Of friends and foes: every golf-buddy relationship is different. But as these five noted writers reveal, on-course friendships have this much in common: they’re what make the game so great
By Richard M. Smith
LIKE MANY A GOLF FRIENDSHIP, ours began on the whim of a starter. When I showed up as a single at a little public course on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, the starter raced out in a cart to hook me up with a twosome well down the first fairway. That’s when I met Mark Vittert, a summer resident from St. Louis. I live in the New York area and only get to my home state of Michigan for two or three weeks each August, but Mark and I have managed to play a lot of golf since that afternoon. How much? Well, our record is 612 holes in 17 days. In a dozen summers, we’ve never averaged less than 36 a day.
The area around Traverse City is home to wonderful courses, and we’ve played them all: from much-heralded tracks like Bay Harbor and Arcadia Bluffs to countless lesser-known ones that we like just as much. Our annual tournament is modestly called the North American Championship, and these marathons are a testament to the handicap system. Mark is a 4-handicapper. I’m a 10. We play nine-hole matches, with the winner giving up an extra stroke in the next match. Every year we’ve gone down to the last day, and often to the last nine, to decide the winner. Four times we’ve finished dead even. The stakes: pride, a tub of peppermint ice cream and immortality on a plaque in Mark’s home on Lake Leelanau.
The tourneys are also a tribute to supportive spouses. My wife, Soon-Young, and Mark’s wife, Carol, are talented, independent women with a host of interests of their own. They also actually seem to enjoy seeing their 50-something husbands act like a couple of nutty kids. Well, one year they did announce that they were taking off with our two teenage daughters to ride horses in Ireland. Mark and I said we planned to do a lot of antiquing in their absence. They knew better.
Many mornings we start in the dark–a fact that amuses my colleagues at work who know how much I hate breakfast meetings. On more than one occasion I’ve tossed pebbles by the light of the moon at Mark’s second-floor window to make sure that he was stirring. Most courses let us tee off before their first scheduled time, so we’re usually finished with 18 by 9:30 and are on our way to a great breakfast at the Early Bird in Leland. Unless we have a long road trip, there’s time to check the e-mail, call the office and put in an appearance at home before an afternoon round. As the sun starts its evening plunge toward Lake Michigan, we often stop by the “friendly confines” of Leland Country Club for a few holes just to keep in shape.
No surprise, we’ve become the best of friends. Yet we’re very different. He says our matches are the greatest pressure he feels all year: “It’s 6:30 in the morning, I’m in a bunker and swearing at myself. I can’t believe it.” To make him crazy, I tell him our rounds are relaxing for me. Our games are different, too. He’s got an all-world short game, so he’s maddeningly never out of a hole. I’m more likely to deflate him with a well-placed 7-wood: “He’s a machine, he’s not human!” Mark will bellow. But we share a lot of traits. We’d played half a dozen rounds before we knew precisely what each other did for a living. We never stay upset about a bad shot for more than 30 seconds. Laughter, a sharp needle and a variety of groans and roars are essential parts of every round. And though we’re both insanely competitive–we really want the other guy to miss that putt–the first thought at the end of each marathon is to feel a bit of sympathy for the loser.
What do we talk about? The short answer is: everything. We’re both deeply interested in business, politics and the media, but we’re every bit as likely to talk about our families or the mysteries of the flop shot.
To our chagrin, we’ve become very minor legends in the neighborhood. One rainy morning at the Early Bird, a couple of the regulars teased us for taking it easy because of a little precipitation. We didn’t have the heart to tell them we’d already finished 18. Other folks are just puzzled. We played one day with two younger guys who were plainly intrigued by our marathons. After a lot of other questions, one said: “Are you two married?” Mark and I looked at each other, and sensing there might be some confusion, answered in unison: “Yes … but not to each other!” Richard M. Smith is chairman and editor-in-chief of Newsweek.
The family dynamic
By Sally Jenkins
VERY FAMILY HAS ITS PECULIAR holiday rituals. I know of one large family that still seats its offspring at what they call “the children’s table” every Thanksgiving, even though they are now 48 years old. I know of another family whose favorite aunt is annually pinned to the floor by her young nephews, who smear peanut butter on her forehead and cheeks and then set the family Labrador loose to slobber over her face. And then there is my family. We play killer golf. My brothers and I are separated by only a year, and we fought a great deal as children, which made us close. (This won’t make much sense to everyone, but it will make perfect sense to those with riotously combative siblings who were raised without much supervision.)
My brothers, Marty and Danny, love to recount how we hit each other, at various times, with chairs, guitars and clock radios. And of course, golf clubs. Once, I hurled a golf ball down a hallway at one of them. The ball hit a wall, turned the corner, and smacked my brother in the temple. He crashed through a door into a bathroom, where he lurched into the porcelain tub, accidentally turning on the faucet. I found him there, cold water conveniently pouring onto his head.
I remember my father giving us lessons in course etiquette as children. How to properly rake the bunkers, when to remove the flagstick, and where to stand while your playing partner putted. None of it mattered. We played chicken in golf carts. “Golf with family for me was getting everything organized and standing on the first tee, and suddenly seeing Marty and Danny in their cart go chasing down the fairway,” my father says. We drove them so wildly that eventually we were banned from them altogether, and had to walk. This didn’t solve the problem. On foot, we pushed each other into bunkers, tomahawked our wedges, and, if you weren’t careful and got too far ahead of the others, you could expect to be hit into, a rain of balls falling around your head and shoulders.
At some point as we grew up, we must have decided that golf was painful enough without sinking wedges into each other. Instead, our annual golf rounds have turned into contests of sarcasm. Every holiday when we reconvene at my parents’ house, inevitably someone will suggest a round of golf as a way to “visit” and spend quality time with each other. And as soon as we set foot on the golf course, we revert to childhood form. We don’t say a kind or serious word to each other for the next several hours.
On the golf course, we still play chicken in the carts, veering away at the last second, barely keeping the cart upright on two wheels, while clubs spill out of our bags. Or, we turn them into bumper cars. On my last visit to a golf course with my brothers, I parked my cart at the first tee and began pulling on my glove. Just as I did so, my brothers’ cart rammed into mine from behind. The blow snapped my head back and caused me to bite my own tongue.
“Let the big dogs feed,” my brothers said.
So, that’s what family golf consists of for us. Put golf clubs in our hands, and we’re delinquents again.
Sally Jenkins is a columnist for The Washington Post and Golf For Women, and is the author of several books, including It’s Not About the Bike, with Lance Armstrong. She wrote a tribute to her father, Dan Jenkins, in Golf Digest’s May 2005 issue.
By Chang-rae Lee
IT’S A STRANGELY ENGROSSING moment, watching for the first time someone you think you know hit a golf ball. I was in Oregon, on the practice range at Bandon Dunes, about to play three of the finest courses in American golf. My friend on the trip was David Mura, a writer from Minneapolis, who was a last-minute replacement for my usual buddy for special trips, who blew out his back the week before and was forced to stay home.
I hadn’t wanted to cancel the trip (besides it already being too late to do so without full penalty), so I sent out over a dozen desperate, more than slightly pathetic e-mails, saying how depressing it would be if I had to go solo on this trip, which was to mark my 40th birthday. My bawl to arms. I wrote to all of my friends who play golf, including my next-door neighbor, the university golf coach, friends from grade school. Each replied promptly saying he would love to but couldn’t; only David, who was attending the same wedding I was in Eugene later that week, had yet to respond. Then, a ping from my laptop and a message from David: He was in.
David and I went back a long way, meeting nearly 15 years ago when he taught a writing seminar I was taking, but in fact we had met only a couple of times since. I’d read his work over the years, as he had mine, and so we had a grasp of each other perhaps better artistically and intellectually than as people. But I knew he was a smart, affable guy and had recently heard he loved golf, and with our ready kinship as Asian-American writers I figured we would get along just fine.
What surprised me was how fanatical David was about golf, especially given his work, which is brilliantly incisive about the interplay of race and sexuality in the culture. I would have figured his interest in golf to be like that of most of the poets and novelists I know: either none at all or a squarely derisive one, a view of golf as a silly, quaint, if not downright pointless, game, a bland social climbing (non-)exercise, and then in certain respects all too exemplary of profound disparities of wealth and access in our society. David, all the more, is a self-described “race-man,” a poet and memoirist who doesn’t mind playing the provocateur, challenging easy notions of what people believe about themselves, their identities, their public and private desires. Surely this would not be someone who would fret about his swing plane or a sliding three-footer for par. But on the range before our first round at Pacific Dunes, the first time we had ever played together, he asked if I would mind if we hit balls after the round as well, to work on the loose swings that would inevitably crop up.
“Definitely,” I said, like I understood the benefits, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually done it. My next thought was that this guy was serious, and that I had better get it together. On the 2 1/2-hour drive down from Eugene we had gotten reacquainted, talking without pause about our wives and kids and our work, and then a bit about our deep enthusiasm for golf, the purity of the feelings one gets from the game, its meditative joys and sometimes tragic-comic pleasures. There was none of the pre-round posturing or taunting that I often get into with my usual golf buddies, or sometimes even with new acquaintances at outings; we were writers, after all, devotees of the language, two soulful, sensitive dudes, and not our usual grunting, animalistic alter-selves armed with glinting, lethal sticks.
But as we started hitting on the range I could see immediately that David was an intensely methodical, careful golfer. He was clad all in black, like Gary Player, looking deadly sleek and serious. Where have you gone, brother poet-man? In the car he had professed to reading all the instruction books and magazines he could handle, enjoying the process of self-teaching, and it made sense now: He began by taking half-speed swings with his driver, though with his feet set together, for balance and tempo. He then moved on to his irons, from long to short to long, finally finishing with full driver swings. He putted with an extremely closed stance, chipping in the same fashion. He looked purposeful and focused. Patient. Calm.
I, on the other hand, was snap-hooking driver after driver, frantically searching for a swing, for any feel in my hands. For our competition we were going to play a simple three-round match. I had the feeling that I was not only going to get beat (which is actually OK with me–I get beat at golf all the time) but thoroughly whomped, blown away, stacking David’s composure against my inconsistency, my delusional risk-taking, my false worship of The Heroic Shot. That afternoon on the course he was surprisingly loose and positive, despite not playing too well; he grinned at his good shots, laughed loudly at his poor ones. I slid into my usual manic game, and after a second horrific triple bogey, David corralled me before the next tee box and urged me to think of the great holes I’d played on other days. I tried to picture them, but what helped more was his equanimity and delight, which became an unshakable mirror for me, a glimpse into my better golf self that kept me even and steady.
Three rounds later, I ended up a few holes ahead; somehow, my 20 extra years of playing golf, and his being 12 years older, not to mention the fact that he had to use rental clubs the first day, lent me a slight advantage. But he was gaining on me; the last day, at the magnificent Bandon Trails, David was on fire, hitting nearly every fairway, his irons crisp, and he lipped out what would have been a world-shaking ace in front of a small, thrilled gallery. When he coolly sank the birdie putt, we high-fived, knuckle-butted, too, and I thought how fine it was to have gone around with him: We had been great markers for each other, engendering a rhythm, yard by yard, which saw us through to the finish. We could have stayed on for weeks–though the trip, in my view, ended just in time.
Chang-rae Lee teaches creative writing at Princeton University and is the author of three novels, most recently Aloft. He wrote “The Homecoming,” on golf in his native Korea, for the April 2004 Golf Digest.
By Charles McGrath
I TRY TO PLAY AT LEAST ONCE A summer with my brother Tom. These games are a reunion of sorts, as we don’t see each other often enough and golf provides a ready excuse. They are also the resumption of ancient, fraternal combat–of a series of matches going back to our early teens and played on a little nine-holer in Westford, Mass. When we were there, the place was less a golf course than a Jungian battleground for the dark parts of the adolescent soul. Cheating was rampant. Tears were not uncommon. And Freud says there are no accidents, so my misdirected 3-wood shot that struck Tom on the right buttock in the summer of 1961 must have been on purpose.
I am older, I should explain–his superior by two years. He is bigger, stronger and the better golfer. This is a truth that I was slow and reluctant to acknowledge, and when it finally sank in, I didn’t surrender exactly. I did the more cunning, older-brother thing: I declared golf foolish and irrelevant, and gave it up for some 30 years.
But here I am, back again, and there he is, down the fairway about 30 yards in front. Golf turns out to be a thread that keeps yanking at you, and the thread linking Tom and me has proved unbreakable as well. It’s stronger, in fact, now that psychic storms have cleared, and the only perils on the course are the ones we can see. We play most often now in southeastern Massachusetts, but we have also been to a fancy resort course, and our most recent outing was at the formidable C.B. Macdonald course at Yale. The venue scarcely matters, though, because it’s mostly occasion for a kind of time travel.
My brother has less hair now than he used to, and he has grown a beard that would have got him stared at back in 1961. His swing is different, too–longer and with a little pre-takeaway knee kick that I don’t recall. But he addresses the ball the same way he always has–lifting the club three times, then hovering it and letting it back down as if on a pulley. And we instantly revert to the same private language–a kind of golf-Esperanto in which we address each other formally but ironically, in an exaggerated version of the Boston accent of our youth: “Excellent shawt, Brotha!”
He still beats me more often than not, but I’m so glad to see him that I don’t mind nearly so much. I have also discovered that I retain some of the old sibling juju–the power of the older brother to throw the younger off his game. A well-timed readjustment of the golf-glove Velcro. An innocent inquiry about whether one should inhale or exhale on the backswing. And just recently I was able to invoke family history. When he ignored a caddie’s advice and came up short in a bunker, I was able to point out in a knowing, elder-sibling way: “Mum always said that about you. You never do as you’re told.”
“And you always did the right thing–you were perfect,” he said crossly and then, just as I hoped, he took a mighty whack and moved his ball six inches.
Charles McGrath is a writer at large for The New York Times and a contributor to Golf Digest. He wrote a tribute to the late Herbert Warren Wind in our August 2005 issue.
The missing partner
By Rabbi Marc Gellman
MY BEST FRIEND CAN’T play golf with me anymore because he has Parkinson’s disease. The result of this truly and deeply crappy situation is that I am loving him more and loving golf less. This is a lesson I did not want to learn, but a lesson I needed to learn.
Tommy (Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, D. Min., to you!) is my best friend. He is also my partner on TVand in the books we write, and in our advice column called by our nom de guerre, The God Squad. Our 19-year friendship has been a blessing to us, and we hope it has brought blessings to a few people who never thought a priest and a rabbi could be best friends.
Now Tommy’s Parkinson’s disease is moving fast. His right side is quite stiff. He can’t (or shouldn’t) drive anymore, and it’s hard for him to get out of a chair without assistance. Sometimes I cut his meat.
Tommy’s illness has taught me about friendship, illness and golf. People scream and yell about the time it takes to play a round of golf, but the truth is, the hours Tommy and I spent on the course were golden and precious and essential to maintaining our friendship. Whether we were talking about the shot or about the world didn’t matter. We were talking, and laughing, and learning. Golf with Tommy was an escape not only from our duties as a working rabbi and a working priest, but also an escape into the world of our buddy-ness. Because most churches and synagogues are run and staffed by women, golf was a rare time for God guys to connect with another guy.
You know the old joke about the rabbi who makes a hole-in-one on Yom Kippur (or depending on your audience, the priest who makes an ace on Good Friday)? The angels ask God, “Why, oh Lord, would you grant such a favor to a person who is violating your law?” God answers, “Who’s he gonna tell?” Golf is not just hitting the ball into the hole 18 times. Golf is hitting the ball into the hole 18 times with someone, and if you are lucky, with someone you love.
For the game to reveal its true glory, you need to be able to say to your partner, “Great shot!” I can’t do that anymore with Tommy. He still rides with me and hits a few shots when he can. Sometimes he’ll remind me of a shot I once hit, and I’ll remind him of a 50-foot putt he once snaked in.
All we have are those memories, but even now, just having my best friend in the cart next to me to cheer me on is enough. I wish I could give him more than just my thanks. I wish I could take away Tommy’s illness and leave it behind us like a dried-out divot. That’s when I realize that even though golf is like life, life is not like golf.
Rabbi Marc Gellman, Ph.D., writes a weekly column for Newsweek.com and, with Monsignor Hartman, a syndicated advice column and award-winning children’s books.
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