Yard Golf No. 25

Yard Golf

Dispatches from the inmate who built a golf course inside a federal prison

In July 2018, Jason Way was convicted of felony drug charges related to the manufacture and distribution of synthetic cannabinoids (commonly known as “spice” or “K2”) and was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. If his name sounds familiar, Way was featured in The Golfer’s Journal No. 3 in a story detailing his contributions to the rebirth of Chicago’s Canal Shores. That story does not refer to Way’s legal situation or his impending trial; TGJ was aware of neither until his friends and family forwarded letters he’d sent them from United States Penitentiary, Thomson, in Illinois.

In the following selection of edited correspondence, Way maintains that he did not knowingly commit the crimes of which he was accused. 

The Department of Justice stands by its prosecution. We publish these letters not to take a side or diminish the severity of the crimes of which Way was convicted; rather, we share them because golf can find its way into places one least expects it—sometimes when one needs it the most. 

Yard Golf No. 25

—May 3, 2022 

Returning to golf in 2012 after a self-imposed 20-year hiatus was one of the best decisions
I ever made. Taking on a 90-day consulting engagement that same year for a company with questionable legal status was one of my worst. In October 2013, those two decisions converged in the San Francisco airport, and a lesson would emerge from that moment that I believe saved my life. 

My friend David and I were on our way to Bandon Dunes. Surrounded by fellow golf pilgrims, waiting for our connecting flight to Oregon, I should have been giddy for my first visit there. Instead, I was in a panic on my phone, trying to hire a criminal defense attorney. 

Days before, three federal agents had come to my home and questioned me for an hour. I had nothing to hide about my work and answered their questions honestly. I did not see what the business’s legal problems had to do with me; I was neither an owner nor an employee, and my consulting had been conducted according to direction provided by multiple attorneys retained by the company. At the end of the meeting, the lead agent produced a letter informing me that I was the target of a federal investigation. His colleague said, “You seem like an organized guy who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

My wife and I discussed the Bandon trip and decided I should still go. Standing in the airport with the weight of felony charges pressing down, I wondered if home wouldn’t have been the better venue for my imminent meltdown. As I spoke to the attorney, I felt like a guy trying to play a bump-and-run with a 6-iron for the first time in his life: no choice but to draw the club back and see what happens next. I hired the lawyer. He assured me he’d handle the situation, and I got on the plane. 

Our schedule did not include a round on the first evening, but I couldn’t fathom the idea of milling around the room or trying to make conversation at the bar with a spinning head and tattered nerves. David came to the rescue. He dragged me out to play Shorty’s, the nine-hole par-3 course at Bandon’s practice center. Fresh air and my body in motion turned out to be the prescription I needed. 

It would remain so for years to come. As we walked around Shorty’s playing made-up holes at dusk, I was transported in a way that only golf can take me. My life as I knew it was on the line, but I had an inkling that golf could save it from being destroyed in the process. 

Since I did not intend to plead guilty to crimes I did not believe I had committed, my attorney advised that I prepare for any resolution to take years. He attempted to soften the blow by suggesting that I follow a simple rule: “If I need you to think about your case, I will let you know,” he counseled. “Otherwise, live your life to the fullest.” 

I had responsibilities to my wife, sons, recovery community and employer, and it helped to focus on those. Something additional was gnawing at me, though, and once again golf presented a solution, this time in the form of a struggling community golf course. 

I felt like a guy trying to play a bump-and-run with a 6-iron for the first time in his life: no choice but to draw the club back and see what happens next. I hired the lawyer. He assured me he’d handle the situation, and I got on the plane. 

Canal Shores in Evanston, Illinois, had captured my imagination before federal agents darkened my door. I was enamored with the special course and the potential it held. In volunteering for the grounds committee, I found kindred spirits—Steve, Chris and Tom—who wanted the course to thrive as much as I did. We launched into a series of pilot projects, removing invasive trees and brush, rehabbing bunkers and expanding fairways and greens. I documented our progress on my website and social-media accounts, and a small army of followers and volunteers grew up around us. 

As our work progressed, so did my legal challenges, and I gradually shared my story with some of the key players at Canal Shores. Instead of backing away, they allowed me to step up my service even more. The prosecutor might have been claiming that I was a drug kingpin with ties to Hezbollah, but my Canal Shores comrades chose to trust what they saw. Their support motivated me even further, as did the picture the government attempted to paint. They said I was a bad guy. I resolved to prove them wrong by doing even more good. When they harassed me, I harassed the buckthorn. When they tried to tear me down, I rebuilt bunkers. 

Yet the stress still proved to be intense. One evening, as I was clearing brush on the ninth hole, I got dizzy and felt an awful tightness in my chest. As I sat on the frozen ground with the low winter sun setting and rode out the anxiety attack, I couldn’t help but wonder if my body was going to make it to the end of the journey. 

Canal Shores in Evanston. Photo: Christian Hafer

I lost my trial in the summer of 2018, and as I waited for my appeal to play out, my body finally surrendered in January 2020. I developed a painful case of gastritis that put a trip to my amigo Charlie’s club in real jeopardy. Dietary changes and medication propped me up and I headed to California, but I still felt defeated. Despite my best efforts, the circumstances were breaking me down. 

I had an epiphany as we walked off the fourth tee at Charlie’s course: After seven years of pressure that included enormous physical, emotional and financial strain, a four-week trial, 13 hours of testimony and the waiting—the interminable waiting—I was still swinging. And I was able to do it because I was surrounded on the course and off by an incredible tribe of people. 

There’s something about golf. Maybe it’s the humbling challenge, or the values embedded within. It has its own magic that brings out the best in people. It became a lifeline, and I doubt I’d be writing these words right now if golf hadn’t reminded me to reach out, get out and give back. 

Canal Shores. Photo: Christian Hafer

—June 5, 2022 

It did not take long after my arrival at camp Thomson for me to feel my connection to golf weakening. The last time the game became a non-factor in my life, it was by choice. After an unremarkable junior golf career, I attempted to walk on at the University of Illinois. I played well enough to get through the walk-on tournament and grab the coach’s attention. He sat a small group of us down and said, “I’m sending you out to play with my scholarship players. I’m paying these guys to be here, so if I am going to give one of their spots up, you will have to kick their asses, day in and day out.” I don’t remember who I played against, but I do recall feeling certain after the front nine that I was out of my league. On my best days I could have been competitive, but kick ass daily? Wasn’t going to happen. I went to the coach after the round, thanked him for the opportunity and bowed out. I never touched my clubs again in Champaign. 

It happens to many: demands of career or family, relocation, injury, the expense or, as in my case, burnout. Our priorities change and we hang up the clubs. They get dusty and we get rusty. The lucky ones, like me, find their way back. 

When I last separated myself from golf, I felt little regret. This time the absence hurts. I can feel myself grieving the loss of the activity, the adventure and the time spent walking fairways with my buddies. I confided all of this to my friend Peter via email and he shot back right away, “I don’t want to hear any more talk like that. Unacceptable!” He snapped me out of my funk, and I resolved to find ways to stay golfy even though it might be years before I would hold a club again. 

Shortly after Peter’s admonition, I was in the modest (at best) camp library, perusing the DVD selection, and couldn’t believe what I stumbled upon: the PBS special “Golf ’s Grand Design.” I had no earthly clue what a golf course architecture documentary was doing among the prison’s collection of nature, history and religion videos. It felt like a message from the golf gods. 

Watching “Golf’s Grand Design” got me thinking about other golf viewing opportunities. There was a catch, though: Anyone who has been incarcerated will tell you that television protocols are tricky. There is a hierarchy of access, and those who disregard those rules do so at their own peril. 

There are six TVs in the camp day room, and they are allocated roughly according to racial demographics: three for Black dudes, two for white boys and one for Mexicans. (There is no political correctness in prison.) I tested the waters with my buddy Clint. “When no one is watching the white TVs, would anyone care if I put the golf on?” I asked. “You don’t want to do that,” he immediately responded, and suggested I consult with Jared. Jared had seniority and therefore controlled one of the white-boy TV remotes. We asked if we could catch some of the Masters coverage and he shot back, “If I’m not watching the TV, I don’t give a shit.” 

Having gained permission and Clint’s commitment to join me for a “watch party,” I set about gauging interest from other guys. The most common response was, “Is Tiger Woods playing?” I found one guy who claimed to have been a golfer, but he had a different relationship to the game. 

ME: It’s the best week of the year.
HIM: Oh, yeah? Why’s that?
ME: It’s Masters week and we’re going to watch it.
HIM: Where are they playing this year?
ME: Are you messing with me?
HIM: Where is it? Pebble?
ME: No, it’s at Augusta National, like it is every year.
HIM: Is that public?
ME: Are you messing with me?
HIM: [Blank stare]
ME: OK, then. We’ll be watching it on TV if you want to join us. 

A small group of us watched the early round coverage and I felt replenished. We continued watching as often as we could. This also marked the beginning of Clint’s random but rabid love affair with Will Zalatoris. As self-appointed president of the Zalatoris Fan Club, Clint is leading the charge to put the up-and-comer on a level with Tiger, at least within the BOP (Bureau of Prisons). 

Andy Tupman Masters Augusta 2023
Augusta National. Photo: Andy Tupman

Meanwhile, the usual recaps I used to get from golf buddies before I got sent away began to wane. Emailing with Peter, he admitted that golf seemed trivial to him compared to what I was experiencing, and the last thing he wanted to do was make me feel worse. I explained that the opposite was true: When your body is stuck in prison, anything that can take your mind to a happier place is a blessing. After that, my blessings became abundant: My friends are well-traveled, and soon I was going with them to Scotland, Sand Valley, Prairie Dunes, Ireland, Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst, Cypress Point and Streamsong, and for so many loops around Canal Shores, both forward and in reverse. The stories were like oxygen for my soul. 

The more I thought about golf, the more it made me want to swing something. 

Anything. I tried a softball bat—too light. Considered a pool cue—too long. Inspiration struck when I was walking past a bin of steel bar remnants in the facilities building. I found one I could grip, and my coworker helped me cut it down to 27 inches. Voilà! Weighted swing trainer. I walk the track in the evenings and stop to take cuts, imagining perfectly struck shots tracking toward the rappel tower in the distance. It doesn’t bother me that some of the guys find my ritual goofy. Pity that they don’t know this feeling. 

It didn’t take long for me to think that didn’t have to be the case. Why shouldn’t these guys have the same opportunity? I announced to Clint one day, “I’m going to start a golf class here.” He thought I was kidding. When he realized I was not, he said, “If you get them to let you do that here, you’ll be a legend in my book.” And then he added with a smile, “If you and I play, I’ll crush you.” Challenge accepted. 

In my role here as yoga instructor, I report to the camp recreation officer. He responded to my inquiry by telling me that I needed to create a curriculum and get 10 interested campers. If I could put that together, he was willing to propose the class to his boss. 

Gathering the 10 names took less than an hour. The boys were interested! I returned to the rec officer right away with a curriculum that covered the game’s history and offered instruction, with a focus on fundamentals and fun. He liked what he saw, but asked me to find a third-party endorsement for my approach. An enthusiastic one soon came from an instructor at Canal Shores, and that was enough to convince him to run my proposal up the flagpole. Nothing happens quickly in the BOP, but the approval has finally come down and an order for 10 9-irons and practice balls has been placed. The first cohort of golfing campers at Thomson is set to begin. 

I tried a softball bat—too light. Considered a pool cue—too long. Inspiration struck when I was walking past a bin of steel bar remnants in the facilities building. I found one I could grip, and my coworker helped me cut it down to 27 inches.

—Sept. 10, 2022 

One sunny afternoon a few days ago, I walked around the bend in the northeast corner of the camp track and came upon Old Man Kerry. His dreadlocks and war stories give him away as an old-school hippie, but I knew he played college golf back in the day. He pointed to the field and with a confused look on his face asked, “Is that a bunker?” When I confirmed that it was, he said, “No shit. That looked like a bunker and a golf green, but when I saw it, I thought I might be losing it.” 

Prison will do that to you, but in this case Kerry just happens to be one of the few people at Thomson who recognized what I was doing. And my vision for golf here has expanded beyond one green. 

During my years volunteering at Canal Shores, I rehabbed bunkers, built new ones, created a Principal’s Nose and dug out a wee burn. I worked on green repair and expansions. But I still had two open items on my amateur architect to-do list: learn how to operate earth-moving equipment, and build an actual green. The fact that I was going to get to do both courtesy of the criminal-justice system…the irony was not lost on me. 

At Thomson, we have a Bobcat with numerous attachments, a Caterpillar backhoe and a Mack dump truck. When I joined the landscaping crew in the fall of 2020, I had no idea how to operate any of those vehicles. Luckily, there were willing teachers among my fellow campers, including one guy who, shockingly, had golf course construction experience. When we were not working on our assigned jobs, we were allowed to practice with the machines. 

Before I got to move dirt, I spent time learning to move snow, and by the spring of 2021 I had graduated to filling and grading washouts. Given the sandy composition of the Mississippi River Valley soil, heavy storms created more ruts to fix. Slowly but surely, I got better with a bucket. Next up was the backhoe. My buddy Russ took me to some spoils in the dump and showed me how to grab a bucket load, swing it over and dump it. Grab, swing, dump, over and over, to get a feel for the controls. 

Once I had the hang of it, it was time to build something. In my past life, I had interviewed and met quite a few architects. I picked their brains and had the privilege of visiting construction sites to watch courses come to life. Even with that experience, I was still dumbfounded by how shapers managed to sculpt a green out of the earth. Now it was my turn. 

canal shores
Canal Shores. Photo: Christian Hafer

I had been eyeing some grassy mounds that reminded me of a favorite green: the fifth at Boston Golf Club, known as Shipwreck. The putting surface is rectangular, protected by mounds and bunkering on three sides. Maybe that’s how the Gil Hanses and Tom Doaks of the world work their magic, I thought. Find a piece of land, then draw upon their vast mental archives for inspiration. 

With the picture of Gil’s Shipwreck green in my head, I dug in. I worked from the existing grassy mounds, digging holes with the backhoe where I wanted the bunkers and piling the excavated dirt to build up the green. A digger in sandy soil is a far easier effort than a shovel into the clay of Canal Shores. My back thanked me with every scoop. 

I have seen the detailed green sketches of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and other golden-age masters. I have heard stories of Bill Coore on the sand pro, teasing out contours and tie-ins for hours until they’re just right. The pros have an aura of complete command. Rarely do you hear of the happy accident. 

Well, I stumbled into one. As I was arranging dirt with the Bobcat, I mistakenly put a deep gouge in the middle of the green. Fearing it was ruined, I stepped away and took a breath. But when I surveyed the damage, I actually liked it. I had inadvertently given the green a double-plateau vibe. I could hear the words of my buddy Peter when he once proclaimed, “There is no such thing as too much double plateau.” Instead of fixing the gouge, I expanded it. 

My mind began to wander as the first green came to life: A green is nothing if it is not a part of a hole, and a hole cries out to be a part of a course. With interest in my golf class running high, it made perfect sense to keep building. My hours on the track became filled with thoughts of where holes might fit. Routing around buildings, parking lots, roads and razor-wire fences must be done with care. As fun as it would have been to bend a shot around a guard tower, good sense deemed that I settle on the unused drainage area behind the facilities compound. The space is L-shaped, with each leg at a different level. It is bound on two sides by berms and adjoins the camp recreation yard on a third. A three-hole loop would work quite nicely there. 

I was lost in these thoughts one day when the landscaping boss noticed my work site. 

“What are you building out there?” he asked. 

“A golf green.”

“Are you going to build a whole course?” This was the moment of truth. I had not told anyone yet for fear of setting off an alarm. But I threw caution to the wind and described my vision. To my surprise, he listened and then called over two more guards. 

“Tell them what you’re doing out there, Way,” he said. 

With an air of amusement, they all agreed that my idea sounded good. I have become accustomed to people thinking I’m a bit nutty, but all I cared about were the two magic words they left me with: “Keep going.” 

Since then, the project has gone smoothly by federal government standards, but there have been bumps in the road. When the equipment breaks down, it gets fixed at government speed. If we don’t have materials (like proper grass seed), I go as far as I can until they can be acquired. Every so often, someone at the prison who’s not in on the plan objects to an inmate pushing dirt around and I have to take a break. Fortunately, after eight years of slowly pushing the renovation of Canal Shores forward, I learned to be patient and persistent. I keep showing up ready to work, and thus far, after each hurdle is cleared, I hear, “Keep going.” 

And my class is going well, so I believe we’ll have some real players for the course. But my reasons for teaching it have evolved beyond mere enjoyment of the game. The educational programming at Thomson is weak, and meaningful vocational training is almost nonexistent. My long-term vision is for the course to become a turf-management and landscaping program. 

My superintendent buddies are often short of qualified staff, and the guys headed home from here need career opportunities. If I could help someone discover the joys of taking care of a golf course along with landing a job upon their release, that would make me happier than any golf shot I’ll ever hit. 

With an air of amusement, they all agreed that my idea sounded good. I have become accustomed to people thinking I’m a bit nutty, but all I cared about were the two magic words they left me with: “Keep going.” 

To that end, I have been lobbying the prison administration, working my way up from supervisors to the warden, and now to the regional office. I am trying to make the connection between the game and the BOP’s rehabilitative mission. Given that Thomson is right down the road from one of the largest golf construction and maintenance equipment manufacturers on the planet (John Deere) and a PGA Tour stop (the John Deere Classic), it seems to me that the sky’s the limit on potentially life-changing collaborations. Outreach to John Deere is underway. 

Word of my ideas has spread around camp, and they’ve been met with excitement and doubt in equal measure. I miss my loved ones terribly and hope that I will be home before I can see the initiatives I’ve started through to completion. But while I’m here, I will chase my vision of making golf a part of life at Thomson. Majors will be watched, beginners will be taught and turf will be tended. 

—Dec. 10, 2022 

My student, a big dude called African, was struggling with his rhythm. 

“We’re looking for a smooth backswing, then a pause at the top, and then a smooth downswing,” I told him. “Give that a try and see how it feels.” 

He took the club back, stopped for a pause that would have made Hideki Matsuyama nervous, then took a violent lash that missed the ball entirely. It was clear he needed better coaching. 

“You know I meant a brief pause, right?” I said while demonstrating the cadence. 

“Oh! Got it,” he replied. 

At that moment, I felt like Hank Haney trying to find the words and drills to unlock Charles Barkley’s brain and body. For all its beauty, golf is not exceedingly intuitive, especially for adult beginners. From my first class, I developed a much deeper respect for instructors. 

My initial group of more than a dozen students ran the gamut from guys with single-digit handicaps to those who didn’t know which end of the club to hold. I had a Bump, a Lump, a Skinny and an African. I’ll bet ol’ Hank never had students assign themselves colorful nicknames like Tiger Hood and others that I won’t repeat. 

The class had both field and classroom components. For those who already knew how to play, just being able to swing one of the prison-issued 9-irons was a major victory. I understood the looks on their faces—like they were dreaming and afraid that someone might wake them up. I gave them foam practice balls and turned them loose to go knock the rust off by playing back and forth across the field inside our track. For the newbies, we started with the fundamentals. 

Grip, stance and setup, and balance and footwork were first. I did not belabor them, because my advisor, Peter Donahue, founder of The Golf Practice, told me that the sooner I could get them whacking a ball of any sort, the more engaged they would be. So I started them with a tennis ball. To a man, they expected to smash it, but that initial swagger was quickly replaced with befuddlement as their flailing arms and swaying bodies produced a blend of whiffs, tops and chunks. 

Before their spirits were crushed, I gave them the next lesson. I explained how the golf swing is a rotational movement, with power produced by the big muscles in the legs, back and shoulders. Then I showed them: The shoulders turn back until the club is at 9 o’clock, and then, beginning with the lower body, rotate through until the belt buckle is facing the target and the club is at 3 o’clock. Don’t hit the ball; swing the club, and the club hits the ball. It was a rare moment when I thought we were fortunate to be in prison: Everyone has plenty of time here. Rather than get impatient or quit after their slow starts, the guys were all still eager to figure things out. 

So I let them take their frustrations out on me. I walked 20 yards in front of them and said, “Hit me.” They struggled with the motion at first, but soon a few tennis balls went in my general direction. I hit them back, demonstrating the 9 o’clock/3 o’clock sequence and shouting instructions. Back and forth we went in a state of controlled chaos until they finally began to move their big muscles and let the clubs do the work. The tennis balls started flying over my head and I got my reward: wide-eyed smiles as they felt the thrill of a purely struck ball. Eventually we progressed to 10 o’clock/2 o’clock, then 11 o’clock/1 o’clock and so on until they graduated to foam practice balls. 

In the classroom we learned golf ’s culture, so that they would feel more comfortable when walking onto a course in the future. We covered basics like the parts of a club, clubs in the bag, parts of a hole, scoring and playing matches. We talked a little history and watched “Golf’s Grand Design” for their introduction to architecture. I was worried about how they would respond, but they ate it up. 

On our final day of class, at the end of the video, I asked my students what they thought. My buddy Nordyke, who’d helped me with construction on our three-hole course, said, “I like the natural, scruffy lookin’ ones like Sand Hills.” A man after my own heart. African chimed in, “Looking at those golf courses, with the green fairways, is like watching a fish tank.” I asked him to explain. “It’s calming,” he said, “like watching colorful fish swim around in a tank.” I’d never heard that before, but I loved it. 

I miss my loved ones terribly and hope that I will be home before I can see the initiatives I’ve started through to completion. But while I’m here, I will chase my vision of making golf a part of life at Thomson. Majors will be watched, beginners will be taught and turf will be tended. 

Back out in the field, it became clear we needed to do more than hit balls. But our course construction wasn’t complete. So we got creative. I planted seven metal posts in various spots around the rec yard, including some devious ones tucked into nooks and crannies, and tied caution tape to the tops of each. 

We decided as a group on the rules of play: The track, softball infield, volleyball court and parking lots are considered hazards. Balls coming to rest in a hazard are penalized one stroke. A ball that comes to rest within one club length of the flagstick is considered holed. Within two club lengths, the player adds one stroke to his score. Relief is granted from squirrel holes and man-made obstructions. All other shots are played as they lie. 

You’ve got to have some Seve in your game to figure out how to hit every shot with a 9-iron and a foam ball. On one hole, you might have to produce a low hook to cheat the wind; on the next, hit a flop shot over a soccer goal. But merely playing wouldn’t be enough for guys who talk trash while playing Monopoly—we started with match play, but ultimately took a page out of the Winter Park 9 playbook, turning to a skins format because of its inclusiveness. Our class was sometimes joined by newcomers who would tentatively approach and say, “Are those real golf clubs? Can I hold one?” We’d tell them to grab one and jump in. For the Thomson prison skins game, Rule No. 1 is the more, the merrier. Every week, we found ourselves out there laughing and hacking and grinding for pars. 

After our classes ended in winter, I braved the chill to play alone and reflect on our progress. The golf experience at Thomson has revealed to me a calling. Whether it’s inside or when I’m out, I’m now on a mission to show the good of this game to every Bump, Lump, Skinny and African.