Make a Wish
Good vibes and great play highlighted the annual Wishbone Brawl, a charity exhibition that brought out golf’s coolest characters
By Alan Shipnuck
OCEANSIDE, Calif.—Goat Hill is a golf course, a community center, a playground, a gathering spot. On Saturday, at the fourth annual Wishbone Brawl, this beloved muni became a time machine, transporting golf fans, and the game itself, back to an older, simpler era. Fred Couples reclaimed from a memorabilia collector the wooden driver he used to win the 1992 Masters and launched a series of vintage butter-cuts. Xander Shauffele showed off his Olympic gold medal on the driving range and then a timeless talent as he negotiated a tight, twisty layout with a set of persimmons as blonde as any Tour wife. Reigning Goat Hill club champ Will Kropp lived every golfer’s dream by drawing Couples as his partner for this charity match. Kropp was a burnt-out mini-tour grinder until the Goat rekindled his love for the game. He made a do-or-die 40-footer on the 17th hole that sent the crowd to the moon and the Brawl down to the last hole. But the star of the show was Dean Wilson. Now 51, he hasn’t played the Tour regularly since the 2000’s but his swing remains as timeless as a Sinatra ballad. Wilson aced the 5th hole to give this Wishbone its signature moment and threw in four other birdies. He was on the victorious team for a third time, not that the wins and losses define this feel-good event.
A sellout crowd of 500 fans (and at least a dozen dogs) ambled down fairways with no ropes and crowded around the greens with their toes on the fringe. The intimacy only made it that much more impressive to hear the long-forgotten thwack of a well-struck shot with the old-fashioned woods. After watching Couples launch his drive at the 1st, spectator Casey Spooner, 11, intoned, “That was very satisfying.” Then Couples rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt to get the party started.
Goat Hill is the testiest 4,454-yard par-65 on the planet. “It puts a little vigor in your game,” Couples said. The 4th green is so wickedly domed that Donald Ross’s ghost thinks it’s too extreme; Schauffele played a spinning wedge well beyond the flag, only to watch his ball rip all the way off the green. “I got Goated,” he said with a sigh. Couples followed with a dead-arm wedge that floated next to the flag and stopped right where it landed. “That’s experience,” Xander said with a tinge of admiration. But Wilson halved the hole with a deft chip-in. Then he stepped to the par-3 5th hole, playing 149 yards, and took a little off his 8-iron. The ball landed 10 feet left of the flag, just where Wilson had been looking, and trickled down the slope and disappeared into the hole. Bedlam ensued. Afterward, an emotional Wilson, winner of 11 professional tournaments around the world, said, ”This is the greatest golfing experience of my life. It doesn’t compare. When you win on Tour and get done with the handshakes and the press, no one’s there to celebrate with you. You go back to the hotel by yourself, and it feels empty. You can’t buy the feeling in the air here [at the Brawl]. This is something we all shared together, and that’s what makes it so special.”
Wilson’s hole-in-one evoked Geoff Ogilvy’s walk-off ace to win the Wishbone two years ago. How to explain these instantly viral moments of bliss at such a young event? “There’s just a little bit of magic at Goat Hill,” Schauffele said.
The specific beneficiaries of these good vibes are the Northern County Junior Golf Association and the Goat Hill Park Caddie & Leadership Academy. (Couples couldn’t stop raving about the charming and deadeye teenaged loopers in the group and afterward slipped each of them two Ben Franklins for their time.) Schauffele grew up playing junior golf around San Diego and relishes the chance to give something back, even as he has risen to 5th in the World Ranking and his time is more precious. “This is so fun for me,” he said. “I look forward to this every year. The persimmons add to the fun, for sure. You gotta hit it solid. Sometimes the crowd is a little too tight to the tee boxes and it’s a little scary, because if you don’t put a good swing on it, these things can go anywhere.”
Couples couldn’t remember the last time he used a wooden wood. “The driver head looked smaller than the ball!” he said. His star power added a lot to the event, and even his fellow competitors felt it. “Watching Freddy is such a treat,” Wilson said. “He’s someone I looked up to my whole career. I was picking up on his tempo and his ease and the way he walks around and carries himself and all the fun he has out there, and that definitely helped my play.”
This was Couples’s first Wishbone Brawl. He goes back to the ’80s with the patriarch of Goat Hill, John Ashworth, whose eponymous clothing line employed Couples as spokesmodel. At 62, with the best head of silver hair this side of Richard Gere circa Pretty Woman, Couples looks as good now as he did then, and his swing hasn’t aged a day. He and Ashworth remain tight, and Freddy said afterward he felt “embarrassed” that this Brawl was the first time he had laid eyes on the Goat. He came away utterly charmed by the humble course and palpable community spirit that raised upwards of $50,000 for the kids. “I hope I’m included next year,” Couples said. “I don’t want to miss out.”
That can probably be arranged. But he will have to tangle with Wilson, who after this spirited performance is unquestionably the Goat’s GOAT.