Where There's Smoke
As attitudes—and laws—on marijuana shift, weed-loving golfers are stepping out of the shadows and onto the tee
"This is a hybrid. This is a cross, ah, of bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, featherbed bent, and Northern California sensimilla. The amazing stuff about this is that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon, take it home and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt that night on this stuff."
—Carl Spackler, Caddyshack
The first tee at Denver's City Park Golf Course sits at an elevation of 5,250 feet, just short of a mile high. If a player has ingested two cannabis-infused lemon drops and part of a gingerbread cookie laced with 100 milligrams of THC, as I recently did, it will feel a little higher.
It would have been far more typical for me to have a Bloody Mary, an Irish coffee or a beer before stepping to the tee, for golf and alcohol have enjoyed a long and happy relationship. In fact, the earliest known references to golf and Scotch whisky date to within a mere 40 years of each other, in 15th-century Scotland. These days, it's the rare course that doesn't have a bar attached: the 19th hole.
Golf and marijuana do not share such a bond. Yet opinions about weed are changing fast. A Gallup survey in October 2013 showed 58 percent of Americans supported legalizing marijuana. In more than four decades of polling, it was the first time more than half the respondents backed legalization. Golf Digest surveyed its readers and social-media followers and found that although only 3 percent said they smoke pot playing golf, 11 percent of those in the 18-34 age group admitted to partaking some or all of the time (see page 151). Which is why I find myself standing here—already a little lightheaded—on the first tee at City Park with Ryan Cook, Josh Malman and Mark Scruggs. As of Jan. 1, it has been legal to buy and consume marijuana for non-medical purposes in Colorado—and these three are among the many enjoying the privilege.
No one would confuse my playing partners with Carl Spackler, the stoner groundskeeper in "Caddyshack." Cook, a clean-cut 34-year-old, is general manager of The Clinic, a marijuana dispensary with six Denver-area locations. Malman, 34, is head of The Clinic's growing operations. Scruggs, 45, is the general manager of Weedmaps, a sort of Yelp for legal marijuana.
Scruggs got into golf in his late 20s and plays two or three times a week. He enjoys an occasional beer but prefers weed. He finds it helps him "relax and focus without becoming upset or frustrated." Unlike booze, pot doesn't "impair my dexterity or motor skills," Scruggs says.
Cook, who took golf lessons as a kid and started playing again in his early 20s, praises weed's capacity for taking the edge off a frustrating game. "It can really help to provide a calming demeanor," he says.
The guys do their best to make sure I keep calm throughout our round, offering me hits from a little glass pipe packed with different strains of cannabis. The weed has its strongest effect on me during the back nine. I'm definitely...loose. My mouth has gone pretty dry, and I notice that I keep absent-mindedly putting my glove on to putt when I've just taken it off to putt. But otherwise I'm in control and able to swing my clubs without any major complications. Though Malman is driving the cart, on this wide-open course I'd be perfectly comfortable doing so if needed. We finish our round in a little over four hours. My score: 99. That's 10 to 15 strokes worse than usual for me, but not way outside my realm of possible outcomes.
Only once do we seem conspicuously "high." On 18, we wait about 30 seconds too long to decide who is away—before realizing, with a telltale laugh, that we're behaving like stoners, and somebody needs to putt.
Technically, what we've been doing is against the law. In Colorado, even though it's legal for adults to buy recreational marijuana, public use is still prohibited. Cook, Malman and Scruggs say they never get hassled on the course because they are respectfully discreet. Denver's Parks and Recreation Department is aware pot-smoking goes on at its golf courses and other public venues, says Jeff Green, director of communications and marketing, but it's not really an issue. "It does not ever rise to the top of the list of things people complain about," he says. "In fact, marijuana does not generally make it onto the list at all."
For the past four years, City Park has hosted The Clinic Charity Classic, a tournament put on by Cook's dispensary. Last year the event raised more than $30,000 for the Colorado-Wyoming Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The attendees constitute a Who's Who of cannabis-industry folk, and as such the air is smokier than usual—some of it compliments of the tournament's "joint cart ladies."
"I play in a lot of golf tournaments, and there is nothing like this one," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "You start with these kegs of beer, because Denver has this vibrant microbrew scene, and then on top of that you have all this really, really potent cannabis. I don't think anyone was able to finish."
St. Pierre, a golf nut for most of his 48 years, views the game as two separate pastimes: There's "regular golf" and there's "jah-golf," which is exactly what you think it is. St. Pierre plays much of his jah-golf at public courses, though he has also gotten high at many of Washington, D.C.'s tonier private clubs. "I still feel like a teenager" at these clubs, he says. "Oh, look! I've hit my ball into the woods! Everybody disappears to 'look for it' and comes back a few minutes later in their right mind."
Weed tends to be much less of an issue in the West, even at some top clubs. "We've had an influx of new young members, and it's very much part of the culture," says one late-30s member at the California Golf Club of San Francisco. (General manager Glenn Smickley says, "I've been here two years and never smelled it or seen it being consumed, but I'm not so na´ve as to think it doesn't happen.") It's legal with a California medical-marijuana card. Says a Bay Area tech executive, speaking of another club: "As opposed to guys who walk up to the tee with a Bloody Mary, we'll walk up with a nice flowered bud, and you say, 'Look what I have for us,' and we say, 'Let's crack that open in a few holes.' "