Chris Erwin’s Long and Winding Road
Despite numerous setbacks, a U.S. Army vet continues to chase his golf dreams, buoyed by faith and family
By Ryan French
Jenny Erwin talked almost nightly with her husband, Chris, as he served seven months in war-torn Syria. The eerie sound of gunshots in the background was commonplace, yet Jenny always looked forward to the calls. And then they stopped. Day after day went by and Jenny didn’t hear from her husband. What could have happened? She sat home with the couple’s three children and prayed, unable to sleep. Their daughter would lock herself in the bathroom with a picture of her dad and cry uncontrollably. Chris Erwin was as far from professional golf as a player could be.
Being a U.S. Army veteran is only part of his story. There was a sponsorship deal that was a big factor in his quitting the game, numerous personal tragedies, a friendship with a 14-time PGA Tour winner that renewed his love for golf, a check from an Air Force veteran who hadn’t seen him hit a single golf ball to get his career going again, and an amazing wife who has been the rock of the family (which would grow to four daughters). Erwin’s determination and drive to get to the PGA Tour has been so strong nothing can stop him. Or so it seemed.
I pull up to the Erwin home in a quiet neighborhood in Gallatin, Tenn., and am excitedly greeted by Gabby, 13, Paisley, 9, Finley, 4, and Emmy Sue, 2. Bogey, the family dog, jumps and barks near my leg. Jenny and Chris thank me for coming and welcome me into their lovely home. The walls are adorned with art, mostly themed around family. “Family together forever,” one reads. “Family, Love, and Laughter,” says another. In the first five minutes, I can sense how important the Erwins are to one another.
We sit down to talk and Paisley grabs my computer; I had asked her to take notes for me. We settle in to talk about the family’s journey.
Let’s start at the beginning. Chris Erwin was born in Nashville, Tenn., and moved to Florida when he was in the seventh grade. He liked golf, but it wasn’t his only sport. He wasn’t a top junior but that didn’t stop him from securing a spot on the Valdosta (Ga.) State golf team in 2001. Chris rarely left the range, and his golf game quickly went to the next level. At the 2003 U.S. Amateur, he shot 69-76 to qualify for match play at Oakmont. He would lose in the first round to J.J. Killeen, but the confidence he gained was immeasurable. He set his sights on turning pro, and in 2004 he embarked on his career.
Like many players who turn pro, Chris started by playing state opens and mini-tour events. In 2006 he played in what would turn out to be the most important event of his life. Jenny Cho was in the PGA of America-sponsored Professional Golf Management program at Vanderbilt Legends Club in Franklin. Chris met her through a friend and their first “date” was a putting contest. “I think I won,” Jenny says. The relationship accelerated quickly. Three months later, in June 2006 and with Jenny on the bag, Chris finished as the low pro in the Tennessee Open. He used his winnings to buy an engagement ring. They married in December.
Chris played mainly on the Hooters Tour, which at the time was the gold standard of developmental tours. The fields were filled with countless future Tour winners, including major champions. Erwin didn’t collect any wins, but he showed he belonged. In just his fourth start, he finished T6. During one stretch in 2009, he made nine of 10 cuts. He shot 59 at 2011 Cherry Blossom, making 13 birdies on the par-72 course. He surpassed $102,000 in career earnings on the Hooters Tour.
But when Q school rolled around, his game let him down. Only in 2010 did he come close to getting through to final stage, missing by two. With a wife and a growing family, Chris was short on money, so he turned to an investor, signing a contract without reading the fine print. It did help fund him in 2011, but the agreement required Chris to give a large percentage of his earnings to the investor for the next five years. “I learned I was screwed,” he says. “He didn’t have to give me another dime, and I still owed him for five years.”
Out of money in 2012, Chris went back to the investor, who gave him more money in exchange for adding another year to the contract. The same thing happened the following year. No longer able to support his family, Chris made the tough decision to quit pro golf.
He entered the PGM program and worked at Vanderbilt Legends club, but being around the game is tough when all you want to do is play. So when a member offered him a construction job six months later, he took it. But the six-day-a-week, 12-hour workdays got old quickly, and a lunch at Chick-Fil-A would change the direction of his and his family’s life.
Chris had never thought of the Armed Forces; his family doesn’t have any such history. But as he sat at the Chick-Fil-A and tried to figure out what to do with his life, he happened to look across the street at an Army recruiting office. At 32, he wondered if the Army was even an option. Two months later, on Nov. 17, 2015, he kissed his family goodbye as he left for basic training.
The first night I spend with the family, we head to a BBQ restaurant for dinner. (You know you are eating good BBQ when the sign on the door says, “Cash or Check Only.”) If you have kids, you know the chaos of loading everyone into a car, and this is no different. Jenny climbs in the back and asks, “Who left the Laffy Taffy back here that’s now melted to the seat?” The kids all laugh. Chris connects his phone to the sound system and plays “Amen” by King and Country, the family’s favorite Christian group, and the whole family starts singing. Even 22-month-old Emmy belts out the refrain: “Ahhhh-men, Ahhhh-men.” Chris hits repeat, and again everyone remains quiet … until the refrain. “Ahhhh-men, Ahhhh-men.”
With Chris off for basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Jenny held the family together as best she could. Chris was allowed 45 seconds for each phone call home. The family talked maybe a total of five minutes in his two months away. Jenny and the kids lived with her parents to save money. Chris had signed on for an airborne contract determined to overcome his fear of heights. Face your fears head-on was Chris’s motto, there was no better example. The first time he prepared to jump, fear gripped him. His choices were to jump or be pushed out of the plane, so he jumped. He completed the required jumps to become a member of the airborne division.
I roll up to the house the next morning and all the kids except Gabby greet me. The smell of bacon is in the air. Jenny explains that Gabby had experienced a panic attack the previous night. She eventually joins us, and Jenny hugs her as she walks by. Chris kisses her on the head. Once again, amid some very real-life struggles, family and love are at the forefront. Jenny, Chris, Finley, and I head out to Country Creek, the course owned by Kenny Perry, the 14-time PGA Tour winner, where Chris practices. As we get in the car, Jenny shares that when Chris was in Syria, Paisley would grab a picture of her dad, lock herself in the bathroom and cry uncontrollably. It got so bad Jenny would rush home from work after getting calls from her mother that Paisley wouldn’t come out. As is the case in every ride that week, the radio plays religious songs. I ask Jenny how she did it all when Chris was gone — Army wife, mom, nurse. “I had no choice,” she replies, “but I’ve never thought about it. I just did it.” As Chris and I ride around in a cart at Country Creek, he mentions that his story is nothing without Jenny. “She is the hero of all of this,” he says.
After training, Chris settled in at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. His primary job was reading intelligence. He would pass along his reports to his commander, and that information would be forwarded to the soldiers on the ground. As an older soldier, he was relied upon more than others, and he excelled at his job. Reading intelligence was his life for a good part of a year. Then came the call that he was being deployed to Syria. He went home to tell Jenny and the kids.
On Aug. 15, 2017, Jenny packed the kids into the car, and Chris climbed into the front seat. They were off to the airport, destination Syria. “I didn’t know what to say, we just talked like normal,” Chris says, “but it was anything but that.” The reality was Chris was headed to a country that was being pulled apart by civil war. There was no guarantee he would come home alive.
Chris boarded a C-17 for the flight to Germany. After a stopover in Kuwait, he touched down in a remote northern village in Syria. He stepped off the plane and onto a gravel runway. The heat took his breath away. The temperature pushed past 120 degrees, and the situation made it seem even hotter. Next came the long drive into northern Syria, where he would be stationed. ISIS controlled parts of Syria, including areas as close as 20 miles from the base where Chris was stationed. His unit’s job was to train Syrian soldiers on how to clear areas. Before ISIS forces exited regions, they would booby-trap houses. U.S. soldiers would meticulously and methodically disable the traps and clear the homes. The danger was driven home after a soldier from Chris’s company stepped on a tripwire and was severely injured. Chris was as far from pro golf as he could be.
The water supply was limited so he could only shower every four or five days. The other days he used baby wipes sent from Jenny to take what some soldiers call a “whore’s bath.” The food? In a word, horrible. The U.S. military paid locals to deliver groceries, which arrived from a market 40 miles away. Chris remembers opening eggs that were rotten inside. For Christmas dinner, the first spent away from his family, the locals brought a goat and a turkey, two animals that were very much alive. The soldiers slit the throat of the goat and chopped off the head of the turkey.
Care packages from home helped keep him mentally strong. Part of his job was to look as much like a local as possible, so he dressed accordingly and grew a beard. Jenny sent beard oil that he loved, and little gestures like that kept him going. The WiFi was spotty at best, but strongest from midnight to 6 a.m. Chris would stay up late and talk with Jenny and the kids for hours at a time. Then after a soldier was severely injured, the WiFi would be cut for an entire week. It is Army policy to limit communications back home so the family of the wounded doesn’t hear details second-hand.
Imagine being a soldier’s wife, a woman with three young girls, and your husband is based in war-torn Syria. And imagine that he can’t contact you. You look out the front door hoping that military personnel isn’t approaching to let you know that your husband is gone. One night turns into two, three, an entire week. Frantic calls to the base and other Army families produce no answers. Now imagine one of your daughters starts having panic attacks; she wants to know if her dad is OK. She locks herself in the bathroom, rocking and screaming hysterically, clutching a picture of her dad. She demands answers you don’t have. Imagine you are going through all of this as you are putting yourself through nursing school, trying to find a way to support your family.
Chris was right. Jenny Erwin is a hero.
On my second night, some neighbors join us for a bonfire. Craig, who lives down the street, had caddied for Chris in the local U.S. Open qualifier the previous month, and they got through. Craig jokingly takes credit. The kids make s’mores and we enjoy a few drinks. We talk about Jenny’s job as a nurse. Before her current position, she worked as a nurse in an all-male prison with 2,500 inmates. Jenny stands about 5 feet and weighs maybe 115 pounds. Her toughness and resilience, however, can’t be measured. The job was dangerous, but the money was too good to pass up. Then COVID-19 hit, and the prison ran out of the PPE needed for the nurses. There was almost no testing until an inmate became seriously ill, and after about 1,700 inmates tested positive, she had to leave the job.
When the WiFi was finally restored, Chris called home immediately. Tears of relief streamed down Jenny’s face. Her husband was alive.
After more than 200 days away, Chris’s deployment ended in February 2018. Jenny and the kids were at the airport to meet him, and long hugs ensued. I asked Chris what he missed most outside of his family; he said grass and color. The base in Syria was in the middle of the desert. Upon returning home, he walked outside barefoot just to feel the grass.
The remainder of Chris’s service was spent back in the office reading intelligence. Early in his military career, he had almost no time to play golf; the few times he would go to the range he wore his combat boots. And during his seven months in Syria, the only swing he made was with a driver struck into the desert. Now back home, he started to play a lot more golf, and he was named to the Armed Forces team. He played select events. The Armed Forces group even traveled to Germany for an event against other military teams. Each country’s military team squared off against other. Chris and Team USA finished second.
Chris also started to think about life after the military. He didn’t believe for one second that pro golf would be a part of his life again; in fact, he had regained his amateur status. Throughout his time in the Army, Chris worked to complete his college degree in criminal justice. When he returned from Syria, he finished the last of his classes. He would leave the Army with a college degree.
On July 11, 2019, Chris Erwin completed his active Army career. Civilian life was to follow, but the transition wouldn’t be easy.
A sign hangs on a wall by Erwins’ back door that reads, “Having a place to go is home, having someone to love is family, having both is a blessing.” Jenny follows me outside and she shares that she recently lost her father and that Chris’s sister died in a tragic car accident in 2019. The Erwin family always seems to be encountering a challenge, but the words on that sign hold them together.
The following day Chris and I go for a drive. Finley tags along. “I want to share something about Jenny’s dad,” Chris says to me. Her father had battled depression. When he went missing last January, the family searched for him. Chris found his father-in-law in his car at a park. He had shot himself. The silence hangs over us.
On the drive back to the house, Finley sticks her head out of the sunroof and laughs hysterically; it breaks the uneasiness. Chris shares with Jenny that he had relayed the story about her father. I can see how it weighed on her.
Chris worked as an intern at an office job, but he struggled in his new environment. He grew angry as he sat in the break areas and listened to colleagues complain about the cafeteria food and the slow WiFi. He wanted to jump across the table and shake the person, explaining what actual terrible food was. The job wasn’t for him. He missed golf. He lasted three months before quitting.
He started playing a lot more, mostly at Country Creek in Franklin, Ky. The course is just 30 minutes from Gatlin, Tenn., where, with the help from family, the Erwins had just purchased a new home. Chris had known Kenny Perry for years; they were friends during the first part of Chris’s playing career, and their relationship became even tighter after his return. The two grew close and practiced together almost every day. “He is like a brother to me,” Perry says. Most guys who are 60 and nearing the end of their playing career don’t practice daily. Perry was doing it mostly for Chris. Perry loves Chris’s family and supported them whenever they needed help. Whatever they needed, he was there for them. It was a profound and true friendship. And it helped spark Chris’s desire to play again professionally.
We pull up to Country Creek, a non-descript muni situated among farm fields. Perry built it in 1995 so people would have an affordable place to play. The green fee for 18 holes is $35. Chris informs me he never wears a golf shirt there, just T-shirts. I love that. Chris, Jenny, Finley and I haven’t taken three steps out of the car before someone says hello to us. We eventually pop into the small clubhouse, where a handful of people are mingling. They all immediately greet the Erwins; it strikes me how much everyone is invested in them. They hang on Chris’s every word about where he is playing next and how the family is doing. They are skeptical of the Midwesterner in the lilac-colored quarter-zip — why had I chosen the lilac one?—until they learn I am writing a story on Chris and his family. They interrupt one another to tell me their favorite stories about Chris.
I wander around the clubhouse, which is filled with Kenny Perry memorabilia. As a golf nerd, I love it. A collection of logoed money clips Perry has received over the years is on display. His Ryder Cup bags are featured on shelves around the room.
Chris and I climb in a cart for a tour of the course. This is my kind of place. The par-5 7th features a barn that you have to hit over. If you do it right, you can skip your ball off the roof and have a short iron in. (I missed the roof, but I did make birdie.) The place has character. Every group we pass waves at Chris. “That’s so and so,” he would say, before adding a little about the player’s game — or lack thereof.
Chris got back into the PGM program and started working at Tennessee Grasslands Golf and Country Club in Gallatin. The itch to play was back, but paying for it was impossible with four kids at home. That is, until a member at the club heard about Chris’s story. This guardian angel was an U.S. Air Force veteran who had never seen Chris hit a golf shot. Jenny had felt Chris wanted to play professionally again and encouraged him to do so. There was one caveat: He had to find some money. He sent an email to the Air Force vet and three days later a $27,000 check was left at the club for him. Chris Erwin was back in the ballgame.
He dedicated himself to working on his game daily, practicing with Perry while focusing on all aspects of his game. “He has the game to get to the Tour,” Perry told me. But when COVID-19 hit, things ground to a halt. There were no events to play in; a planned trip to Q-school was put on hold. Chris went into a holding pattern. With not much else to do, he continued to practice.
Finally, as things started to open back up, Chris had some minor success while playing some small events. It felt good to compete again. This was where he wanted to be; when he had stopped playing the previous time, it wasn’t on his terms. In April, he went to Q-school for the Forme Tour. (It replaced the Mackenzie Tour for U.S.-based players.) It was an opportunity to play on a tour with a direct path to the Korn Ferry Tour. Nearly 100 players competed for just six exempt cards and another 19 conditional cards.
At 38 years old and competing against a field of mostly players fresh out of college, Chris opened with a 66. A second-round 69 put him inside the top six. A third-round 74 set him well back, to the point he says that when he first played professionally, he would have shut it down. That’s when the maturity he gained over the years kicked in. He fought back with a final-round 67 to finish T10. For the first time in his career, he had status on a PGA Tour-sanctioned circuit.
On our last night together, we go to a burger restaurant. It’s trivia night, so the only available seating is in a booth in the corner. It is not meant for a party of seven but we make it work. The kids play the games on the placemats while Chris, Jenny, and I talk. They make it clear this isn’t a sad story and that they aren’t looking for sympathy. They have many things in their lives they consider blessings.
The burgers are amazing—mine is topped with macaroni and cheese—and we order milkshakes for dessert before heading to the car. Jenny, Gabby, and Paisley walk ahead of us, each holding a shake and laughing. Family.
Upon returning to the house, I load my backpack and start the goodbyes. Jenny holds Emmy Sue while directing the other three girls on how to say their goodbyes. They all listen intently and then thank me for coming.
As I drive back to my hotel, I think about the theme of the story. It has sad parts, it has challenges, it has more valleys than peaks, but the story is one of perseverance and a wife who refuses to let her family fail.
Chris qualified for a Forme Tour event. He walked with a purpose, so happy to be there. But he was struggling with his game, and it showed. He missed the cut by seven. He went back to the drawing board, hoping he could round his game into shape for Q-school. He’s 38. Time isn’t on his side.
I thought I knew how to end this story, but then I called Chris one night. He told me he had signed up for the Army reserves when he left full-time duty so his family could have free health insurance. That required two days a month of drills, but it was a good trade. When he picked up the phone, I immediately knew something was wrong. Chris told me his unit had been assigned to duty, and in January he is scheduled for a nine-month deployment. “Golf is my career now,” he said. “I work hard every day to get to the PGA Tour.” He is working with his commanders to consider where he is in his career and is hopeful he will receive a deferral. He waits, knowing nothing is guaranteed.
Another challenge. This much we know: The Erwin family will be ready.
The Fire Pit Collective has set up a Go Fund Me for Chris and his family to help with the cost of his career. They didn’t ask for this but we wanted to support them in a small way. Click here for the link.