Letter of Recommendation: Golfing With Strangers

What happens when you go to a public golf course all alone — at least in a city dense with golfers like New York or Los Angeles, where I grew up — is somebody puts your name on a waiting list and, after some time, plugs you into a group of strangers with whom you’ll spend the next five hours in close proximity. I spend most of the rest of my life avoiding intimate time with strangers. Imagine if, going to a movie alone, you had to shake hands with everyone in your row. Or if, on a solo trip to a restaurant, the host seated you at a table with a party of three and expected you to converse with them until midnight. Not my thing — and possibly why I dread being seated at the odds-and-ends table at weddings.

But knocking around with strangers on golf courses has always been, for me, something different. And, weirdly, I’ve been doing it most of my life. I contracted the golf virus when I turned 10, right as Tiger won his third consecutive United States Amateur title. I started playing, mostly with my grandma, several days a week, and before long I was heading out solo any afternoon I could, getting dropped off after school. These were public golf courses around Los Angeles, among the busiest in the country, which is why you don’t end up playing by yourself much. At one favorite, Los Verdes, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, I remember fivesomes stacked up sunup to sundown. I would hop out of mom’s minivan, give my name to the starter, practice my putting. When I would hear my name called (“Riley, single, off the waiting list”), I would throw down my cash for the junior rate (5 bucks, usually), stroll up to my unsuspecting adult playing partners on the first tee, and we would be off.

Conversation on a golf course is its own kind of chatter. The small talk is relevant: There is always the shift in the wind or the yardage to the pin or the speed of this green versus that last one to blab about. Golf is also forward-moving. You’re never just stuck there. A lot of people with children say it’s easier to talk to them in the car; when everyone’s staring straight ahead, the revelations start to flow. Golf is like that. Your eyes are always directed down the fairway, even if you’re talking about layoffs or dead dads. The overlaps with strangers may not always be obvious. But you feel around. You shine your flashlight into the cave and see if maybe you’re fans of the same burger chain or whatever.

A significant slice of the pie chart of useless stuff I learned in those years came from the strangers I golfed with, people who, remember, were playing a public golf course in the middle of a weekday afternoon with a tween. Never live in Boston. Vacation in Thailand. I remember two middle-aged brothers imploring me to take two commandments away from our time together: 1) Never get married. 2) Date strippers. I remember, one summer afternoon, asking a guy I was paired with what he “did for a living,” and when he told me, I asked if he knew our family friend, who I thought did the same thing. He went pale and explained that our family friend was in fact his boss, that he’d called in sick that day, that he would appreciate it if I, 12-year-old “Riley-single,” would mind not narcing on him to his superior.

I remember being paired with my Dad’s last girlfriend before he married my mom. I remember a young Korean guy whipping out a Bible on the 14th fairway of Los Verdes and using our final hour together as the sun set over the ocean to make his pitch for accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I remember a lot of attempts at conversion, actually. I remember another guy’s opening line: “Daniel: strong biblical name. …” I remember a P.E. teacher who claimed to have legally changed his strong biblical name to “Phys Ed.” There were so many real estate agents, former pro football players, pilots, surgeons and soldiers. They represented a spectrum of potential paths, potential lives.

After a while, I started playing more tournaments, more private courses, fewer rounds off the waiting list. Then I started pulling away from golf. I was bringing books and a CD player to the course. By the end of high school, I started developing what I now recognize (not exactly proudly) to be my default state: earbuds in, lips zipped, a book to read during a delay for whatever — whether a doctor’s appointment or a tee shot on a Par 3.

But I remember the round that snapped me out of it. It was maybe five years ago, the first time I played Bethpage Black, that famed major championship site and public golf mecca. The whole thing with Bethpage Black is that people sleep in their cars to get a chance to play off the waiting list. Bethpage Black is the Carnegie Hall of playing off the waiting list. I took the train out there to play one of the other Bethpage courses, but there was an unheard-of opening on the Black, right there, right that minute, if I was ready to go. The guys I was paired with that day were firefighters from Long Island. The whole scene was the precise picture of what I’d imagined a public course on Long Island might look and sound like. On paper, we didn’t have much in common. But we’d come to the same place that morning, for the same reason, and we were staring down the barrel of five hours together.

It’s different playing off the waiting list as an adult than as a kid. Frankly, it’s less weird. My playing partners don’t feel the need to sum up their lives and transmit wisdom. That day at Bethpage, we were all just happy to hear someone else talk for a little while.

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