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FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

Wishbone Brawl V: ‘It’s the Unicorn of Golf Events’

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

December 02, 2022
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OCEANSIDE, Calif. — It is a Thursday evening, two sleeps before the fifth annual Wishbone Brawl at Goat Hill Park. Reggae plays over the loudspeakers at this community hub. The fire pit between the 1st tee and the 18th green is smoldering, which explains the smell and feel of a campsite. The stalls at the driving range are packed with a diverse collection of players of all ages and swing types. A half-dozen dogs or so saunter about, sniffin’ furry butts and leather carry bags. The sun is falling fast on the horizon, leaving long shadows and a golden glow through the towering eucalyptus trees. It’s another perfect evening at the Goat, but soon this humble venue will host a swarm of golf enthusiasts. No surprise that the place is abuzz with energy and activity.

Sean Rogers is at the wheel of his maintenance cart when the question is posed: “Where’s Ashy?”

Rogers, covered in the dust and dirt of yet another long day, says, “He’s working on the slope just beyond the 1st tee.”

Of course he is. Rake in hand, John Ashworth is making piles of leaves and branches in an area between the 1st fairway and 9th green.

“It looks better, doesn’t it?” Ashworth asks. Of course it does.

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Goat Hill Park has been looking better and better ever since Ashworth took over the lease on the land from the City of Oceanside in 2014. All of the sweat equity—his and that of many others—has led to a new irrigation system, a conversion to reclaimed water, a new driving range and putting green, a three-hole kids’ course, several new greens on the big course and new sand traps, tees and cart paths. Among the infrastructure upgrades are a new maintenance shed, benches and fencing. Goat Hill Park is the blueprint for small, affordable and accessible. “World class for the working class,” is the motto at the Goat. Which brings us to the Wishbone Brawl, which was contested on Nov. 19.

Xander Schauffele, Fred Couples, Geoff Ogilvy and Dean Wilson competed with persimmon woods on the par-65, 4,582-yard design, putting on a show for 1,250 adults, kids and dogs who celebrated all that is good about golf. Food vendors and the folks from Dogleg Brewery were there. Truly Hard Seltzer was the presenting sponsor, putting up $36,000 for the skins game, all of which went to the North County Junior Golf Association and Goat Hill Park’s junior caddie and leadership academy.

An online auction is still open with almost 100 items up for bid, including trips to Dublin, Ireland, Punta Mita, Pinehurst and Sand Valley. There’s a Rob Machado custom surfboard and a board signed by Kelly Slater. A Chargers jersey signed by the late, great Junior Seau. TaylorMade and Titleist have donated custom fittings. The auction ends on Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. PT.

Meanwhile, back at the Goat, as the crowd gathered around the driving range to watch the four players get reacquainted with persimmon, kids in the crowd were invited to try to hit one of the gongs that live on the range as enticing targets. “Hit a gong, win a hat from Mrs. Schauffele,” was the side game. Sure enough, Ian Cardwell, 11, doinked a gong, earning a round of applause, a hat and an autographed ball from Xander. It was just one of many lifetime memories made throughout the day.

As the competition began, Ashworth shouted out some simple ground rules: “Let the kids up front, keep the dogs and leashes and please try to stay off the greens.”

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The format, as always, was best-ball in an 18-hole match. In 2017, Schauffele and Wilson beat Charley Hoffman and Chris Riley. In 2018, Wilson partnered with his friend Mike Weir, and they took down Schauffele and Hoffman. The following year, Riley and Ogilvy took Schauffele and Wilson to a sudden-death playoff, and on the first extra hole, the 9th from 133 yards, Ogilvy famously swished his tee shot for the walk-off win. There was no Brawl in 2020 because of Covid. Last year, Schauffele and Wilson needed all 18 holes to beat Couples and Will Kropp, a young pro who holds the course record (10 under) and gives lessons at the Goat. Kropp and his wife, Morgan, gave birth to Oliver in August and can be found on evening walks around the property with Ollie in the stroller and Olivia, the couple’s goldendoodle, leading the way.

The caddies for the event are always kids drawn from the Goat’s caddie and leadership academy. Founded by Ashworth a few years ago, the program is now recognized by the Evans Scholars Foundation. The $40 caddie fee is subsidized by the academy. Players are asked to be good mentors by engaging in conversation about life and golf. An additional tip is at their discretion of the player but is strongly encouraged.

This year the caddies for the Wishbone were Aidan Watts, Kyler Phillips and Ada and Anabelle Lee. The standard bearer was Kennedy Wallace, 4, who sported a ponytail and an all-pink caddie outfit. In other words, cuteness personified. Peter “The Professor” Beames was on site and acting as the rules official. Decked out in a tweed jacket, a dapper cap and a yellow arm band that read “REF,” Beames conducted the ceremonial coin toss: “Harp of horns?” was the offer. Schauffele called, “harp,” but it landed on horns, so Ogilvy and Couples elected to lead off.

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As the players ripped persimmons off the 1st tee, through a long and narrow chute of humans, it was clear the event had doubled in size from last year. Which had doubled since the last time it was played. Which had doubled since the year before that. You get the idea.

“It’s like the videos from the ’20s,” said Stefan Schauffele, Xander’s dad, who followed the action with a cigar and a few friends. “Remember when kids circled the green and after the putt was made, they charged the hole to try and grab the ball?”

The trajectory of the Wishbone isn’t surprising, especially as it offers a needed contrast to all the disruption and stomach-churning greed that has infected the highest level of the professional game. There’s no talk about politics at the Wishbone Brawl. No agents are involved. No Greg Norman lurking in the shadows. There is a commissioner, but by nickname only; John “the Commish” Wardrup has organized a group of Goat members to help with crowd control.

The drone shots, especially when presented in black and white, looked like they were from a golden age of golf. We still admire and appreciate the architecture and courses from long ago, so it’s no surprise that an event like the Wishbone Brawl still has a place in the game. Is it 2022? Or 1922? At the Wishbone Brawl, it’s hard to tell.

“Pure” was how Stefan Schauffele described it.

“Perfect” was how Ben Higgins, a local radio host and a member at the Goat, described it.

“Kids can come out, dogs can come out. I’m not the kind of guy to talk this way,” says Couples, “but they say it has a nice vibe. I don’t know what a ‘vibe’ is, but I’d say it has a great feel to it.”

“It’s the unicorn of golf events,” Ashworth said. “It’s so damn different. Four of the world’s greatest players show up and waltz around, riffing off each other, making music like they’re in a jam session. It’s like an acoustic version of your favorite song.”

The sound of the persimmons generates sweet music. The whole thing lifts the spirit and soothes the soul.

The Fire Pit Collective has produced a podcast, several digital shorts and a comprehensive video recap that are being distributed on our website, social platforms and YouTube channel.

But to summarize the match, it was close from start to finish. Neither team ever got 2 up. The lead changed hands four times. It was all-square on the 9th tee, at which point Ashworth unveiled a plaque commemorating Ogilvy’s ace from 2019. It was all-square again as the players walked off the 14th green.

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Schauffele made six birdies, and after having received friendship bracelets from two girls in the gallery, chipped in for eagle on the 15th to put his side 1 up. Wilson made clutch putts on 16, 17 and 18, the final one a birdie from 25 feet to secure the victory. Ogilvy made eight birdies, the last coming on the home hole, after his eagle chip rattled the pin and hung on the lip, which would’ve forced yet another playoff. Couples birdied three of the last five to keep it close.

Forget about the piles of cash from the Saudis or the PGA Tour’s PIP system—the only thing at stake at the Wishbone Brawl is bragging rights. The only money that matters is how much can be raised for junior golf; last year the number was $150,000. As Ogilvy put it, “This is community golf at its best. This is as much fun as we have as golfers. I mean, we have a miserable existence sometimes. It looks all dreamy, but it can be a little bit of a grind, but this is exactly what we do it for. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had playing golf.”

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The Brawl ended at 3:45 p.m. Ogilvy had to catch a 10:30 flight that night back to Australia. In the three hours between the last putt and the time he left for the airport, he could be seen on the range, bare-footed, hitting persimmons among a crowd of kids while Couples sat on a bench taking in the action and munching on a cheeseburger. Schauffele and Wilson dined on the other side of the clubhouse, soaking up the setting and celebrating their victory. Ashworth never stopped tending to the players and the crowd, making sure they were well-fed and hydrated. There wasn’t a kid or an adult who didn’t get the picture or signature they desired.

Everyone left the Goat feeling like they were holding the trophy. The Wishbone Brawl remains undefeated.