We should begin with the rain. If you tell people from other areas of the country that you live in moderate proximity to Seattle, they’re going to mention precipitation in some perfunctory or stereotypical way. This will inevitably get old, which will cause you, the Puget Sound denizen, to severely downplay the fact that yes, it is generally quite gray outside in the winter months, and yes, between October and, uh, June there is a preponderance of moisture and frequent but not constant drizzle that turns expensive technical outerwear and Alaskan fishing boots into practical fashion. I’ve lived up here nearly three years, and one-quarter of my neighbors look like extras from The Deadliest Catch.
But the downplaying isn’t an act of self-delusion—it’s pride. Any regional climate quirk, especially if it is a hardship, quickly becomes a badge of honor for residents; there’s all kinds of weird spoken and unspoken etiquette (umbrellas here are a no-no). Be it the endless lake-effect gray of Buffalo, New York, or the vindictive Gulf Coast summer humidity, people bond over bad weather and smirk when outsiders confess something silly like “I don’t know if I could get through the winters.” They smirk because they know that living in a place that won’t hesitate to show you its teeth doesn’t just produce hardy or interesting people. It creates its own sense of belonging that is, if you can hold on long enough, life-affirming.
Shortly after arriving in the Pacific Northwest, I played my first round of golf in 10 years on a grim November morning 10 minutes from the Salish Sea and 15 minutes from the Canadian border. I was provided rain gloves and, essentially, rain boots. The sun never came out and the temperature never broke 42 degrees. It looked and felt like the stereotypical picture of Ireland I keep in my mind. It was a day I feel comfortable describing as “hostile to outdoor activity.” And yet the driving range was packed. In the pro shop, I passed a ruddy faced older man rubbing his hands together and perusing a bin of bargain golf balls. “A bit cold,” he remarked. “But I think we’ll get ’em in,” he continued—with a smirk, of course. I was fully bought in before I hit my first shot.
Before we go any further, I should offer a confession: I’m a regional dilettante. A man without a country—or, rather, a county. I stammer a bit when people ask me where I’m from. I left Cleveland, Ohio, the only place where my family has deep roots, when I was a boy. Since then—from Kansas City, Missouri, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Missoula, Montana, and my current home north of Seattle in Bellingham, Washington—I’ve learned to love my adopted hometowns, warts and all, but have always felt like a man on the outside looking in. And so what follows is not a hard-earned local’s accounting. Nor is it a parachute job. I will not—and cannot—attempt to reduce and distill the broad constellation of cultures and quirks of my new home into something definitive. But I can, hopefully, help you begin to understand how this wild, drizzly, temperate, mountain-bordered collection of islands, forests and seas helped me to finally fall in love with golf.
Zack Bolotin is my geographical opposite. In his 35 years, he has never lived outside of King County, which envelops Seattle. Bolotin’s great-grandfather found his way over from Russia in the 1930s, creating a gravitational, generational pull to the city that suffuses Bolotin’s life and work. As I continued to dive deeper into golf culture here, I was introduced to him via email as both a Broken Tee Society member who knew his way around the scene and an exemplary Seattle character—a friendly, casually stylish graphic designer and coffee-shop owner with a passion for midcentury architecture, vinyl records and uncovering his city’s history. Standing behind the counter at Porchlight Coffee and Records, he is strikingly close to the image of what your mind might conjure if asked to picture a “PNW coffee guy.” Which is another way to say that he is not what most people picture when they hear the term “golfer.” This, I decided, paired with the fact that he is a self-declared “bad golfer,” made Bolotin my perfect tour guide.
I arrive at Porchlight on a brisk, cloudless fall morning to find Bolotin behind the counter, restacking to-go cups and enthusiastic about the weather. He foists a drip coffee into my hand and we pass the rows of records for sale and racks of Bolotin-designed T-shirts, hats and mugs on our way to sit outside his storefront. “You’ll get the full neighborhood vibe this way,” he laughs. Lounging in the weak November sunshine and taking in the Capitol Hill passersby, he tells me about growing up in nearby Woodinville, where Bolotin dabbled in punk bands, baseball and shifts at a cousin’s coffee stand inside a local hospital. Unlike the country club kids nearby, Bolotin came to golf as a bored teenager, killing time with his friends, hacking away with mismatched sets of clubs at Willows Run, a par-3 course in Redmond. Listless after a stint in community college, Bolotin did what sounds almost impossible just over a decade later: He decided to hang his own shingle and start a neighborhood institution. “Honestly, it was like, ‘Well, this is the only trade I know,’” he shrugs. “I said to myself, ‘I think I know how to do most of this shit, and I’ll figure out the rest.’ But, looking back on it, I was insane.”
Porchlight’s genesis sounds like a story from a previous century—like the way Bolotin took out a loan only to hold the money in his bank account for a few days in order to convince a building owner he wasn’t mostly broke. Or how he managed to catch his landlord on a technicality and avoid losing his storefront. “I started this thing for the price of a used Toyota,” he tells me with another hearty laugh. “I don’t think that’s possible now.” Once in business, faking it until making it meant that Bolotin worked the sevens: seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., doing everything from sourcing to bookkeeping to bathroom cleaning. He shudders detailing how, in those early days, he once went a full year without taking a day off.
As we sit in the sun, I tell him a bit about my move west and the strange way it aligned with my rediscovery of golf. I tell him about showing up to Chambers Bay for the first time and gazing down at the hollowed-out quarry/major-hosting big-boy golf course that also happens to have a public park snaking through its fairways. I start trying to list my golf bona fides without sounding like a douchebag. I try to name-drop a few local munis that won’t make me seem like a country club elitist. All the while, Bolotin never stops smiling. He’s not impressed or judging; he’s just taking it all in stride. This is when I realize that I’m trying too hard.
“Culturally, public golf is a bit of a weird place here,” he tells me. He doesn’t mean this as a knock. Post-pandemic, the city’s public-course tee sheets are jammed, which forces all manner of people to commingle in order to get a round in. “You’ve got people who take things very seriously paired up with people who are real bad. You’ve got the people who are new and horrible and unserious with the people who are new and horrible and very serious, and every [other] possible combination,” he says.
And he’s right. On a recent visit to Jackson Park, one of the city’s beloved public courses/parks, a friend and I leapfrogged a chaotic eightsome of high schoolers, then past three men in jeans and sandals, and ended up paired with a wonderful mother-son group enjoying their third-ever round together. The course, which borders Interstate 5 and offers far more cheeky approach shots than it has any right to, is busy, vibrant, odd, unpretentious and great. The vibe is similar at many of the city’s other muni courses, like Jefferson Park on the south side, famously the stomping grounds of a young Freddie Couples. Both courses opened well before the Second World War and offer the kinds of quirks you tend to find in a well-worn municipal course: an unexpected city vista, a good bit of neighboring car traffic just off a tee box, a drivable par 4 that makes an 18-handicap feel like a Tour pro, and at least one par 3 so straightforward that it becomes a first-ace factory. As on any public course, there are a lot of old white guys, yes, but just as many inexplicable jeans-and-sandals weirdos too.
This delightful stratification of Puget Sound–adjacent golfers is part of what makes the sport out here memorable and different, Bolotin argues. “There’s a kind of secret- or unexpected-golfer thing that comes out around here,” he says. “I have a few friends who are into literary shit and they play golf, or they play music and weirdly also play golf. Basically everyone I play with is not a typical golf type.” I ask him for an assessment of his own game and he eagerly obliges. “I’m just trying to play old-man golf,” he laughs. “Hybrids everywhere. Just 170 [yards] straight with any club and I’m so happy.”
I ask Bolotin to take me to a hidden gem of Seattle golf, and while he extols the virtues of Wing Point Golf & Country Club, a 6,100-yard jaunt along the Puget Sound just a short ferry ride from us, today we’re moving from Porchlight’s porch up the interstate to Nile Shrine, a 5,010-yard, par-67 course in the Mountlake Terrace neighborhood of northern Seattle. Bolotin lives up here now to feel a slight remove from the endless expansion of the city’s downtown. I’ve come to learn that one of the perks of living here (besides the temperate winters and the summers, which are among the best in the country) is that no matter what kind of urban or suburban sprawl you might find yourself trapped in, you are always only minutes away from a calm, old-growth-pine-forested oasis, a rocky coastline or a view of a snowcapped mountain. On this perfect day, with the midday sun slanting through the gently rustling evergreens, Nile Shrine offers the first, showcasing what I’ve come to view as a torturous hallmark of Pacific Northwest golf: exceedingly narrow but gorgeous treelined fairways.
Bolotin says he chose Nile Shrine, which isn’t part of the city’s municipal parks, because it’s fun and unassuming and never crowded. I figure our stunning 50-degree day, timed perfectly to peak leaf-peeping season, might prove the exception to the rule, but the parking lot is nearly vacant. Inside the pro shop, a chipper manager tells us the course is ours and gives us a twilight rate. I thank him and ask if there was a place to change out of my jeans. “Why?” he shoots back with a smile.
It’s hole No. 3—a short but gnarly fellow bordering Lake Ballinger with a sharp dogleg left that requires a 160-yard laser off the tee—and I’m trying too hard again. Bolotin’s talking to me about falling backward into his second career in graphic design and befriending rock stars while making album covers for Death Cab for Cutie. (He’s far too cool to name-drop, but I did my research.) I, the golf writer, am coming off back-to-back snowmen and basically unable to make contact with the golf ball. This is, in normal situations, pulled straight from my bank of cold-sweat-inducing nightmares. Bolotin, who has been playing well up until then, pauses his story in the fairway, grabs one of his garage-sale Wilson irons and pulls a ball so exquisitely into the trees that I wince. I watch him blink once, chuckle out an “Ooooookay” and immediately continue his story as if nothing has happened.
In fact, he’s jubilant. He’s thrilled to be out here, sandwiched between the late summer’s hazy wildfire smoke and the coming gloom of winter. He reminds me that we are, regardless of our score, stealing away a Monday afternoon to play a glorious, ridiculous game and look at some leaves. I file this optimism away as something to try to channel sometime. As we march toward the green, we realize Bolotin’s ball has miraculously Plinko’d through the trees and kicked out pin high near the fringe. He lets out an even-keeled “Hell yeah!” I make a note on my phone that this man is clearly operating on a higher level.
That note is the last I manage to jot down. Not because I lose interest in doing my job so much as I start to feel it too. Make no mistake, the golf continues to be mediocre for both of us. But something wonderful starts to happen: I stop trying. I stop working to present as a good interviewer, a competent golfer or a professional journalist. The golf gets a little better as a result, but it doesn’t matter.
Looking back, I can’t recall a time in recent memory where I felt as present as our back nine at the Shrine. I didn’t need detailed notes to remember the giddy laughs when we both managed to stripe a drive on the downhill 11th, or the noise Bolotin’s ball made on No. 17 when his wormburner split the uprights of a small walking bridge and skidded across the cart path and onto the fairway.
At some point I asked him to help me put this regional golf culture into words, and we both flailed for a bit. Maybe it’s the climate similarities with the places where the game was created, we mused. Or the eclectic mix of backgrounds, united by enthusiasm for a silly white ball. He didn’t have a good answer. But now I realize it’s that he’s just too close to see it.
“Whether you play or not, everyone has an idea of golf,” he told me earlier in the day. “Especially if you don’t play, you have an idea of what it means to be a golfer—and everyone who plays is ‘one of those guys.’ But to me, golf is like any other game. It’s what you make it. It can be very expensive and exclusionary, but it doesn’t have to be that. I’m really here for buying a $50 set and only playing pitch-and-putts. You can do that, too. That’s golf.”
Since that first bleak November day almost three years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why this sport leapt back into my life in such a profound and unexpected way. I tell people it was the pandemic, but that’s an easy dodge. I tell myself that it’s a matter of personal growth—accepting and embracing things that used to give me joy, but now as an adult. That, too, is a bit tidy. I stopped playing golf for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that I didn’t want to be seen as a golfer by others. I didn’t want others to attach their baggage and associations with the sport to my identity. Growing up working at a country club, I didn’t want to be a stereotype. By college, golf and my own image of myself were incompatible—so I cast it aside.
Being a consummate outsider and never a local has been disorienting, even isolating. But for whatever reason, on that shitty November morning I was able to look out over the driving range and see something of myself in the lineup of men and women layered up against the blustery gray. It sounds trite to suggest that a change of scenery gave me permission to love something again, and I think it’s bigger than that. When I was introduced to Bolotin, I wasn’t sure why our paths were crossing or how he’d help me feel like less of a stranger in my new home. Now, I believe that what led me to him wasn’t his ability as a golfer or even his remarkable life story, but his preternatural ease and self-assuredness. The kind that tells a 22-year-old that he can open a brick-and-mortar shop with no money, or invent a second career. The kind that stops trying so hard to define what somebody can or cannot do and just does it.
I will never have Bolotin’s entrepreneurial courage or his illustration skills or his even keel. But we are both golfers. And for a man without a county, it offers a sense of belonging that is, if you can hold on long enough, life affirming.