I dropped Erika off at the Charleston Airport after our weekend on Kiawah Island and put Steve’s, address into the GPS before pointing my rental car toward Cashiers, North Carolina. During the 300-mile drive to the final golf course on the 365th day of the year I’d given myself to complete the Golf Digest 100 Greatest Courses in America, I had plenty of time to reflect. My journey across our vast and beautiful country began with a round at Augusta National on May 14, 2017, but it wasn’t until almost a month later, June 12, after retiring and spending some quality time with Erika and the kids that I started the one-year clock for my quest.
It had to be incessant optimism that led me as a five-year-old to believe that I could become the first person I personally knew to graduate from high school. That same determined optimism fueled my desire to spend my first year of retirement becoming the first person to play all one hundred of our country’s greatest golf courses in a year. My earliest memories go back to when I was two years old. In the years since, I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t focused on achieving some challenging goal.
At my retirement dinner during an overwhelming evening between my round at Augusta National and the second round of my quest, I thanked each person attending for their role in my improbable journey from humble beginnings in a tin-roofed shack to retirement as an executive with one of America’s most iconic corporations. People like my oldest brother Art who helped financially when I was in high school and who said, “graduating from high school isn’t enough, you have a chance to do more than that, you can go to college and do more with your life.” We can never underestimate the power of someone believing in us. People like my oldest sister Jen, who years after leaving home at sixteen welcomed my mother, five of my siblings and me into her and her husband’s three-bedroom mobile home in a trailer park in La Marque, Texas during the summer before my senior year in high school.
I thanked Junior Higgins, the Exxon recruiter who looked beyond protocol and convinced the company to invite an obnoxious student for a site interview even though I showed up at the career placement center at Prairie View A&M University in warm-ups on my way to a Physical Education class with no time for a campus interview. I thanked Nestor Moreno, a Cuban refugee who rose through the company himself, for his mentorship during my first year. There were Mark and JoRhonda who’s enduring friendship helped me through failed relationships and challenging assignments. Drew and Cheri who convinced me to start reading fiction again and gave me the same John Grisham novel that I saw a beautiful young lady reading while sitting at the gate at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. That young lady became my wife. I also thanked Jim and Gail, two loyal lieutenants without whom the organizations I led would not have accomplished as much as they did. I thanked Gary, a friend and former boss for his support for me and several other African Americans as we climbed the corporate ladder at Exxon Mobil. I thanked my current boss, Kevin for putting up with me and my unorthodox approach to leading an organization, I thanked several of my former administrative assistants for managing me and getting me to all the places I needed to be, I thanked Richard, one of the many corporate attorneys who kept me out of trouble even when I didn’t follow his wise counsel. I thanked Andy for being the quintessential leader. I thanked my core group of friends, Kenny and Jennifer, Curtis and Sharon, Preston and Marcia, Nate and Tanny. Our friendship span decades. We were there for each other’s wedding, child births, birthdays, parents’ funerals and numerous other milestones.
I thanked my mother-in-law for raising the amazing woman who became my wife and for moving across the country from Portland, Oregon to Atlanta, Georgia to help with our kids during all Erika’s and my travels.
Through all the years, our links remained unbroken. No great achievement in life is ever the result of a singular person’s efforts. I believe we are all connected and critical to each other’s success. Driving through the forests and along the lakes across South and North Carolina and into the mountains on the way to Wade Hampton, my 100th course, my eyes swelled and I breathed in and swallowed a few times to keep the tears from streaming down my face as I thought about how blessed I’d been to have crossed the path of so many kind and generous people throughout my life. It was the experiences with them that inspired me to believe that I could meet strangers across the year who would offer to help me achieve my dream of playing America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses and demonstrate that through some of our country’s toughest times, our links remain unbroken.
As I approached Cashiers, the low fuel indicator light began to flash. I was sure I’d pass a gas station, but as I got closer and closer to Steve’s house, none appeared. I thought about how ironic it would be for me, a former oil executive who had been responsible for ensuring others had fuel when they needed it, to run out of fuel on my way to my final course. The car was probably running on fumes as I pulled into Steve’s driveway.
Steve had enthusiastically agreed to host me at Wade Hampton after being asked by Mark Mongell, the director of golf at the club in Atlanta where we are both members. Steve saw me pull into the driveway and walked outside to greet me. I told him that the first thing I needed to do was to find a service station so that I wouldn’t have to look for one as I drove home later that evening. A few moments later, Kelly, a stout personal trainer with chiseled calves, arrived. He had helped me get onto Oak Hills in Rochester, NY. After Steve told me that we had just one other person, Terry, a tall distinquished gentleman with a full head of grey hair, playing with us, I asked if Kelly could join us.
Kelly and I followed in my car as Steve and Terry drove to the nearest gas station before heading to the course. Once at the course, I met my caddie, Chris, a young twenty something sporting a pair of dark shades and a black boonie hat.
Steve, Terry, Kelly and I gathered on the first tee. After a quick photograph Steve said, “lead us off, Jimmie,” as Joshua, the young pudgy starter stood watching while holding the clipboard with the record of the tee time for our historic round. Standing on the tee for the 528-yard par five first hole had a familiar feel. The downhill hole with a slight dogleg right fairway sandwiched between bunkers on the left and the right reminded me of the tee shot on the 10th hole on the South Course at my club in Atlanta.
I made a confident swing and sent the ball sailing down the middle of the fairway. It always feels great to land that first tee shot on a new course in the short grass.
With 240 yards to a green guarded by bunkers off its left and right edges, I decided to play it safe and lay up to lob wedge distance. The ball came to rest 95 yards from a middle pin.
I pulled the ball on my approach shot. It landed pin high on the left edge of the green and rolled across the fringe and just into the rough leaving 25 feet of fast downhill green between it and the hole.
My ball hopped off the small swath of grass beneath it as I struck it with my putter. The bounce took enough speed off the ball to keep it just short of the cup. I tapped in to open my round with a par. But this was not a round where the score was my top priority. After 99 courses and nearly four hundred par threes, I was poised to achieve all the goals for my quest except making a hole-in-one. I’d had two during my fourteen years of playing golf, but none during my quest.
After slicing my drive into the fescue blanketing the slope off the right side of the fairway, I made a double bogey on the 379-yard par second hole. We then walked to the third tee where my first hole-in-one opportunity of the round awaited.
The 182-yard hole had water cascading down the rocks off the back-left side of the green into a small pond along its left edge. With the hole cut in the front left portion of the green, I ignored all the trouble on the left and swung my five iron too fast, slicing the ball into the rough on the slope just right of the green.
My pitch from the slope rolled 27 feet past the hole.
I three putted for a double bogey. One par three down, just three left.
A topped second shot following another drive to the right rough and a three-putt on the treacherous green that slopes down to a pond on the 535-yard par five fifth hole left me with yet another double bogey.
I avoided the bunkers off the right side of the tight and narrow fairway on the 364-yard fifth hole with a drive down the left side. This left a nice angle which allowed me to shoot at the pin without hitting over the matrix of bunkers off the front left of the green.
I hit an eight-iron right at the flag. The ball rolled to eight feet behind the hole.
I pulled my birdie putt causing the ball to slide by the hole then tapped in for a par.
With the pin on the sixth green cut on the left just beyond a rocky creek off its front, I thought a pitching wedge would be just enough club to get the ball into the hole. I was running out of par threes and I couldn’t waste an opportunity on this 142-yard hole. The ball sailed directly toward the flag but fell short and hit into the bank before kicking back into the creek. There was no place near the hole to drop so I chose to hit my third shot from the tee box but with a nine iron this time. I caught the ball flush. It flew well past the flag to the rough just off the back of the green.
A chip and a short putt later I recorded my double bogey. Two par threes, two double bogeys. Scores were of no concern. I wanted that elusive hole-in-one.
The breeze striking my face as we walked toward the tee box on the short seventh hole was an early indication that it would play longer than the 340 yards I was reading on the scorecard. I needed to make pars on the final three holes on the front nine to offset the double bogeys I made while attacking the pins on the par threes in search of an ace. The water running along the left side of the fairway all the way to the green made me look toward the right side of the fairway where the only trouble was the two bunkers at about 240 yards off the tee. To take the bunker out of play I hit a three wood off the tee to the middle of the fairway. The wind knocked the ball down, leaving 160 yards to a back-right pin.
Standing over my ball, I realized I was face with the same concerns on my approach shot as I had on my drive. There was water on the left and bunkers on the right. I took the same precaution, aiming to the right with a club that shouldn’t have reached the bunker. I avoided the bunker but just barely, the ball came to rest in the rough, a foot from going in.
From 25 feet I hit a one-yard chip. The ball sped down the slope toward the flag and rolled eight feet past. I missed my par putt but saved bogey.
A pulled drive to the slope above the bunkers off the left side of the fairway on the 358-yard eighth hole led to a double bogey.
Another bad drive and a ball into the creek short of the green on the ninth hole resulted in a second consecutive double bogey. I was limping to the finish line with a 49 after nine holes.
Like the front nine, the back nine starts with a slight dogleg right par five with bunkers off to the left. I tried to replicate my drive on the first tee but sliced the ball into the rough covering the slope to the right of the fairway instead. With the ball sitting down in the rough, my only option was to chip back to the fairway leaving 250 yards to the green.
My third shot flew right and landed in the rough just left of the first of three bunkers leading up to the green. The repeated shots to the right were a sure sign that fatigue was setting in. As my muscles get tired, I tend to start lifting my head during my swing, leaving the club face open and sending the ball to the right.
I pitched on to 30 feet and two-putted to save bogey.
The par three eleventh hole is rated as the easiest hole on the course. It measures just 151 yards and is the only par three on the course without water. The hole’s only defense are the bunkers along the left and behind the green. I took dead aim at the pin splitting difference between a bunker off the left front and one off the back of the green. As the ball sailed toward the flag, I thought this could be it. The ball landed just short of the flag. My hopes were dashed as I watched it roll past the flag to 12 feet away. If there was to be a hole-in-one on this journey, it would have to happen on the last par three of my quest.
Carved between slopes, the 306-yard twelfth hole is the shortest hole on the course. It’s also rated as its easiest par four. With a narrow fairway bordered by bunkers on the left and trees atop the slope on the right, I hit a three hybrid down the middle of the fairway.
With the pin just 105 yards away and on a line just left of the right greenside bunkers, I felt safe hitting my sand wedge straight at the flag. The green was uphill so I couldn’t see exactly where the ball landed. Steve looked over and said, “that’s going to be close.” As we walked up the slope toward the green, I spotted the ball sitting six feet from the flag.
A firm stroke with my putter sent the ball rolling toward the cup where it dropped in for a birdie.
My drive never made it to the narrow fairway on the 392-yard thirteenth hole. The number 13 and the legend of the PBFU were too much for me to overcome. A layup to the fairway followed by a third shot that missed the green to the left, a chip and a two-putt resulted in my first double bogey on the back nine.
The 381-yard fourteenth hole didn’t bring much relief after I popped my drive up. The ball landed in the rough short of the fairway. I laid up short of the right fairway bunkers on my second shot.
From 156 yards out, the fairway narrows and winds its way past bunkers on the left and right on its way to a green guarded by a deep front bunker. The flag was waving in the breeze directly behind the bunker. I hit a draw around the bunker. The ball flew over the flag, hit on the green and rolled into the rough off the back.
Having not learned my lesson when I tried to putt from the rough on the first hole, I tried it again. The ball hopped and stopped well short of the cup. From there I two-putted for another double bogey.
I corrected my swing on the long 393-yard fifteenth hole with a narrow fairway beautifully framed by thick trees along both its sides. The ball landed in the fairway short of and well left of the bunker off its right edge.
My approach shot flared out to the right and landed in the rough short of the green.
I pitched on and watched the ball roll fifteen feet past the pin.
Solid putting can save a lot of rounds. But solid putting takes focus and a steady hand. At this moment on the 1797th hole of a dream come true, I possessed neither. My unsteady hand pushed the ball to the right of the hole causing me to miss the fifteen-foot par putt. I sank the next putt for my bogey.
At 417 yards the sixteenth hole is the longest par four on the course. The fairway bends to the right around a cluster of trees across from a large bunker off the left side. My drive shot off the clubface to the right and landed in the rough so that the cluster of trees blocked the line to the green.
As we walked toward my ball, I could see a pond off the right side of the fairway just beyond the cluster of trees. I decided that it would be too risky to try a fade around the trees to the green. If I overcooked the ball it could sail into the water. I pitched to the middle of the fairway leaving 110 yards to the pin.
The pin was set on the back-right part of the green. I tried to stretch my sand wedge rather than risking hitting over the green with my approach wedge. The ball fell short of the green.
I chipped to one foot. Kelly picked my ball up and tossed back to me. Bogey.
When I started my quest, I had three golf goals. First, play all 100 courses before June 12th. Second, finish with a single digit USGA Index, and third, make an ace. I was playing the last course. My index had dropped from 11.5 to 9.8. The only goal that still eluded me was the ace. And now I was at my final par three.
The seventeenth hole is the second hardest par three on Tom Fazio’s Wade Hampton. Making an ace on this hole with the pin on the left front just over the creek crossing just short of the green and just to the right of a tree blocking the line to its left side. On the plus side, the green was below the tee and playing just 157 yards rather than the 171 yards on the scorecard. My attempt to draw the ball around the tree failed miserably. The ball landed in the creek. I took a drop, pitched over the creek and two putted for the third double bogey on a par three during the round. Worse than the double bogey was the disappointment of not making an ace during my quest.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to achieve my goals more often than not. Nevertheless, I’ve learned over the years that the journey usually matters more than the destination. Whenever I fail to achieve a goal, I spend very little time lamenting it. I usually take with me the learnings while leaving everything else behind as I set new goals. My biggest lesson of trying to get an ace is that I should pick my battles and not try to shoot for the pin on every par three just because I have a goal of making an ace. I should not have allowed my play on every par three to be consumed by that one goal.
Time seemed to stand still as we walked through the trees separating the seventeenth green from the eighteenth tee box. It all felt so surreal. The final hole of my one-hundred-course odyssey was all right there in front of us. The tall pines shooting up toward the light blue sky filled with puffy white clouds lined the pathway for my final swing and steps into history. No one had ever played all one hundred of what Golf Digest calls “America’s Greatest Golf Courses” in a single calendar year.
A creek running along the left side of the hole led Steve to suggest that I aim toward the right side of the fairway but with a club that wouldn’t reach the series of bunkers that start at about 220 yards off the tee. He said, “even though this par five is just 475 yards, it’s safer to play it as a three-shot hole.” He stood just off the right side of the tee box and watched intently as I took the club back for my final drive. So many thoughts raced through my head as I brought the club face back toward the ball. I lost my balance and struck the ground three inches behind the ball. The ball flew less than 130 yards and landed in the rough just short of the fairway.
Steve said, “you don’t want to end it with that drive, take another one.” I teed up another ball and delivered a blow that sent it sailing down the right side of the fairway. As Chris and I approached my first ball, I said, “I can’t play that second ball. I need to play this one.” I didn’t think it would be right to end my quest on a mulligan. The ball was lying 345 yards from the hole, but I had to play the shot I hit and accept the result.
For some unknown reason that decision released all the tension that had been building up inside. I made one of my best golf swings ever. The ball sprang from my five hybrid and flew 220 yards down the middle of the fairway leaving just over 120 yards to the pin. That club usually travels 190 yards.
The extra thirty yards put me in an excellent position to shoot for the flag and end my quest with a birdie. It just goes to show that when you own your mistakes and do what you think is right, you can overcome them. We all must make our own decisions when we make mistakes and face challenges. In the case of my errant drive, I thought it best just to play my original ball. I will never know whether I would have been able to shoot for an eagle, a birdie or double bogey had I chosen to play the second drive sitting in the fairway at 225 yards from the green. As Chris and I walked by the ball, I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I approached my original ball and made the last swing of a long journey sending it sailing toward the middle of the green rather than attacking the flag tucked behind a bunker just past a pond off the front left of the green, my conscience was clear. The ball landed fifteen feet to the right of the pin.
I took a few steps, moved to the right and paused for a moment as Steve, Terry, and Kelly hit their shots to the green.
In what had to be a sign of approval by the golf gods, our four balls formed a square on the green within a few feet of each other. Kelly and I took the final steps of my journey together. As if we were playing the final hole of a professional tour championship with the winner already determined, Steve, Kelly, and Terry putted out and cleared the deck for me to sink the final putt for what would hopefully be a birdie to close out the 1800th hole to become the first person ever to complete this feat. They helped with the read. I stood over my ball and slowly pulled the putter back while holding the rest of my body in a quiet stillness. The ball started rolling along the desired line. I rose up on my toes as it broke slightly to the left and appeared destined to drop in the cup. As the ball approached the hole, the it straightened and rolled just past the right edge. My body went limp.
I composed myself walked to the other side of the cup and tapped in the one-footer to close out my 100th course.
Overwhelmed with joy, I reached into the cup and retrieved my ball. The guys congratulated me as we moved from the course to the clubhouse for a celebratory drink, after which Kelly and I followed Steve back to his house where Suzi joined us for one of the most meaningful discussions of my quest. I shared how my quest was about more than just playing golf. I revealed that it was also a test of my belief in the American Dream. A test to see if I could in one year meet enough strangers who would assist me in gaining access to some of America’s most exclusive clubs, places where men like me were once forbidden. Doing so would confirm for me that while we might be a country steeply divided along political lines, we are still a country where people unselfishly helped each other achieve their dreams. That seventy five percent of the people who helped me were people I met across the year showed me that the America that helped me overcome poverty, a physically abusive stepfather, racism, and class divisions still exists. Sharing these thoughts led to a conversation with Steve on race in America.
Steve and I quickly discovered that we held different opinions on what it would take to improve equality in America. Steve said, “racism is the most significant barrier to black achievement in our country.” He believes that in order to establish a lasting equality, whites must dismantle the structural disadvantages for blacks created by decades of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I said, “the fact that you can acknowledge the significant challenges these atrocities created is noble, but I believe waiting for it to happen cedes too much power to something completely outside of my control.” I will often talk of growing up in poverty, but I will never say that I was underprivileged. While I didn’t have the privilege that came with money, I did have the privilege of a mother who loved every single one of her eight children the same but made each one of us feel that we were her favorite. She instilled in us values that are more important than wealth including a belief that we succeed or fail based upon our own actions and decisions and not on what the circumstances are around us. Through her actions she taught us that everyone faces challenges and while some challenges may be more overwhelming than others, we must never allow those challenges to become excuses. Steve saw me as an exception because of all the challenges that make achievement more difficult for blacks. I saw me as an example because of all the people I know that look like me who are capable of achieving even more than I have.
As our discussion stretched long into the night Steve and I both were struck by the civility of the exchange. While we were both very passionate about our positions, we listened to and respected each other’s views. In a world on the verge of losing both decorum and civility, we enhanced each other’s views by collaborating. I believe one of the greatest blessings of the human experience is the ability to have opinions. I feel strongly about mine and passionately extol them. But I realize that they are just ramblings of my view of the world, not infallible exhortations of fact. Steve appeared to approach our discussion in the same way. While we strongly disagreed on some things, our discussion never devolved into name calling nor dismissiveness.
As I made the two-hour drive back to Atlanta in the dark of night I reflected on the journey. After 8796 golf shots, 90,756 miles, 82 hotel nights and more money than I care to talk about, it was finished. People of all races, genders, religions, and economic status came together to help me achieve a dream. I had the privilege of playing golf at some of the most exclusive and prestigious clubs in the Northeast, the Midwest, the Southeast, the Deep South, the Southwest, the Rockies, the West Coast, and the Northwest. Everywhere I went I felt welcomed, respected, and admired for the quest and my passion for the game of golf. I spent time not only with the members, security guards, locker room and parking lot attendants, caddies, and wait staff at the clubs but also people in the communities whether it was at a gas station, a restaurant, on an airplane, train, or bus, or in the hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants. At the clubs we were linked through our common passion for golf. Everywhere else we were linked by our common desire to love, to laugh, and to cry, and a desire for a better life and world for ourselves and the ones we hold dear.
Our country is now more blended than ever. In every community I traveled to, I saw people going about their lives loving and caring for themselves and their families and contributing to making our country a better place. I reject the notion that we are only as strong as our weakest link. That holds true for a chain but not for a society. When we work together, we share our strengths we overcome our weaknesses. We haven’t solved all our problems and there is still too much hatred and poverty, but we have made progress. It is my deepest hope that we can stop defining ourselves and our country by our weaknesses and start appreciating how far we’ve come while we work together to use our imagination, creativity and belief in things bigger than ourselves to eliminate hatred, intolerance, and poverty.
I pulled into the garage, walked into the house and upstairs to our bedroom, kissed my wife awake and said, “we did it.”