(From left to right) Dane, Patti, Debbie, and Jeanie at Glendoveer West.
Golf is a solo sport, but most of us play it with a regular or rotating group. Despite the individual nature of course management, our swings, and the mental challenges we all face, there's some element of team play when it comes to always playing with the same crew. They pick you up, know your foibles, and over time, you get comfortable around them. Playing as a single in golf is, mostly, thought of as an undesirable context with which to play the game we all love.
But unlike many of you, I played golf as a single for a long time. It wasn't habit, but instead necessity. Living in Kirkland, Washington, my home course was Willows Run. Just over the hill in Redmond, Willows had two full 18-hole courses that I could hop out to during the week to test my skills. Playing mid-morning and pre-COVID, I found myself playing as a single in a city I wasn't from and where I didn't know many people, let alone golfers who could leave work on a Tuesday for a full 18.
Because Willows wasn't overly crowded (again, pre-COVID) not only was I booking single rounds but I found myself playing full rounds wholly alone. Over time, I came to prefer it. Being alone on the course allowed me to fail out of sight of others, without judgement — real or projected — being passed. For $50 I could imagine I owned an entire golf course that was all my own, manicured and pristine in the summer.
Being alone also allowed me the time that golf coaches seem to imagine the rest of us have. Poor shots from the fairway with long-ironed clubs were taken again, so as to get practice on grass and in real playing situations rather than repetitively off of plastic turf laid over concrete. Playing alone for those two years was part of the reason I came to love golf so much.
Now, back in my native Oregon, playing alone is a foggy memory. Tee sheets are packed, and luckily I have not only a regular playing foursome but a swath of golfing friends here in Portland who are ready to join in at a moment's notice. I love this, too.
But sometimes, when the mood strikes to play and there's nary a deterrence or friend able or willing to join, you must once again brave the course as the dreaded single. That's what happened to me last Tuesday when I, trying to soak up the last of the 75° October days of the unseasonably sunny October we've had here in Portland.
Pulling into the parking lot of Glendoveer, my home course, I knew I was in for a long round as the massive parking lot of the 36-hole complex was filled to the brim. I checked in at the clubhouse, said my hellos to the friends I have there, and walked to the first tee on the West course, fully expecting to either wait on tee boxes all day or get paired up with someone and have to chance our only common trait being the glove on our left hands.
Enter Patti, Debbie, and Jeanie.
As I gave my name and tee time to the starter nestled in a shielded golf cart parked on the barkdust before the first tee, these three ladies in their late 60s rolled up in carts of their own, bustling chatter already cacophonous and indicative of the day ahead.
"He's going to play with you ladies, if that's alright," piped the starter.
"Oh sure, just as long as you don't mind playing with a bunch of old hens!" smiled Patti.
I agreed, and to the first tee we went. I smiled and introduced myself as we did the usual sort — searched for tees, rummaged through balls, and re-strapped our gloves. I could tell they were being cautious but friendly with the man half their age, particularly as Patti said she hadn't played golf in quite some time.
We quickly found out we had more in common than we thought. The threesome had known each other since high school, and all grew up in North Portland, where I currently live. That gave us some baseline to discuss the area, and as a native Oregonian there was some camaraderie as we felt the first tee's grass under our feet.
To no one's surprise, all three ladies played how most folks their age usually do — short, straight, and quick. The women knew how to golf and told me they'd been playing together for going on 15 years. Over the course of the round, we got to know each other better. Patti, now retired, told me about her former company's annual golf outing and how it had been held either at Wildwood or Glendoveer for years. Debbie's daughter was a D1 athlete at my alma mater, the University of Oregon. Jeanie mentioned that I was missing out as the fourth member of their group is the one who always brings the Coronas.
After No. 2 it was clear we'd all get along just fine. We all dropped our guards a bit, and conversations rambled between holes as they always do. It turned out that Debbie was a former high school gym teacher, which explained why she was driving the ball within 40 yards of mine, even as she played the red tees and I played the blues.
And of course, as we became more friendly, the jocular nature of a regular round of golf came through. Debbie sank a long 18-foot putt on No. 13 and all four of us exchanged fist bumps. Patti, having missed a short putt, gave a healthy, "Oh fuck!" after one putt on No. 14 that made me laugh out loud.
Without letting the women know, I was also quietly steaming toward my personal best. I was +2 on the front nine, and heading into No. 16 was angling to shoot 76. A massive drive down a blind, downhill dogleg right was followed by a 7-iron that shot past the green to the long rough. I didn't get the bounce I wanted on my first chip, and then chipped in to save par, still saying nothing about my overall score.
A stolen ball from the fairway on No. 17, a flubbed chip, and then a bogey on No. 18 sealed my fate. I would, once again, shoot 78 to tie my lowest score for the third time. At the end of the round, after we'd exchanged handshakes and hugs, I gave them all a marker to remember the round by and thanked them for being there for my best round ever (tied). After congratulations were had, we took the photo above and parted ways.
Heading into the round, I didn't know what to expect. It's been years since I played entirely with strangers as a single, and sometimes the effect that social anxiety can have on your game can take a few holes to shake. Instead what I was left with was a reminder that the game of golf binds us all in ways that, usually, supersede that anxiety.
More importantly, that if you are open to something genuine and wonderful happening between you and other human beings, that the world does have happy surprises to offer you.
Here's to Debbie, Jeanie and Patti. You three made my day on Tuesday. Going low was a distant second.