an adult, Lutz made up for whatever he missed as a kid: In 2007, at 37, he became the then-youngest person to play each of Golf Magazine’s top 100 golf courses.

Members of the Outpost Club smoking cigars and watching golf.

Lutz worked for golf-course architect Arthur Hills and started the venture-capital firm Qonnect Partners. He got to know Sheehan when they met at the Primland Resort opening in Virginia and later became friends with Smith. The trio conceived of a destination private club for people in their 20s and 30s, a “new type of club,” Sheehan says, with “dormitory-style lodging in a beautiful environment but with just a low-key, party, social, relaxed thing. Land was cheap and I was convinced there was this willingness of golfers to travel and play a great destination club.” They eyed land at $400 an acre in Valentine, Nebraska, set in the area’s stunning sandhills, where Smith worked as a shaper for the Tom Lehman–designed Prairie Club. Sheehan believed their creation, which they hoped to work on with architect Kyle Franz, possessed top-10 potential.

They couldn’t have timed their idea worse. The course never got off the ground with the economy’s immolation in 2008-09. Undaunted, a new idea emerged, borrowed from golf societies that flourish across the pond. “It’s an emphasis on the golf being social,” Sheehan says. “Feeling a connection with each other, not just random guys going on golf trips together. There’s matches and competitions and you have a captain and play events in all kinds of formats.” Lutz recalls that they pivoted and “realized the Field of Dreams model was not going to work. So it was important for us to figure out what could we do that makes sense? And the timing couldn’t have been better for what we then envisioned, which was the Outpost Club.”

The trio reached out to their contacts, including architects Gil Hanse and Tom Doak, David Fay of the USGA, Keith Bank of Club Champion and Walker Cup captain Jim Holtgrieve. “It was different people that had phenomenal connections to the game,” Lutz says, “and we asked, ‘In your network, are there four or five guys that you think would be great fits for this?’ And I think we were very careful; we didn’t try to be everything to everybody. We grew it slowly and organically and never advertised. We all agreed that was not the way we wanted to build this and I think our patience paid off. We were able to build it with people that we really liked, and we had people that shared our passion and understood our calling and what we stood for.” 

They brought the Outpost Club into the world in February 2010 and today many recruits come via referral from members. The initiation fee “is not insignificant, but it’s not a huge number,” Smith says. “We feel that because it’s not a massive number it allows us to have diverse membership. It’s not just 60-year-old guys who have made a ton of money.…The tightness and pride in the community our members feel is greater than we ever imagined.”

Bellomo, a veteran on the membership and marketing sides for private clubs, joined in 2011. She became a partner in 2015 and works with her husband, Mario, the Outpost’s director of golf. The Bellomos travel hundreds of days throughout the year to events and juggle hundreds of responsibilities to make sure everyone stays happy. “When they come in at night and sit around, if we’re staying somewhere that has lodging on site, we get the fire going and we sit outside sharing golf stories,” she says. “People always remember the golf they played. They remember the course. But we want them to always remember the people they played with and the stories they shared. I think that’s what brings them back, sometimes even more than the game itself.”

As for the courses, the founders share a vision of what “architecturally significant” means. Sheehan says, “Courses are either worthwhile or not, and that line shifts from one person to the next.…We are guilty of a bias toward old courses. But anything with creativity, charm—it could be short courses, it could be nine-hole courses, it could be anywhere, it could be pretty divey, too. It includes many humble courses and hole-in-the-wall courses, but for all the right reasons they’re clearly a course we would recommend.”

Call them experts, buffs, nerds or snobs, but many Outpost members revel in architectural details. The night before the Punchbowl, participants converged in New Haven, including at the iconic cigar store the Owl Shop, where patrons talked golf in the haze. While some watched the World Series, most discussed and debated courses: overrated, underrated, great holes, good holes that became bad after an alteration, designers who wrecked courses, where they just played and where they’ll soon visit.

The Outpost Club members golfing at Yale Golf Course
“Architecturally significant” is an important but subjective phrase in the ethos of the Outpost Club. Sheehan, Lutz and Smith have their reasons for selecting courses, which range from establishment classics like the Old Course, Muirfield and Oakmont to lesser-known, more-humble tracks. They’re always a lively talking point among the members, who are equally passionate about the courses.

Outpost members obsess not only about where they play, but also about how they play: fast, preferably while walking. To those who appreciate that style, wandering on two feet adds a dimension four wheels can’t possibly duplicate. Harris says, “You go to the U.K., the home of golf…they obviously didn’t have golf carts, so there’s this ancestral pull to walking. It’s totally different playing and walking versus being in a cart. There’s so many little moments that you miss in nature in a cart, but there’s also that camaraderie of walking and talking or not talking and just being.”

The Outpost’s bountiful smorgasbord—historic golf courses, tight friendships, extensive travel, dedicated walking and the Outpost Foundation’s charity work—also attracts talent to its staff. In late 2017, Steve Scott left his job as the head golf professional at Paramount Country Club in New York for the Outpost. Scott secured his spot in golf history in 1996 when he battled Tiger Woods in the U.S. Amateur final, before Tiger rallied for his third straight title. If he ever tires of people asking about it—“Steve, what was it like losing?”—the affable former Florida Gator never shows it and embraces being part of a legend’s lore. In his Outpost role, Scott doesn’t spend as much time teaching, instead traveling to more than 20 events during the year where he helps run the tournaments and works with merchandising.

Different in so many ways to traditional clubs—Scott says the society has a “less snobby atmosphere” than elsewhere—the Outpost’s head pro also emphasizes some similarities. “We have match-play events, we have stroke-play events, we have handicapped events, we have events played with no handicaps or scratch. We have member-guest events. We have a year-long knockout match, which culminates in December in Chechessee Creek near Hilton Head. We have every event that you would have at a standalone club. But we get to enjoy lots of golf courses around the world.”

And each October, Outpost members make their way to Yale’s Seth Raynor–designed masterpiece.

Bonds beyond the course

The Punchbowl existed before the Outpost. Sheehan and Smith first welcomed a group of 14 to the Yale course in 2007. It has grown into the club’s largest event. The late-October date and cool weather play into its mystique. One California member saw the forecast—chilly, but hardly unreasonable for the passionate or anyone born east of Nevada—and emailed about not making it. He was justifiably mocked. Many years the leaves have already parachuted to the ground, but in 2018 the trees preserve their green, orange and red decorations, creating an idyllic theater.

By 8:45 a.m., a large crowd convenes in the parking lot, mingling and devouring offerings from the Tony’s Square Donuts truck. Sheehan stands above the gathering and recites some rules: Stableford scoring; if you’re not hitting the drive, make sure to walk ahead; keep play moving; take care of the course; and “if you’ve got a putt for a double with a stroke, you’re not allowed to take your time doing that. That’s undignified.”

For the morning 18, co-founders and Punchbowl teammates Sheehan and Smith start on Yale’s 10th tee in a group of 10. Tensomes and groups of eight blanket the course. When standing on a hole with unobstructed views of neighboring fairways, it’s like watching armadas pass each other on the high seas, with more trash-talking and fewer cannons.

Harris is in Sheehan and Smith’s group. She joined the Outpost in 2010, and after an event on Pinehurst No. 2, she suspected that she’d found a perfect golf home. During a time of family tragedy involving her wife, Tanya Grubich, Harris’ appreciation for the game and the Outpost in particular were confirmed. She met Grubich—a longtime fixture on Broadway, respected and beloved for her work as an agent and producer—in 2010 and married her in 2014, the same year Grubich received a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. Today the vibrant woman Harris fell in love with suffers the effects of the cruel disease while Harris copes with the challenges all spouses and caretakers face. A golfer herself, Grubich still played occasionally with Harris until her illness made that impossible. Golf “has been my therapy,” Harris says. “I was processing my grief in real time. Golf really took that place for me as an outlet of fun. I’m just so very thankful for golf. You can’t get through a problem being stationary and here you are out on a golf course for four and a half hours walking. That right there, being able to walk through this with love and care and dignity like that, really is powerful.”

Outpost leaders understand the life-affirming role the club plays. Melissa Bellomo remembers one man with cancer who said, “I got my [event] calendar. I went to my doc and I said, ‘Doc, listen: I’m going on this trip next year, so you need to do everything in your power to make sure we get this taken care of.’” 

He understood what becomes obvious at the Punchbowl: While the scoring matters—bragging rights, impressing a spouse, the chance to grasp, however briefly, the hefty Punchbowl trophy—that’s not why members swarm New Haven. It’s about walking a distinguished course with fellow obsessives. They marvel over shared trips and tales of improbable birdies. They appreciate the foliage with the sincerity of people seeing bright colors for the first time. They curse together when a putt rolls from one end of the green to the other and back down into the fairway on Yale’s 7th. They talk about how different regions enjoy the game, like Texans, who “all ride in carts, all have a stereo system in their carts, and they’re loud and they bet like fucking crazy.”

After the opening 18, a carvery lunch awaits: roasted mid-loin of beef with horseradish sauce, roasted boneless pork loin with gravy, roasted local root vegetables, rice pilaf and apple crisp, all of it washed down with plenty of champagne punch. The setting promotes the Outpost culture. “There’s no respect for lunch in American golf,” Sheehan says. “It’s such a wasted afterthought. In the U.K., the lunch is equally part of the ceremony, the event. They often show up to the courses, jacket and tie, and you change when you get there and you play alternate shot in two and a half hours and you get back in the clubhouse, get a shower, jacket and tie back on, and a two-hour lunch.…Then you go back and change yet again and go out and play another two-and-a-half-hour alternate shot.”

Properly fed, the golfers return for the final nine holes—eight in large groups before the mob comes together on No. 9. One of the Outpost’s most passionate evangelicals, Anthony Fauci, begins afternoon play on No. 1, a 410-yard par 4. Fauci learned the game near a spot known for vintage Americana, but not fabled American golfers: Coney Island. He picked up clubs for the first time as a kid at the old Nellie Bly amusement park’s driving range. A baseball player in his youth, Fauci recalls thinking the golf swing felt like hitting a low pitch. Intrigued, he returned to the range and eventually took six lessons after his dad forked over 36 bucks. That started a love affair with the game that’s lasted 50 years—and survived his Brooklyn upbringing. “A kid playing golf in Coney Island, you gotta bloody a couple of noses,” Fauci says. “There’s the connotation that ‘What is golf doing in Coney Island? What are you, a sissy or something?’ It was a different world back then. But it made me that much tougher.”

Fauci attends five or six Outpost events annually. “You’re always in a different place. Your normal club, you’re always at the same place, so there’s that little touch of vacation. That little change in atmosphere resets your brain,” he says. “Most of the events are away events, so you might be in a cabin, you might be in a hotel, but you’re pretty much eating breakfast, playing golf, eating lunch, playing golf, eating dinner with these guys and staying overnight and having a couple of pops at the bar.”

The Punchbowl especially stands out. “I don’t get mad playing this,” he claims on the first fairway. “It’s like the only place where you can come and not care how you play because you have so much fun. All the other times, I don’t like it if I don’t play well.”

He teams up with his son, Anthony Jr., an Army veteran who fought in some of the most dangerous infantry action in Afghanistan. When Junior served overseas, his dad says, “I looked forward to the day he’d be back and we’d play together. I’d be chatting with him and he’d be like, ‘Gotta go, getting hit.’ And I’m sitting on this computer for could be 10 minutes ’til he gets back on, could be two hours before he gets on, it could be he never gets back on. So every day we play together now, it’s a bonus.”

Part of the fun? “Oh, we talk shit all day long,” the elder Fauci says. He recalls the first time his son beat him, when he was about 11, during a putting contest at the Naval Academy. After his dad missed, Anthony Jr. “knocked it in and he was, like, 6 feet off the ground; he couldn’t contain himself.” Junior looks more somber at the Punchbowl when he yanks his tee shot on the seventh hole, a 368-yard par 4. His old man watches from a bench. “Every time I try to hit a cut, that happens,” Junior says. “Don’t try to hit a cut,” Senior responds with a laugh.

One hole later, the elder Fauci also loses a drive left. “What a fuckin’ way to end,” he says; despite earlier proclamations, it appears that Fauci’s mad. Seconds later a laugh and a shrug prove he’d told the truth, and their tensome heads to the ninth tee.

The main event 

Smith calls this most fun shitshow in all of golf “organized chaos” and Melissa Bellomo deserves credit for the organized aspect. As the golfers collect themselves, Bellomo calculates the scores that determine the order of play. While they wait, the Outposters recount their first 26 holes, sounding like kids on the first day of school recapping three months of summer in frenzied three-minute monologues. What’d you do with the drive on No. 1? You died in the second greenside bunker too? How about that view coming into the 18th green? How fucking fun is this?

Scores compiled, Bellomo yells out who’s on the tee, who’s on deck and who’s in the hole. The order goes from worst to best scores. On the tee, the moment’s enormity sets in; no one wants a future as a Punchbowl punch line around the campfire. When one guy takes forever, another player, deputized like all members to enforce pace of play, orders, “Hit the fucking ball!”

Several competitors violate the no-practice-swing edict. Some sinners appear chagrined by the honest mistake. A few scofflaws know the rule and break it anyway. All accept the verbal punishment. The gallery begs shots that make it to the back portion of the Biarritz to scare the cup. Based on the response to any shot that tiptoes within 20 feet, it’s fun to imagine the reaction to a walk-off hole-in-one—the kill shot, in Outpost parlance. Mass streaking? A group cannonball into the frigid water? Fauci Sr. gives it a run, sending his 4-iron over the hole. Junior’s ball finds the front of the green. Scott nestles in the swale. And Harris, who says the adrenaline rush is worth an extra half a club, reaches the back green with a 3-wood. 

Only those with a shot at winning play their ball, though most make the downhill pilgrimage to watch. Finally, brothers Brian and Chris Jessen secure the victory and Sheehan presents the trophy.

Even after the Punchbowl ends, the Outpost’s time in New Haven doesn’t. Around 7 p.m., the organization assembles at the legendary club Mory’s. Outpost members sport ties and signature tweed jackets and enjoy dinner and a performance from Yale’s esteemed a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs. Following Mory’s tradition, diners pass around giant cups filled with alcohol. Everyone drinks until someone empties it and places the chalice on their head. The whole scene, with all those lips slurping from the same goblet, would horrify a virologist or anyone who understands the basic physics of backwash. But this is just another scene of solidarity. As they have since that morning, Outpost members inspire each other with stories about the game they worship and the event they just concluded. The worst thing about the Punchbowl? The next one’s not for another 12 months.

Yale Golf Course
No detail goes unscrutinized at Outpost Club events—even lunch. No tin-foiled hot dog at the turn here: As across the pond, lunch is a big part of the tradition and is celebrated appropriately. After all, members need the proper fuel to take their best shot in front of the assembled gallery in the Punchbowl finale.