I wore flip flops and a t-shirt to play in a tournament with scratch golfers | Golf equipment: clubs, balls, bags

As we circled around on the second lap of the Linksoul LS2MAN, I was starting to lose feeling in my feet. My favorite pair of golf shoes decided to betray me and I had left my spare pair at the hotel. That’s when I did something I never thought I would do, I pulled out my flip flops and ditched my golf shoes before my tee shot. I started hitting the ball very far left, almost approaching a nearby fairway. It wasn’t my best shot, but at least my feet would regain some feeling as I headed for my ball.

A few years ago, I would have felt humiliated and sworn not to play golf in public again until I fixed my hook. Instead, I took a sip of beer, patted the Golden Lab pup that accompanied our group, and cheered as my playing partners carefully landed their tee shots into the correct fairway.

As a lifelong below average golfer, I have always focused on the fun of the game rather than the competitive side of things. I limited my tournament experience to scrambles or drink-focused events because I was never confident enough in my skills and didn’t want to embarrass myself or draw attention to the fact that I’m a Golf Digest editor who fears golf. Shamefully, I admit I’ve found some poor excuses not to play guest members or company outings with people in the industry for this exact reason. Even the two annual office tournaments I usually play would give me anxiety for weeks.

When Linksoul asked me if I wanted to play in the LS2Man tournament, call it temporary insanity to be locked down during the pandemic, but for some reason I agreed to go.

Perhaps it was because the tournament was held at Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, California. I had been there before and it had a laid back atmosphere that could put any golfer’s nerves at bay. A few miles from Linksoul headquarters, brand co-founder John Ashworth saved the public course nestled in the hills from demolition a few years ago. It has since become an anchor in the community and a must-visit destination for discerning golfers.

A lifelong golf apparel mogul, Ashworth was never afraid to take on a project to support the game. He is credited by many for reinventing the golf shirt in the late 1980s after launching the Ashworth Golf clothing brand. Ashworth’s goal was to create fashionable golf apparel with high quality cotton, soft collars and sleek cuts that didn’t look like a golf uniform. He has always believed that golf apparel should be transitional and has the power to positively transform people’s image of golf.

“The greatest quality of golf, in my opinion, is its ability to connect souls.” Ashworth explained Linksoul’s name. “Where else in the world can four complete strangers meet on the first tee and go through the ups and downs of a lap and come out the other end as friends for life?”
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Ashworth and his brother, Hank, started the LS2Man tournament around the same time Linksoul launched in 2009. Four of the five events are held on the West Coast each year. The fifth changes location every year, visiting places like Whistling Straits, Turning Stone in upstate New York and this year heading to Ireland for Linksoul’s first international event.

Each tournament has a different format: best ball, stroke play or match play. The tournament I entered is traditionally the last event of the LS2Man season and is a 36-hole tournament with best ball on day one and a shambles on day two. It comes with an elimination-style derby after the first round, a high-stakes game of skins, and the banning of metal woods with players being encouraged to break out khakis instead.

I was one of two women to enter the tournament, which gave me little opportunity to hide or blend in. This anxiety prompted me to wear one of the few collared golf shirts I own, which was also part of the limited women’s selection offered by Linksoul. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, I painfully realized that I was one of the few players wearing a collar and probably the only one with my shirt tucked in. As I laced up the golf shoes I later had, I regretted packing, my nerves and feeling of not belonging returned.
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Moments later, I was immediately put at ease by a woman in a denim jumpsuit at the registration desk. She greeted me like I was an old friend and after introducing herself as Hank’s daughter I felt like I was at an Ashworth family picnic which happened to be a golf tournament .

The stand was full, but it didn’t take more than a minute for several players to offer to share their place with me to warm up. I heard some friendly trash talking on the other end of the range which ended up being Fire Pit Collective founder Matt Ginella dusting off a khaki which resulted in a worm burner in the slanted range. He laughed it off and challenged his viewers to do better.

There was certainly a party vibe akin to a summer barbecue, but don’t let the music, the beer or the dogs fool you, these players came to win. The maximum handicap is 14, but the average at Goat Hill was just under 5. (Sitting comfortably above a handicap of 14, I was given an exception in the name of journalism.)

For the first round I was paired with Ginella and John Ashworth – a handicap of 5 and 4 respectively. Ginella strolled up to the first 1990s rap tee wearing a Linksoul t-shirt, knee high socks and a flat brim. We found John fixing tee markers on the front tees. Also wearing a Linksoul t-shirt, he greeted us like family, making sure we had a proper, unhurried introduction before heading out on the course.

Both would finish third in the tournament, but their carefree attitude made it look like we weren’t even keeping score. They applauded my good moves and passed no judgment on my less good moves. I kept my score diligently even though I knew I had no chance of placing, but my playing partners acted like I was in contention every time. My much lower skill level has not diminished their respect for me as a golfer. It was revealing. I felt more comfortable and confident playing in a tournament with very well known and respected golf personalities than at most private courses I have visited. Maybe it was the casual dress code or the combination of Ginella’s energetic personality with John’s unassuming attitude, but I kept thinking to myself “Wow this is what golf should be like all the time.”

Although I was far from being in contention, I left the course delighted to return for the second round. Comfortable enough to ditch the collared shirt I initially wore trying to create the image of a more “serious” golfer to compensate for my lack of skill, I decided to wear the most comfortable shirt I packed . The next day, I returned to the course with confidence wearing a short-sleeved blue racing t-shirt that I had planned to wear on the plane home. This outfit was just as accepted as my collared version the day before, although several players also seemed to gain the confidence to dress a little more comfortably after day one.

If there were any thoughts that playing with two of the nicest people in the golf industry – one being the head of the company running the tournament – might have created a facade that was not authentic to the rest of the field, my second-round playing partners proved that the atmosphere of fun and acceptance was universal. I was paired with the only other woman to play in the tournament and her boyfriend. Both were locals who were part of the Linksoul community. They were equally friendly and supportive of me and my below average golf game. They brought their pup for the ride who had better on-course etiquette than most golfers I know. When I finally had enough of my golf shoes and swapped flip flops, my playing partners didn’t flinch at all. When I brought it up to try to spare myself any impending embarrassment, they brushed it off with a “I love playing barefoot, it feels so good.” I was once again put at ease by the relaxed lifestyle of these golfers and inspired by the idea that tournament play could in fact be so relaxed and without pretention.

Since then, I try to bring that comforting atmosphere to the games I play, especially with my friends who are new to the game. I encourage them to wear what makes them comfortable, not to get discouraged to play with better golfers and to remember that they deserve to be on the course as much as anyone else. We play non-judgmental, focus on fun and celebrate the good shots like they just won us the tournament, because competitive golf is what you make it.

If collared shirts, sit-down banquet hall dinners, and shoes are your style for tournament play, that’s fine, but golf needs more options for all types. I have never felt so comfortable and welcome at a golf event while talking about the average handicap of the course. Events like these are good for golf. Competitive golf tournaments don’t have to look or feel like a professional event. You can have the fun atmosphere of a 4th of July jamming with the competitive advantage of a club championship.

Participating in this event helped me gain confidence in my game and changed my view of what tournament golf is (and can be). We all want to play well, have fun, and enjoy healthy competition, no matter how many swings or emergency shoe changes it takes to complete the round.

Elizabeth J. Harless