A penchant for categorization has always come naturally. Perhaps that’s why I’m a golf-architecture writer. I’m programmed to think in terms of places, eras and design styles, of order, histories and lineages. I’ve always sought to find meaning in traceable connections and affiliations. Perhaps this is why the editor presented me, as opposed to someone else, an unusual assignment.
I was to travel deep in-country, the editor explained, to examine a gathering called “The Ringer.” I was vaguely familiar—from what I could tell from social media, it was a semiannual, multi-day golf bacchanal of exceedingly hip and tuned-in players, something like Coachella for golf fundamentalists. Participants came with custom-made, single-strap MacKenzie or Jones golf bags and hit balls with hickory clubs or vintage persimmon drivers. Further recon indicated a subculture of hyper-aware millennials trading in a visual currency, namely Instagram postings of themselves, their travels and their gear: club hats, logoed headcovers, forged blades and golf bags, always golf bags, leaning against iconography such as a ragged bunker edge, signage of a desirable course, a split-rail fence or resting on trestle sticks. (Trestle sticks are wood poles attached at the center to form an “X” brace for propping up a MacKenzie bag.)
I scrolled through scene after scene of fashion-conscious bros traveling in staggered formations across wistful golf landscapes under gauzy afternoon light. Their ensembles and postures reflected a caught-in-the-moment casualness. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to make golf cool, or if they were using golf to project coolness. You could drop them directly into any number of lifestyle catalogs.
The PGA Tour’s Zac Blair is clearly the visionary and inspirational leader.
I admit the prospect of taxonomy intrigued me. Here appeared some kind of emerging golf genus, whose purpose and motivation remained elusive. I only vaguely recognized the golf I knew in these images, in these projections of every small fetish, and in the elevation of anything boutique, from divot tools to orphaned and obscure golf courses. I had never valued clubs, bags and clothing much beyond their ease of use. Most of the people I know don’t have passionate views about the color of the stripes on their wood tees. New clubs tempt me perhaps once a decade. I recently bought a putter, but it was an off-the-rack Odyssey Stroke Lab, a completely uninteresting utensil compared to the individualized Tyson Lamb flat sticks found at The Ringer that sell for thousands of dollars on the secondary market.
Something was happening here beyond mental and physical stimulation. I had heard it described as “woke golf,” a hazy yet loaded term that attempted to classify a subset of youngish players who treated equipment and accessories as precious, who were uniquely attracted to bespoke and antique aspects of the game. The entire generalization was difficult to define, and I suspected the people I was looking at would reject if not resent the term. But if there was a thing called woke, if it did exist, it looked like it existed at The Ringer. The editor asked me to explore it, to go upriver, so to speak, and embed. Despite the allure of discovery, I worried that the aesthetic differences between this collective and those of an architecture writer would be toxic. To them I would appear a safari-jacketed continental stepping onto their fairway bank. Of course, that was the point—if you’re seeking objectivity, you don’t send a hawk to cover the war. Then again, you don’t send a pacifist, either.
IF YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW
The fourth rendition of The Ringer was to be played at Sweetens Cove, a nine-hole course off a quiet, backcountry road about 30 minutes west of Chattanooga. The course had become a cri de coeur for Ringer types and fans of the underdog because it was an underdog, essentially hand-built on a meager budget. It defied odds both stylistically—with uninhibited (though Tennessee-bound) links-inspired holes and expressionist green shapes—and programmatically, because it was a nine-hole course in the middle of nowhere with a small shed as a clubhouse, whose chief attributes were a proudly spartan sensibility and defiant architecture. Sweetens Cove was the ultimate little course-that-could with a nonconformist attitude, and that made it the ideal fit for a crowd that strained to be distinguished from the ordinary. Unfortunately, it doesn’t drain particularly well.
“I don’t want to say nothin’ bad about the people that took over that course, ’cause they did great things with it,” said the desk clerk at the Holiday Inn Express. “But it’s in a flood plain, and it rained a lot yesterday. A lot.” This was Kimball, not so much a town as an interstate exchange about two miles from the golf course consisting of three hotels, some fast-food restaurants, a Walmart and a fireworks superstore. The lobby was empty except for me and a burly young man in black, also checking in. He was a caddie from Liberty National in New Jersey who drove 13 hours and paid, like the other 100 or so Ringer participants, $1,500 to play 54 holes of golf on a rural nine-holer bordered by farmland and a few houses.
“I found out there was a cancellation last night,” the caddie said. “I DM’ed Zac [Blair, the event host] and took it on the spot. He called it one of the top five ballsiest impulse moves he’d ever seen.”
I wondered briefly about the other four.
Imagine a golf course that animates the desires of adherents the world over. It is a meeting place for souls who like their golf fun and fast, who appreciate creativity and architecture, and get a thrill out of unpredictable outcomes. The course’s purpose is to bring people together and nurture a love of the sport. Its advocates lavish praise on the architect and builders, and passionately promote it to all who will listen. They buy the club’s merchandise in magnificent quantities and wear its symbols with patriotic fervor. The logo serves as a kind of secret handshake among those who recognize it.
Now imagine that course doesn’t exist.
You have just been introduced to The Buck Club, the passion project of PGA Tour player Zac Blair. Blair began speaking of his idea for The Buck Club several years ago on podcasts and social media. Initially the course was going to be in his home state of Utah, and though he did not yet own the proposed site, he unveiled an 18-hole design and routing plan developed with the help of Rob Collins and Tad King, the architects behind Sweetens Cove. Along the way, as investors were courted, Blair began selling Buck Club merchandise to generate enthusiasm and to help fund the concept. This became the impetus for Blair to create The Ringer, first played at Sweetens Cove in 2018 with about 50 participants. The tournament was intended as a gathering of the like-minded who shared a progressive relationship with golf and paraphernalia, but most importantly, shared a desire to support Blair’s vision. The Buck Club was technically imaginary, but it lived in the hearts and minds of his roughly 50,000 Twitter and Instagram followers. (Proceeds from recent Ringers are donated to junior golf programs.)
Since then, the invite-only Ringer has doubled in size and become a golden ticket for the in-the-know golf milieu. Attendance signaled connectedness and proximity to the steaming core of wokeness. Lucky participants came from around the country, even internationally, to crush some golf, show their wares and indulge in inside-the-ropes access.
The Ringer had become a golden ticket for the in-the-know milieu.
More recently, The Buck Club has subdivided with the hypothetical course moving to South Carolina, where it now proceeds as The Tree Farm (a working name), and another to-be-determined concept remaining in Utah. Collins and King are no longer involved. Further, The Buck Club has morphed into a thriving social, marketing and merchandising brand. Collectors wait anxiously throughout the year for new drops of Buck Club swag, including branded hats and headcovers, logo-brocaded putter covers, custom-milled flat sticks, embroidered belts and other limited-edition items that typically sell out immediately. Business, as they say, is good. The dream lives.
I arrived at the decidedly not hypothetical Sweetens Cove at dawn. The course spreads across a basin below a small ridge, amber broom sedge coloring the spaces between turbulent fairway carpet and pockets of sand, the mottled hues of the Cumberland Plateau foothills rising beyond. I could see it already, how Instagram captures would play against this autumnal backdrop, the walk, the bags, the righteous projection.
An RV was parked in the gravel lot next to folding chairs and a table cluttered with bottles of alcohol and juice. Someone had camped out overnight. Banners hung from the vehicle, as if it had its own sponsors, perhaps goods made by the inhabitants inside. Other contestants began arriving. A young man carrying a Coors Light walked in front of me with a MacKenzie bag across his back. It was beige canvas, with Native American embroidery on the ball pocket and leather headcovers and a set of pink and baby blue BubbaWhips sticking out. (BubbaWhips are custom-painted alignment sticks made of hickory.) This was my first close encounter with a Ringer, a villager in his element.
The center of activities was a covered pavilion at the top of the hill with the slogans “Carrying My Bag” and “God Bless America” engraved in the rafters. I spotted a familiar-looking figure with a reddish mustache and beard. He wore a green hoodie, white rope hat, jeans and hiking boots: Blair. He and two assistants were busy unpacking boxes of apparel and arranging it across a chain of wood tables. Sales reps from B. Draddy, a clothier that has made deep inroads into this demographic, were stocking their corner of the pavilion.
More and more players began to accumulate, integrating seamlessly into the huddle. They were young, in their 20s and early 30s mostly, with a few elders mixed in. Some dressed like golfers you find at popular golf destinations, but others sported tee shirts and sweatpants—“athleisure-wear.” They mingled in anticipatory buzz as might old classmates entering a reunion. What was the program? Should they go into the pavilion? Will Zac address the group? No one seemed bothered by the lack of organization.
I had expected to witness an armada of the most exceptional bags and equipment, tens upon tens of thousands of dollars of golf self-expression, but the group had a greater number of traditional stand bags with only a few sets of 1960s-era forged blades and perhaps one or two sets of hickories. The quilted headcover game, however, was particularly strong.
The first leg of the tournament consisted of two times around the course, a break, and then a third nine. Three holes were cut into every green, each with a different colored flag. Every player had to hole out to a different flag each time around, the order being up to us. I feared I would be ridiculed for teeing off with my Callaway Epic driver while The Ringers all swung Louisville Golf persimmons, but the majority embraced modern technology, from oversize titanium heads to range finders. We started on the seventh hole, a short par 4 with a large, domed green that plays much smaller because it sheds any ball hit to its edges into low-drainage basins, which were wet from the earlier rain. My approach shot drifted a foot too far left. Two muddy chips later, and I was in with an opening 6.
The severity of the green deserved scrutiny, but The Ringer was not the place for architectural analysis. The most common descriptors of the course were “fun” and “playground.” The boys (I counted only two women in attendance) were here to hit bombs, drain putts and celebrate, and the players I encountered did all of that with proficiency. Loud, punctuated cross-course hollering was occasionally drowned out by booming mortar blasts that Blair lit off from the pavilion when news arrived that someone had made an eagle. (Blair was not playing because of a shoulder injury.) One of our partners turned up hip-hop music. A machine salesman from Pennsylvania drove the green on the par-4 fifth and made the putt. Several minutes later came the Boom! reverberating through the valley.
It was all slightly disorienting, a kind of golf I found more tense than peaceful. I asked a companion what motivated him to pay so much to come to this event. “I’ve just been following Zac for years, and I want to do anything I can to support him and his dream,” he said. He was in commercial real estate in the Washington, D.C. area and wore a golf shirt from Valhalla, a hat from The Bridge and a Medalist belt. His headcovers were from Cypress Point and Seminole, and he had a Pine Valley bag tag. Others offered similar rationales: “I saw Zac play in Fort Worth about five years ago, and he’s been my favorite player ever since,” one said. “When I first saw Zac playing golf in a hoodie and hiking boots, I knew this was the place for me.”
When I later spoke with Blair, he added color, recounting the first Ringer event and how it was essentially a thrown-together coalition of strangers and relentless chasers whom he fondly called golf degenerates. “It was so cool to see all of that love for The Buck Club because a lot of people were kind of making fun of it, saying it was a fake course or a scam,” he says. “It really opened our eyes. There was so much support for this brand that it kind of evolved the entire idea of The Buck Club into more of a golfing society. It just turned into something way bigger than we ever thought.”
Blair was clearly the visionary and inspirational leader for most attendees, yet he was also distinct from The Ringer’s own inertia and the larger woke-golf zeitgeist. The forces formed some kind of overlapping Venn diagram—perhaps the secret to this mission existed within the mysterious ether of that intersection.
We finished the first 18 and retired for a lunch of catered tacos while the afternoon tee times went out. In coolers were iced IPAs and cans of CBD-infused citrus-flavored fizzy water with Buck Club labels. As we were eating, Blair came to our table with a Ringer tumbler, a flask of limited-production, single-barrel Jack Daniels whiskey and a large bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Every player who made an eagle got a couple of fingers of hooch, and Blair asked the machine salesman which of the two he wanted. I couldn’t help myself and quickly advised him: “Blue Label—you don’t know when that’s going to come around again.”
It was strange and endearing to watch Blair, a bonafide PGA Tour player, provide bottle service to the group as if they were guests in his home. This was someone who had made 86 cuts on tour and earned more than $4 million, who finished inside the top 125 last season and would be out on the circuit again when his shoulder healed with Rickie and DJ and Bryson, yet he was completely accessible, as if everyone here was an old friend. Later I would see him walk through the crowd asking loudly, “Does anyone need anything?”
Slowly the gravitational force moved back to the pavilion where tables were stocked with displays of hats (“Play Fast and Don’t Be a Dick”), shirts, embroidered belts, knitted headcovers, towels, BubbaWhip carrying sleeves, leather shoe bags, watercolors and other items signified with The Ringer and Buck Club emblems. For several hours it became a merchandise bazaar as players gathered in eager, assessing clusters. I had to admit, the products were beautiful. It must have been thrilling to think that no one but they had access to these. Blair moved about, talking to customers and staging the merch. His assistants processed orders as quickly as they could. The players had come to shop and left sated, coveting the bounties like rare treasure. Blair hosted a putting competition on the practice green and periodically retreated to light one of the fireworks cannons. Boom!
At about 4 p.m. we went back out. The sun was fading but portable lights had been positioned around the course, so we could play into the night. It was clear that many had spent the intervening hours partaking of complimentary beer and alcohol. Side games broke out. The youngest player with us, a 20-something from Texas, had lost grasp of our names—I’d become Darren. At 4:37 the machine salesman made a hole-in-one on the par-3 ninth, but the ball went in the wrong cup—he needed to hole out to the dark-blue pin to complete the Tricolore. If so, was it in fact a hole-in-one? Could he count it as such, even if he had to take a free drop from the cup and putt up to the Red flag? The rest of us were adamant it was a hole-one—the tee shot went into the cup—but the ethical dilemma consumed him in a verbal monologue that lasted for the remainder of the round.
The light stanchions provided just enough illumination to finish. The course was a mess of empty bottles, stray cans and Solo cups. We hit the barbecue station and more liquor. The temperature dropped as the second unit went out for their evening round. People huddled around a fire burning in a large kettle, standing or seated in a circle of Adirondack chairs. It was after 7, and we were in danger of running out of fuel. Pieces of trash were being tossed in for kindling along with empty Smathers boxes (the cedar cases that embroidered Smathers and Branson belts come in). Someone arrived at last with more wood.
They had made a golf society, a community and a brotherhood.
The fire assembly felt central, like a Bohemian Grove council of pooh-bahs sitting to formulate profound edicts. It occurred to me that all the extrovert behavior I’d observed, all the outward rituals of material acquisition and display, were not merely for show but rather a continual refinement of golf identities each individual had cultivated. All of this was a network within which they could explore who they wanted to be. It wasn’t posturing; it was plugging in.
The people were (mostly) easy to get to know and participated in a shared vision of golf. It was not obvious if any of them knew each other or just met, but they seemed to possess a common gene for being social and welcoming. I sensed warmth. Perhaps it was the tired and slightly buzzed atmosphere, or the satisfaction of being somewhere they longed to be. Perhaps it was some greater generational characteristic. Or perhaps it’s what the game of golf does at its best.
The buzz on Saturday was the rumored arrival of Hattie B’s, a hot chicken outfit from Nashville. But before that, there would be more golf, at least 18 holes.
The tournament had been reseeded, and we went out in three-person teams, six players per hole. It was an ideal fall day, still warm with long shadows beginning to creep over the grass. My group included a computer programmer, a brew master and an electrical engineer among others, a typical cross section of Ringer players. Late in the round we had returned to the second hole, our 14th overall, and played our drives. As we exited the tee, the computer programmer suddenly stopped, like he’d been jolted by a revelation: We had no music. For some reason the five of us stood by and watched as he queued up a song, perhaps thinking we would be able to see it physically waft out of the speaker. It was “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. The crisp echoing chords of E and A pinged in cadence, and we walked, feeling the solitary togetherness as we fanned out across the fairway. “That’s so right,” someone said. We strode to our balls silently, listening, lost in time. The electrical engineer lit a joint. We could have been marching over a distant fraught terrain, guns on our backs.
Early in the round I had noticed one of my teammates stopping here and there to sketch out landscapes on a notepad he had mounted on his pushcart. He was an illustrator from North Carolina, he said, and he had recently quit his job as an engineer to try to make a living painting. What finally spurred him to make the jump was encouragement from Zac Blair and others in that orbit, who helped introduce him to potential clients in the golf business. The illustrator had been getting steady commissions ever since.
I also met a graphic designer from Georgia who had made numerous connections through Blair and The Ringer and now had a broad portfolio of boutique golf and lifestyle clients. A Topgolf project manager from Texas had begun moonlighting as a photographer and videographer for The Ringer and other golf-related events. And there were others. In fact, you could look through the prism of The Ringer and see a coalition of artisans and creators bound by the magnetism of golf and mutual affirmation, each infusing the virtual commune with faith and patronage. Even those who didn’t produce anything contributed to the health of the organism with financial and emotional investment.
“When Zac’s out there doing everything he can to grow The Buck Club, it inspires others,” the electrical engineer explained. “Everyone here would rather support people who are chasing their own dreams than corporations. The Ringer is the opposite of commercialism.”
A hundred people sat at tables tearing into spicy Hattie B’s half-chickens in the outdoor darkness. I half-listened, over greasy fingers, to a conversation describing the differences between the fans of No Laying Up and Barstool Sports, but my mind was on my imminent departure. I would soon sail back down the river and leave this far green country, not yet understanding the meaning of the voyage, how to categorize it or what I would report to the editor.
I do not believe I will ever own a MacKenzie bag, and I hope to never see another set of BubbaWhips. It is unlikely that more Ringers are in my future. But a certain knowledge has passed that I will someday attempt to describe. It is based on the truth that, while golf is not for everybody, it is large enough for those who love it to love it in their own image. I have seen it confirmed through a language of emblems and symbolism, in seekers of authenticity and believers in the spirit of creation. They had made a golf society, a community and a brotherhood. And in that, there is something to be learned.