I was driving home from Augusta, and the old wagon seemed to point herself to a quiet course off I-95 in rural North Carolina. The Chockoyotte Country Club was built by textile wealth that fled Halifax County a long time ago. The range balls were tired, the green fee was $20, and the course was simple and pleasant, with a front nine by Donald Ross. On my way out, I spotted a short, slender kid on the range, a left-hander with a powerful, rhythmic swing. I asked the club's manager, Sue Smith, about him, and she showed me a plaque on the wall of the snack bar/pro shop. The kid's name was Jackson Collier, and a half-year earlier he had tied the course record with a 61.
"Where does he play?" I asked.
"Here," Miss Smith said.
"I mean, at what school?"
I took him for a young college player revisiting his boyhood patch, something like that. "Oh, no," Miss Smith said. "Jackson's not much interested in school. He's not much interested in golf tournaments. He just likes to play."
This was in April 2012, right after another down-home southpaw golfer, Bubba Watson, had won the Masters. Golf punched Bubba's ticket to the University of Georgia, to the Tour, to private jets and endorsement deals and agents and nutritionists. A big, busy, complicated life. Getting there takes immense ambition, but that's where everybody wants to be, right? I mean, what would you do if you could shoot 61? Or if your daughter could?
The kid got lodged in my head. In 1991, after Ian Woosman won the Masters, an assignment took me to Oswestry, the market town in Wales where Woosnam had grown up. Ian's father told me about a boy from a nearby farm whom Ian, as a junior golfer, could not beat. The boy was a natural, but golf beyond his county did not lure him. I wondered if this Jackson Collier was cut from the same cloth, unmoved by "the next level" and all that it brings.
The other day I caught up with Sue Smith. She told me she had helped Jackson land a job with another golfer who found the game at Chockoyotte, Paul Dickens, now the head pro at TPC Wakefield Plantation, in Raleigh.
Dickens played college golf in the 1990s at Clemson and North Carolina State. He knows Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson and other Tour players. He remembered Jackson as a boy. "Golf came easily to him," Dickens told me. "I don't think he ever had a lesson. Hundred thirty pounds dripping wet, and he could hit it 300 yards. Great hands, great imagination."
He pointed me to Jackson, who effortlessly recounted his 61. "I could see what the ball was going to do before I played on every shot," he said. He had turned 19 a week before posting that round of 11 under, a high school graduate with no particular path, working at Chockoyotte and playing it daily. Every time out, he tried to shoot the course record. That day he did, tying it with old Mr. Barnes.
Now he's 21. He's running carts at Wakefield and taking courses at a community college, Wake Tech. He's on its golf team. He sneaks on to the Wakefield range during lulls. Sometimes he'll see Pettersson there.
Jackson didn't have access to a big junior golf program, and maybe he's better off for it. His grandfather, who brought Jackson to golf, played the game and lived it practically to the day he died. That's the legacy Jackson inherited.
I asked Jackson, "Do you think golf means any more to Bubba than it does to you?"
He uses "sir" as a matter of course, and he's unusually polite and well-spoken. His conversation is often expansive. But to this question his answer was quick and terse: "No way."
What an interesting response. These guys who march into our living rooms, they're good at golf. What the game actually means to them is harder to say. For Jackson, we can make a good guess.
"Bubba Watson is a PGA Tour superstar, but that's his life," Jackson said. "I've got my own. I get just as much enjoyment playing golf with my friends."
He doesn't know where golf will take him, and he's not worried about it, either. He's not that boy on the farm in Wales. Golf beyond the borders of North Carolina interests him. But I have never heard a good player express his golf goals like this Jackson Collier does. "I try to shoot the course record every time I play," he told me. He's got one, anyway.
"I think he's happy," Paul Dickens said. He described Wakefield on Tuesday afternoons, when the course is open to Jackson and the rest of his staff, and it's a birdiefest. "I think he's been happy from the day he's had a club in his hands."