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book excerpt

America's Greatest Guest

In an excerpt from his book, 'Playing from the Rough,' Jimmie James recounts his improbable journey from growing up in segregated Texas to his quest to play all of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses in a single year.
May 06, 2024
Jimmie James for Golf Digest

2024 © Steve Boyle

Jimmie James could be the best hang in golf. The guy has played literally everywhere, teeing it at every one of Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses in 2018, a completist feat maybe only a dozen people have accomplished in a lifetime, let alone a calendar year. He’s not obnoxious about it, though. The farthest thing from it. This self-made executive, born out of wedlock to parents neither of whom had graduated high school, has acquired extraordinary gratitude and perspective. He’s a man you want to have a beer with and talk golf and life. I once wrote about his journey after multiple interviews and a few rounds with him and thought I knew all about it, especially having once completed a similar cross-country golf odyssey myself. Wow, was I wrong. James’ new book, Playing From the Rough, coming this June from Simon & Schuster, will be a revelation to anyone who wants to know about the state of race, class, networking and the American Dream. The following adaptation is but a peek of a golf tapestry that weaves our most luxurious enclaves with the grit and inner workings of our nation. —Max Adler


‘I was no longer less than’

Valhalla is true to its myth-inspired name: idyllic, immaculate, seemingly removed from the trials and tribulations of the earthly world. The gated entryway signals exclusivity: Whitewashed fences run along the long drive to the clubhouse, giving visitors the impression of entering a well-maintained horse farm. Though the driveway is not quite Augusta National’s Magnolia Lane, its splendor cast an almost equal spell on me. Opened in 1986, Valhalla is already inching toward iconic, having hosted a Ryder Cup and three PGA Championships, including Rory McIlroy’s thrilling win in 2014.

As I soaked it all in, I was once again nagged by a feeling that I didn’t belong. I had moved through the world with an acquired knowledge and grace that was unimaginable to me during my childhood. Yet no matter how educated, worldly or wealthy I became, I remained that barefoot kid swinging a discarded stick at a crusty doll’s head or rubbing the pages of Sears Roebuck catalogues together to soften them before wiping my butt during trips to our maggot-infested outhouse. My stomach still clenches when I think about the overpowering stench of those visits.

On that late-summer afternoon a month into my quest, I struck up a conversation between swings on the practice range with an intern standing there to make sure everyone was taken care of. His name was Dylan Rowe, and I asked him where he was going to school. He proudly told me he was studying golf management at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

I practically froze midswing. Miles and years from the piney woods of East Texas, I’d encountered someone associated with the place where the demons that still stalked me had been created. So many unpleasant memories came rushing back, overpowering my thoughts as I stood beside that poised, polite kid who couldn’t have been much older than my own teenage son.

Back then, the Sawmill Quarters’ humdrum routines gave way to chaos on Friday and Saturday nights. My stepfather’s sister, Aunt Essie Pearl, had converted her shack next to ours into a kind of ad hoc juke joint on weekends, serving marked-up, bootlegged liquor and beer while a couple of musicians played something her patrons could dance to. She’d somehow jerry-rigged her place so that it had electricity, and a dozen or so neighbors from the bottom of the hill and beyond would show up as the sun went down.


I was too young to know all that went on there. But around midnight, after the liquor and electricity petered out and everyone wove their way home, another ritual commenced: college boys from the university that Dylan attended would arrive, roaring through the pitch black, seven or eight of them crammed into some two-tone Rambler or Bel Air the way a previous generation had stuffed themselves into telephone booths. Their wild eyes and lopsided grins were lit through open windows by an inside dome light, the sole illumination on our unelectrified street, save for the moon and the stars. They whooped it up and shouted “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” at the top of their lungs, every syllable audible through the cracks between the boards separating the inside of our shacks from whatever went on out there. There was no real distinction between the dirt road the students drove on and our dirt yards.

Their howling of the N-word became so commonplace in our lives that we grew nearly immune to it. The reaction inside our shack was negligible, more like the annoyance of being awoken by the screech of an owl or the rustle of a rat. If any of us got up at all, it was merely to peek out a window to confirm what we already knew. “It’s those college boys again,” someone would mumble before turning over and dropping back to sleep.

I don’t recall anyone ever confronting them, certainly not the one Black cop who was usually sent in to resolve conflicts between us Coloreds. There was no way a Black man was going to arrest white kids in the Jim Crow South. But it didn’t matter. Young as I was, I don’t remember ever being scared. Like those times years later, when the police pulled me over in my car for nothing, all I really felt was the powerlessness of being on the colored side of white. We were mere props for someone else’s amusement. Huddled in a single bed, my siblings and I usually just fell back to sleep, understanding, if only subconsciously, that even the minimalistic world we lived in between these pines was not our own. My volatile stepfather, drunk-snoring beside my mother in the front room while the rest of the shack reeked of his boozy vomit, never budged.


Steve Boyle

Those soirees were loud and disruptive but brief: Our road wasn’t long, so the liquored-up kids simply drove past the dozen or so houses that lined it until they reached its dead end, punctuated by a little wooden, steepled church. It was only in the morning, when we’d find empty or broken Lone Star or Pearl beer bottles littering our grassless plots, that we’d remember they’d been by at all.

Incidents like those were a constant reminder that being Black conferred a greater sense of powerlessness than being poor. Although poverty was a constant presence in our lives, it just seemed like the natural order of things for people like us. However, the racist acts we dealt with almost every day were a relentless reminder of our status as second-class citizens. There were still whites-only signs posted on doors and windows throughout downtown Huntsville to remind us. Black folks, including my stepfather, held the most menial jobs in the sawmill, and the women who worked outside the mill, like my mother, cleaned the houses or looked after the kids of the town whites.

Decades later, after I led a post-oil spill cleanup effort for Exxon in Montana, I had a long conversation with Rex Tillerson, then the company’s CEO and later, briefly, secretary of state under Donald Trump. At one point, we veered from the business at hand and talked about the things we had in common: We were both civil engineers, our birthdays were only days apart, and we’d both lived in Huntsville, where he’d moved as a kid when his father worked for the Boy Scouts of America. What I was too ashamed to mention was that my mother or some other relative may have worked in his family’s home or yard.

All those circumstances made us feel less than, but at least we were less than together. They gave us a common community. We never felt less than one another; if no one else could see us for who we really were, at least we saw one another.

I assumed that Dylan, when he was back at school, didn’t drive drunk through the Sawmill Quarters on weekends. In fact, nobody did anymore: My family’s shack, along with all the others, had been razed or crumbled and rotted into pieces sometime after the lumber company had shut down in the late 1960s. The land, since purchased by the university, is mostly reclaimed by forest now, and student apartments are planned for where our shacks once stood.


Steve Boyle

Yet on the grounds of Valhalla, where I was reminded of the powerlessness of my youth, I chose not to mention to Dylan my experiences with those who had preceded him by half a century at Sam Houston State. There had been progress, and as the loop from those nights streamed through my head, Dylan’s generosity and gentleness jarred me from my reverie.

He told me that his father was the head pro at Whispering Pines Golf Club, a 100 Greatest Course. Located in Trinity, Texas, it’s only about 30 miles from Huntsville.

He then said he’d be happy to ask his dad to get me on. I was no longer less than.


Thirty-five days, 29 courses

That was the daunting task ahead of me. Feeling its full weight, I said goodbye to my wife, Erika, and the kids and told them I wasn’t sure when I’d be back.

The remaining courses were spread across nine states in virtually every corner of the country, with most in the Northeast and Midwest, where for months it had been too cold to play. Yet my biggest challenge wasn’t geography—at that point, I’d hop on anything at any time to go anywhere. It was that I still hadn’t secured hosts for five courses, with three commitments having fallen through at the last minute.

Things had started to feel especially dire when the guy scheduled to host me at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island called to cancel a week before our tee time—his brother-in-law had passed away. He put his assistant on the line to reschedule, but the earliest opening she found was in August. I pushed her to find something sooner, but in my desperation, I think I pushed too hard; the guy got back on the phone to reiterate that August was the best he could do.

It was a major setback. I felt as though I were a field goal away from winning the Super Bowl— only to fumble inside the 10-yard line. Shinnecock, set to host the U.S. Open, had limited the number of guests each member could bring during the year leading up to it. The championship was now only a month away, and I worried that members had either reached their guest limit or already made commitments. I questioned my decision to save Shinnecock for the end of my year so that I could play it under U.S. Open conditions. Now I could fail because of it.

I’d also let my self-imposed deadline become an obsession. My quest wasn’t just about golf, and it certainly wasn’t just about me; it was about determining whether America was still a country where the kind of grit, self-reliance, gratitude, and generosity that had helped me claw my way out of poverty and deal with barriers created by racism still mattered. In the grand scheme of things, completing my quest in August instead of June wouldn’t have had any bearing on that determination. However, the boy my mother had raised and the man I had become didn’t want to let down all those who had helped me so far. I wanted to do exactly what I told them I would do. The salesman in me also wanted to close the deal; closing validates your premise.

The challenges mounted as time ran down. I also needed hosts for the two other courses where my commitments hadn’t panned out—Pine Valley Golf Club and Quaker Ridge Golf Club in New Jersey and New York, respectively—and invites for two courses in Idaho. The improbable was looking more and more impossible.

Still, I refused to give up. A few days later, I boarded a plane to La-Guardia to play Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck. As I walked through rows of cars in the rental garage on the other side of the Grand Central Parkway, an attendant named Nathan noticed the bulky black travel bag I was pulling behind me. He asked if I was a golfer. I mentioned my quest. He seemed unimpressed and told me that he held the course record at a golf club in Hawaii. After a brief pause, he added, “No one has ever shot higher than the 143 I scored there.”

Didn’t see that coming! We both laughed out loud. For a moment, he made me forget my crazy challenges. We can all use the pressure-relieving levity of a Nathan now and again.

Lin Rogers, who’d helped kick-start my journey at Augusta, had gotten a friend to arrange for me to play Winged Foot’s two 100 Greatest Courses with Mike Ballo, one of the club’s assistant pros. The West Course, which has hosted major championships dating back to 1929, was undergoing a renovation in preparation for the U.S. Open a few years down the road. Mike and I played its back nine, along with 10 holes on the East Course. Fortunately for me, that unconventional routing included the West’s 18th hole.

The 18th is probably most famous for denying Phil Mickelson his third consecutive major during the 2006 U.S. Open. From the tee box, needing just a par to win, Phil stared out at a right-to-left fairway that swept between the tall elms lining both sides. But his drive flew well left, bouncing off a white hospitality tent and into the rough. Rather than pitching safely back into the fairway, Phil foolishly did what a duffer like me would do: tried to reach the green with a miracle shot around one of the elms and made a double bogey.


Courtesy of Jimmie James

As for me, I hit a booming high drive down the right side. It left me 160 yards to a middle-left pin. I striped a dart straight at the flag. The ball landed inches beyond the hole, then rolled out to 12 feet. My birdie putt narrowly missed the cup. Disappointed, I tapped in for a par.

My caddie, Dawnie, a Scottish lass with red hair, white shirt, khaki shorts, and shades, noticed my dejected look. “Phil Mickelson would have paid a million pounds for that par,” she half-joked in her Scottish accent.

As Dawnie cleaned my clubs after we completed the 10 holes on the East Course, I mentioned that I planned to drive to the Hamptons to knock out four more courses. She and Mike suggested that I take the more scenic and less stressful route to Bridgeport, Conn., then ferry across the sound and drive the remaining 20 minutes to the Hamptons. Little did any of us know that their suggestion would put me onto a collision course with destiny.

Their route took me north rather than south and sent me immediately down Griffen Avenue, between Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge Golf Club, directly across the street. I hadn’t driven far when I noticed a commotion on the side of the road. A couple of guys in golf attire were in a heated discussion with a taller fellow standing next to a blue pickup truck with a cracked windshield. One of the golfers had apparently hit a ball over the low stone wall between the course and the street, and it had pinged the truck’s glass.

Curiosity got the best of me. I parked on an intersecting street and watched until the tall fellow angrily got into his pickup to move it from the middle of the avenue.


At that moment, along that unexpected route, I reflected on all the serendipitous encounters that had gotten me onto courses. I also thought about all the doors I had knocked on in my youth to sell a product or an idea. I got out of my car, walked over to the guys, introduced myself, and told them I was sorry for whatever calamity had occurred, but that every dark cloud had a silver lining, and I wanted to be theirs. They just blinked back. I then explained that I was on a mission, with a rapidly approaching deadline, to play the country’s most exclusive courses in a year. I pointed over the wall toward Quaker Ridge and said, “I have 34 days left to play 27 courses, and I need to play that one this Saturday.”

Throughout the year, I hadn’t asked anyone directly for help other than the pros at my own clubs and two or three others. But as a former salesman, I knew that to close the deal I would have to ask for the sale. Standing on a street I’d never been on, still wearing the blue polo and khaki pants from my round at Winged Foot, I knew that if I was going to achieve something never done before, I had to take risks and do things most people wouldn’t. My pitch couldn’t have been clearer. “I need one of you to host me on Saturday,” I said to the group of strangers.

They continued to stand there, shocked and speechless, I think, by my boldness. Then one guy, dressed in a shirt with a Quaker Ridge logo broke the stunned silence. “These guys can’t help you; they aren’t members,” he said flatly. “But I’ll tell you what: We need to deal with this cracked windshield right now, so give me your cell number, and I’ll call you this evening.”

With that, I slid into my rental and drove off. I didn’t know whether I’d hear from the guy or not, but I knew that when it comes to achieving aspirations in the face of adversity, it helps to believe in fate.

He called that evening as I sat in my Hamptons hotel room, introducing himself as Mario Guerra. I recognized his name from my research: He was the head pro at Quaker Ridge. Mario told me he appreciated the way I had approached him and the other guys on the street. At the time, I’d had no idea who I was talking to. Then he added, “I, too, believe in fate intervening in our lives as a force for good.”

He asked about my background. I told him I had been born into poverty in Texas but overcame those beginnings to have a successful career in the energy industry. He told me that his family had come to America as political asylum refugees from Cuba.

As a boy, I’d played baseball with a stick and a doll’s head on the dusty roads of the Sawmill Quarters. When Mario was ayoung boy in Cuba, he used a broomstick for a bat and a rock wrapped in tape as a ball. He played basketball on a dirt court with a hoop made from the metal ring of an old wine barrel that was attached to a corner of his house. We were kindred spirits whose lives intersected on destiny’s path.

Mario told me that Quaker Ridge didn’t allow unaccompanied play on Saturdays during peak season. I understood that the members wanted unfettered access to their club after a long winter. But he said he admired what I was trying to do and that he’d request an exception from the club’s president and general manager.

It was granted the next day. On the Saturday I had originally been scheduled to play Shinnecock Hills, I’d now be teeing it up with Mario at Quaker Ridge. My improbable quest had become a little less impossible—thanks to someone I hadn’t known 24 hours earlier.