As we grapple with a crisis, golf matters now more than ever
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.— Golf (with a capital letter G) has now been postponed indefinitely with a slew of big-time professional tournaments rightfully getting shut down amidst a global pandemic. But golf – the charming, timeless, mind-body challenge that bewitches and bedevils us all – has never been more vital. This was driven home for me in the soft twilight of Thursday evening, when Michael Bamberger and I took refuge at Oceanside Country Club, down the coast from TPC Sawgrass. We both arrived battered by the relentless assault of bad news and reeling from the implications for our loved ones and society as a whole. There was an unsteadiness, too, from suddenly being unmoored from the foundation of our lives. We’re both golf lifers, the Tour calendar defining our existence. Grandma wants to come visit the kids? Gotta squeeze it in between Pebble and Torrey. What is springtime without the Masters? The summer without the Opens serving as brackets? Mike and I commiserated in low voices in the parking lot while slipping on our winged-tipped golf shoes. (He’s an old-school purist and it’s rubbed off.)
Oceanside is a charmer, a beautiful, tactical challenge that dates to 1907. I made a mess of the first hole, what should be a straightforward par-4. Short of the green in three, I played a tasty recovery, to five feet. Is there anything in life more life-affirming than picking a wedge clean off a tight lie? I drilled the left-edge slider for bogey and Michael launched into a familiar monologue; he’s not great on the shorties and whenever I hole one he lavishes me with praise as if I’m the young Ben Crenshaw. More than the stakes of our match or the numbers on the scorecard, it is Michael’s enthusiasm that makes me want to make every putt.
Bags slung over a shoulder, sun on our backs, we lost ourselves in the pleasures of the game. I didn’t have my best stuff – the stress of the preceding days had crept into my swing tempo – but I fought hard trying to stay in the match against Michael, who was expertly playing high cuts with his driver, low draws with his irons and all manner of crafty ground-game chips and pitches. I will admit to a profound character flaw, which can charitably be ascribed to competitiveness: even when playing against close friends I occasionally root against them in my head. But not on this day – I was having a blast watching Mike do his thing. Driving the ball poorly can put me in a funk but I found myself enjoying the challenge of dismantling my swing into its component parts and trying to reassemble it in real-time.
Having something else to think about was liberating. We chatted here and there about our families, office politics and about the book he just published and one I just finished typing. On some holes we hardly talked at all, instead walking fast and playing our shots quickly. That was okay, too.
Over the first eight holes Mike and I had the course to ourselves but we arrived on the tee of the 9th hole – a superb downhill par-3 playing back toward the clubhouse – just as a shotgun start was being organized. The Thursday night men’s league is an Oceanside tradition and would play on no matter how sobering the news; the beverage cart was loaded with all manner of liquor but the only sustenance was a forlorn tin of peanuts. A dozen carts were roaring past the 9th tee when I made my best swing of the day, with a 5-iron, my ball tearing through the wind and flying right over the flag. A guy in one of the carts clapped. In the toilet paper aisle at Costco he might not be so collegial, but golf has a way of bringing people together. Whenever we subsequently crossed paths with the fellas they were laughing and carrying on. Now more than ever, we need golf. The open space and fresh air is therapeutic but the companionship is more important. I had spent the previous 24 hours staring at my phone as it disgorged all manner of horrors. It felt so isolating. Hearing the bonhomie of my fellow golfers was sweet music.
Mike and I played into the back-nine. It was a warm evening and the breeze off the ocean felt wonderful. On the edge of the 14th fairway a man was walking his golden retriever. I called the pooch over and smothered him with so much love an impressive amount of fur floated down the fairway on the wind. In that moment I missed my puppy terribly and it compounded what was already an aching homesickness. To be thousands of miles from my family during a crisis – covering a golf tournament, of all things – made me feel adrift and useless. The dog trotted away and I headed to the green. Mike was patiently waiting for me there, having played the shot of the day by feeding his approach off of a slope back toward a devilish pin. He won that hole and then the next one with a birdie, and I was 3-down with three holes to play. But a clutch chip helped me take the 16th hole and I won the par-5 17th with a birdie of my own. (The sight of my hybrid rocketing toward the pin shall not soon be forgotten by this correspondent.)
By the time we got to 18 I was starving, my back was tight, my right big toe was throbbing and I’ve never felt lighter. Per our ornate agreement, I was giving Mike a half-stroke on the hole. After we each suffered a series of misadventures I faced a do-or-die 8-footer for bogey. I hit a pretty good putt but under-read the break and missed on the low-side. Ordinarily I would have been gutted to lose our match but this time I just threw my head back and laughed. As always, there was no money on the line, just pride. I was happy for Mike that he had summoned such fine play. And even with a closing double bogey I felt so much freer than when we had started our round three-and-a-half hours earlier. Mike and I have teed it up together from the linksland of Scotland to the dunes of Pacific Grove muni and everywhere in between. At the end of our round we did what we always do: we shook hands. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest move, but it felt right.
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