Jimmie James has always been driven by goals.

Jimmie James. Photo by Sebastian Hernandez

When he was 5 years old, while growing up poor in East Texas, James decided he would become the first person he knew to graduate from high school. The odds were stacked against him; he had been born in the Jim Crow South to a black single mother with eight children. But that did not stop him. After he finished high school, James graduated from Prairie View A&M University in Texas, becoming the first person in his family to attend and graduate from college. Then he embarked on a 33-year career as an executive with ExxonMobil, retiring on June 1, 2017.

So, when the part-time Buckhead resident decided he would spend a year playing Golf Digest’s 2017-18 Top 100 Courses in America, it was no surprise to his wife Erika.

“Nothing that Jimmie comes up with surprises me,” she said. “He’s always been goal focused. He needs a sense of accomplishment, and the harder the challenge, the more interested he is. I think I was most surprised he wanted to do it so quickly after he retired.”

James has written a book about his experience “Playing from the Rough: A Personal Journey through America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses,” and will participate in a book talk and signing at 5:30 p.m. June 12 at The Chastain restaurant in Buckhead. The event is timed to coincide with the six-year anniversary of him completing his tour of playing the courses and the book’s June 11 publishing date. The book is being published by Simon and Schuster.

An idea takes flight

James is planning similar events June 11 and 13 in Philadelphia and Kiawah Island, South Carolina, respectively, where his family also has homes. He started playing golf in 2005, when an ExxonMobil vice president gave him advice about his move from Fairfax, Virginia, to Beaumont, Texas.

Jimmie James plays a round at the Fishers Island Club on Fishers Island, New York, during his year-long tour of the Golf Digest 2017-18 Top 100 Courses in America.

“He suggested, in order to better get along with the people I was working with and [who were] working for me, ‘You need to start shooting something. You can shoot animals or you can shoot par,’” James said. “My wife made the decision for me. She purchased a set of golf clubs for me.”

Originally, James planned to play 100 golf courses, two in each state, after his wife gave him John Sabino’s book, “How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs: A Journey through Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne, Augusta, Muirfield, and More,” for Christmas in 2016.

But early the next year, when he got the Golf Digest edition featuring the Top 100 courses in the mail, he decided to play those courses instead. However, that list includes 87 private courses, 12 resort ones and one public course. So although James could easily play the resort and public courses, he would need a member or club pro of each of the private courses to invite him to play there.

But since James was already a member of Kiawah Island Golf Resort, whose Ocean Course is on the list, he had a head start in getting onto the other private courses by using his connections there. Throughout the tour, he also utilized more networking and grit to gain entry to the private courses by talking to members and club pros, including his playing partners, who could connect him with the other courses on the list. On those courses, James said about 75% of the people who helped or hosted him were strangers.

Jimmie James plays a round at the Fishers Island Club on Fishers Island, New York, during his year-long tour of the Golf Digest 2017-18 Top 100 Courses in America.

“So during the idle time between swings and putts, then, if they were interested enough, I would imagine they would offer to help,” he said. “I could see the mental Rolodexes going off. The reason I expected that to happen is we had been going to Kiawah for 12 years, and at the Ocean Course, I would always play with strangers.”

Though his tour started in June, James played perhaps the most famous course, Augusta National Golf Course, home of the Masters, in May because the course is closed in June and because he’d already arranged to play that round. It’s one of two Georgia courses on the list, with the other being Peachtree Golf Club in Brookhaven.

He said his five favorite courses, in no particular order, were Augusta National (“because of the experience; it’s just a magical place”), Merion in Philadelphia (“because of the traditions” it has), Fishers Island, New York (“the charm of it all”), Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey (“because it’s hard”) and Cypress Point Golf Club in California (“every hole is unique; … the scenery is awe-inspiring”). 

Part memoir and part golf tale, “Playing from the Rough” recounts James’ journey across the country. What will he remember most about playing those courses and writing the book?

“The people, the kindness and generosity of all the people … that I met along the way and who helped,” he said. “It was really about seeing if America was still a place where people would help a stranger achieve a dream. It wasn’t really about golf. Golf was still a vehicle to see if we were that country where grit, determination and the kindness and generosity of others could help achieve a dream.”

With strangers’ help

One of the strangers who helped James and became a friend is Jeff “J.J.” Johnson, president of the Flint Hills National Golf Club in Andover, Kansas, one of the courses he played. Flint Hills is one of two golf clubs James joined during his course tour, with the other being Pikewood National Golf Club in Morgantown, West Virginia. Johnson was asked to talk to him about his interest in joining Flint Hills.

“First of all, without the risk of sounding racist, when you see a good-looking tall black man who wants to play the 100 best courses the country, you’re impressed. Then, you start talking to him and he’s the nicest, sweetest man you’ve ever met,” Johnson said of his first impression of James. “I certainly remember and, being honest, I thought there’s no way a guy can play 100 courses in a year. A lot of people try to do it in a lifetime, and he was going to do it in a year without a private plane. [I thought], ‘God bless you and good luck.’”

Later in the tour, when the two were playing a round at the Chicago Golf Club as part of the tour, Johnson helped James gain access to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, a private course in Southampton, New York, when his original course host had to cancel due to an emergency.

“He looked at his phone and his heart kind of sank,” Johnson said. “Ironically, that was one of the relationships I thought I could help with. Jimmy Dunne, a member of Shinnecock, I know. I texted Jimmy and said, ‘Hey, any chance my friend needs a Hail Mary by such and such a date, and all his text [in response] said was, ‘7:30 a.m. Sunday.’ Jimmie said, ‘I’ll get there.’ I didn’t know later that Jimmy Dunne had flown back privately from a [University of] Notre Dame reunion just for Jimmie and then flew back. There’s a story for guys who like the game and respect the game.”

Jimmie James plays a round at the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey, during his year-long tour of the Golf Digest 2017-18 Top 100 Courses in America.

Sharing a great story

Ian Straus, a New York-based editor with Simon & Schuster, has been working with James for a year.

“I think as book editors, … the number one thing we’re always looking for is a great story and Jimmie has loads of them,” he said. “This book has two amazing stories at its heart, the first one being the story about the golf trip, which is for people who like golf. But for people who don’t like golf, [reading about him] playing 100 courses across the country in [a year], and even [for] people who are into golf, their eyes go wide. …

“On the one hand, you have a great sports story and a great human interest story, this great story. But on the other hand, you have the memoir story, and it’s truly an amazing American life. … With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, anyone can achieve anything. I think Jimmie embodies that.”

His wife, who has co-authored two books with Lynn Perry Wooten and is the dean of the Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious business school in Philadelphia, said she found it interesting to see him learn to write a book of his own.

“I think the book is extraordinary,” she said. “For someone who’s known him for 30 years, the fact that I learned things through this process was surprising. … I just think what he has been driven to do, which is use golf for the purposes of bringing people together, and what is sometimes seen as a sport for people with elite and privileged backgrounds, has the potential to transform lives if they get introduced to the culture of golf.”

For more information on the book talk and signing or to buy tickets, visit https://bit.ly/4b4Fg27.