The single golfer

December 29, 2011

I think of myself as a fairly social being — I can be alone, most of my work is done alone, but when work is over I feel I need to be with people (and with dogs). We entertain a bit, we go out often.

There are even some things I simply will not do alone. I will not eat solo in a restaurant; when I’m traveling by myself I make a habit of room service. I won’t go to a bar unless I know friends will be there. I do not drink alone. I sometimes, for professional reasons, have to go to the movies alone but I don’t really enjoy it.

It’s not morality that informs these choices, or even self-discipline. The fact is I feel odd doing these things without company. I admire the single ladies who can take a book with them to supper in a high-end restaurant. I’m just too self-conscious to do that. Maybe too vain — maybe I’m at some level convinced that everyone in the restaurant will take note of my staghood.

But I like to play golf alone.

Don’t misunderstand, I generally like playing with other people too and I’ve had some great times with partners I’ve only just met. And there are guys I play with on a regular basis, and I enjoy them and our games. But I really like going out early in the morning, being the first one off the tee, playing at my own quick pace. And thinking about nothing but golf.

I am an OK player, but how well I play — or what I score — really isn’t the point. At least not when I’m a single. When I’m playing alone I’ll often hit two or three balls — I’ll carry a couple of drivers and play the Ping against the Titleist; I’ll drop a ball 200 hundred yards out and try to chase it on the green with one less club than I usually hit from that distance. I’ll tee off a par three with a club more than I usually hit, and try to feather a high fade in instead of my usual draw. I move fast, I never hold anyone up, but I play in a way that I don’t when I’m playing with other people.

I usually don’t keep score when I play by myself — I usually know what I’m shooting, but I don’t write anything down. Or maybe I’ll chart every shot, precise yardages, what club I hit, how far from the hole I had with my first putt — GPS has made it easy for me to get a sense of how far I really hit each club — I’m as long as I’ve ever been with my irons (my four and five iron are TaylorMade Burner 2.0s, and they are rocket launchers, but my six through pitching wedge are just Mizuno blades, not that different from the clubs I hit in the 1970s) and it’s harder for me to hit it as far with the driver as I used to (but then, I was relatively long — TMFW can vouchsafe the fact I’ve won a few long drive contests in my day). Every once in a while I can pop one, but I wouldn’t say I hit it long anymore. (“I grow old… I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”)

But I only move up to the white tees when I have company. I am not long, but still long enough to play the game — though I worry more about losing distance than yipping putts. And if my short game was any good, it mightn’t matter anyway.

I have always enjoyed playing by myself — I liked shooting baskets alone in the gym too; and as a boy I developed my shooting eye by nailing a coffee can — not the largest size, but one barely wide enough to accommodate the softball I spent hours tossing at it — to the facing of an eave. I developed a way to practice baseball by myself by tossing a tennis ball hard against the concrete wall of our garage and swinging at its rebound. (Yes, quick hands — but not much power.)

And when I first started playing golf I played with my father — but soon I was spending days by myself at the Barksdale Air Force Base golf course. None of my friends really played, and I was too shy to play with grown-ups (not always, in high school I even gambled with some of them — sorry, Mom, that’s how I really was able to buy the Toyota station wagon with the bullet hole in the back; delivering flyers was not very lucrative).

In high school I played on the golf team and had a regular foursome — but I still liked to play by myself. It has cost me very little over the years — some people probably think me aloof, and I’ve had three holes-in-one that no witness can attest to (one on a par four!), but that’s about all I can think of. I like playing with my friends but they either have quit playing or prefer to play at different times than I do (I can’t stand the weekend afternoon slow ball crawls — I love you guys but can only play so many scramble tournaments).

When — after a decade hiatus from the game — I was convinced to come back to it (by Karen, who probably wanted me out of the house more often), I decided I wouldn’t be the kind of golfer I had been. Instead I’d be a social golfer — I’d play on weekends, with my buddies, with my wife (Karen played for a while, showed some potential but ultimately proved too sensible for the game — she still has her clubs but hasn’t touched them for years). I wouldn’t be the obsessive I had been before.

That lasted a few weeks. Then I discovered I could still play a little. I could be as good a golfer as I ever had been. I could even be better. Oh Lord.

I only feel like I play better by myself — I play freer and take more risks and I don’t worry much about results. When I play tournament golf I am conservative — I make few bogeys and even fewer birdies. When I play alone I can run off strings of either; but I don’t really think much about the bad holes, or the bad days. If I play really awfully, I’ll just quit sooner.

They say sports does not build character so much as reveal it, and I think that’s right. Or at least I think the greatest value of athletic endeavor is that it teaches you your physical limits, it demonstrates the boundaries of the possible. There are things I used to be able to do that I can’t — that I’ll not do again. And there are others who do things I cannot with relative ease. Sports humble all most all of us who play them — there comes a point when we will ultimately fail at them, and it makes no difference how much we want it to be otherwise.

One of the things golf has taught me about myself — there is quit in my game. I am not the sort of competitor some people are, and many claim to be. I am too philosophical perhaps, or maybe I simply don’t want it the way the singleminded seem to. I used to get frustrated playing basketball at the Y with guys who seemed to want to prove that they had, if not his gifts, at least had the fire and the tenacity of Michael Jordan. In most sports, I seem to play up or down to the level of my competition, but I don’t have that much vested in the outcome. I would rather stay friendly than destroy you — if you mean to destroy me I will play hard. Up to a point.

When golf frustrates me, I let it go. I don’t grind out the bad holes — if it ceases to be fun, I walk in. By the time I’ve slammed the hatch on my car, I’ve forgotten the round.

And so I always think of myself as just a bit better than I probably am — I know what I’m capable of doing; I know I can reach the 550-yard par five in two if my tee shot catches the hard spot on the right side of the fairway and I murder the four-wood. I have done it. I will not likely do it today, or the next time I play, but I have the shot, the potential.

And I will do it again. After it warms up, when the back gets limber. If you drive it 240 in the wet and cold, you might get 30 more yards in the dry summer? Right?

Anyway, I went out the day after Christmas (I missed the rain) and played. And I played again yesterday. And I played all right. If I’d made some putts I’d have shot a score.

I don’t know whether people think it’s pathetic or not, to see a grown man walking the course — sweeping the dew — all by himself on a 45 degree morning. But I like it, and it gives me the opportunity to think about nothing but the game’s peculiar sensations and its contrarian physics. It pleases me to feel the ball melt into the center of the clubface, to manipulate the trajectory of the ball’s flight seemingly with my mind. (I know it is a subtle change in the angle of attack, that I am ever so slightly de-lofting the club but it feels like mind control — more Uri Geller than Seve Ballesteros.)

I like thinking about the technical things — and about the magic. And about the nothingness that attends a well-struck iron, the vanishing and the click.

I like to golf alone. Is that so wrong?


  • Comment by DLindsay — Dec 29,2011 at 7:18 am

    Sounds like you’re having a hell of a good time out there, PM. And what could be wrong with that?

  • Comment by tmfw — Dec 30,2011 at 5:06 pm

    I can certainly attest to the fact that Phil has won the long drive in at least 3 scramble tournaments I dragged him into. We would have won a couple more if he could have kept the damn thing in the fairway. And I was there when he put his golf GPS on the ground beside the ball to prove that he had hit it 280 yds as depicted above. The boy can still go.

  • Comment by Uncleredeye — Jan 10,2012 at 9:49 pm

    Coming to golf at age 50 has its advantages and disadvantages. Of course the biggest disadvantage is that I will never be really good at something that now means so much to me. But, it was enjoyable reading this column and understanding most of what you were trying to say and also understanding that so much of the attraction of the game is beyond expression.

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