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.


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

The Single, Part I

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.

I don’t take it personally. Golfing with a stranger isn’t preferred, but the muni will get as many paying golfers out as is possible, so the group is stuck with me and I’m stuck with them. Together we embark on a lesson of humility, punctuated by moments of pure contentment*. After four hours (if we’re lucky), or last light, we’ll fold into our respective cars without knowing each other’s last names, but we’ll drive away with an oddly intimate knowledge of one another. How we react to success and failure – our own, that of our friends, and even that of a stranger – these are parts of ourselves we don’t offer up so quickly in most every other scenario. 

I’ve played many rounds as the single in the last year. It’s a fascinating crapshoot with strangers. There’s a communal exchange taking place on the golf course that I’m not getting much of anywhere else these days in this phone-trance, headphone-wearing, socially-distant pandemic existence. Equally as important, golf has reminded me of a truth I never tire of re-learning: the ways in which people are weird is endless. That, and–goddamn–failure is an entertaining unifier.

A trip to Mexico with the in-laws is to blame for my return to golf after 20 years. While I love a pool, a book, and a margarita, I can’t lounge for a week straight. So when my father-in-law asked if we should play golf while on vacation, I didn’t hesitate. That led to some practice rounds prior to to the trip to avoid complete embarrassment on what looked like a very nice course hugging the ocean, which led to a friendly competition with my father-in-law, which led to driving range sessions, which led to twilight rounds as the single, which led to more rounds with my father-in-law, and now the brother-in-law has joined in the fun, too, and so here we are. All because I was worried about hanging out by a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean for too many days in a row. 

A year into the return, and the layoff still shows. I’ll chunk a couple most every round, and my swing can lose all tempo without notice. My entire rig is second-hand – a hodgepodge pulled out of the back corner of the in-laws’ garage. The magenta, purple, and teal bag has two working zippers and the phrase CART-TECH stenciled on it in white (and to answer your question, I don’t know just how much technology is needed to secure a golf bag to a cart, or how some copywriter in the marketing department hooked the S.V.P. of Bags at Spalding with “CART-TECH”). The clubs are a bouquet of leftovers—paint-chipped off-brands mixed in with household names: Warrior (driver I use), Calloway (driver that shouldn’t even be in the bag), Bushmills (sandwedge), Nitro Power Shot (irons, 5-wood), Odyssey (putter, left-handed), and the shaft of the 3-iron I broke at the range. 

So that group on the first tee, they spot all of that coming their way. I don’t care how gracious they might be, they see triple digits all over me. The thought all but radiates off them – what the hell are we in for? Like I said, it brings me a smile. Not because I’m there to prove them wrong (a round over a hundy is not yet completely out of the question) but because they have no idea how this will go, and neither do I. That not knowing is entertaining, a little exciting even. I’m easily amused.

What follows are some observations, guidelines, and stories from my year as the single. 

First Impressions

A hell of a lot about the group I join can be deducted before introductions. Accessories are a good place to start. As I walk from the proshop to the first tee, I’m looking for bag size, gear, attire. I’m scanning for head covers on irons, copper bracelets, guys wearing more than one item from Pebble Beach, TPC (any of them), the U.S. Open, or Augusta. Any combo of those accessories that adds up to over 2.5 and I might be in for a round of exclusive golf course name-dropping and networking jargon. Of course, there are exceptions, but—come on—not many. 

With the handshake out on I.R. the foreseeable future, I can’t fall back on approach, grip, and handshake duration for first impressions. Regardless of where someone might stand on the pandemic, it’s fascinating—like a bumper sticker—when someone chooses to skip the pleasantries and go straight to COVID on the introduction by saying something like, I mean, I’m fine shaking hands, but I guess we’re not doing that anymore. I can’t remember if his name is Beck or Brock, and yet I’m quite clear on his personal feelings about the global health crisis. I’m at the course to escape that topic for a few hours, my man. 

Right in that response, and how the other dudes in the group react to that intro between me and the alpha, will pretty much tip the hand of each guy’s role. There’s the suck-up sidekick, the fringe guy that’s been considering leaving this group for years; the dad that speaks for his almost adult son, the son that might trade his entire set of irons in exchange for this forced father-son bonding time to be over; the low-key burner, the vaper, the drinker, the dipper; the small-talk machine, the range-finder guy, the cigar dude. All shapes and sizes, folks, but always guys. I’ve yet to be added to a group that included a woman.

And then there is the issue of tees. The mainstay question of the first tee box has hung in the air waiting to be asked from the moment the starter tacked me onto the group: What tees are you playing from? I’m an easygoing to dude – I’ll play with the group – white or blue is fine. I ain’t hitting from the tips, and unless each member of the group has a handicap under 13, they can stop fooling themselves, too. 

All the pre-round routine is pushed aside when it’s time to actually put the ball in play. Of course, that first shot matters exactly as little as every other shot in the round, but goddamn does it feel good to split the fairway to get things started. For the short walk from the tee box to my ball, the group’s wondering how good I might be instead of how bad I might be.

And what about the thirty percent of the time I do shank that first drive into the cattails in front of the tee box? Without fail, and with seemingly best intentions, someone in the group of strangers will no doubt call out Breakfast ball! – the universal invitation to redo the tee-shot. It comes out friendly, encouraging, and most likely is, but make no mistake: this isn’t only about making me feel at ease – this is about how my approach to the game impacts their round. 

Truly, no harm is meant. And yet, take a step back and that interaction is pure insanity. After the first of what will very likely amount to over 90 shots, a complete stranger has encouraged me to cheat. He’s seen enough after one swing to make that call. 

Roles and Responsibilities

As the single, my job is simple. More or less, stay the hell out of the way. I achieve that with some basic etiquette and common sense that bends towards keeping things moving. Of course, I adhere to furthest from the pin shoots next, unless someone is punching out while a player further from the hole is waiting for the green to clear. I’m ready when it’s my turn to shoot – meaning I’ve lined up the shot, took my practice swings and I’m actually ready to address the ball. I note landmarks to errant drives off the tee and help look for the ball when it’s on the same side of the fairway as my shot (but he’s on his own if he sliced in when I’m on the left side of the fairway). I never spend more than a couple minutes looking for one of mine that’s gone deep into the woods or out of bounds. I give the green a once-over as we move to the next hole to see if anyone left a wedge on the fringe. 

While I do have a habit of forgetting a ball marker, I’d say I’m an otherwise solid single to the group. It seems simple, but the distinction is important: we’re in it together, but I am not a part of their thing. I can’t be an imposition to the rhythm of their group hang. I always listen to the conversation, react when something’s funny, and – only if I really got a good one – chime in with a one-liner, then back to the sidelines of the convo I go. Friendly, but not friends.  

The group’s responsibility to me is the absence of discomfort. Just don’t make it weird, man. Politics: let’s not. Don’t expect me to laugh when the alpha makes a crack about sidekick’s wife. In fact, let’s pull it back even further: pretty much anytime someone ends a statement with, am I right, Phil, they are not right and I do not want to be associated with whatever the hell was just said. Similarly, I didn’t pay $70 to be a bystander to fellas working through their rage issues on the course, and I don’t enjoy a walk through the humid silence that is father-son surrender: a dad who gave up on telling his smelly teenager to not swing so hard and—just maybe—try keep his head down, and the son who gave up on considering any idea his dad suggests for the next 5-7 years. 

On the topics of compliments – I keep them understated, and save them for compliment-worthy moments. A birdie putt, a nice up-and-down for par: a simple there is it gets the job done. Don’t fanboy when someone hits a long drive. I am in awe of Tiger Woods, of Dustin Johnson, of the amateurs keeping his composure on Saturday at Augusta; I will not be in awe of the high school kid who finally nutted a drive 290-yards down the fairway after 17 tries on the front nine. If someone does something special – say a chip in – then I let go and maybe mix in a well-placed expletive within the compliment. That’s a helluva goddamn shot sounds a lot more genuine than nice one!

As the single, I don’t want bullshit compliments from the group either. Don’t patronize. Just because I’m a 20 handicap doesn’t mean I confuse a good shot with a not terrible shot. Don’t compliment me when I hit a fat 5-iron 125 yards but straight by saying that’ll work; just leave me the hell alone and let me stew for the short walk to my ball. 

Next week: Part 2 of The Single: Fieldwork: a handful of my more memorable rounds and group encounters from my year as the single.

Week of April 19, 2019

Did not give up popcorn for Lent.

Reminder: Tiger Woods Won The Masters

It’s not even a week old, but Tiger’s unlikely Masters win, his fifteenth major victory, feels like such old news. We’ll get into why people care about this so much in a moment, but the sleazeball actually made it all the way back after his life and his body fell apart. Say what you want about the type of person he is, or has been (I don’t know; is he a ‘good guy’ now?), but it’s undeniably incredible that he came back to win another major after over a decade of setbacks – injuries, surgeries, infidelities, arrests, and just bad golf. Through it all, people held out hope to see this performance. We just kept waiting, long after we should have, and then it finally happened.

Tiger Woods is undeniably bland and boring and captivating and unique. The regular sports fan cares about Tiger playing golf; the regular sports fan doesn’t care about golf. I haven’t experienced an athlete with that much gravity in his or her sport. I’m guessing Ali was like that and maybe Babe Ruth. Whoever’s on that list, it’s a short list.

Needless to say, there was a few columns written about Tiger’s win at Augusta. I found this Drew Magary paragraph in particular to be the most resonant:

Athletes are measuring sticks. You measure their ability against yours and you measure their ability to handle pressure against your own, naturally. But you also measure their lives against your own. Their history is your history. They’re personal markers, just as certain movies and songs and pictures evoke moments from your youth that have grown warmer and fonder and perhaps more unattainable over time. I was rooting for Tiger yesterday, but to be more accurate: I was selfishly rooting to relive my own past. I was still in college and away on a semester abroad when Tiger Woods won his first Masters, back in 1997. I read all about his win in a hard copy of USA Today I got from a newsstand in England, because reading news online wasn’t a thing most people did back then. He was already the biggest name in golf even before he won that first title, and he has remained the biggest name in the sport—perhaps all of sports—as he’s toiled for the past 11 years and change to assume his throne once more.

Magary’s onto something here. I was absolutely pulling for Tiger, and afterwards I wondered why. I really wanted him to win, and it just might be because no other golfer serves as personal marker on my life. I also just want to witness historic moments in sports. There are very few events when you know something historic is taking place in the moment. – PAL

Source: Un-Fucking-Real”, Drew Magary, Deadspin (4/14/19)

Pesky Morality

We’ve posted a lot of stories about CTE over the years. Heartbreaking personal stories, medical stories, political stories; this issue flows into so many facets of culture and very well could be the defining sports story of our generation.

This week, Michael Powell wrote about another scenario in which CTE cannot be ignored. When a college wants to hire a coach, that needs to be approved by a board of regents, as was the case at the University of Colorado recently. Mel Tucker’s five-year, $14.75MM contract went to the board for a vote. That vote comes with some culpability.

The nation’s universities face a more ticklish problem known as morality. These institutions were founded with the purpose of developing and educating young minds. It is difficult to square that mission with the fate of those like running back  Rashaan Salaam, who ran so beautifully for the University of Colorado and then as a pro, and like Drew Wahlroos, a fearless, rampaging Colorado linebacker. Both men suffered emotional and cognitive problems that friends and family and even university officials related to thousands of hits taken over the course of their careers. Each killed himself.

In what I’m sure would be seen as high comedy on the campuses of Ohio State, Clemson, or Alabama, two regents at Colorado voted against the hiring. It wasn’t as much about Tucker as it was about their belief that football is an unsafe game.

Regent Linda Shoemaker: “I really thought at first that we could play football safely with better rules and better equipment; I drank the Kool-Aid. I can’t go there anymore. I don’t believe it can be played safely anymore. I want these young men to leave C.U. with minds that have been strengthened, not damaged.”

Wherever you come down on CTE and football (or any sport connected to CTE), what this story highlights is the fact that this issue touches all of us. It’s not just isolated to locker rooms and athletic departments; we vote and pay taxes that go schools that field football teams. Those institutions, and the student body, are our responsibility, and that – man, that really hit home reading this story. – PAL

Source: At Colorado, a Breach in Football’s Wall”, Michael Powell, The New York Times (4/18/19)

Video of the Week: More of this, please.

Tweet of the Week: 

PAL Song of the Week: John Prine – “A Good Time”


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