Golf a Much-Needed Escape for U.S. Navy Lieutenant Gulliksen May 26, 2019 | Bandon, Ore. By Tom Mackin

Tyler Gulliksen has found elite-level amateur golf to be a nice respite from his day job with the U.S. Navy. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Free falling out of military planes at 18,000 feet or wearing an 80-pound bomb disposal suit during training exercises should make short putts seem like a piece of cake. Not exactly, says Tyler Gulliksen, who is playing in the 5th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball this week at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort

“That’s what everyone says to me when they find out what where I work, but 3- and 4-footers are still pretty hard, especially out here at Bandon Dunes,” said Gulliksen, 32, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Unit (EOD). “When you exit an aircraft, you’re along for the ride. You have to think a little more when you’re playing golf. But I don’t know if that’s what people want to hear.”

No, they’d rather hear operational details from Gulliksen’s deployments to places such as West Africa and the Middle East, but he’s discreet about his day job.

“People will say, ‘Oh, it’s like The Hurt Locker (a 2008 Oscar-winning film about a fictional EOD team in Iraq),’” said Gulliksen. “Well no, it’s not like a Hollywood movie. Most of the time, I don’t describe what we do. I just try to be low key with it. I’m not trying to impress anyone with my job. It’s all about the people I work with. We know what we do and what we provide.”

Like high-level amateur golfers, EOD teams are part of a small, tight-knit community defined by rules, albeit ones with much more serious consequences.

“My senior chiefs always told me our rules are written in blood because someone who came before us died in a situation and allowed us to learn from that,” said Gulliksen. “We pride ourselves on knowing our craft. It’s like watching the PGA Tour guys – it’s their job and they take it very seriously. But we need to be knowledgeable and serious or else you will get someone killed in a heartbeat.”

Gulliksen will only admit to encountering a few sketchy situations during those deployments. “That’s when you rely on the team you’re with because when you look to the left and right, that’s all you have out there.”

This week, in a much friendlier environment at Bandon Dunes, he’s relying on partner Jack Townsend, a 16-year-old from San Diego who won the San Diego Junior Golf Association’s Sean O’Hair Heritage in March. The pair shot a 2-under 68 on Pacific Dunes during the first round of stroke play on Saturday.

Gulliksen says the age difference is not an issue.

“The kids these days, they’re always on Instagram and social media, so sometimes I don’t know where they are coming from,” he said. “But when it comes to golf with Jack, it’s like playing with a 40-year-old. His golf IQ is so high, which is fun to watch. He doesn’t even know how good he is, which is scary.”

Gulliksen’s parents introduced him to the game when he was 6. He played on the golf team at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., where his teammates included future 2005 USA Walker Cup competitor and PGA Tour winner Matt Every.

Tyler Gulliksen rediscovered his love for the game after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

He then played two seasons while at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he faced a mandatory five-year service commitment after graduating in 2010.

“I didn’t want to be on a ship, I didn’t want to fly and I didn’t want to go into the Marine Corps,” he said. “But I could do the Navy SEALS or EOD. I checked both out and chose the latter. It’s super competitive – only 16 out of 1,000 Naval Academy graduates are selected each year (roughly 35 go to the Navy SEALS).”

Golf was then shelved while Gulliksen went through a grueling, multi-year training program.

“After living in San Diego right before my first deployment, I moved to Virginia in 2014. That’s where I met people in amateur golf like Keith Decker (a Virginia Golf Hall of Famer and the only golfer to play in 12 USGA Men’s State Team Championships), Adam Horton and Roger Newsom, and I started playing more.”

Playing in mid-amateur (golfers 25 and older) events inspired Gulliksen to refocus on his own game.

“It just made me want to get better. Seeing guys like [four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion] Nathan Smith and Todd White (inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball champions in 2015 at The Olympic Club) who have played in so many USGA championships, I kind of look up to them as amateur golfers. And Stewart Hagestad (2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion) and Matt Parziale (2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion) have shown that you can be a really good mid-am player. It’s so cool to see how good those guys are.”

In 2016, Gulliksen teamed with Horton to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. The pair missed advancing to match play by one stroke.

After his wife, Andrea, a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, was transferred to San Diego in 2016, Gulliksen participated in a Fleet Scholars education program and earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of San Diego in 2018. He also played on the school’s golf team during the 2017-18 season, earning West Coast Conference All-Academic honors.

“Chris Riley (a former PGA Tour player) had just gotten the head coaching job there when I met him at San Diego Country Club and we became friends,” said Gulliksen. “He looked into my NCAA eligibility and found out that I had a year left. I joined the team and played in every event. I learned how inadequate my game was at some times, but I also learned what I do really well. It made me a lot better.”

“I looked at him kind of like a third coach,” said Riley, a member of the 1995 USA Walker Cup Team. “He kept the guys in line a little bit and they respected him. They were actually kind of scared of him because he’s so focused. But I’ve never met a guy in my life who loves golf so much. I put him right up there against Vijay [Singh] for living and breathing golf.”

Riley believes Gulliksen is a very good ballstriker who is only held back by his putting.

“Once he gets the putter going, I really see him contending for a [U.S.] Mid-Amateur,” said Riley. “That’s his goal. He wants to win that and then play in the Masters [and U.S. Open] someday. And I think he can. I really do. The sky’s the limit for him in amateur golf. But just to know that he is on our side for the United States of America, I feel pretty good about things.”

Currently working for an EOD team in Virginia, Gulliksen has a bit more time to practice and play. “We’ll still deploy, but now I’m in more of a staff capacity where I manage people from an office space.”

That’s better for his body, which was highly taxed during training and deployments overseas. “My shoulders hurt and it takes me a bit longer to warm up now. I’ve treated my body like an old rollercoaster at the amusement park. It’s rickety and now just creaks a lot.”

No matter what happens in the final stroke-play round Sunday on Old Macdonald (he hopes to be one of the 32 sides to qualify for match play), Gulliksen will continue to use the game as an escape from his day job while maintaining the proper perspective.

“A bad day on the golf course is not the end of the world,” he said. “Sometimes I get a little upset, but everyone does. It’s not life and death. Thinking how you play the game is what defines you as a person is really not how it is. It’s more about how you carry yourself and how you do things in life. I think that’s really important.”

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA digital channels. Email him at temackinjr@gmail.com.

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