LINKS LETTER, 2006 ANNUAL EDITION

IF GOLFERS SENT POSTCARDS

By Dave Childers

As Gary Bullock stood on Ellis Island, eyes fixated on the massive Statue of Liberty, suddenly the entirety of his mission came crashing down upon him.

“I thought about all of the immigrants who landed there, about how lucky we are to live in a country where we have the freedom to pursue something like what I did. I just thought about freedom,” said Bullock.

His is a story that didn’t really need a grandiose culminating chapter. It starts with the humblest of beginnings—Bullock grew up on a farm in southern Alabama on a dirt road in a home that was “unpainted, with no running water or electricity.”

Imagine the irony many years later when the Louisiana State University graduate became a CEO—of an electric company, no less. And it was his leadership of Carroll EMC in Carrollton, Georgia, and his involvement on many different boards and organizations, that eventually led to him establishing a rather unique goal in 1995.

“I was reading a magazine article called ‘Tee Times’ on a flight to Portland, Oregon,” Bullock recalls. “And this fellow next to me recommended a course in Portland. It dawned on me that I had already played golf in a lot of different states, so I decided right there to try and play golf in all 50 states.”

Inspired by the camaraderie of the game, Bullock—a lifelong Southern Baptist—decided that he would try and add something even more special to his newly established goal.

“I came across a book called In His Grip,” says Bullock. “Then I came across another book by the same author called Playing the Game. I carried those two books with me everywhere I went and used them as devotionals on all of my trips. I didn’t recognize it as a calling, but maybe it was.”

The books—by Wally Armstrong and Jim Sheard—seemed to reinforce a lot of what Bullock already felt about a Christian’s role on the golf course.

“The golf course, like life, is a place where we need to be a blessing—not a burden—to those around us,” Bullock says. “How we play the game is a witness in itself.”

Technically, since Bullock allowed himself retroactive credit, the goal started back in the 1960s, just as he was beginning to take up the sport. He had already done his share of traveling between college and a stint in the United States Army.

“Obviously, doing this gave me an opportunity just to see all 50 states,” says Bullock. “But I wanted to have more of a reason, more of a purpose.”

Sometimes that purpose seemed all too obvious to ignore. Like the time—at Stratton Mountain in Vermont—when he stopped in the clubhouse to catch a quick meal. He was in the midst of his most ambitious swing—six states in just five days—and didn’t have a lot of time to spare. There was only one seat available, next to a man who didn’t exactly look like the course’s welcoming committee.

When Bullock asked about the seat, the man didn’t even look up or say a word. He merely pointed and Bullock took a seat. While most would have sensed discomfort, Bullock sensed something altogether different—opportunity.

“We need to make good on our influence and be good witnesses wherever we go,” Bullock says.

By the time that lunch was over Bullock and the “unknown stranger” had discussed topics ranging from work to retirement to the power of positive thinking—and, of course, some religion as well. It turned out that the stranger was a retired attorney from New York who had attended the church of famed protestant Norman Vincent Peale, but had since become disenfranchised.

“I saw that conversation as a metaphor of golf and life,” Bullock explains. “In golf we are taught to swing inside out, and when we deal with people it is also from the inside out. Golf and life are both an affair of the heart.”

With all of the talking there was only one thing that they didn’t seem to cover—the stranger’s name—which is something Bullock says he regrets to this day. But it didn’t stop him from saying a prayer for the man as he continued on his golfing journey.

“I just prayed that the Holy Spirit would take it from there and touch him,” says Bullock.

Some of the pivotal moments in Bullock’s exodus happened much closer to home, like the time he agreed to take part in the 2003 Georgia Blind Open at his home course—Oak Mountain Championship Golf Club—in Carrollton.

Bullock’s threesome was joined for nine holes by blind golfer Jan Dinsdale, who would set a Guinness World Record 18 months later by scoring a hole-in-one at the Canadian Open in Westbank, British Columbia. Bullock at first marveled at the way Dinsdale’s caddy enabled her to play the game without sight, but later he found even more wonderment in her story.

“She wasn’t born blind, she lost her sight later in life,” Bullock explains. “She said she was real outgoing until she went blind, then she became an introvert. We all had tears in our eyes when she said, ‘Golf gave me my life back.’ ”

Like so many times before, Bullock saw the connection between his experience and the teachings that he was trying to share with those he played golf with.

“It reminded me of how, as sinners, we are all blind until we are saved by God’s grace,” Bullock recalls. “God gives us our life back. (Jan) was headed down this road of destruction until she found an avenue to get her life back.”

Over the course of 100,000 air miles and another 10,000 land miles, Bullock also often found himself on the receiving end of hospitality.

In New Hampshire when he returned to his room at a local bed and breakfast, the owner asked him if he had lost any golf balls. Bullock mentioned that he had lost one Nike ball and the owner escorted him to a room full of golf balls arranged by brand and model. No guest of his, he insisted, would ever leave with fewer golf balls than when they had arrived.

Other stories immediately come to mind as well: The man he met on the driving range in Connecticut who invited him to join his group for the day. The starter in Maine who moved his tee time up to ensure he could get 18 holes. The three “delightful gentlemen” in Massachusetts—they played together, then shared soft drinks with in the clubhouse.

With the probable exception of New York, no trip involved the emotional highs and lows of his 48th state—Delaware. Inclement weather all day threatened to shut down the original course he was scheduled to play, and there was absolutely no leeway in his travel schedule.

He waited until 2 pm. Still no decision on the status of the course. But knowing about his goal and his schedule, the course made a phone call to DuPont Country Club and head professional Lori Van Sickle made arrangements for Bullock to play on the private course.

His bad luck had turned to good fortune, but soon that too faded as he struggled at DuPont. He would finish with a score of 101—one of the worst in his entire journey. But, in keeping with the emotional rollercoaster of the day, it also marked a pretty significant event—the first hole-in-one of his golfing career.

“In Wally’s book it says ‘learn to recognize your good luck and offset it against the bad,’ ” said Bullock. “It was definitely ironic.”

That trip preceded the end of Bullock’s journey by just one week. On September 29, 2003, he and some friends from Georgia ventured to New York for the final chapter. The group had tickets to see Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway that night, and Bullock and one of the men used the day to visit New York City. The next day they played Patriot Hills in Stony Point, New York—about 40 miles north of Ellis Island, the spot of Bullock’s emotional epiphany.

“It was bittersweet, really,” remembers Bullock. “And I didn’t expect it all to be that emotional. It felt great to complete my journey, but it was also a letdown to know that it was all over. It actually worked out well. I’m glad I had New York as my last state.”

After teeing off at a 45-degree angle to the fairway to overcome 40-mph sandstorms in New Mexico, after working his way out of coal—not sand—bunkers in North Dakota, after leaving his money in a basket in Arkansas at a course that operated on the honor system, after celebrating his 50th birthday with his wife and family golfing on Oahu—it really was all over.

“I set a goal, I established it, and I had a great time along the way,” says Bullock. “I met some great people and saw some beautiful scenery. There were no bad experiences, just some bad scores along the way.”

Now having finished his ambitious goal with plenty of retirement to spare, Bullock has already begun to cast his attention toward prospective sequels. In fact, he recently procured a map of Georgia that shows every single golf course in his home state.

“I was looking at it when my wife walked in,” says Bullock. “She asked me what it was and I told her. She asked how many courses were on it, and I said, ‘320.’”

Kay, never missing an opportunity to be supportive, did have a minor concern.

“She said that she was afraid it might conflict with her goal,” Bullock says. “I asked her what that was.

“She said, ‘To stay married to you.’ ”

COPYRIGHT 2006 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Gary Bullock

    Gary Bullock, a CEO from Georgia, set out to play golf in all 50 states. His travels were sustained by encouragement from Scripture.