These Skateboarders Are Passionate Golfers

These Skateboarders Are Passionate Golfers

If Chi Chi Rodriguez’s first round of golf was an act of trespassing, Tim Gavin’s was that and more. Gavin’s first round was an act of transgression, fueled by booze, marred by misdemeanors, notable only for its disregard for the Rules of Golf and basic human decency. But that was years ago, before Gavin gained respect for the royal and ancient game — before he understood that golf carts were not made for driving through bunkers, and that the cups that hold flagsticks were not designed to double as ashtrays or, worse, port-o-potties.

So much has changed.

Gavin is 30 now, less crass and quite contrite. He regrets his youthful rambles, asks forgiveness, swears he has reformed. And it’s hard to doubt him as he strides through the pro shop at Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, California, a model of comportment in a collared shirt and slacks that cover many if not most of his tattoos.

“Titleists? Cool,” he says, inspecting the merchandise at the counter. “I usually use range balls on the dog tracks I play.”

Today is special. It’s a weekend morning on a well-groomed course, and Gavin has arranged a round with three of his comrades and colleagues, young men like himself who have obeyed the dress code but still stand out like a tour pro in a tank top. He meets them by the putting green: Lee Dupont, 28, a strapping lug who once punched out another golfer but now eschews on-course violence; Adrian Lopez, a quiet 24-year-old who looks like he just emerged from a mosh pit; and Eric Koston, 29, wearing a Burberry golf shirt and a gold Rolex, and regarded by some as the greatest practitioner of their first sport, professional skateboarding.

“Check this out,” says Gavin. He pulls out his putter, a Titleist Scotty Cameron Coronado, a present from a friend, sort of. “We were on the 16th hole and this buddy of mine was so hammered, he starts giving clubs away,” Gavin says. “Next time I see him he goes, ‘Dude, where’d you get that Cameron?’ I should play with him more often.”

There was a time when golf and skateboarding stood at polar ends of the sports spectrum — one played by establishment types on exclusive grounds in accordance with musty rules of etiquette, the other pursued by outcasts on abandoned lots in accordance with the rule that there were no rules. One was order, the other anarchy. Golfers had houses, jobs and good manners. Skaters had piercings and serious issues with authority.

“I basically grew up in the ghetto,” says Lopez. “To me, golf was only for the rich. It looked boring and elitist, not like something I’d ever do.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the X Games. Golf grew more democratic — call it the Tiger Woods effect — and skateboarding just plain grew up. By the mid-1990s, corporate sponsors, ever eager for youth-market bonanzas, had seized upon skateboarding. ESPN began airing and even creating events. The sport has blossomed into a $2 billion industry of big-name stars, signature clothing lines and hefty prize money.

Gavin and his cohorts represent the sport’s hard-core contingent, the urban street skaters, who ride over benches, slide down railings and hurtle over the hoods of cars. They are not to be confused with the elbow-padded suburbanites who ride in skate parks on smooth-surfaced ramps and bowls. In style and temperament, street skaters are to park skaters what John Daly is to Davis Love III.

When their sport exploded, star skateboarders of all stripes blasted into a new tax bracket. The same snotty kids who once had scraped together change to buy Slurpees were suddenly earning in the high six-figures. They had cash flow. They had free time. And before you knew it, they had golf clubs in their hands.

“A few skateboarders were playing golf in the ’80s, but these days it’s really caught on,” says Skin Phillips, editor-in-chief of Transworld Skateboarding. “There’s no sense of taboo about it. A lot of skaters now see golf as a great way to spend downtime, not as a stuffy sport.”

And so it is that a guy like Eric Koston, a Southern California street urchin who has said his least favorite feeling is “paying taxes” can admit in the same interview that his favorite sound is a “solid shot with my driver.”

It’s not a sound he hears often. Koston took up the game four years ago and now plays about once a week, just enough to have grooved a stubborn slice. On the first hole at Oak Creek, his tee shot ramps right into the treeline. Koston shakes his head; his Rolex glistens, as $24,000 watches tend to do. He bought it with prize money from a first-place finish in an NBC-televised event called the Gravity Games, where his daring heel-flip nose-slides down metal railings were, by all accounts, the pinnacle of gnarly. Koston likes nice things. He has a house in the Hollywood Hills. He wears a Burberry golf glove to match his shirt.

“Well,” says Lopez, “at least he looks good.”

The teams are set. It’s Lopez and Dupont, both San Diego skaters, against Angelenos Koston and Gavin. The stakes: “a night out,” Gavin’s innocuous term for an evening of club-hopping that generally ends at sunrise. No one wants to lose to Gavin, whose average bar tab would cover a round at Pebble Beach. His most prized possession is an itemized receipt from a night of Stoli consumption with friends old and new that ran him $1,400. The receipt is 14 feet long.

“I don’t like to drink alone,” he says with a sly grin.

Gavin’s first shot today, a block to the right, is sobering. His self-taught swing, like Koston’s, is unpolished but athletic — no surprise, really. Skateboarding demands balance and dexterity; the best boarders are blessed with freakish coordination, a trait as vital as courage (or craziness) when you’re flying full-speed down a handrail or soaring over a flight of stairs.

The sports interlock in more unexpected ways. For all their freewheeling radicalizing, skaters speak earnestly about the importance of good fundamentals — where to plant their feet, how much to flex their knees, how to hold their arms as they approach a jump. “A lot of that stuff is now second nature,” Koston says. “But on a bad day I start looking at some of the basic things I’m doing. Also, in skateboarding, if you’re tense or tentative, you’re dead. And golf’s the same.”

Peel away the scabs and skate rats are a lot like range rats. Both are slaves to their sports. Top skaters study video of themselves in action and describe training regimens that might daunt any Tour pro. Even on casual outings, the skaters put their equipment through such rigors that after two or three days’ use, their boards break.

Like Vijay Singh, skaters practice with single-minded repetition, working from dawn to dusk to master a move. The secret, you might say, is in the asphalt. For every great golfer beating balls until his hands blister, there’s a skater with skinned knees hauling his board and bruises and bloody bandages back up the stairwell for another run.

Adrian Lopez is proud to be a grinder, a man who rises with the sun to hone his skills. He takes the same approach to his second-favorite sport, which he’s been playing for two years. Even standing on his board, Lopez is no taller than Jeff Sluman, but he bombs his drives and shoots in the mid-80s. He’s never had a formal lesson; he learned the basics by reading Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.

“I want to take a lesson but I hear they screw you up for a while,” Lopez says. “I’m waiting until I can put in the time to make them worthwhile.”

What he won’t contemplate is trying to buy a game with the latest and greatest equipment, and his friends won’t either. None can abide the popular lust for stroke-saving technology. Told that an offset driver might reduce his slice, Koston snaps, “How about I just learn how to swing instead?”

Says Gavin, “In skateboarding, the feeling is that either you can do it or you can’t. It’s not a sport that’s receptive to gimmicks.”

Of the four skaters, Lee Dupont has the purest fundamentals, and the swing of a single-digit handicapper — which he would be if not for his short game. A self-described “trailer-park kid” from San Diego, he sometimes hit balls with a second-hand club in a local schoolyard. And his friends Mike and Pat Perez, two brothers from the right side of the tracks whose parents were members of a nearby country club, sometimes took him out as a guest. (Pat now plays on the PGA Tour, Mike on the Nationwide Tour.) But “golf was expensive and snobby — you needed to be dressed up, you needed a tee time,” Dupont says. “Why do that when I could ride my skateboard all day for free?”

Dupont and Lopez start fast today. The San Diego pair stands 4-up after just six holes, never mind that Gavin has been chatting freely during their swings. Though more accepting than he once was, Gavin still has problems with golf-course politesse.

“Some of the stuff is pretty hilarious,” Gavin says. “When I started I thought it was especially hilarious that you could party while you played.” He treated golf like a kegger on wheels, replete with Animal House-style stunts. He’d bring his own beer, and lots of it. He’d run his cart across the green and into bunkers.

“Shameful,” he says. “I don’t even like to talk about that now.”

Gavin and Koston play mostly on downscale Los Angeles munis — he wasn’t kidding about the range balls — but both admit to a growing appreciation for high-end courses like Oak Creek. They’ll shell out for the greens fees, and even don collared shirts if that’s what it takes.

Like their sport, they’ve proven receptive to change. When Gavin and friends were starting out, skateboarders depended on guerrilla tactics, using bolt cutters to bust into fenced-off schoolyards, getting chased away by shopping-mall security guards. And many still do. But life is more luxurious for today’s pros. Sponsors provide private practice centers: warehouses equipped with stairs and rails and other ornaments of the urban landscape — country clubs of sorts for athletes with tattoo sleeves and tackle-box faces.

Given the sport’s punk roots, there remains a fine line between succeeding and selling out. Skaters, like surfers, speak of upholding the purity of their sport: “not slutting it.” They view corporate sponsors with suspicion, even as a growing number of pros embrace them. Skateboarding superstar Tony Hawk, whose talent and business savvy almost single-handedly brought the sport to the mass market, is often slammed by skaters for “not keeping it real.”

“Skateboarding is rugged, and there’s definitely the attitude that you shouldn’t get too yuppie,” Gavin says. “I can understand that. But look how much a guy like Tony Hawk has done for our sport. I can’t say anything bad about him.”

Neither can Koston, who at the 2002 Gravity Games in Cleveland wore a message on his hat that read, “Rent this space.” But Koston is a rarity in skating, a man who’s made millions without losing his street cred. He can have it both ways, other skaters say, because of his fearless skating style. Koston is known for never playing it safe — busting out untested moves in competition. He is skating’s Tin Cup.

“Somebody once told me,” says Koston, “that I still skate like I’m broke.”

He isn’t, of course, nor are Lopez, Dupont and Gavin. Some have fat deals with equipment makers and clothing lines; some have their hands in other skate-related enterprises. One of Koston’s sponsors is the bagmaker Ogio, which has been the company most successful at transferring youth culture into golf culture. Ogio also knows a thing or two about how star athletes like to be treated: “I woke up New Year’s morning,” Koston says with a shrug, “and a new set of Hogans were just sitting in this bag on my porch.”

By the 12th hole at Oak Creek, those Hogan Apex irons are treating Koston well. His slice has morphed into a big but reliable fade, and he strings together three straight pars. His partner, Gavin, has also come around, though not in his adherence to the cart-path-only rule. On 16, a cart girl catches him en flagrante.

“Sir,” she calls out, “you need to stay off the fairway with that.”

“You’re the marshal?” Gavin shoots back, pleased to play the wise-ass even as he returns the cart to the path.

By this time, the cart girl has forgotten him. She’s recognized his partner.

“Oh my God, Eric Koston!” she says. “Can you sign an autograph?”

Koston obliges. He gets a lot of that from young golf course employees — the girls in the snack shop, the guys collecting buckets at the range. It’s the older generation that sometimes looks at him funny.

The others in his foursome know the feeling. Lopez says his tattoos have drawn so many disapproving glances in pro shops that he’s started ranking courses by degree of snootiness on a scale of one (nose in the air) to 10 (chill, dude). The tony Four Seasons Resort Aviara, of all places, gets Lopez’s highest rating for its friendly acceptance of his less-than-corporate look.

“It can be frustrating,” Dupont says. “A marshal might yell at you to tuck in your shirt, and you know if you were some 45-year-old salesman he wouldn’t say a thing.”

His darkest golf moment came a few years ago on a run-down San Diego muni. It wasn’t a marshal but a guy in the group behind who screamed at him to pick up the pace. Dupont, who denies any slow play, told the man where to stick his 4-iron.

“Next thing I know, he rushes up and starts choking me,” Dupont says. “So I had to bust up his nose a little bit.”

On the 18th hole, a long par 4, the once lopsided match has swung toward equilibrium, and Gavin needs only a bogey to pull his team all-square. He does it with a chunked iron, a chip and a long putt. The match ends even. No one will be footing any bar bills tonight.

It’s just as well. Dupont is married to his high school sweetheart, a chef who “accepts and understands” his skateboarding lifestyle. He should be getting home. Lopez wants to get up early to skate.

They return their carts while Koston wanders through the pro shop, eyeing a pair of gator-skin FootJoys.

“Sweet,” he says. “I’m going to have to get someone to send me a pair of those.” And he will, too. He’s a star.

In the meantime, Lopez has fetched a skateboard from his car and is cruising around the clubhouse, push-kicking his way along the cart path. His moves have a natural grace and balance, like Ernie Els on the golf course, like a man born to ride a board.

He surveys the path leading to the pro shop, with its short flight of stairs and its metal handrail, and considers putting on a show. He could start at the door, gather speed, leap up on the railing and slide down standing, the bottom of his board scraping against the rail. It’s a move known as a grind, the bane of storeowners and public officials everywhere.

But Lopez decides not to try. It would ruin the railing.

“I could do it,” he says, and no doubt he could, “but I’d like to be able to get back out here again.”

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