The Single, Part 2

Observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single golfer. 

They spot me coming towards them on the first tee. Ragged bag, hand-me-down clubs, trail running shoes. Their practice swings stall. What the hell are we in for? Brings me a smile every time. 

I am the single. The one guy the group hopes to not encounter.

Fieldwork

Now that we’ve established a smattering of guidelines in Part 1 of The Single, here are a few of my more memorable stories from my rounds as the single. Let’s start with the nightmares. 

I joined a pair at Boundary Oak, a nice public course in an upper-middle class suburb in the East Bay (tip if you ever play there: every putt breaks towards the hospital). There was Teddy, a husky lefty, and a guy we’ll just call D-Bag. D-Bag definitely spent more on his clubs than I do on rent, he wore a white U.S. Open (Pebble Beach) hat and had one of those annoying, metal tags from Pebble clanged against his bag the entire round. They played from the tips, but to their credit these guys were both around a 10 handicap. 

There was something from the jump about D-Bag’s entire presence that didn’t jive. Everything about him was perfect, new, expensive, and unloved if I’m being honest. And he spoke to Teddy, who I learned later in the round worked with D-Bag, as if Teddy was his caddie. Friendly at times, but a resource, a less than. 

We teed off at perhaps the busiest time on a golf course – 1:30 on a Sunday. The group ahead of us was a dad and two of his boys. It was clear early on that neither the dad nor the kids were anywhere near good at golf. Boundary is a nice course with challenging greens, but it’s also a public course and it was Sunday afternoon. With the way courses having been jamming in tee times tighter and tighter this pandemic year, this was going to be a five-hour round for us whether or not the dad with the kids hitting worm-burners was in front of us. If rate of play was important to D-Bag, then he wouldn’t have booked a tee time for 1:30 on a Sunday. 

By the fourth hole, D-Bag is standing on the tee box with his hands on his hips staring at the dad who did nothing more than seemingly help out his spouse by taking the kids out of the house for the afternoon. D-Bag is beside himself, providing commentary to a silent audience of Ted and me. 

I mean, there are par threes for this kind of crap…My kids will know basic etiquette before we ever come out to a course like this…this is ridiculous. I’m calling the marshall (which he did). 

By hole 8, D-Bag made a weak attempt at a joke, implying that the dad and his wife were divorced and it was his turn to have the kids for the weekend. He said something along the lines of how the dad has fulfilled his responsibilities as co-parent and that by now he could probably just drop them back off with their mother. This guy’s awfulness would’ve been comic if I wasn’t there choking on it. Nope, this guy was real, and he really sucked this much. Unsurprisingly, D-Bag was a mental midget, his game started to go sideways, and he obviously blamed it on the family in front of us. 

I finally said something at the turn. My round was already pretty much shot because of this guy. Not scoring-wise—I did that on my own—but the discomfort rule was shattered, so I went into a bit of a “f-it” mode. I reminded him that it was Sunday afternoon, that obviously the course is going to be busy, and this exactly the time a dad is going to come out and work through a round with his kids. He pretended to agree—I know, but…—and then proceeded to say how there are rules and expectations. By the time Teddy drained a 20-footer for birdie on the par 3 17th, I was openly rooting for him to beat D-Bag. 

I can’t stand elitism in any sport, but there’s a pungent brand of elitism that hovers over a sport that’s already elitist. It’s such an overcooked cliche, like a musician with a drug problem or an abusive dad in a Pat Conroy novel.

Speaking of drugs, let me tell you about my 18 holes at Chabot with 3 late 40s/ early 50s guys. The first bump of cocaine came out on the hole 3 tee box.

Did I mind? Hell, it took me a minute to register just what was going on. The insurance salesman asked if I mind that he snorts cocaine off a key on hole 3 for a 1:45 tee time on a Friday? Dude, I don’t care what you do, but maybe you should start caring a bit more. You’re too old to be doing coke in any company or setting, much less multiple bumps with some rando around (me) on a C+ muni.

I was avoiding any part in the conversation by the time the jokes got racial and directed at the black guy in the trio. He went along with it, which didn’t make it any less unsettling.

Most experiences as the single range from unnoteworthy (which is good) to a pleasant afternoon playing golf and having a random conversation with a couple random people. Not long ago, I found myself standing on the back of a golf cart, holding onto the roof with one hand and cold beer from a guy in the group in the other. We were trying to sneak in 9 at Tilden (right behind the UC Berkeley campus) before dark, and the high school kids in front of us were taking forever on the downhill par 4, so—at my suggestion—we decided to skip ahead in search of some open fairways. I started walking, but the group insisted I jump on the back of the cart. Two minutes earlier, one guy in the group had offered me a beer in such a genuine way that didn’t feel bad accepting. We looked like a clown car as we passed the high schoolers in the fairway…and when we passed them again making our way back up the hill. The slow play was not the kids, and I held on as the cart struggled back up the hill to the tee box from which we came. 

I played with three high-schoolers in the summer, and it reminded me of summer as a teenager just looking for something—anything—to do on a random weeknight. I played with a couple of young guys working at the nearby resort up in Tahoe for the summer who played every Tuesday afternoon. Part of their summer routine during a season that was anything but routine. One of them was probably in his late 20s, while the other was maybe 19 and from New York. Every instinct in me said the older guy was letting this kid from across the country tag along in a resort town with hardly any visitors. 

I played with a group of special ed teachers who were legit funny. The few good shots were celebrated by the group, the many bad shots were shrugged off, and I walked beside them mostly silent enjoying the rhythm of the conversation. Only old friends can find the pocket of a conversation like that. Made me want to get a regular round going with a group of my friends. Made me miss my college buddies and acknowledge this is one of the million small things given up when I moved far from home. 

Kudos to Tilden for being a dog-friendly course. Also, check out the young bucks dashing across the third fairway.

And finally there’s Wayne. My brother-in-law, Jack, and I had finished an early morning round at Eagle Vine in Napa. With the afternoon open, we opted to go back out for another 18 when a scheduled group was miraculously running late. Wayne joined us as the single. 

Wayne was a classic baseball dad. He rocked a hat from a trip to Wrigley that I’d bet anything was purchased from a street vendor and wore the golf spikes equivalent of chunky New Balance. He lit up when told us about his son playing college baseball, and couldn’t help but tell us about the kid’s pitching performance in a high school title game. Wayne was also a solid golfer with a classic retired guy game: consistent off the tee, lethal with the wedges. No flash, but no blow-ups either. Jack and I shouted when he chipped in from 25-yards early in the round. Wayne beamed at our big reaction. The shot set the tone for the afternoon, even as my game fell apart. He got a kick out of our enthusiasm. 

Wayne would join the conversation for some holes, and he’d keep to himself on others. We talked about vacations, his family, and baseball stories with his son. I have no idea what he did for work. Wayne mastered the role of the single. Even his name was perfect.

At some point after all of these rounds, Natalie and I will chat about the round for 10 minutes or so. We might spend a minute or two on how I played, and even that’s too long. The rest of the time is about the people I meet. Vignettes about some new character that’s in and out of our lives. Fresh stories to sip on. Unfamiliar names, new idiosyncrasies.

I’m not trying to inflate golf to be more than it is, which is an entry point. Of course there are many ways to interact with new people – join a casting club, a running club, a book club. Volunteer. Coach. Introduce yourself to the new neighbors, to the old guy who walks around the lake the same time as you, the barista at the local coffee shop. Golfing as the single has just been my (re)entry point, a reminder of how enjoyable, hilarious, strange, and important it is to talk with strangers. To participate alongside someone I don’t know and with whom I might not agree on anything else other than wanting to play a round of golf – I have a need for it. 

Phil Lang

Other miscellaneous observations from my year as the single:

  • You’re likely to have a good round with
    • Retired guys
    • Dad’s playing with adult children
    • High school kids – they are funny and uncomfortable, and it’s hilarious to watch them interact. Also, generally speaking, young people make for an enjoyable golf group. 
    • Slow burns – it’s not a bad sign at all if the first 4-5 holes are pretty quiet. It’s far likelier that this group will grow on you than a group that starts hot with the jokes and the beers on hole 1. 
    • From Part I, I had a note from the opening about bliss and contentment. Bliss is watching the ball you just hit squarely in flight. There are no other thoughts – the world pauses – as you stay in perfect balance and the ball reaches its apex just before its descent. 
  • You were warned if 
    • If they brought speaker for music
      • Aside: my brother-in-law and I shot up to Napa for an 7AM tee-time a month back, and the dudes we’re playing with have Mumford & Sons playing by the second tee. 7:30 is too early for music, and especially too early for “Hopeless Wanderer”, and – while I love music greatly – can there be a few places in the world where we can just listen to the sound of nature? 
    • a group of dudes roughly my age playing golf is a huge coin flip, and – generally speaking, are the worst.
    • First-time golfers – I’m all for learning – and they have every right to be on the course, but it sucks when you’re number has been called. 
    • Dudes wearing white pants.
  • I don’t need a guy to mark his ball after missing a 5-footer for triple bogey; go ahead and finish out. 
  • Yes – repair a divot or two on the green, but don’t be the guy that’s making it a big to-do, lecturing the group about how, if everyone fixed a couple divots on the green, then they wouldn’t be in such bad shape. 
  • Let’s talk head cover to club ratios. For woods, head covers are given, although I do judge a man with a cartoon character head cover – the Tasmanian Devil, Pink Panther, or – of course, the gopher from Caddie Shack. Overly accessorizing the golf club tells me one of the following is true: your family has run out of present ideas, or you bought them yourself, which means you have much too much free time. Putter covers – I’ll say it’s OK, but only because my brother in-law uses one and he’s a very nice person and genuinely A+ guy to golf with. Iron covers are not acceptable. 
  • Rate of play – It’s a real thing