One of those moments of stoke came during an impromptu trip to the Northeastern corner of Colorado in the middle of July 2018.
But first, let me backup for a moment. “Stoke” is an enduring surfer slang expression that originated with California surfers in the 1950s meant to capture the feeling of euphoria when catching a wave big or small. It's that euphoric moment of connectivity between your surroundings, mind, and body. If you have felt it, you know. If you haven’t, it’s hard to describe this feeling in your gut and mind that’ is unmistakable. It's a weightlessness in time where everything seems to stand still and you daydream about recapturing.
Golf and chasing stoke isn't a common pastime for most of us. Hell, most anyone in the world would never really associate the two. I'm not here to say one way of playing the game is superior over another but I do hope this record of events inspires a shift in mindset. After my trip to Ballyneal, I know I’ll never be shifting back.
So, take a moment to forget about scores, GIR, fairways hit and all of that. Strip away the noise and layers. I've left behind the common frustrations of golf and started searching for the stoke by implementing a new approach to golf but a familiar one to my life. I seek out courses that foster an environment that’ is conducive to creative, fun, and inspiring golf. I surround myself with people whose chief golf goals are about fun and comradery more than sulking over a poorly struck shot.
Ballyneal seemed to fit this mold of fun above score on paper but so have a dozen other courses that turned out to be nothing more than long slogs around bland target golf courses. Nonetheless, I jumped on a plane, traveled for 12 hours between airports, and then drove another three hours east of Denver. There we found what the locals, however few they may be, call the Chop Hills. Dunes rippling up from the plains of Eastern Colorado in all directions. As we barreled down the dirt roads, the club's humble wood sign was a small welcome that's easy to miss. Had we not been semi-dangerously, tailgating our host's SUV wed would easily gotten lost twenty turns ago.
Pausing like tourists, we stopped outside the gate where my anticipation steadily built looking up at the enormous dune. Its broad ridgeline shielding what waited on the other side made it felt like we were "in the know" of some remarkable experience about to take place while every dusty truck that passed the gates could never understand. Just the right feeling to start this trip.
Hitting the crest of the dune is like being transported through a wormhole across the Atlantic into Western Ireland or original Scottish linksland. The awesome dunescape bubbles up out of the earth before crashing into itself creating random snaking waves and contours. Shades of brown and tan are juxtaposed with flashes of verdant greens that weave across, up, and down the dunes. As a stiff, swirling breeze blows from the south the pin flags are starched against the horizon. Dotted across that same horizon are wild, chaotic but artful bunkers and sandy waste areas.
Inside of 15 minutes on the property I had already embarked on the Mulligan course. A par three course that while consisting of 12 greens quickly melded into a golfing playground. So, we set off along the 1st fairway before diving into the unknown. Greens so devilish yet entertaining they begged to be played repeatedly. I could have camped out on some holes, like the 8th green, and never gotten bored. The Mulligan course requires you to think and play outside of your comfort zone. The contours surrounding the greens rejected many of my golf shots when not played just right. Mere inches separated heroic shots from your ball dying an abrupt death
As I followed the bare feet traversing the sandy walkways in front of me, I recall getting lost in the experience. The Dead thumping from a speaker cinched to a friend’s golf bag was the soundtrack to our day. Standing on a tee perched above a 150-yard shot with seven friends, new and old, I let the sense of this place, these people and the experience wash over me. Transfusions flowed, people teed off in unisone without a worry, wind whipped voiding the otherwise unbearable heat and relentless sun pounding down on us. This is golf stoke. These are indeed my kind of people.
After our dinner, conversation, and a little hang we decided a putting contest was in order. Equipped with some AutoCorrect™ putters, a few glow balls, and questionable decision making we traversed the outer limits of the putting complex. Each time we moved away from the green towards a set of stairs, getting more audacious each with each step, we asked our hosts “Is this cool?”.
Their response never changed. “Are you sure?”
“Yep” came the reply multiple times. “You can do whatever you want. Just don’t be a dick.”
This single, simple rule is all anyone needs to live by. Do your thing, be cool to other people and all is good. This motto only exacerbated my infatuation with Ballyneal as I lept into bed.
4:35 am comes quickly when your putting shenanigans last until that time of day that’s definitely past late-night but before what’s considered early morning. But as any halfway decent photographer will tell you the chance to get the right light outweighs the need for sleep. Packing up my cameras and tripod I marched out into the near darkness. Armed with a headlamp to spot any snakes my only real line of defense was a the tripod. Sleep deprived, sore, and potentially warding off snakes with a tripod in the dark wasn't, in retrospect, one of my best ideas.
Like many of my decisions, this started off poorly before taking a turn for the better. Just as I was about to return to my cottage I reached the 4th tee box. Standing on the highest point of the course the sun started its slow, steady rise over the horizon while thick clouds rushed passed like cars speeding on the freeway. Off in the distance I could see lights starting to flicker. Some humanity finally caught up to me on this morning.
Sometimes not taking a photo is the best part of the journey.
I sat up there for a few minutes thinking about life and counting my blessings before I started back. But at this point light started to flash and for the second straight attempt the light wasn’t cooperating with me. So, with sandy shoes and tired eyes I headed back to my room and passed out for an hour before breakfast. Our second day featured the 18-hole championship course which is the centerpiece of this middle of nowhere property. Its tee-less yardage can be as little as 5,100 yards or stretch to its brawny maximum at 7,200 yards With no tee markers it was up to the first group of friends to leave the equivalent of breadcrumbs in the form of twigs, dead bushes or anything else for the trailing group to follow and play the 'same' hole. Sometimes we went back as far as possible while at other times we’d hit our tee shots just feet from the green. Check another box on the “List of shit I absolutely love about golf”. Fixed teeing areas are boring and kill the creative capacity of golfers.
Our round started on the now familiar 1st hole and shockingly I fired off a few decent shots on the uphill par 4. The wide fairways gave way to almost infinite angles and lines of play that seem to either confound the golfer or unleash their inner shot maker. On the 2nd hole, from and elevated tee, we barreled into our round chasing shots up, down, and over hillocks that laid in front of us. Hitting golf shot after golf shot to our own soundtrack we bounced across the sunbaked fairways just like our golf balls. With that steady breeze at our backs mediocre shots at times were followed by heroic ones. Tired and, a little dejected at some of my poor swings, I now faced that same perched view on the 4th tee.
Dropping down the fescue chute into the fairway I’m all smiles. It’s funny how a good landscape brightens my spirits.
Just as we strolled over the rolling fairway Erik Anders Lang turned to me and said “Don’t you feel loved sometimes?”. A simple question I know he was half joking about and probably half sincere about as well. His way of acknowledging the moment and how cool it was to be there. However, that passing question struck a chord. I started to answer that very question in my head. I realized the fact that all these people trekked out to the middle of nowhere to play a game and hang out was incredible enough. Then I started to think about the friendships and bonds I have made through golf. My journey and the role its played. As we played our way up to an elevated green, that question still lingered in my mind. Funny how it goes. Something so simple can last so long in the mind.
My new daughter, June, at home with my wife and older son Austin. How lucky, how loved, I was to be standing on this patch of grass playing a game, documenting the experience, and seeing unfamiliar places with friends. I’d jump on a late flight in a few days with zero sleep and a marathon or two under my feet. And at home waiting was a loving family and ahead of me was only thousands more miles and more of these adventures. Erik’s simple question left a mark on me. It poured gas on the fire. That fifteen-minute walk from tee to green was meditative and a truly profound moment for me. Which is weird.
It’s strange how big an impact this game can have but then again that’s why we play it. Or at least why I do. In that small stretch of golf, I couldn’t tell you a single shot I hit or even what the hole was like. I was transported. Everything washed away and I was left with just emotions and thoughts that will last a lifetime or more. The gratitude for everyone in my life and the ability to live it as I have. That is the feeling I chase.
We as golfers have a few moments of adrenaline like surfers, but if we remember to stop for a moment we can find something spiritual. I had my spiritual moment. And again, as I watched twelve people walking down the 15th fairway playing golf as one big family. But standing on that greenish-brown fescue, for a sliver of time, golf was more than a game we play. Threads in my life converged on that question
“Don’t you feel loved sometimes?”
Chunked approach shots from the middle of the fairway, putts so bad they induce laughter, cheers for the remarkable recoveries. These moments are what we should seek out on the course. Maybe not always but sometimes our score is irrelevant. As the saying goes, no one cares what you shot.
When I’m older I already know the type of golf stories I’ll bore my kids with. Maybe they’ll include my lowest round but more likely they’ll be vignettes about life that transpired largely on a golf course.
Here's to chasing the stoke.