Editor's Note: With professional golf entering its quasi-offseason, we're hoping to tell some stories that highlight aspects of the game that us mortals experience. This week, Kevin Van Valkenburg writes about playing golf as part of a community vs. playing alone.
For an audio version read by KVV, listen below.
Every Wednesday, in anticipation of my weekend, I sift through one of the four text threads on my phone related to golf. I read or make inquiries about getting a foursome together. There are few things I enjoy more than when the stars align and we can find a way to get my regular crew on a tee sheet somewhere.
There are frequent complications: Certain people can only play on Saturday; others won’t play if their alma mater is on TV. Youth sports schedules are a constant curve ball. Some friends want to play at the crack of dawn; others will only play at courses that won’t make us take carts. Sometimes, we make decisions that are driven by price, other times by how quickly someone needs to get home to their spouse and kids. Factor in the constant moving parts and needs of a blended family like mine and it is a miracle we play at all. If you think the New York Times Sunday crossword is hard, try finding a window where four adults in their 30s, 40s or 50s can play golf together without crippling guilt or financial strain.
We still attempt it — and frequently pull it off — for myriad reasons. The primary motivation is simple: We enjoy it immensely, even if the quality of golf is occasionally pitiful. (The people who suggest you need to be good at golf to enjoy it are the worst kind of snobs.) But there are intrinsic motivations too, ones we typically don’t talk about but innately understand.
It’s easy to feel lonely in adulthood.
There is mounting evidence (clinical, academic, anecdotal) suggesting that shifting so many of our friendships and social interactions to an online realm is not particularly good for our mental health. We squabble and MF each other in a digital space in ways we would never dream of doing in the real world. But the internet, and our smartphones, are only partially to blame for the loneliness creep. In 1995, Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam published a soon-to-be-famous essay titled “Bowling Alone” about the gradual collapse of community in America, the premise being that we once gathered in groups, as members of teams, to bowl in leagues. Over time, something shifted. Americans weren’t bowling less in 1995 than they were in 1955, research showed, they were simply choosing to do it solo. (The essay later became a best-selling book by the same name.)
Golf, perhaps by design, hasn’t succumbed to similar trends. If you show up as a single as your local muni, it is the job of the pro shop or the starter to play matchmaker, to try to find you a group that needs a fourth. Public courses, at least the majority of them, cannot afford to let introverts have run of the place, as such, every solo endeavor can feel like a roll of the social dice.
If you are lucky, you’ll land in a group of people who are warm and friendly, who drive it straight and ask you personal questions but don’t pry for sensitive details. If you hit the lottery, you might emerge with a new friend or a regular playing partner. If you’re unlucky — and it happens to everyone eventually — you’ll get paired with someone who can’t resist peppering you with crude, offensive jokes or unsolicited swing advice. You might have to share a walk (or a cart) with someone who takes way too long over the ball, throws tantrums and clubs, and is completely oblivious to golf’s unspoken social contract.
The next time this happens, just know as you watch them take six practice swings with rage swelling in your temple and jaw, that I have been there. I see you, and I feel your pain.
I still treasure what golf can do to foster a sense of community. I’ll never pass on the chance to play with friends or family if available, and those concepts, I’ve come to understand, are malleable. This week, our company will welcome nearly 100 golfers to Frisco, Texas, for our annual Nest Invitational Tournament. Each of them will bring a piece of themselves to the table in the name of communion. It is one of my favorite weeks of the year.
But in recent years, I have also learned to lean into the meditative zen of playing alone. It is one of golf’s most underrated pleasures. If you’ve never experienced it, I cannot recommend it enough.
I used to think golfing alone was the fate of a misanthrope, so I tried to avoid it at all costs. I would sneer with condescension when I watched Patrick Reed play practice rounds by himself at majors. Choosing to golf solo seemed like evidence of something pernicious. You had to have taken some wrong turns along the way to have arrived there.
But once you try it a few times, you realize how naive that is. It takes a bit of effort and luck to pull it off. You need to seek out tee times very early or very late, but the benefits are considerable. In recent years, I have grown fond of sneaking out late in the day, just as the sun is sinking low in the sky, comforted by the understanding that I do not care if I cannot finish nine holes, or post a score to my GHIN. The solitude is its own reward.
I cannot tell you at what point I became hopelessly addicted to my phone, only that it happened gradually and then suddenly, a fate that has ensnared so many of us. Every blinking alert or hideous vibration triggers a Pavlovian response in my brain that demands I yank it from my pocket, that I answer a Slack or a tweet or an email with unnecessary urgency. Yet golf, by myself, is one of the few times in my day when I feel like I can ignore those impulses, when nothing seems as important as the grass in front of me. My phone gets zipped into the pocket of my bag, and it remains there, hopefully for hours.
I am often convinced I am too impatient for meditation, too weak to escape the grasp and the allure of the digital world. But I can lose myself on a golf course if no one is around. I can forgive myself, as I walk to find my ball, for my failures and shortcomings. I can imagine ways in which I could be a better writer, a better father, a better son, husband or friend. A better version of me. Some days, I even hit good golf shots.
Is a birdie really a birdie if no one but me is around to see it? I have found that yes, it very much is.
Several years ago, while working for ESPN in 2016, I attended my first Masters. I arrived on a Tuesday, as most writers do, and as I walked the property for the first time, I could not stop smiling. The glow of Augusta National tends to dim a bit with each successive visit, but your first time feels a bit like visiting a movie set. It’s greener and larger than you can possibly imagine before you see it. Phones aren’t allowed on the grounds, so the impulse to take a picture quickly gives way to something more serene. I did what all first-timers do and made the pilgrimage out to Amen Corner, just to see it with my own eyes. I stood as close as I could to where Phil laced one through the trees on 13. I found the site of Tiger’s 2005 chip in. I wandered the property for hours with only my memories as a guide.
Late in the day, having seen all I thought I wanted to see, I drifted in the direction of the clubhouse, but paused as I walked behind the 6th hole. Almost no players, and very few patrons, remained on the course. But there was Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters winner, playing by himself. He was above the treacherous 6th green, gently bumping hybrids through the fringe, laboring over pieces of puzzle he once artfully solved. I leaned against a tree and watched him for several minutes, transfixed. For years, the scene lingered in my brain. What did it feel like to play Augusta National by yourself? Even members didn’t seem to have that privilege from what I could tell.
I decided, after years of mulling it, to call Immelman and ask.
It turns out, against all odds, he remembered the scene I witnessed. Sort of.
“After I won [in 2008], my routine kind of became going to play nine holes by myself really late on Tuesday, teeing off about 3:30,” Immelman said. “I would also generally play the front nine, because typically all the patrons, especially if it’s their first time, they’re out on the back. They want to see Amen Corner and the flowers popping. But there was always something serene about getting to the third or fourth hole and there would literally be no one out there. That time of the afternoon as the sun is starting to set and you’ve got these shadows coming from the tall pines — it’s awesome. I think me doing that on those late Tuesday afternoons was like therapy for me.”
What does one think about when you’re all alone in one of golf’s cathedrals?
“It takes you back to when you’re a kid and your dad comes to pick you up and you’re like ‘I want to play a couple more,’ ” Immelman said.
Immelman, 43, no longer competes professionally. His job as CBS’ lead analyst consumes much of his year, so doesn't play much golf these days. Twice a week, if he’s lucky. “I’m sure to some people that seems like a lot,” he says. “But you have to understand where I was coming from.” When he does play, it’s typically with his teenage son, Jacob, or a group of friends at his club. But some days, if his schedule permits, he will sink into the silence of being by himself.
“The thing that I really enjoy about it is, the game is so challenging and so difficult, no matter what level you’re at,” Immelman said. “If you’re a beginner and you’re just trying to get it airborne, or you’re trying to get two in a row airborne, or you’re a pro and you’re trying to make sure all your draws actually draw and all your fades actually fade, it’s so challenging for everyone. And the unknown landscape of how much of it is physical and how much of it is mental, it’s an unanswerable question. When you can fall in love with that journey, you can keep yourself occupied for hours.”
Some days, when I’m racing against the setting sun, it’s already dark when I reach the last hole. I can’t even see the ball as it flies off the clubface. Logic tells me it’s foolish to tee off, that I should just walk in, but I often do it anyway.
It’s only then that I reach for my phone. The flashlight function tends to come in handy here as I search for my ball. I can see a string of texts and emails on the home screen, but I’m confident they can wait. If I’m lucky, there might be time for one more swing.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.