A reg­u­lar golfer's quest to play Amer­ica's 100 Great­est Cour­ses in one year.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Max Adler


Di­gest is aware of fewer than two dozen in­di­vid­u­als who have played ev­ery course on our rank­ing of Amer­ica’s 100 Great­est. They ticked them o over life­times largely well spent, and the grill­rooms of United States golf clubs have heard their sto­ries.All are or were Golf Di­gest course-rat­ing pan­elists – the card-car­ry­ing, of­ten quite tan, pen­cil wield­ing, low-hand­i­cap data-bots we’ve trained in the sci­enti c art (or art­ful science, if you pre­fer) of eval­u­at­ing shot val­ues, de­sign va­ri­ety, aes­thet­ics and other cat­e­gories since 1966, and whose le­gion is now 1 500 strong.We com­pile the scores of all our rat­ing pan­elists to up­date this rank­ing bi­en­ni­ally, and so the list is ever-chang­ing. When new cour­ses re­ceive the hon­our, some pan­elists are quicker than oth­ers about stay­ing cur­rent.

Be­ing a com­pletist is hard work. Just ask Terry Inslee, who joined our panel in 1984 and is our most proli c rater, hav­ing eval­u­ated 3 050 cour­ses. He’s played 93 of the 100 Great­est and 96 of the Se­cond 100 Great­est.The seven he’s miss­ing from the rst list roll o his tongue quickly: “Au­gusta Na­tional, Bos­ton Golf Club, Shin­necock Hills, Se­bonack, Friar’s Head, Gar­den City and Old Sand­wich.” Inslee is re­tired, but over a ca­reer as a Mis­souri-based sales rep with a na­tional ter­ri­tory, he worked in a lot of golf on busi­ness trips.Why hasn’t he played them all? Though as­so­ci­a­tion with Golf Di­gest does open doors, per­sonal con­nec­tions and the rub of

the great green in the sky are still para­mount, even for our pan­elists.

Told there was a golfer who’d ac­com­plished the feat of play­ing “the cen­tury” in a cal­en­dar year, Inslee is im­pressed, if not a lit­tle shocked. “Com­plet­ing the 100 is a ma­jor lo­gis­tics prob­lem. You’re al­ways jug­gling so many balls in the air – the sched­ules of dif­fer­ent hosts and your own, tour­na­ments, out­ings, ren­o­va­tions, weather . . . for some­one to do that in 12 months is ab­so­lutely amaz­ing.”

“You ought to award the guy a green straight­jacket,” says Se­nior Ar­chi­tec­ture Ed­i­tor Ron Whit­ten. Salty as Whit­ten can seem, the heart con­nected to the fullest brain in golf ar­chi­tec­ture has a soft spot for any golfer so pas­sion­ate.

Who could and would pull off such a stunt? Clearly, some­one who isn’t work­ing. Has to be a Golf Di­gest panelist, right? Not the case. Then some mi­dam sil­ver fox with a pri­vate jet and a fat Rolodex, right? Wrong again. Our golfer of the year is as un­likely as the idea it­self.

Jim­mie James, 59, was raised the fourth of eight chil­dren by a sin­gle mother. Their house in the sawmill town of Huntsville, Texas, had no plumb­ing or elec­tric­ity. On the dusty and up­hill path to the store, Jim­mie and his sib­lings and half-sib­lings would walk from their black sec­tion through the Latino sec­tion be­fore get­ting to where the whites lived. Signs for­bid him to drink from cer­tain foun­tains.

The James kids sur­vived on what they could hunt and grow, and later

on USDA-is­sued cheese, dried mashed po­ta­toes and canned meats. De­spite the nearly crip­pling cost of com­mut­ing via taxi, their mom worked the same job as a nurse’s aide for 30 years. “Our mother had a tremen­dous amount of drive. She taught us de­ter­mi­na­tion, in­tegrity and to never com­plain,” says James, who was the first of his sib­lings to grad­u­ate high school, although all would be­come pro­duc­tive and com­fort­able mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

With a job at a de­part­ment store and a par­tial schol­ar­ship, James earned an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree from PrairieView A&M Uni­ver­sity. His climb up ev­ery rung in a 33-year ca­reer at Exxon­Mo­bil ri­vals any fic­tion by Ho­ra­tio Al­ger. Last year, he re­tired as Man­ager of Amer­i­cas Fuel Op­er­a­tions. “I was re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure that ev­ery town in North, Cen­tral and South Amer­ica that needed fuel got it, while keep­ing the com­pany’s work­ers safe with­out im­pact­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. It was a very high-stress job with a lot of global travel,” James says. “When I re­tired and went from 100 miles per hour to 30, I wanted a project to keep me en­gaged, be­cause I’d seen oth­ers strug­gle with this tran­si­tion in their lives.”

The ath­let­i­cally built James, who be­came a 12-hand­i­cap af­ter tak­ing up golf at 45, had the idea that for the first year of re­tire­ment he’d play two golf cour­ses in ev­ery state. A pre­vi­ous trip to the Old Course at St An­drews, when a golf buddy can­celled last minute be­cause of a work con­flict, in­stilled a taste for the thrill of play­ing as a sin­gle and pair­ing with lo­cals, and he thought he might re-cre­ate that ex­pe­ri­ence again and again. But then a grander no­tion popped into his head: If he was go­ing to play 100 cour­ses in the United States, why not the best?

“Since the Golf Di­gest rank­ings up­date ev­ery two years, it oc­curred to me that per­haps no one had ever played the en­tire list while it was cur­rent,” says James (cor­rectly), who at the time of con­cep­tion had bagged just four: No 16 The Coun­try Club, No 22 Whistling Straits, No 75 Con­gres­sional and No 21 the Ocean Course at Ki­awah – the lat­ter mul­ti­ple times, be­cause he has a res­i­dence there. For good mea­sure, he’d play these four again. “It was im­por­tant to me that I play each course within the 12-month time frame.”


get­ting to the moun­tain­top

Funny how the most re­mark­able ad­ven­tures will de­rive from logic en­tirely self-im­posed. In 2015, the Swiss skier Jeremie Heitz an­nounced his in­ten­tion to climb and de­scend the 15 most fa­mous 13 000-feet (3 963-me­tre) peaks in the Alps in two sea­sons. Most thought he was nuts, not only for how fast he ripped down these cliff-choked and avalanche-prone lines, but be­cause high alpine nav­i­ga­tion re­quires ex­act weather con­di­tions. Forc­ing an agenda against time across a wide ge­o­graphic area would surely lead to poor de­ci­sion-mak­ing. There were scares, but with co­jones and a lit­tle luck, Heitz pulled it off, and the jour­ney of his ac­com­plish­ment doc­u­mented in the Red Bull film “La Liste” is be­yond com­pelling.

In golf, of course, the ma­jor ob­sta­cles are ex­clu­siv­ity rather than ex­trem­ity. That’s why James knew his first course had to be Au­gusta Na­tional. “As I pur­sued my quest, I an­tic­i­pated that a lot of peo­ple would ask if or how I was go­ing to get on Au­gusta. Play­ing there first gave me cred­i­bil­ity. Peo­ple knew I was se­ri­ous.”

James met his wife, Erika, on a flight. Walk­ing to his car, he kicked him­self for not get­ting her con­tact de­tails and rushed back to in­ter­cept her at the gate of her next con­nec­tion.The Dean of the Goizueta School of Busi­ness at Emory Uni­ver­sity, Erika is also an over­achiever. When she took the job, she made an open plea to her board that if any­one would in­vite her hus­band to play golf, she’d sure ap­pre­ci­ate it. That led to James’ quest kick­ing off in style, aboard the pri­vate jet of the golfer who had the Au­gusta con­nec­tion.

“Au­gusta wasn’t my favourite golf course (that was Cy­press Point), but it was my great­est over­all golf ex­pe­ri­ence,” James says. “From the drive up Mag­no­lia Lane, to warm­ing up on the Par-3 Course, to the pi­mento-cheese sand­wich for lunch, to the gallery of staff com­ing out to watch our open­ing tee shots on the cham­pi­onship course, I never wanted the day to end.” Hav­ing 1992 US Mid- Ama­teur champ and Au­gusta Na­tional mem­ber Danny Yates in the four­some added to the am­bi­ence, and af­ter the round, Yates of­fered to help James with en­tree to other cour­ses. James de­clined.

“Once you get in­tro­duced into a cer­tain cir­cle, you could re­ally lever­age some­one for their con­tacts, but I didn’t want to lean on any one per­son to help with more than a hand­ful of cour­ses.The fun was go­ing to be meet­ing peo­ple as I went and let­ting this net­work of peo­ple de­velop nat­u­rally.” As such, James rarely planned his itin­er­ary fur­ther out than a month. Though we must in­sert one small as­ter­isk: James played Au­gusta Na­tional in May 2017 dur­ing his last month of work. Not un­til he was set­tled into re­tire­ment on June 12 did his quest of­fi­cially be­gin, he says, and he com­pleted the list on June 11, 2018, so he gave him­self a year to play 99 cour­ses.The judges will al­low it.

James is a suc­cess­ful guy, but he and his wife still have two teenagers who will want to go to col­lege. Cash­ing out his mod­ern road war­rior’s chest of ac­crued ho­tel, air­line and car-rental re­wards points, nearly half of the travel for Jim­mie’s Top 100 Golf Course Tour with the name­sake blog was booked with­out open­ing his wal­let.And with the sort of sta­tus so lofty at United Air­lines it’s un­pub­lished, James could make last-minute flight changes with­out get­ting pe­nalised. Like, say, when his No 5 Oak­mont in­vi­ta­tion sud­denly ma­te­ri­alised when he was on his way out to No 73 Cherry Hills.

A few manic travel mo­ments aside, mostly his year un­furled be­neath prime sea­son sun­shine at a pace be­fit­ting the game. James loved hang­ing around putting greens, start­ing con­ver­sa­tions


and see­ing where they led. “When­ever I told any­one what I was do­ing, the re­flex re­sponse was to won­der how they could help.” Who did they know, and where?

“I think this trip gave my hus­band an even greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the good­ness in peo­ple, the beauty of the hu­man spirit, than he al­ready had,” Erika says.

Says Pat Haden, a mem­ber of No 3 Cy­press Point: “I’ve been on trips to Ire­land and Scot­land where I got hooked up by lo­cal mem­bers, and part of be­ing a golfer is the joy of shar­ing what you have. . . . Jim­mie is such a thought­ful, pleas­ant guy, that I was glad to help him, but it wasn’t un­til months later that I truly un­der­stood his per­sonal his­tory.”

When James was an in­tern in col­lege, his host for the sum­mer was shocked when a black per­son showed up at her door. She hastily con­cocted a back story and made ar­range­ments to pro­tect James from be­ing ar­rested if he was seen in the neigh­bour­hood af­ter dark. “Forty years ago, there’s no way I could’ve played all these cour­ses,” James says. “There were peo­ple who warned, last year, that there would be some cour­ses I couldn’t get on, but I felt to­tally wel­comed and re­spected ev­ery­where I went.”

Race wasn’t an is­sue, and nei­ther was weather – ex­cept in Cal­i­for­nia. In the so-called Golden State, rain­outs, wild­fires and deadly mud­slides con­spired against him, and he needed six trips to play 12 cour­ses. For his en­try on No 80Val­ley Club of Mon­tecito, a re­gion that was dev­as­tated, James wrote, “It goes with­out say­ing that the peo­ple had a lot more to deal with than some guy try­ing to play golf.We and our planet are a re­silient lot, but in­ci­dents like this show how frag­ile life can be.”

some of the high­lights

Such a year is filled with su­perla­tives, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll men­tion just a few. The most ex­pen­sive green fee was $750 at No 63 Cany­ata in Illi­nois, although James did have the place to him­self. A lone pyra­mid of range balls awaited his ar­rival. The pri­vate club av­er­ages 350 rounds per year.

The strictest cell­phone pol­icy seemed to be­long to No 14 Chicago Golf Club, where use of any kind is per­mit­ted only in­side a car. In the of­fi­cial pam­phlet emailed to guests in ad­vance of play, it is also ad­vised that the stan­dard bet is a $1 nas­sau.

James’ most in­deli­ble me­mory might be the sud­den si­lenc­ing of sil­ver­ware on the pa­tio that oc­curs when you ad­dress your open­ing tee shot at No 6 Merion.And though James en­coun­tered an out­pour­ing of hos­pi­tal­ity al­most ev­ery­where, the vibe at No 56 Old Sand­wich sticks in his mind: “I stayed for three hours af­ter my round. They wouldn’t let me leave!” A mul­ti­tude of mem­bers be­came highly en­gaged with his blog.

If there’s one rule to be­ing Amer­ica’s guest, James says, “it’s to re­alise that ev­ery club is a refuge, and to never dis­rupt that sanc­tity.” He made a habit of writ­ing thank-you emails to head pros and club man­agers on ev­ery flight home, al­ways not­ing the ter­rific ser­vice of their staff while cc’ing his hosts and play­ing part­ners. “If I’d acted ques­tion­ably, word would’ve spread and ended my quest quickly,” James says. “The other crit­i­cal el­e­ment is me­mory. I have a pretty good knack for re­mem­ber­ing names and mak­ing con­nec­tions. There’s a great un­der­ly­ing com­mu­nity of golf at this level, and if you make the ef­fort to know who trained as an as­sis­tant un­der which head pro and where, the ri­val­ries be­tween cer­tain golf man­age­ment schools, the home club of a win­ning mem­ber-guest part­ner – these things come up in con­ver­sa­tion, and they give you the op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate your sin­cere love for the game.”

But be­ing well-in­formed with an open cheque book for guest fees and your clubs in the boot isn’t al­ways enough. James says the hard­est place to get on was No 71 Mil­wau­kee Coun­try Club. He worked his con­tacts for months to nail down a host, and even then had to tee off on the 10th hole, as do all groups with mul­ti­ple guests at MCC dur­ing mid­day peak times, per club pol­icy.

When James ran global fuel-sup­ply lines, the mas­ter lo­gis­ti­cian never left any­thing to chance. But to­wards the end of his golf mis­sion, he had to get lucky. With 35 days re­main­ing, he had 29 cour­ses to go. Leav­ing No 4 Shin­necock Hills un­pegged the spring be­fore it was host­ing the US Open was poor plan­ning, and not all seg­ments of his trip to the im­por­tant NewYork area were locked down.

Be­cause the front nine of Winged Foot’s No 10 West Course was be­ing ren­o­vated – by Gil Hanse in ad­vance of the 2020 US Open – James had to play a com­pos­ite 19 holes with the No 62 East Course. (The judges will al­low it, though not with­out some grum­bling.) Like at Bal­tus­rol, the only other two-banger prop­erty with its No 39 Lower Course and No 61 Up­per, James saved in the golf shop. Be­cause he pur­chased a hat and ball marker from each club, these two Tilling­hast play­grounds made his col­lec­tions 98. (Each of Ban­don Dunes’ four 100 Great­est Cour­ses has its

dis­tinct logo and mer­chan­dise.)

Across a leafy res­i­den­tial street from Winged Foot is No 76 Quaker Ridge, an­other Tilling­hast de­sign. Not to as­sail his ge­og­ra­phy, but James was un­aware of the true prox­im­ity.As he ap­proached on Grif­fen Av­enue in search of the Hutchin­son Park­way, some­thing like fate in­ter­vened. A guest in an out­ing struck a mas­sive slice at the eighth, a short par 4, which con­nected with the wind­shield of a pass­ing pickup. Head pro Mario Guerra was sum­moned to me­di­ate. De­spite Guerra’s as­sur­ance that the club would cover the cost of a new wind­shield, the driver was re­luc­tant to move his truck un­til po­lice ar­rived, and with traf­fic back­ing up with im­pa­tient driv­ers, Guerra feared an­other ac­ci­dent.

“Then, walk­ing up the shoul­der of the road, I see this tall African-Amer­i­can guy with a big smile. He comes right up to us and starts in, ‘Gen­tle­men, I’m sorry for this dam­age that has oc­curred to­day, but with ev­ery un­for­tu­nate sit­u­a­tion there is a sil­ver lin­ing. Do you be­lieve in destiny? You see, I was born poor in south Texas and am now on a quest to play all of our na­tion’s great­est cour­ses and . . . ’ He goes on, and the golfer, the pickup owner and I are all stunned by this guy. I was im­pressed with how he han­dled him­self. I gave him my con­tact de­tails to ping me that night, and I played with him a few days later.”

To avoid traf­fic, James caught a ferry across Long Is­land Sound to make the first of sev­eral tee times. So he wouldn’t get dinged with a week­long one-way rental, he ex­changed that car at LaGuardia Air­port for a fresh one to drive to Bos­ton. On a separate trip for Shin­necock, mem­ber Jimmy Dunne did a solid and rushed home early from his col­lege re­union so he could host James on the fi­nal day guests could play be­fore the US Open.

Dur­ing this home stretch James recog­nised a ten­sion within him­self. Was the urge to com­plete the mis­sion over­whelm­ing his abil­ity to savour the ex­pe­ri­ences? To get back in a slower gear, he mind­fully re­turned to what he’d re­ally been do­ing all along: mak­ing small talk with as many em­ploy­ees at each club as he could. His go-to open­ing line: “What’s the one piece of ad­vice you would give me for play­ing this course?” These in­ter­ac­tions sup­plied the tex­ture to make days mem­o­rable within the blur.

Of course, while James was mak­ing chitchat with locker-room at­ten­dants, his wife kept things to­gether at home and sur­vived their teenage son learn­ing to drive. “He trav­elled so much when he was work­ing, that it didn’t feel that dif­fer­ent, ex­cept the ca­dence of the golf trips was more ran­dom,” Erika says. De­spite her hus­band grab­bing a trip to Ire­land and an ad­di­tional 70 rounds along the way, he did make it back for a lot of im­por­tant dad ac­tiv­i­ties. For his 99th course, the cou­ple walked to­gether in their back yard at Ki­awah, and his last course he could drive to, No 25 Wade Hamp­ton in North Carolina.

All this golf helped James’ hand­i­cap drop as low as 8.5, but to­wards the end his body broke down and he re­gressed to 9.4. Com­par­isons to Bobby Jones’ 1930 or Tiger Woods’ 2000 are trou­bled, but it was a pretty damn good year, and James de­serves the mi­cro­phone:

“I be­lieve that there were four crit­i­cal com­po­nents needed to com­plete this quest – an un­der­stand­ing and sup­port­ive spouse, time, fi­nan­cial re­sources and con­nec­tions. Save the un­der­stand­ing wife, I would have been hard-pressed to have the other three 100 years ago. One hun­dred years ago, my time would have been to­tally con­sumed with ob­tain­ing the ba­sic re­quire­ments of food, shel­ter and cloth­ing.To­day so many more of us have much more time for leisure, more dis­posal in­come, and a much larger cir­cle of friends and as­so­ci­ates than we would have had. For all this cur­rent talk about trib­al­ism, there is so much more that links us than sep­a­rates us.Yes, I re­ally do be­lieve that ours is a world that is bet­ter to­day than it ever was. I also be­lieve that in an­other hun­dred years, it will be even bet­ter . . . . Our imag­i­na­tions, our cre­ativ­ity, and our be­lief in things big­ger than our­selves will make it so.”

One last ob­ser­va­tion from the golfer who’s seen it all? “Oh, yeah,” James says. “With­out fail, a mem­ber at ev­ery golf course, ex­cept one, told me to tell the peo­ple at Golf Di­gest their course should be ranked higher than it is.”

*567 500 united air­lines miles re­deemed for 42 flights **91 days of rental cars, in­clud­ing 12 free from na­tional ***980 000 mar­riott re­wards points re­deemed for 75 nights

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