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.