Pursuit of happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

 

A trek to Denmark (with a stopover in Vienna) was enlightening and rewarding, even after a missed cut at Q school

By Mark Baldwin

Who would have thought the most important connection coming from a day at a pro-college amateur tournament at Riviera would be with a college golfer? Who could have guessed that a story about finding happiness in Denmark would begin in Los Angeles?

Having just made the cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, I was invited to play in The Genesis Invitational’s Pro-College Amateur event. One top college player would partner with a professional, and the low college player would be awarded a spot in the prestigious PGA Tour event. As I walked past Will Zalatoris on the putting green, he smirked and humorously jabbed, “They’re still letting you play out here?” 

My partner for the day was a senior from the University of San Francisco named Søren Lind, who was approaching the end of his college career and planned a life as a professional golfer. His game that day looked every bit the part as he swashbuckled his way around the lush valley where Riviera is nestled. With a few holes remaining, Lind was 4 under and one shot off the lead. He didn’t claim the spot, but he left an impression. Not just because his game was mature, but also because of his pleasant, relaxed attitude. I didn’t know it at the time, but those traits are ingrained in his home country of Denmark. 

The nine first-stage sites of DP World Tour Q School filled up quickly. Having gone three years without a Q school, professional golfers from around the world were eager to return to Europe. I was one of them. Each year, many professional golfers face a pivotal decision: which Q school to enter. The two most prominent Q schools, for the Korn Ferry and DP World tours, are held simultaneously in the fall. With the conflicting schedules, golfers usually have to choose between the two. I have successfully advanced through all three stages of KFT Q-School twice. In my one previous attempt overseas, in 2014, I failed to advance to the third and final stage by a single shot. The high-stakes decision comes at a price: the entry fee. The cost to enter Korn Ferry Q school is $6,500, while the DP World Tour is a little more than $2,200. Golfers also have to weigh the benefits of each Tour in the shifting landscape of professional golf (an article for another day). With air miles to burn, a dwindling bank account and my toddler visiting the in-laws, I decided to embark on an adventure.

By the time I sent in my application, only three sites hadn’t filled up: Denmark, Sweden and Austria. Most of what I knew about Denmark was the little I remembered from playing with Lind at Riviera. Denmark is consistently ranked one of the happiest countries in the world, even as residents surrender half of their income to taxes. To an American, that’s a paradox. I discovered Bob Dylan was scheduled to play in Copenhagen on the final night of Q School. If it’s good enough for Dylan, it’s good enough for me. I whimsically chose Denmark. 

My best friend from high school, Keegan Rice, is the most well-traveled person I know. Want to know what it’s like to tube down the Vang Vieng River in Laos, or get chased by rhinos in Botswana? Why would you swap passports with someone who looks nothing like you and try to enter the repressive country of Burma? Keegan can tell you. He also has caddied for me at tournaments in Singapore, Thailand, Spain and The Bahamas. The more exotic the location, the higher the chance Keegan will find his way there. When I mentioned my Q School plans, he said, “Let me know if you need a looper. The Scandinavian countries do it right.” 

Six days before the start of Q School, we were on our way. “I’d be shocked if this plane makes it to Europe,” Keegan said as we boarded an Austrian Airlines flight from Montreal to Vienna. He has slept on the plains of Africa and in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He has flown on rickety planes in countries with less than mediocre safety records, and here he was telling me we may need to get out and push before we had made it over Greenland. 

“Hey, man, is your ashtray full?” I said jokingly. 

Despite a few bumps over the Atlantic, the flight touched down smoothly in Vienna, where a 12-hour layover awaited. Austria was the childhood home of my sweet, loving Nana. While she died years ago, she left behind a handwritten journal for her family. It includes her time living in Nazi-annexed Austria during World War II. It is a harrowing account of a lonely girl living in a dangerous, complicated time. 

The sirens would howl to announce an imminent air attack and everybody would go into the cellar until the all-clear was sounded. During one of these bombardments some bombs had hit very close. The whole building shook, the walls vibrated and plaster fell on us from the ceiling. We were terrified. After the all-clear we all went upstairs and discovered right at the front door a bomb. Fortunately it was a dud and did not detonate. If it had, we would, all of us surely have perished. 

Keegan and I sat in the slow daze of jet lag and early morning cafe culture before setting off. I had the journal with me, and as we explored the grand old city, I’d stop and read Nana’s words. I could hear her narrating in her gentle voice with a strong Austrian accent. I felt heart-achingly close to her. Every pastry, every flower, every breath of wind brought her back to life. I hope she envisioned one of her grandchildren tracing her roots as she wrote and that it brought her peace.

When Keegan and I landed in Copenhagen late that night, my golf clubs didn’t arrive with us. I filed a missing bag report, but the airline rep said the whereabouts of the bag hadn’t even been determined. The taxi stand at Copenhagen airport was filled with Teslas and Mercedes electric vehicles. After a deep, hypnotic sleep, we checked on the status of the clubs. The airline still hadn’t located them. 

Copenhagen is home to about 600,000 people, and unmistakably, a large percentage of them get around on bikes. Electric vehicles quietly dominate the streets. No horns blaring at one another, no loud engines, just smooth orderliness. Keegan and I walked the bustling streets, strolling through the colorful heart of Copenhagen where cafes were full of life and the wine was flowing. A raucous protest calling for climate change action stopped us in our tracks. When we continued on, Keegan led us through an anarchist stronghold. Despite some uncomfortable sights, the area was surprisingly clean and quiet. 

Eventually, we made our way across several of the marvelous bridges that connect the country. Offshore wind turbines spun and water currents churned. I connected with a Twitter follower named Christian, who offered to loan me his golf clubs for the week. Soon, we were at Christian’s apartment to see if the offer was too good to be true.

Christian appeared with a set of Srixon blades, a Scotty Cameron Circle T putter and TSi woods. He could have passed for Jude Law’s younger brother. He’s a new father around my age, and we hit it off. I asked him if I could leave him something with him for the clubs — money, a passport…a first-born son? He brushed off the offers and wished me luck. 

“You can safely leave a baby outside a restaurant here so they don’t make a fuss in a crowd,” said Christian, illustrating the deep trust of Danish people. “This is actually a common practice.” If you leave a baby unattended outside a restaurant where I’m from, I thought, you might end up in prison.

I spent the next two days practicing with Christian’s clubs at the tournament course. I met up with my old friend Søren Lind, who had tracked down utility irons, wedges and a putter for me to try. Here he was competing in his first Q School, yet rather than let one of his competitors flounder, he offered help. 

“(Danish) people are what you expect out of them,” Søren says. “They’re very loyal and very friendly. People are very much the same at the same time. It’s a small country. People feel very connected.”

Søren grew up in a small town in Denmark. Junior golf competition consisted of representing your golf club as part of its traveling team. He started playing on the junior team before advancing to the men’s team. Even now as a professional golfer, he competes for the team a few weeks a year. 

“It matured me as a golfer and a person,” Søren said. “Now when I’m in the position where I’m a pro, I’m trying to pass on that legacy. We’re still trying to play with the juniors so they get the same feel. To let them know, you’re just as important as I am.”

The night before the first round, Keegan and I set out for the airport after being informed that my clubs had finally been found. While awaiting the arrival of the Scandinavian Airlines flight, we struck up a conversation with an airport employee. The airport is small, but it recently underwent a major renovation, and like most designs here, it is understated, sleek and beautiful. The employee told us the design concept is very Danish. 

“We want everyone to feel as if they’re a VIP,” the employee said. “No one is better than anyone else here. There are no fancy lounges for higher paying customers. This entire airport was designed to be a VIP lounge for everyone.” Eventually, my golf bag arrived. It was raining as we walked outside, and we felt like we were dancing between the raindrops. 

The rain continued over the coming days, and a cold wind pierced like a Viking blade. Going off in the last tee time in the morning wave, I got battered by the elements. I struggled with distance control, and the putts weren’t falling. Keegan and I found ourselves on the wrong side of the tee-time draw. We battled through 54 holes in the worst of the weather and my total was 1 over par. I missed the cut by a shot. Søren came over to our rental house that evening, and we dove deeply into golf in Denmark. (He had made the cut but would finish the tournament at even par, failing to advance to the second stage by nine shots.)

“The law of Jante is 10 rules that are very integrated into Danish society,” Søren said. “It’s set to make people behave in a very respectful way. Some of the rules are: You’re not better than anyone, you’re not smarter than anyone, you shouldn’t think that you’re higher than anyone.”

These laws teach humility and help foster a culture of similarity. I was curious about how the Law of Jante affected Søren’s golf development. 

“Coming to America and coming back, these rules are very present in the way you behave and speak about yourself in Denmark today,” Søren said. “When I say I’m a professional golfer, I’m always a little hesitant. In Denmark, you have to be a little more humble. It’s good to have, but it’s also good to be proud of what you do.”

Søren went on to say he likes the diversity of thought in America. He likes how professional golf is held in higher regard there. But Denmark is where Søren chose to begin his professional career. His family is here. His supporters are here. He will pass on his experience to the next generation of Danish golfers. This is home. It’s where he is happy. 

“I love leaving home and I love going home,” Keegan said. “You get to see what’s out there and you get to translate those things back home.”

Danes have a word for quiet contentment and deep satisfaction. “Hygge is a Danish word that is described as a situation that’s very cozy,” Søren said. “For instance, when you play golf in rainy, windy conditions and you stand out on the golf course and you think to yourself I could just sit inside with a blanket, with a warm cup of tea…I want to hygge when I get home.” I asked Søren whether he believes the average Danish golfer is truly happier than golfers elsewhere. 

“I think with golf, it’s so hard because no matter who you ask around the world, golf kicks your ass almost every time you play,” Søren replied. “I would say no, I think people are just as frustrated and just as competitive with golf no matter where you meet people. Everyone is having a good time with golf in different ways on the golf course.”

Before leaving Denmark, Keegan and I had a date with Bob Dylan. Dylan sat at the back of the stage behind his piano playing his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways. There was minimal tech and lighting. No digital screens. No theatrics. Just Dylan’s 81-year-old weathered voice, band members playing their hearts out, and an older audience begging for more. Dylan gave us a brief interlude from the album with “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world, 

You may be a socialite with a giant string of pearls, 

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You’re gonna have to serve somebody 

It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

As I listened to his legendary voice, I reflected on an experience that began eight months ago at Riviera and led me to Denmark. I’ve been lifted by the generosity and support of many people, and I’ve been lucky enough to do this because it’s what I want to do. It’s what makes me happy. 

Dylan says you gotta serve somebody, that everybody has someone to answer to, of course. But a songwriter’s art insists that it remains open for new meaning and interpretation. Most people who have lifted me have done so through selfless service. Søren was supported by his golf club; now he repays that debt with service of his own. Keegan hauled a drenched tour bag around a saturated golf course in the service of friendship. A stranger in Denmark allowed me to drive away with thousands of dollars of his golf equipment and expected nothing in return. Our beautiful game improves when we pay it forward, like Søren. When we take a chance and trust, like Christian. When we share our struggles, like my Nana. When we carry a friend’s dreams, like Keegan. Maybe happiness is about service, and maybe our game, and our world, could use more of it.

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6 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Happiness”

  1. Fabulous read!
    I was at the Q-school event covering it for my podcast. Would have lived to meet. Thanks for sharing your experience in Denmark.

    PS. As a fellow Søren, please consider correcting Sorin to Søren. I know Søren Lind. Great guy!

    Best, Søren Amstrup
    Host, Golf Showet podcast.

  2. I’m stuck in bumper to bumper, on the NY Thruway., so I had a chance to read.
    Sensational an interesting story!
    Great writing.!
    Can I get an Autographed Photo of Keegan when he gets back to NH?

  3. great read! i learn also a lot of your missing club story, because i was one of the guys to try help out. i love our community as i saw how many other people where willing to help you! these kind of storys are great and show that the world is not lost at all! keep grinding!
    best, Robert

  4. “ What the world needs now is love sweet love” – song from long ago – little cheesey.

    But your excellent articulated thoughts is what the song is trying to personify.

    Americans are so into themselves they can’t see beyond themself. It’s hard to find compassion for your fellow man when you are so deep into yourself.

  5. Mark, Thanks so much for this special Podcast! It was the perfect accompaniment to our hike on the “Bump and Grind” trail today in Palm Springs (appropriately named for a golf Podcast!). Your experience was made real to us all by your skilled narration. Love the positive messages!

    Kevin and Mary Gustafson

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