A former collegiate golfer’s unexpected career path has given his rounds even more meaning

June 30, 2019
Cole Kelly Jr.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of GOLF.

The day I was asked to write this “Why We Play” column, I dunked a 5-iron from 175 out — my second shot on a 425-yard par 4. The approach was uphill, so I didn’t see the ball go in, and because I was playing alone, no one else did either. Ironic, since the primary reason I play is the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of playing alongside.

I grew up on the golf course in the company of men. From an early age, I spent summers caddying at Purpoodock GC in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Listening to guys with names like Gramps, Trash Can, Young Tim, Psycho and Horror, you get an early lesson in language, storytelling and competitiveness. Watching my father play with and against these guys was a special treat. More than one of them was heard to say about my dad, “The Fat Lefty is really something.”

As my own game came into shape, I played alongside friends and rivals. My high school team was stacked with sticks — six of us wound up playing college golf, three of us won the Georgia High School Boys Class A title over a four-year span … and one of those winners was a girl. We laughed and played pranks on each other, competed and cajoled. We were always together, either on the course or at school. Funny that an individual game was so full of people.

College golf was, thankfully, more of the same. I walked on at the University of Virginia. I was never the best on our team, but I kept at it. One year, I was the only American-born player on the travel team. I still use the stein my teammates gave me to commemorate that accomplishment. We traveled all over the world playing together and laughing almost constantly.

At Virginia, I played with and against All-Americans. I now enjoy watching a number of them compete on Sundays. My biggest gallery was courtesy of Tiger Woods, who left a few spectators behind as he racked up birdies in the group ahead of me. I once shared funny words with Stewart Cink on the difference between being married and having a girlfriend. And one February, in Puerto Rico, I watched Justin Leonard beat balls into a 30 mph wind. He was the only golfer on the range.

My game never quite matched up to the big dogs (or the Big Cat), but I was good enough to play in a handful of USGA and R&A championships. My favorite moment was hearing my name announced on the first tee of the Amateur Championship at Royal County Down. Dad on the bag. Tears in both of our eyes.

At Camp Weequahic, Kelly and his kids routinely work up a lather — with Barbasol.

As my friends dipped their toes into the pro game, I pursued a different path. I tried coaching but found there was more red tape and less golf than I wanted. A very fun fork in the road led me to my bride, Kate, whom I met while caddying for a friend in the 2000 USGA Junior Championship at Pumpkin Ridge.

Two years later, Kate and I decided to take the plunge and become camp directors. Instead of summers on the links, I spend them at Camp Weequahic, in Lakewood, Pennsylvania. We run a party for over 450 kids with the help of 220 college-aged staff members. We’ve been in the camp biz for 17 years, and it’s been a blast. While I dabble at teaching on the camp driving range, there’s no golf for me from the middle of May until early September. Yes, I miss the game during the summers — prime time for Tour events and buddy trips, for lush greens and late nines after work. But like golf, camp for me is all about the people and the stories we create together. Rather than walking the fairways or sharing a post-round beverage with a bunch of friends, I’m playing shaving-cream Wiffle ball with a bunch of 10-year-olds, talking worried moms off the ledge, and employing rank meteorology to figure out what the weather is going to do.

Surprisingly, golf prepared me for camp in a number of ways. The game demands consistency, constant analysis of what works and what doesn’t, and thoughtful consideration of changes you need to make in order to improve. Alongside a team of people with whom I love to work, we get it done really well and have a blast along the way. Even more, we get to impact the lives of a bunch of young people in very positive ways. The career path certainly wasn’t expected, but it has been a blessing.

My rounds now, while a great deal fewer than in the past, are, for that reason, more important to me. I play now for the challenge, and to spend time with friends and family that I rarely get to see. Whether playing with buddies on my home course in Athens, Georgia, with camp-director pals on great tracks around New York City and Baltimore, or alongside my father and brother on the Georgia coast, I tee it up — as always — to share the experience with people, and with the intent of making new and life-affirming stories.

P.S.: I really did make that eagle.

Former collegiate golfer Cole Kelly, Jr., is the director of Camp Weequahic in Lakewood, Penn., and the host of the “Campfire Conversation” podcast.