BEND, Ore. - My arms feel rubbery. My head wants to spin off its axis. I'm purposely trying to slow my breathing, but it's not helping my pumping heart rate.
Nothing gets the juices flowing like the first tee of a golf tournament. You'd think I was teeing up The Masters. Well, yeah, I was. My Masters. I don't know how I managed to stripe one down the fairway.
I've been a recreational golfer my whole life, so signing up for the Linksoul 2Man at Pronghorn Resort in September veered a bit out of my comfort zone. Despite the jitters, bad shots and overall mediocre performance - all of which should be expected attempting tournament golf for the first time - I had an utter blast. There's something addicting about the adrenaline rush of playing for a little more pride and cash than you're used to handling.
Thankfully, Linksoul, the golf clothing and lifestyle brand founded by John Ashworth and Geoff Cunningham in Oceanside, Calif., brings its low-key, SoCal vibe to every LS2Man event it runs. These two-person, best-ball showdowns strike the right balance between competitive and fun golf. There's music on the range and often in the carts, while the drinks are flowing before, after and during the rounds.
Nobody likes to lose, but when everybody who beats you is friendly and chill, it feels more like a weekend round with buddies than a cutthroat match against strangers. At least that was the experience of my partner and me. We lost matches to a few golfers who we hope to play with again.
One of those pairs of our opponents met years ago when they were paired together randomly in an LS2Man event. Now they play in as many as they can. They brought their girlfriends and made a week of it. Another team consisted of a guy from Indianapolis and a guy from Pittsburgh who met as adults through family and have never lived in the same place but carve out time for this tournament on their schedule every year.
"Golf is for everyone," Ashworth says. "It's a place to connect with people. That's what Linksoul is all about and that’s what the 2Man is about. Get outside and have fun with your buddies. You try real hard. Stuff will go good and stuff will go bad. You want to be good, but it doesn’t really matter. It's just about being outside with the right people."
What is the Linksoul 2Man?
Ashworth and his brother, Hank, the tournament director, actually launched The LS2Man before Linksoul started as a company in 2009. Ashworth might not have realized it at the time, but in this day and age of social media, the success of the LS2Man has inspired a growing trend. Today, other brands and golf societies have started hosting their own events. All of them seek to build community and connection for their brands by putting on traveling tournaments at sweet courses where like-minded golfers gather to celebrate the game. All of Linksoul's 2022 domestic events - Santa Cruz in June, Grizzly Ranch in August, Pronghorn in September and Goat Hill Park in October - sold out, some within minutes of being announced.
“Hank really struggled to get a full field," John recalls about the event's early days. "Now, they sell out right away. There is definitely an appetite for this kind of thing. Hank does a great job of running them. He has a good team that makes sure everybody is happy. It is pretty much a well-oiled machine."
The tournament actually felt like a bargain considering what you get for $515 per person: a discounted practice round, 5 nine-hole matches between the private Fazio and public Nicklaus courses, two dinners, two lunches, a $200 Linksoul gift card and another Linksoul T-shirt and pullover as swag on day 1. Daily skins games (net and gross), a Calcutta and a post-event Derby add to the action.
What is it like playing in the Linksoul 2Man?
The Pronghorn LS2Man is the crown jewel of the Linksoul circuit. It's the only one to host a Calcutta, a fast-paced auction on opening night where golfers bet money on teams they think will win their flights. Some people bet big on themselves or their friends. Others just try to play the odds, hoping higher-handicapped strangers in each flight can ride the extra strokes to victory.
My partner, John, and I - fully expecting to finish last in the whole tournament - about fell over when someone bid hundreds of dollars on us to win the last flight. Our combined handicap of 25 (out of a max 32) must have looked appealing.
Bets were made on the 60 teams in 10 different flights, ensuring the flight winners would each come home with some nice cash prizes. At that point, I wasn't sure if I had signed up for a golf tournament with a gambling problem or met a bunch of professional gamblers with a golf problem.
Pronghorn, itself, couldn't be a better venue. The food was very good, and we wisely stayed at its new 104-room Huntington Lodge, which debuted in 2019. Although we missed out on the breweries of downtown Bend, having a heated outdoor pool and hot tub and steam room in the men's locker room were great relaxation spots for a nightly recharge after dinner.
Both courses were in immaculate condition and perfectly suited for match play. There's lots of trouble everywhere, whether it's bunkers, water (especially on the Fazio), rock outcroppings, desert scrub or wild greens. We ended day 1 with an 0-3 record, never mounting a serious run. At one point, we halved a hole where all four players made at least an 8. Yikes!
On day 2, things finally started to click. I sank a terrifying bunker shot for birdie to steal a hole. By the final round's end, we had our first 'W'. We felt even better when two teams in our flight that beat us advanced to the Derby. Another round of betting heightened the stakes for the Derby even more.
If you've never seen a Derby - also called a Horse Race - it's a spectacle of epic proportions. In this case, 14 teams - 10 flight winners and four wild-card teams that scored the most points - advanced to play the four-hole, alternate-shot shootout, while everyone else gathered around in carts to watch.
People were everywhere. At one point, I counted 22 golfers on the first green while someone putted out. Every hole, teams with the worst score drop out as others move on. On the third Derby hole, a chip-off determined which two teams advanced to the finals. It was great to see a pair of underdogs - the winners of the 7th flight - eventually prevail and become champions.
That night at the final banquet, golfer Scott Chastain, who crushed us in the first match, invited us to sit with him and his friends for dinner. It was the final reminder that the love of the game is bigger than who wins or who loses. As to be expected at tournaments that involve handicaps, there was some grumbling about bogus indexes. Fortunately, none of that overshadowed a great two days.
Maybe next time, with a little practice, fewer nervy swings and better luck, it will be my partner and me bringing home the cash prizes instead of those other guys. Only one Linksoul 2Man has been finalized for 2023, but check the website regularly for more announcements.
Many participants plan their golfing lives around the LS2Man schedule. "What I love is the camaraderie," Hank Ashworth says. "A lot of the guys show up year after year. They've formed a bond. They play golf together and invite people they meet back to their clubs. It's cool to see."