By Max Adler
Golf Digest is aware of fewer than two dozen individuals who have played every course on our ranking of America’s 100 Greatest. They ticked them off over lifetimes largely well spent, and the grillrooms of this country have heard their stories. All are or were Golf Digest course-rating panelists—the card-carrying, often quite tan, pencil-wielding, low-handicap data-bots we’ve trained in the scientific art (or artful science, if you prefer) of evaluating shot values, design variety, aesthetics and other categories since 1966, and whose legion is now 1,500 strong. We compile the scores of all our rating panelists to update this ranking biennially, and so the list is ever-changing. When new courses receive the honor, some panelists are quicker than others about staying current.
Being a completist is hard work. Just ask Terry Inslee, who joined our panel in 1984 and is our most prolific rater, having evaluated 3,050 courses. He’s played 93 of the 100 Greatest and 96 of the Second 100 Greatest. The seven he’s missing from the first list roll off his tongue quickly: “Augusta National, Boston Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills, Sebonack, Friar’s Head, Garden City and Old Sandwich.” Inslee is retired, but over a career as a Missouri-based sales rep with a national territory, he worked in a lot of golf on business trips. Why hasn’t he played them all? Though association with Golf Digest does open doors, personal connections and the rub of the great green in the sky are still paramount, even for our panelists.
Told there was a golfer who’d accomplished the feat of playing “the century” in a calendar year, Inslee is impressed, if not a little shocked. “Completing the 100 is a major logistics problem. You’re always juggling so many balls in the air—the schedules of different hosts and your own, tournaments, outings, renovations, weather … for someone to do that in 12 months is absolutely amazing.”
“You ought to award the guy a green straightjacket,” says Senior Architecture Editor Ron Whitten. Salty as Whitten can seem, the heart connected to the fullest brain in golf architecture has a soft spot for any golfer so passionate.
Who could and would pull off such a stunt? Clearly, someone who isn’t working. Has to be a Golf Digest panelist, right? Not the case. Then some mid-am silver fox with a private jet and a fat Rolodex, right? Wrong again. Our golfer of the year is as unlikely as the idea itself.
Jimmie James, 59, was raised the fourth of eight children by a single mother. Their house in the sawmill town of Huntsville, Texas, had no plumbing or electricity. On the dusty and uphill path to the store, Jimmie and his siblings and half-siblings would walk from their black section through the Latino section before getting to where the whites lived. Signs forbid him to drink from certain fountains.
The James kids survived on what they could hunt and grow, and later on USDA-issued cheese, dried mashed potatoes and canned meats. Despite the nearly crippling cost of commuting via taxi, their mom worked the same job as a nurse’s aide for 30 years. “Our mother had a tremendous amount of drive. She taught us determination, integrity and to never complain,” says James, who was the first of his siblings to graduate high school, although all would become productive and comfortable members of society.
With a job at a department store and a partial scholarship, James earned an engineering degree from Prairie View A&M University. His climb up every rung in a 33-year career at ExxonMobil rivals any fiction by Horatio Alger. Last year, he retired as Manager of Americas Fuel Operations. “I was responsible for making sure that every town in North, Central and South America that needed fuel got it, while keeping the company’s workers safe without impacting the environment. It was a very high-stress job with a lot of global travel,” James says. “When I retired and went from 100 miles per hour to 30, I wanted a project to keep me engaged, because I’d seen others struggle with this transition in their lives.”
The athletically built James, who became a 12-handicap after taking up golf at 45, had the idea that for the first year of retirement he’d play two golf courses in every state. A previous trip to the Old Course at St. Andrews, when a golf buddy canceled last minute because of a work conflict, instilled a taste for the thrill of playing as a single and pairing with locals, and he thought he might re-create that experience again and again. But then a grander notion popped into his head: If he was going to play 100 courses in the United States, why not the best?
“Since the Golf Digest rankings update every two years, it occurred to me that perhaps no one had ever played the entire list while it was current,” says James (correctly), who at the time of conception had bagged just four: No. 16 The Country Club, No. 22 Whistling Straits, No. 75 Congressional and No. 21 the Ocean Course at Kiawah—the latter multiple times, because he has a residence there. For good measure, he’d play these four again. “It was important to me that I play each course within the 12-month time frame.”
GETTING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP
Funny how the most remarkable adventures will derive from logic entirely self-imposed. In 2015, the Swiss skier Jeremie Heitz announced his intention to climb and descend the 15 most famous 13,000-feet peaks in the Alps in two seasons. Most thought he was nuts, not only for how fast he ripped down these cliff-choked and avalanche-prone lines, but because high-alpine navigation requires exact weather conditions. Forcing an agenda against time across a wide geographic area would surely lead to poor decision-making. There were scares, but with cojones and a little luck, Heitz pulled it off, and the journey of his accomplishment documented in the Red Bull film “La Liste” is beyond compelling.
In golf, of course, the major obstacles are exclusivity rather than extremity. That’s why James knew his first course had to be Augusta National. “As I pursued my quest, I anticipated that a lot of people would ask if or how I was going to get on Augusta. Playing there first gave me credibility. People knew I was serious.” James met his wife, Erika, on a flight.
Walking to his car, he kicked himself for not getting her contact details and rushed back to intercept her at the gate of her next connection. The Dean of the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University, Erika is also an overachiever. When she took the job, she made an open plea to her board that if anyone would invite her husband to play golf, she’d sure appreciate it. That led to James’ quest kicking off in style, aboard the private jet of the golfer who had the Augusta connection.
“Augusta wasn’t my favorite golf course [that was Cypress Point], but it was my greatest overall golf experience,” James says. “From the drive up Magnolia Lane, to warming up on the Par-3 Course, to the pimento-cheese sandwich for lunch, to the gallery of staff coming out to watch our opening tee shots on the championship course, I never wanted the day to end.” Having 1992 U.S. Mid-Amateur champ and Augusta National member Danny Yates in the foursome added to the ambience, and after the round, Yates offered to help James with entree to other courses. James declined.
“Once you get introduced into a certain circle, you could really leverage someone for their contacts, but I didn’t want to lean on any one person to help with more than a handful of courses. The fun was going to be meeting people as I went and letting this network of people develop naturally.” As such, James rarely planned his itinerary further out than a month. Though we must insert one small asterisk: James played Augusta National in May 2017 during his last month of work. Not until he was settled into retirement on June 12 did his quest officially begin, he says, and he completed the list on June 11, 2018, so he gave himself a year to play 99 courses. The judges will allow it.
James is a successful guy, but he and his wife still have two teenagers who will want to go to college. Cashing out his modern road warrior’s chest of accrued hotel, airline and car-rental rewards points, nearly half of the travel for Jimmie’s Top 100 Golf Course Tour with the namesake blog was booked without opening his wallet. And with the sort of status so lofty at United Airlines it’s unpublished, James could make last-minute flight changes without getting penalized. Like, say, when his No. 5 Oakmont invitation suddenly materialized when he was on his way out to No. 73 Cherry Hills.
A few manic travel moments aside, mostly his year unfurled beneath prime season sunshine at a pace befitting the game. James loved hanging around putting greens, starting conversations and seeing where they led. “Whenever I told anyone what I was doing, the reflex response was to wonder how they could help.” Who did they know, and where?
“I think this trip gave my husband an even greater appreciation for the goodness in people, the beauty of the human spirit, than he already had,” Erika says.
Says former Southern Cal quarterback and retired athletic director Pat Haden, a member of No. 3 Cypress Point: “I’ve been on trips to Ireland and Scotland where I got hooked up by local members, and part of being a golfer is the joy of sharing what you have. … Jimmie is such a thoughtful, pleasant guy, that I was glad to help him, but it wasn’t until months later that I truly understood his personal history.”
When James was an intern in college, his host for the summer was shocked when a black person showed up at her door. She hastily concocted a back story and made arrangements to protect James from being arrested if he was seen in the neighborhood after dark. “Forty years ago, there’s no way I could’ve played all these courses,” James says. “There were people who warned, last year, that there would be some courses I couldn’t get on, but I felt totally welcomed and respected everywhere I went.”
Race wasn’t an issue, and neither was weather—except in California. In the so-called Golden State, rainouts, wildfires and deadly mudslides conspired against him, and he needed six trips to play 12 courses. For his entry on No. 80 Valley Club of Montecito, a region that was devastated, James wrote, “It goes without saying that the people had a lot more to deal with than some guy trying to play golf. We and our planet are a resilient lot, but incidents like this show how fragile life can be.”
SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS
Such a year is filled with superlatives, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll mention just a few. The most expensive green fee was $750 at No. 63 Canyata in Illinois, although James did have the place to himself. A lone pyramid of range balls awaited his arrival. The private club averages 350 rounds per year.
The strictest cellphone policy seemed to belong to No. 14 Chicago Golf Club, where use of any kind is permitted only inside a car. In the official pamphlet emailed to guests in advance of play, it is also advised that the standard bet is a $1 nassau.
James’ most indelible memory might be the sudden silencing of silverware on the patio that occurs when you address your opening tee shot at No. 6 Merion. And though James encountered an outpouring of hospitality almost everywhere, the vibe at No. 56 Old Sandwich sticks in his mind: “I stayed for three hours after my round. They wouldn’t let me leave!” A multitude of members became highly engaged with his blog.
If there’s one rule to being America’s guest, James says, “it’s to realize that every club is a refuge, and to never disrupt that sanctity.” He made a habit of writing thank-you emails to head pros and club managers on every flight home, always noting the terrific service of their staff while cc’ing his hosts and playing partners. “If I’d acted questionably, word would’ve spread and ended my quest quickly,” James says. “The other critical element is memory. I have a pretty good knack for remembering names and making connections.
There’s a great underlying community of golf at this level, and if you make the effort to know who trained as an assistant under which head pro and where, the rivalries between certain golf-management schools, the home club of a winning member-guest partner—these things come up in conversation, and they give you the opportunity to demonstrate your sincere love for the game.”
But being well-informed with an open checkbook for guest fees and your clubs in the trunk isn’t always enough. James says the hardest place to get on was No. 71 Milwaukee Country Club. He worked his contacts for months to nail down a host, and even then had to tee off on the 10th hole, as do all groups with multiple guests at MCC during midday peak times, per club policy.
When James ran global fuel-supply lines, the master logistician never left anything to chance. But toward the end of his golf mission, he had to get lucky. With 35 days remaining, he had 29 courses to go. Leaving No. 4 Shinnecock Hills unpegged the spring before it was hosting the U.S. Open was poor planning, and not all segments of his trip to the important New York area were locked down.
Because the front nine of Winged Foot’s No. 10 West Course was being renovated—by Gil Hanse in advance of the 2020 U.S. Open—James had to play a composite 19 holes with the No. 62 East Course. (The judges will allow it, though not without some grumbling.) Like at Baltusrol, the only other two-banger property with its No. 39 Lower Course and No. 61 Upper, James saved in the golf shop. Because he purchased a hat and ball marker from each club, these two Tillinghast playgrounds made his collections 98. (Each of Bandon Dunes’ four 100 Greatest Courses has its distinct logo and merchandise.)
Across a leafy residential street from Winged Foot is No. 76 Quaker Ridge, another Tillinghast design. Not to assail his geography, but James was unaware of the true proximity. As he approached on Griffen Avenue in search of the Hutchinson Parkway, something like fate intervened. A guest in an outing struck a massive slice at the eighth, a short par 4, which connected with the windshield of a passing pickup. Head pro Mario Guerra was summoned to mediate. Despite Guerra’s assurance that the club would cover the cost of a new windshield, the driver was reluctant to move his truck until police arrived, and with traffic backing up with impatient drivers, Guerra feared another accident.
“Then, walking up the shoulder of the road, I see this tall African-American guy with a big smile. He comes right up to us and starts in, ‘Gentlemen, I’m sorry for this damage that has occurred today, but with every unfortunate situation there is a silver lining. Do you believe in destiny? You see, I was born poor in south Texas and am now on a quest to play all of our nation’s greatest courses and …’ He goes on, and the golfer, the pickup owner and I are all stunned by this guy. I was impressed with how he handled himself. I gave him my contact details to ping me that night, and I played with him a few days later.”
To avoid traffic, James caught a ferry across Long Island Sound to make the first of several tee times. So he wouldn’t get dinged with a weeklong one-way rental, he exchanged that car at LaGuardia Airport for a fresh one to drive to Boston. On a separate trip for Shinnecock, member Jimmy Dunne did a solid and rushed home early from his college reunion so he could host James on the final day guests could play before the U.S. Open.
During this home stretch James recognized a tension within himself. Was the urge to complete the mission overwhelming his ability to savor the experiences? To get back in a slower gear, he mindfully returned to what he’d really been doing all along: making small talk with as many employees at each club as he could. His go-to opening line: “What’s the one piece of advice you would give me for playing this course?” These interactions supplied the texture to make days memorable within the blur.
Of course, while James was making chit-chat with locker-room attendants, his wife kept things together at home and survived their teenage son learning to drive. “He traveled so much when he was working, that it didn’t feel that different, except the cadence of the golf trips was more random,” Erika says. Despite her husband grabbing a trip to Ireland and an additional 70 rounds along the way, he did make it back for a lot of important dad activities. For his 99th course, the couple walked together in their back yard at Kiawah, and his last course he could drive to, No. 25 Wade Hampton in North Carolina.
All this golf helped James’ handicap drop as low as 8.5, but toward the end his body broke down and he regressed to 9.4. Comparisons to Bobby Jones’ 1930 or Tiger Woods’ 2000 are troubled, but it was a pretty damn good year, and James deserves the microphone:
“I believe that there were four critical components needed to complete this quest—an understanding and supportive spouse, time, financial resources and connections. Save the understanding wife, I would have been hard-pressed to have the other three 100 years ago. One hundred years ago, my time would have been totally consumed with obtaining the basic requirements of food, shelter and clothing. Today so many more of us have much more time for leisure, more disposal income, and a much larger circle of friends and associates than we would have had. For all this current talk about tribalism, there is so much more that links us than separates us. Yes, I really do believe that ours is a world that is better today than it ever was. I also believe that in another hundred years, it will be even better… Our imaginations, our creativity, and our belief in things bigger than ourselves will make it so.”
One last observation from the golfer who’s seen it all? “Oh, yeah,” James says. “Without fail, a member at every golf course, except one, told me to tell the people at Golf Digest their course should be ranked higher than it is.”