Golf and the struggle to feel like I belong
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Golf and the struggle to feel like I belong

A view of the Shinnecock Hills clubhouse from the ninth tee, obscuring the fairway.

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When I was just getting started playing golf -- around 12 and 13 years old -- my parents and I figured the best way for me to improve my game was to compete in tournaments. I had been playing all the other team sports, so getting in a league of sorts and trying to mix it up made sense.

In the pre-Internet age, the Mid-Atlantic PGA section tipped my mom off to a bunch of local junior events (with fliers!), and they were an opportunity for me to play some of the nicer clubs and courses in the area. These were places I wouldn't otherwise have seen on my own, perhaps not even now, and the entry fees were budget-friendly.

And while I probably got marginally better through competition, my biggest takeaway from junior tournament golf was that I didn't care about being a good tournament golfer. The kids were way too intense. Little Patrick Reeds everywhere. No friends, just golf. These kids responded to bad shots by flopping around like Vlade Divac. Clubs were wrapped around trees. Lots of self-castigation and muttering. It was an wholly unpleasant experience.

The other takeaway from my brief stint on the MAPGA circuit was that I didn't belong.



At one of the tournaments, I can distinctly remember standing on the first tee and one of the kids I was playing against -- can't remember if it was the kids who always wore plus-fours or not -- asked me where I was a member. I wasn't, anywhere. I eventually had a junior membership to Bay Hills (not Bay Hill, though Mr. Palmer's management company eventually took over operations of the plural) where I paid a discounted fee to play, but my family couldn't afford a membership and wouldn't have any use for one.


So I made up a club name. I didn't even know enough about country clubs to lie about an existing club.

Twenty-plus years later, I still can't shake the feeling that I don't belong. My family is middle-class, creeping these days into upper middle-class by a smidge. I grew up in a nice-sized home, and I had everything I ever needed or wanted. In part, that was because I was an only child. That was also because my parents worked hard for their money, and they didn't waste much of it. They saved. My dad works at a Chevy dealership in the parts department, fielding phone calls from body shops and other dealerships to get them the parts to fix other people's rides. My mom works as a hematology tech at the same hospital she's been for some 30 years. Folks like us move up here and there, but they also stay put. That feeling pervades my thinking. I want to do better in my career to make life easier for my family and to give my kids the best possible chance to succeed -- and, by that, I mean be happy. I don't want money to spend it or flaunt it. I want money so I don't have to worry about having none to pay the utilities, and, if all goes to plan, my retirement will mean I can work on the projects I love most while letting compound interest be my payroll.

I've had the good fortune being considered media -- though I'm sure some folks dispute that designation -- and having been offered chances to play at some of the greatest golf courses in this country. And each time I show up there, I feel out of place. I often thin balls on the range as I get ready to play because I fear taking a divot on their pristine turf. I don't deserve that, I think. I typically play as quickly as possible because I figure the meter is running, and I wouldn't dare overstay my welcome. If I'm assigned a caddie, I tend to spend more time talking to them about life than the course because, odds are, I have more in common with them than any of the membership.

And yet, I always buy some post-round merch. It's almost always a shirt or a hat with an understated logo. Clearly part of me wants to subtly brag about the clubs I can check off a list I don't keep. Otherwise, why would I buy something? I don't buy any other clothing with a discernible logo. But I only ever wear that apparel when I play golf. It's an odd form of assimilation, I guess, trying to convince people I desire to be upwardly mobile like everyone else. If I go out for the night, though, I'll find some other hat to wear. I'll wear a golf T-shirt because that feels more my speed. The logos stay in the closet unless I feel like I have to impress someone -- the kind of person who has the money to belong to one of these places as their primary club, but they also have a secondary or tertiary club just to have a club near their vacation homes plural.

Maybe that's why I still like to play public golf courses. These are my people. They're my normal. They're probably not very good at golf because they work at a job where a bucket at the range can't be construed for tax purposes as a business meeting. Their equipment isn't state of the art, and it might not even be from this century. They don't understand architecture (though they might like golf more if they did), but they do get the concept of fun. They play to get away from the grind and keep in touch with friends. Public golfers don't have a membership for the sake of showing off. They're paying by the round because they want to play as much as they can afford.

I kind of stumbled into my club. When I moved into the D.C. suburbs in 2011, I was still in the honeymoon phase of my marriage and my new career as a paid, real-life golf blogger. I had time on my hands and pre-kids disposable income, so I looked for a place to join. A couple of local clubs had $30,000 initiation fees I could conveniently pay over a few years. Like a car! That wasn't happening. And then I found Argyle Country Club. The initiation fee was a mere $750 at the time (they needed members), which sounded incredible. I came for a preview round and saw the modest clubhouse built from an old barn, a few nice tennis courts and a pool that sounded divine in the summer. Two practice greens! A range with real grass! The golf course was great, too, particularly for someone who had played his share of bland layouts. Kids also wouldn't run out from the woods, steal my golf balls and try to sell them back to me a few holes later -- something that really happened to me. I would play most of my golf in the middle of a weekday, so I didn't think much about the people at first, imagining the bulk of my time there would be spent alone. I'm so glad I was wrong.

The first time I ever played with a member, I caught up to a threesome on the 14th hole. They asked me if I wanted to play with them. Nervously, I agreed. The oldest of the three, Pat Price, who is now my neighbor, asked me my name. And then he asked what I thought was a trick question as he swigged his Miller Lite can.

"Do you like beer, Ryan?"

I mean, look at me. Of course I do. And I said to him, "I do, Pat, I do."

And I'll never forget his reply.

"Then you'll do just fine here."

Argyle is one of the few clubs I've ever visited that bucks what 13-year-old me understood a country club to mean. The members own the club, and they upgrade it, like I do my house, as they have the money. Greens and bunkers get fixed, water lines are replaced and bathrooms get a facelift. It's on budget and on time, and almost always a member is leading the work. Most people at Argyle make their money -- they're still working -- through trades. They lay pipe, put up drywall, do landscaping. Some are accountants and attorneys and in finance, yeah, but that's not written in their stride. Most of them can play because they actually love to play golf. For the most part, Argyle is a drinking club with a golf course on property. It's precisely what I think golf should be.

I'm 35 now, and I'm a long way removed from 12-year-old me who thought a life as a pro golfer was (a) in the cards and (b) sounded like a good time. I play golf now to put a smile on my face, challenge myself and, since I work alone at home, to have some kind of human contact during the day. But I still struggle now, as I did then, with this sense of not belonging. I'm good at making acquaintances, but I'm horrible at making friends. I can have a fluid, interesting conversation with someone without revealing any more than Google-verifiable details of my life. By my calculation, I figure I can't be rejected if I don't apply in the first place. I have plenty of friends, I figure, and I'm not very good at keeping up with them. I can belong in my own bubble, with the people I love, the hobbies I cherish and our little piece of Earth. It's a struggle I've only really become willing to acknowledge the more years go by spent working with my dog on the couch next to me and the world unfolding outside my door.

I'm encouraged by what I've seen and experienced at places like Winter Park, which have embraced gorgeous design, reasonable prices and a true connection to the surrounding community. Winter Park is for everyone, and that's what makes it powerful. The patio outside the pro shop isn't where the elite hide their vices; it's where the rest of us get to linger and appreciate what we experienced. Bandon, Streamsong, Sand Valley, Cabot, Pinehurst, Big Cedar. They're all amazing, but for so many people of my background, they're once-in-a-lifetime trips. They're spectacular, which means they're not everyday. Golf needs more everyday, every person.

I love golf. I play it pretty well, and I've made some good friends and plenty of acquaintances through it. Golf has the best real estate on the planet, and I've been lucky enough to see a lot of it. Still, I can't shake that feeling I'm an outsider who's going to be outed and cast away from the game. I wonder if that first-tee question all these years ago set me down a frustrating path.

About the author

Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com