Let Me Tell You How I Got Here
An Untraditional Voice Joins The Fire Pit Collective
It was a day like any other. I was driving my car listening to Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview” from 1973’s powerhouse It’s Too Late to Stop Now when a call came in from an unfamiliar number. It was the 562 area code: Compton, California.
“What’s up, Laz! Alan Shipnuck…” The last person I’d expect to have a Compton cell phone. (He claims he got the number decades ago while living by the beach 20 miles from Compton. I’m not so sure.)
I pulled over immediately.
Let me take you back to the mid-90’s for a minute. I was living in Minneapolis, reporting daily to a soul-numbing cubicle 50 weeks a year, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. I’d start my day by firing up my browser and consuming every piece Alan Shipnuck wrote for Sports Illustrated’s CNNSI.com portal. Hours upon hours of Shipnuck with some of Dan Lebetard’s early Miami Herald work sprinkled in for balance.
We had some correspondence in the past, so after some clumsy “good to talk to you in person” talk, Alan got to the reason for his call.
“My friend Matt Ginella and I are starting a new golf media company. We want to tell great stories and bring in some fresh voices. You’re the first person I thought of. Would you have any interest in something like that?”
I froze for a second. Would I have any interest in working with Alan? I mean…What is one supposed to think when their favorite writer reaches out to see if you might be interested in working alongside them? If it were up to my creative side, I knew my answer would be a resounding and immediate Yes! But my creative side doesn’t pay the bills and I started to doubt the feasibility of jumping into a new media company as I juggle a daughter, bills, and a life that was just coming together after a divorce.
Let’s go back to the prophet, Van Morrison and his opening verse:
Shammy cleaning all the windows
Singing songs about Edith Piaf’s soul
And I hear blue strains of no regret
Across the street from Cathedral of Notre Dame
The opening verse paints a picture of Morrison’s early days cleaning windows in Belfast, but more importantly references the iconic French songstress Edith Piaf, famous for her song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” roughly translated to, “No, I don’t have regret.” In hearing Morrison conjure Edith’s name, I wondered how I could make this opportunity work—creatively, culturally, spiritually, financially. I wanted to find a way to prove to myself that I could do it and reward Alan’s faith. I knew that in doing so, I would come one step closer to Edith, living sans le regret.
Let’s clear up what is probably obvious: unless you count my fantasy football league’s weekly newsletter (ESFL Weekly, proudly in its 22nd year of publication) I’m not a journalist. Definitely not in the same way we consider Le Batard, Shipnuck or my hometown Minneapolis favorites Patrick Reusse and the late Jim Klobuchar as professional scribes. But one of the great things about technology and the Internet is voices that would otherwise go unheard can find a home. Alan had read some of my work on various websites, in print in The Golfer’s Journal and he helped champion and edit some of my essays at GOLF.com, so I wasn’t without a voice in the golf space.
While working with Alan would be a dream come true, it would also mean leaving a fruitful job building a healthcare start-up with people I loved and respected. Three years ago my friend Matt Williamson gave me a shot to pivot out of a road-grind of a career in commercial aviation and into the start-up. It was an amazing education, and I’m not talking about Matt’s telling and retelling his stories of junior golf stardom; I’ve had a front-row seat to watch an online business be built, virtual-brick-by-brick. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and walking away would be difficult.
Alan and I spoke for about 20 minutes about the golf media landscape, story ideas that interested us, dreams that fueled us and the challenges that inspired us. We set a date to meet with his partners Ginella and Alex Upegui in Oceanside, Cal. at the Fire Pit offices.
Never meet your heroes, the old saying goes. We picked a Sunday to meet and I drove down from Santa Monica, absorbing It’s Too Late to Stop Now from the beginning. Upon arrival I parked and noticed the Fire Pit offices were on the corner of the Coast Highway and Minnesota Avenue. I wondered if that was a sign telling me that I was home again.
When we finally met Alan was taller than I expected. Matt was more handsome than expected. And Alex looked like a guy with a baby at home who wakes up every 3 hours, which he does. We went upstairs to the Fire Pit offices and sat around a table. What I was expecting to be an hour of get-to-know-you turned into over three hours of we-can’t-wait-to-get-started.
Obviously there were still hurdles to cross but I left Oceanside thrilled with the prospect of creating alongside Alex (an Emmy winner!) and Matt, whose passion and hunger to tell great stories resonated deeply. I didn’t know much about either Matt or Alex before our meeting but left feeling as if they were long lost friends.
Alex, Alan and Matt have worked in media in one form or another for their entire careers. With over 70 years of experience, they are professionals at the top of their respective mediums. I am not. I’ve been writing freelance to battle insomnia and fund my late-night addiction to buying used golf clubs on eBay. I’ve been lucky to have some success typing but taking this job actived some stirrings of imposter syndrome. If that resonates with you, I’ll tell you a little bit about how I got here.
It all starts with my father, Lazaro Versalles, Sr. My dad was a tough street kid from Havana, Cuba. He was a good enough baseball player to get off the island but also stubborn enough to go back when he didn’t like the Pittsburgh Pirates idea of sending him to rehab an injury in Mexico. The Cuban revolution happened after he returned and my dad was actively involved. He was also essentially stuck in Cuba. Meanwhile, his little brother Zoilo, who was like a second father to me, did make it to the big leagues and with an assist from Hubert Humphrey, Zoilo was able to get his family out of Cuba and to the Twin Cities where my family still lives.
Spanish was the primary language of my childhood. English was barely spoken at our home in Bloomington, Minnesota. My dad was a bit of an autodidact so we always had an English language dictionary, books, magazines, and the Star Tribune newspaper around the house. You could almost say I learned English from the pages of my local paper, Reader’s Digest and Friday night T.V. marathons of Dallas, Fantasy Island and The Dukes of Hazzard. (I had a ‘76 Monte Carlo and in certain circles I’m still known as the Dukes of Lazzard but those stories must be saved for Fire Pit subscribers behind the paywall…coming soon.)
My parents were both in the Teamsters union and my dad worked Sunday through Thursday at a warehouse near our home. The only days I’d really get to see him were Friday and Saturdays. That meant if he was going to the golf course, I was coming along for the ride.
My dad had colorful friends. He used to go on an annual trip to Las Vegas with a particular crew of guys and would talk about his friend “Bobby” who would always be on the trip. It wasn’t until college that I learned Bobby was Robert DeNiro. On the golf course his regular group of playing partners included judges, lawyers, bookies and guys from the union. The course had prohibitions against kids tagging along but my dad and his friends often lived by different rules so things were different for me, too. I would ride along in the cart and sometimes keep score and tally bets. On occasion, I’d be sent back to the snack bar on foot with $20 bucks to get a 12-pack and maybe some cigarettes. I’d always get to keep the change. The good people at Gross, Hiawatha, Columbia—whichever scrappy muni we were at—never made a fuss about it. After golf we would spend the afternoons watching baseball games or college football at McNamara’s, and, frankly, I liked that even more than being at the golf course. The owner would let me consume as many roast beef sandwiches, Old Dutch chips and ginger ales I could handle. Everything was on the house. It was heaven.
This was my introduction to golf and I thought that’s how everybody played golf. To 10 year-old me, the game was about gambling, shit-talking, drinking, competition and laughing with your friends. All I really wanted was to be around my dad. The rest was gravy but it was a hell of an education. If not for my father’s love of the game, and his willingness to share it with me, I’m not writing this.
My boyhood sports heroes were all football players, baseball players and Teófilo Stevenson, the great Cuban heavyweight. I knew the names Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus but didn’t have an emotional attachment to either of them.
Representation matters. You’ll hear this more and more as our country learns to take steps towards understanding how race affects every single aspect of our society. Dad and I would watch golf on television and I remember Calvin Peete reminded me of my great uncle Neno, while Lee Elder was more a reflection of my stocky uncle Hilário. I pulled for both players and seeing them on my TV screen let me know it was possible. Even if Black people didn’t play at every club in town, they played on Tour so I knew it was a reality.
The 1983 Masters changed everything.
When I saw Seve Ballesteros swinging like a sugar-riddled Little Leaguer, speaking Spanish—the language of our home—I saw a little bit more of myself. When I learned he was from Santander, a city less than 100 miles from my maternal grandfather’s childhood hometown of Gijón, I was hooked. I wanted to play like him, dress like him, and win like him. I rode for Seve until the day he died. Because of Seve, I was Team Europe for every Ryder Cup and still am. My longtime friend Joe Bianchi once said, “I’ve never seen Laz play out of trouble sideways.” And he never will, because Seve never did, dammit.
By 8th grade I was good enough to make the junior varsity team at my local high school, but I never matured into much of a junior player. I liked girls, I liked to party and I had a ‘76 Monte Carlo. Golf wasn’t going anywhere. I posted scores in the low-to-mid 90s more often than not but had a few flashes of brilliance, including a 72 in the 1990 Bloomington Invitational, good for a runner-up finish (Tim McCormick, Hutchinson.)
After graduating high school, golf wasn’t really on my radar. I had a chance to play football at Gustavus Adolphus College, so I ran with it (and failed miserably.) But I was still a golf nerd at heart. I would stand around kegs with Pete Anderson and the other golfers at Gustavus—the few who drank, I should say; Tim McCormick among them—and debate whether or not Scott Simpson was a great player or a good player. I would sit with roommates and watch the Tour on cold winter weekend mornings, bong aglow on the coffee table. I was still in love with golf. I just didn’t play much.
The summer of ‘93 was a game changer. I was 21 years old and spent my days working in the bag room at Town & Country Club in St, Paul, Minnesota. My friend’s father, Terry Hogan, was the head professional and a bit of a local legend and he offered me a job. Terry Hogan was a pro’s pro. He made it look easy and glamorous and taught us not only how to run a proper bag room and golf operation but also about the nuances of the game and the characters that enliven it. His impact on my life has been monumental. Simply put, without Terry Hogan, I’m not writing this.
Terry also taught me about the great courses in Minnesota and the Midwest. He set up me and the other bag-roomers to play on Mondays at White Bear Yacht Club, Somerset, Minneapolis Golf Club, Minikahda, Interlachen—and if we had a really good month—Northland in Duluth.
Fast forward to 2001. After years of drab jobs after college that weren’t really going anywhere I decided to take a plunge at the golf business. My friend Chris Olseth was an assistant at Oak Ridge Country Club in Minneapolis and the aforementioned Joe Bianchi was the starter. Joe was leaving to go play hockey for the San Diego Gulls so the starter position was going to open up. I was at the club looping for a friend in the state 4-ball when Chris introduced me to the head pro, John Miller. I told John I was looking to get into the golf business and was willing to start at the bottom. He offered me the starter job and said,“I can pay you $12 an hour.” To which I replied,“I was making $55,000 in my last job.” He countered with “It’s nice to have a job”, and told me he would also pay my PGA dues. “If you want to work in golf,” John said,”you better learn can’t-to-can’t.” Having worked for Terry Hogan, I knew what he meant: work from when you can’t see in the morning until you can’t see at night. So that’s what I did. And I loved it. I was slowly going broke, but without regret.
John took a chance on me when others wouldn’t. For some reason John believed in me despite my know-it-all nature, my morning hangovers and my propensity to snap back at members who deserved it. When he left Oak Ridge in 2005 for the California desert to be the Director of Golf at the Reserve Club, he brought me along and within a year elevated me to Head Professional. He remains a mentor, a friend, a brother. Without John Miller, I am not writing this.
The mark of a good professional is where their understudies end up and John was a pro who could get you places. In 2008 I was newly married and had been offered the Director of Golf position at a club in Colorado. Something about the opportunity wasn’t quite right, namely, the economics of a new club in a fragile economy. Newly married, I bailed on the golf business and started working in commercial aviation.
My life for the next 9 years was a grind of sales calls, spreadsheets, presentations, hotels, flights and best-and-final showdowns with robust competitors. If there was an airline that needed overhead bins or smaller bathrooms to sneak in a row of seats I was there. (Sorry.) In my time at Zodiac Aerospace we absolutely killed it but it came at a price. I wasn’t home much, my health was not great and my passion for winning big deals began to wane. My fire was burning out.
Sometime in 2017 I was having lunch with my friend Parker Anderson. We worked as assistant professionals at Oak Ridge Country Club in Minneapolis in the mid-2000s. I told Parker I was looking to recharge my life and wanted to rekindle my competitive fire for golf. He told me to establish a handicap and play a round at a course in Oceanside called Goat Hill Park. “Why the hell would I go there to keep a handicap, Parker?” He just said,“Trust me.” So I went.
I loved the place. In fact, I loved it so much that I sent an email to the godfather of golf nerds, Ran Morrisette, and expressed interest in writing a piece about Goat Hill for Golf Club Atlas. Ran liked the story and graciously agreed to post it on his website. A week or so later, Geoff Shackelford put the piece out in his newsletter and people started to come out of the woodwork to compliment the article. It was less about my prose and more about the place but it gave me some confidence that I could write about golf and have some level of success.
I found myself on Saturdays in the cutthroat men’s club at Goat Hill Park getting my ass handed to me with regularity. Butt-kickings aside, everyone at Goat Hill is kind and welcoming, especially John Ashworth. He invited me to a party he was throwing with Brendon Thomas, founder of The Golfer’s Journal. At the party I pitched Brendon a story about the 7th hole at San Francisco Golf Club, site of the Broderick-Terry duel for which the classic Tillinghast Par 3 is named. He asked me to call Travis Hill and make a full-fledged pitch, which I did and Travis went for it.
My poetry professor at Gustavus, Larry Owen, taught me about the power of words, but Travis taught me about the architecture of storytelling. He’s the best editor I’ve ever worked with by a mile. Pitching various stories and working through drafts with Travis, D.J. Piehowski and Tom Coyne has been one of the great gifts of my creative life. Make no mistake, without Ran, Shack, Ashworth, Brendon, Travis, Coyne and D.J., I am not writing this.
And so here I am, part of the Fire Pit Collective. The maturity and life experiences of the Collective provide us with a tremendous opportunity to share unique stories. We also have a responsibility to do so intelligently, courageously and authentically. Alan’s “Blood, Oil and Golf” is evidence of that commitment as is Ryan French’s inspiring and vulnerable introduction to the Collective. We hope to entertain and inspire along the way, and it is literally a dream come true for me to be a part of the show.
Alan once told me the job has only one requirement: tell great stories. There’s no doubt about that, but we are also charged with creating the foundation of the Fire Pit. We need to be not only creative, but also strategic and detailed. I am deeply passionate about business development and excited to create and implement some of the tools and processes that will fuel our growth. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to build with.
Time will tell what we are able to accomplish, but I can tell you this:
We will be a collective of diverse voices and a place where those who are otherwise marginalized and overlooked will have agency.
We will be courageous and we will not genuflect to any governing body or corporate overlord.
We will bring you stories from an entertaining and intelligent perspective.
Ultimately, we will give you our lens. It’s up to you to look through it. We believe you’ll like what you see.
To those of you who will put your faith in our work, we thank you.
And to those voices who will come to be part of the collective in the future, I leave you with this from Van the Man:
Have you got your pen and notebook ready?
Sign right here! Sign right here, as we begin!