For speedgolfer Steve Vancil, the game gets better the faster he plays
by Josh Gaunt
Imagine shooting a round of 69. And doing it in less than 45 minutes.
That is a typical day in the life of speedgolfer Steve Vancil, who has won a World Team Championship in the sport that adds your score and overall time to determine a winner.
Perhaps the necessary attributes needed to be a good speedgolfer were acquired when he learned as a kid helping on his neighbor’s ranch in John Day, Ore., where he also began playing golf with his grandparents.
“They liked to golf at their local course, and I was able to play when I visited,” Vancil said. “I was there fairly often, as my parents would ship me out to work on relatives’ farms or ranches in order to teach me how to work hard. Apparently, they were worried about me.”
Vancil grew up playing basketball and baseball until the fear of a high school baseball coach caused him to start playing golf instead. He turned down opportunities to play basketball in college so he could major in chemical engineering at Oregon State University.
“I did have a good scoring average, and once shot 65 in a high school tournament, but no one really knew about me,” Vancil said. “I was a basketball player.”
At OSU, Vancil decided to try out for the golf team and was told by the head coach that he had never heard of him, so he was going to get cut after tryouts. Even after eight qualifying rounds in which he finished in the top 10, he was cut.
After college he became a math teacher, landing his first job in Roseburg, Ore. where his golf game began to take off at Roseburg Country Club.
“It was the perfect place for me to start playing a lot,” Vancil says. “I eventually started playing in amateur events and doing well, including winning the Portland City Championship (when it was a match play event) and ended up beating a couple of OSU golfers on my way to winning. I kept improving, always working at a course in order to be able to afford to play. I also qualified for a couple of USGA championships, two Public Links.”
Later, Vancil started coaching boys golf when he was teaching in Oregon City.
“The fun part was recruiting athletes to play golf,” he recalls. “After three years I didn’t have any superstars, but we did finish fifth in state one year.”
After a set of layoffs in education in the early 1990s, Vancil decided to become a professional golfer in 1992.
“I struggled in my first year as a pro,” Vancil said. “Eventually I qualified for the Canadian Tour, where I played for three years. I used to hang out with Tim Herron, Mike Weir and John Miller, Jr. The biggest problem for me was believing in myself; it drove my wife crazy. In her mind, I was the best athlete out there, but I would stop being athletic when I played in tournaments.”
Hit quit professional golf after the 1996 season, and stopped playing altogether for two years but continued to work at Arrowhead Golf Club running the junior program and in the pro shop. He regained his amateur status in 1998. He went back to teaching math.
Eventually the golf bug bit him again after having kids.
“I started running and playing golf before my shift started at 7:00am in the summers,” Vancil said. “I would then shower and work. It took a member to mention to me that they had tournaments for running golf. So, I entered a couple and did fairly well. I found I played just as well running and playing. I didn’t have to visualize the shot; I would just get up there and hit it.”
Vancil began speedgolfing at the age of 43. In one major speedgolf tournament, The U.S. National Championship, Vancil qualified as one of the top four and played in a 9-hole playoff, finishing fourth.
His big win came in the 2018 World Team Championships where Vancil was paired with Eri Crum who played for Stanford. They made the top four, and then won in a 6-hole playoff.
When Vancil’s daughter started playing high school golf, it reignited his passion to coach.
“She was just doing it as something to do between soccer and basketball,” he says. “I started volunteering as a coach at Clackamas High School. Coaching my daughter and then seeing her decide to play golf in college has been really fun. We thought she was going to play soccer, but she decided she wanted to play a sport in which she was in charge of whether she played or not. Play well, and you’re in. She has one more year of eligibility left at Northwest Nazarene University.”
Speedgolf was a way Vancil connected with his dad as they traveled together to tournaments before his dad passed away in 2021 from lung cancer.
“We would use tournaments to travel all over the U.S. and had plans to go to Japan to play in the world championships being held there, but COVID happened and my dad got lung cancer,” Vancil says. “It has been hard getting back into speedgolf tournaments, as he was my traveling partner. I am feeling the urge again, though, as both my daughter and son have said they would join me. I am getting older, and although I run well for a 58-year-old, it is not quite as good as when I was 30.”
Last year Vancil competed in the U.S. Senior Amateur in the first year he attempted to qualify for the national championship.
“Playing at the Senior Amateur was pretty special,” he says. “I wish I played better, but I am still trying to balance teaching, and golf, and other jobs like working at Arrowhead and sometimes it is hard to be ready to play. I did have fun, and it motivated me to continue to try to play in USGA events.”
He’ll make it a game at any speed.
Josh Gaunt is a writer and former sports reporter for The News-Review and other publications in southern Oregon, which included coverage of the University of Oregon.