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Characters | Ruffin Beckwith

Ruffin Beckwith left success in the world of golf for a chance to see the rest of the world

By: Thomas Dunne

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of LINKS.

FOR MOST PEOPLE, retirement is a prime opportunity to make up for lost time on the golf course. But what about those who’ve spent their entire lives around the game? Ruffin Beckwith came up with a novel answer.

“Like a lot of big ideas, it started as a small idea,” he says in an April Fool’s Day phone interview from Salta, Argentina. The 64-year-old from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, was in this city of half a million preparing to embark on an expedition to the Puna de Atacama—one of the most beautiful and remote regions of the Andes mountains. “I was a little restless being retired. I felt like I was slipping into a rut.”

He started paying attention to the kinds of emails most of us delete on the spot: Stuff with subject lines like “Live Like A King For $700/Month…in Ecuador!” He thought about traveling for a month or two, then conversations with friends reminded him of the bucket-list-type places he wanted to see—Angkor Wat, Easter Island, the Taj Mahal. “I began to wonder,” he says, “could I really do something for a full year? And that idea just didn’t go away.” Thus started an epic global adventure, one that began with a successful ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro last June and ends with his homecoming this month. 

Beckwith recently wound down a career in golf remarkable as much for its diversity as for its success. Hired as a writer by Golf World in the early 1970s, he became well known as a golf photographer. “We had a lot of really good equipment lying around and no one knew how to use it,” he jokes. Self-taught, he captured some of that era’s iconic images: His famous shot of Jack Nicklaus following his 1978 Open win at the Old Course is said to be Barbara Nicklaus’s favorite photo of her husband.

In the 1980s, Beckwith started moving into executive roles with the LPGA and PGA Tours, culminating in a position as the executive director of the World Golf Village, where he masterminded the creation of the World Golf Hall of Fame as well as high-profile industry affairs like the annual “Golf 20/20” summit. 

His approach to travel has placed a similar value on gathering diverse experiences, from physical challenges to cultural immersion to simply enjoying the good life. “A few things fell together while I was traveling,” he says. “My college roommate invited me to go sailing in Croatia. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ Another friend: ‘Hey, I’ve got a great villa in Tuscany, maybe you could spend a week there?’ I said, ‘Yes, I could!’” As one would expect from a year-long odyssey, though, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. He’s endured everything from “hidden” visa tariffs in Argentina to knee surgery in Austria. “But at least I haven’t needed the Imodium yet," he laughs.

From the beginning, Beckwith knew he wanted volunteerism to be a major piece of his journey. Asked to highlight a single indelible memory from his travels, he didn’t hesitate: “The kids I taught school to in Nepal. I’ve learned a lot about myself on this trip, one of the big things being that I probably should’ve been a teacher.” Through an organization called Projects Abroad, Beckwith found himself in a school outside Kathmandu, roughing it in a nearby hostel without electricity or Western toilets. “I was supposed to teach them English, but their English was already so good I wound up teaching them various kinds of writing, everything from creative assignments to letters to the editor to personal essays. One day I did this thing for the whole school. The only place they could gather everyone was outside, so we’re standing out there freezing. I’ve got a map of the world. The assignment was, ‘If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?’ I asked them ‘Who would you take with you? What do you want to learn?,’ that kind of thing. And they started reading their essays. Some of them brought me to tears. One guy I’d grown close to over the weeks couldn’t even finish. Those kids were amazing. I want to get back and see them again.” 

Ruffin Beckwith is writing a book about his year of adventure and personal discovery. In the meantime, his excellent travel journal can be found at ruffinontheroad.com.

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