How an elite amateur enjoyed success, but never comfort, as a gay man in golf
Growing up, as I began to make sense of my sexuality, I had dreams of becoming the first “out” male professional golfer. But that didn’t happen. I never felt fully at ease within the golf community, which is strange to say because I really love the game. It’s the foundation of my relationship with my dad and has truly shaped my life.
I grew up in a house where athletics were encouraged. My dad was the director of parks and recreation in Frankfort, Ky., for 38 years. I didn’t like most sports. I was pretty tall, so everyone assumed I’d be good at basketball, but I was terrible. Tennis was kind of OK. But I had a real affinity for golf from the beginning.
I started playing when I was 5 or 6. My dad, Steve, and his father, RT, enjoyed playing, and they would take me to Juniper Hill, a municipal course. Part of why I loved golf was because I was an extremely shy kid, and an individual sport like golf doesn’t conflict with that. I’m sure part of my shyness had to do with being gay. When you’re that young, it’s not something you’re aware of, but I was aware that I was different from the other boys.
The only athletic thing my dad forced me to do was play in the junior city tournament when I was 10. I didn’t want to, but I ended up winning my age group by a lot. Golf became my identity. I made the high school team when I was in sixth grade. I worked at Juniper Hill in the summers. My dad’s office was at the course, so I’d ride with him, or I’d walk the mile to the course from our house. I’d clean the bathrooms, take the carts out, then play golf all day. My grandfather was retired, so we played together a lot. On special days, I’d go to lunch with him. Otherwise, I subsisted on hot dogs and Snickers. I was one of those golf-course kids, and I loved it.
Golf saved me in a lot of ways. I found this thing that I was good at, that people respected, and that other people found difficult. When I was in my early teens, I was playing with a lot of adults, which I liked. Kids can be cruel, but adults generally aren’t mean to children.
About that time, kids began teasing me for being a “fag.” I was too young to understand what the word meant, or even who or what I was, but other boys used the fact I was different to hurt me. I cried a lot at school. I became depressed and thought about suicide often. I wanted to be anyone else who wasn’t different. The golf course became a place I could escape to.
Occasionally someone would tease me at the golf course, but skill is such a great equalizer. As I moved through my early teenage years, I became known as a really good golfer. I won a lot of junior tournaments, including our city junior event three or four times, once by 17 strokes. I became better known for being a good golfer than this little gay kid.
The teasing continued in high school until I finally confronted my primary bully, who was always calling me gay or fag. One day I said: “Yes, I am. Why? Are you interested?” And that did it. He never bothered me again.
After high school, I went to the College of Charleston in South Carolina to play golf. This is difficult to talk about because I don’t want to appear bitter. I’m not, but I had a miserable experience, and I played miserably. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity, but the environment wasn’t one in which I felt valued or safe. I had a couple allies on the team, both of whom I’m still friends with, but I wasn’t out at that time. I was there to get an education and play golf, and I didn’t see why my sexuality mattered. But my teammates, and certainly my coach, picked up on it and treated me very differently.
Playing any sport at a high level is incredibly difficult. Still, if you’re dealing with something that no one else is having to deal with, you’re already over par in a way. I’m so glad for young people growing up today, because attitudes have changed, but it makes me wonder how things could’ve been different for me had the environment in college been welcoming and affirmative.
I came out to my parents right before my 19th birthday. I was home for spring break and told them we needed to talk. They were surprised but also relieved because they thought I wanted to quit golf. They had sacrificed a lot so I could have experiences and opportunities to play. There was an adjustment period, but my parents are kind and loving, and have always supported me.
However, I did quit playing after my sophomore year, and for two years I didn’t play golf at all. After graduating college, I moved to Orlando to get into the golf business and start playing again. I got a job at a private club. I was 22 and entering a period of my life when I didn’t want to hide who I was anymore, but I still found it intimidating to be myself in a country-club environment.
When I was 23, I moved back in with my parents in Kentucky and recommitted to my game. During the next three years, I played the best golf of my life. I participated in two U.S. Mid-Amateurs and one U.S. Amateur Public Links. But the highlight of my golf life was playing in the St. Andrews Links Trophy, an international amateur event. It was incredible. Here I am at St. Andrews, the home of golf, with my dad on the bag, and the starter announces my name and home course of Juniper Hill on the first tee. I loved that moment. It showed how much I’d accomplished.
It was around this time I met my partner, Erik, so my life was coming together in a lot of ways. I was finally out, and my golf was really good.
I got to a level where I had complete control over my game. In 2005, Erik’s job took us to London, where we lived for four years. I joined a club, but I didn’t tell the people there I was gay. I was afraid they wouldn’t let me join. Golf there wasn’t completely welcoming; I played a course with a friend who was a member of the Ladies European Tour, and she couldn’t go into the clubhouse because she’s a woman. She had to pay for her round through the snack-bar window. There’s a lot about the game that’s wonderful, but there are also things that are maddening.
After London, Erik and I moved to Chicago, and I joined a gay sports league that included golf. I had never encountered anything like that. I was 33, and it was the first time I had knowingly met a gay man on a golf course or even talked about it. That’s one thing about golf: If you walk, you spend a lot of time talking to the people you’re playing with. When I was young, this petrified me because I was afraid I would be found out, and people wouldn’t want to play with me—or worse. Being a gay golfer still isn’t a normal part of our golf culture. On the PGA Tour, when it’s over, someone’s wife or girlfriend typically runs out onto the 18th green. At the Ryder Cup, they have a parade of wives and girlfriends. This is all perfectly fine, but gay athletes want that normalcy, too.
Erik and I moved to Louisville in 2013, and I joined a nice club where I had a few friends. I was there three years and got to know the members. I was treated well, but a number of them belonged to churches that, at least until recently, practiced and encouraged conversion therapy. After a round, I often would exhale when I got back to my car. This was nothing new—I’d been doing this all my life—but I grew wary of having to feel this way in my golf life when I didn’t have to in my social circle. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s important: Some people have prejudiced views about race or sexual orientation but then are friends with someone who is part of one of those groups, and think, Oh, that person is OK; I know him. But every person within that community is an individual, too.
I’m 42 now and not playing much golf. I’ve been making art to some degree my whole life and have been focusing on running my gallery, painting and selling my work. My career is finally in a good place, but golf is never far from my mind. I went to the U.S. Open in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills. I attended the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. Last fall, I drove up to French Lick in Indiana to watch the Senior LPGA Championship. I can still cite stats that I memorized about the great LPGA players of the 1980s. As an architecture buff and a huge Seth Raynor fan, one of the things I really miss is playing great layouts. Some favorites of mine include Pinehurst No. 2, Royal St. George’s, Southampton Golf Club, Friar’s Head, Valhalla and the Old Course.
The game has been a source of great joy and pain for me. Often, when it became known that I was gay, I felt tolerated. But I suspect this was because of my skills and politeness, but who wants to just feel tolerated? A lot of LGBTQ kids today don’t seem to think about being anything other than themselves. This is progress and can only lead to them reaching their potential. Perhaps it won’t be long before we see an openly gay golfer playing regularly on the PGA Tour. As for me, there have been times when I thought I could fill the void left by golf with other things, but I’ve come to accept that’s not possible. Golf has a place in my life, and I know I’m not done with it.
—WITH KEELY LEVINS
Lead photo: Alan P. Pittman
This story is part of a Golf Digest.com series called “Golf, Interrupted,” which presents first-person accounts of perseverance and courage in the game. Have a story you’d like to share? Send an email to GolfDigest_GolfInterrupted @discovery.com.