SEA ISLAND, GEORGIA | On an otherwise miserable day, Jonathan Bale is one of the happiest players on the golf course.
As he stood on the 16th tee during the second round of the Jones Cup earlier this month, you couldn’t tell that he recorded a 9 on his scorecard a few holes earlier. Nor was it any trouble that frigid rain had begun to carry horizontal to the ground directly back toward the tee.
Instead, he had an engaging conversation with his playing partners about emerging PGA Tour player Sam Burns while waiting for the fairway to clear, then hit a penetrating 3-wood down the middle on his way to making par on one of Ocean Forest Golf Club’s most difficult holes. The next player pulled his driver, hooking it into the trees.
College players have a lot to learn from Bale, both on and off the golf course.
Bale, 33, grew up minutes from Royal Porthcawl on the southern shores of Wales. Although he started somewhat late in the game at 12 years old, he quickly became enamored with the stunning links that have hosted the Amateur Championship six times and once served as the stage for the Walker Cup in 1995.
“I didn’t think twice about being around the course, but as I grew to love the game more, I came to understand that it is a special place,” Bale said. “I just wanted to be around the club, so I did some caddying and graduated to picking up range balls. Eventually I became a member when I was 14 years old.”
Under the guidance of instructor Peter Evans, Bale became a top player in Wales, earning his way onto the national team and receiving a scholarship to play at Louisiana Tech University on the other side of the Atlantic. His career for the Bulldogs was admittedly good but not great – his stroke average never fell below 74 and he had seven top-20 finishes his last two years, none of them threatening victory.
“Golfers typically want it to be sunshine and no wind, but he loves when it gets nasty out,” his college coach Jeff Parks said. “He’s always seen it as an advantage, and I think it just speaks to how mature he was even at a young age. As a coach, he was everything you could ask for.”
The majority of halfway decent college players try their fortune in the professional ranks, but Bale is a rare breed. He is a deep thinker, the type of person who lives for enlightening conversations. Bale enlisted the help of his friend Rhys Davies, who has won once on the European Tour and four times on the Challenge Tour, to help guide his decision.
Davies’ advice was to imagine pro golf would be like being the CEO of a business called Jonathan Bale Golf.
“Professional golf was going to put a roof over my head and food on my table for several years, but was it something I enjoyed doing? Ultimately, the answer was no.”
“There has to be a business plan, there has to be money to fund this,” Bale said. “You can’t just show up and play. The more I thought about it, the money it was going to take … I was pretty honest about my game being a good amateur, but did I feel like I was good enough to compete at that level? At the time no.
“Looking back, I think my game was good enough. But was it something I wanted to do? If I had a regret, it would be that I should have gone to Q-School as an amateur. At the end of the day, if you don’t make it you just go back to school.
“Professional golf was going to put a roof over my head and food on my table for several years, but was it something I enjoyed doing? Ultimately, the answer was no. I saw guys driving around the country grinding at Monday qualifiers, and it just wasn’t very appealing to me. I was worried it would make me hate the game.”
Bale, who had a 3.8 grade point average as an undergraduate, got a masters degree in business administration instead of turning pro. He earned a 4.0 GPA as a grad student and since has built an successful, eight-year career in the investment management world as a managing director for Goodwill Capital out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As a college golfer, Bale found himself wanting to shoot 63 each time out, caring too much about world rankings. As an amateur who now plays the game free of those concerns, he has matured into a better player who thoroughly enjoys the work-golf balance he’s constructed since leaving school. In 2016, Bale visited his family and decided to play in the Welsh Amateur despite rarely competing at the time. He finished second in stroke play and then made it to the semifinals of match play before pulling out because he tore his Achilles tendon.
“I just thought to myself, ‘This is the best way to play golf, I don’t really care,’ ” Bale said. “And then you’ve got these kids (for whom) it is life or death, they are just grinding.
“I remember it started pouring down rain and I’m in a match and I was holding my umbrella with my left hand and putting with my right hand. … The guy was looking at me like ‘What is he doing?’ It was just the perfect moment of freedom.”
At the end of 2018, Bale started to take his game seriously as he started with a Louisiana Golf Association competition and made his way into bigger events. In 2019, he made it through a 1-for-40 qualifier to play in the U.S. Mid-Amateur and advanced to the round of 32 at Colorado Golf Club.
His goal now is to make the Great Britain & Ireland squad for the Walker Cup as a mid-amateur. He finished T61 out of 84 competitors at the Jones Cup and now will play the Gasparilla Invitational, the Azalea Invitational and other prominent amateur events as he looks to find an extra level to his play.
“Everything to Jonnie, whether in golf or life, is very simple,” said Grady Braeme, a close friend and Mackenzie Tour player. “His strength is his mental game. You are never going to find a panicked bone in his body.”
For Bale, he now owns his game without wondering whether other people will admire how he gets the ball in the hole.
“Whether I finish first or last, come Monday I have to go to work,” Bale said.
We should all be as lucky to play with the same kind of freedom.