Truth is, I never much notice the bar when I arrive at a golf course. Before the round--when I'm leaning into my anticipation, working to muster my threads of concentration--the bar might as well not exist. I'll take the occasional long glance at the morning light through the glass doors, at the architectural shadows stretching across the deserted carpet. The bartender might be cutting limes, watching a muted "SportsCenter." A waitress might be setting tables in her own rhythm. And while there's an ether of hope for the day in the first gestures of nascent industriousness, I couldn't care less. I'm there for the golf. I'm just looking for the free coffee. Before golf--and by "before" I mean chronologically and comparatively--a bar is a just a bar. The 19th hole means nothing before you've dusted your heels on the first tee.
But here's the math. By the 16th hole, the 19th begins to matter. As the sun presses onward, as the nassau rounds out its victims, as the clubhouse rears again in the distance, you can bet on it. The bar at the end of things--the 19th--can start to feel like the essential component of the entire endeavor, as if you'd been headed there all along. Soup is there. Gin, too. Tall glasses of beer. Chairs that feel better than a chair has a right to. A good bar, after a bad day? That's a landing strip of hope, a reminder of tomorrow, the place where plans are made and a club sandwich feels like a fine promise. A great bar, after a great round? This is the bonfire of payback, where circles are formed, and myths, private though they might be, are made.
Having seen every brand and stripe of 19th hole--a meeting hall with card tables, fluorescent lights and warm cans of Boddington's in Angus, Scotland; the great grillrooms in New York's Westchester County, with achingly long pours of añejo tequila and chilled plates of oversized shrimp; to a carpeted pole barn in South Texas, where hot dogs spin under light bulbs, and beers sell 10 cans at a time--I know what I want from that 19th moment.
A deck, a stone deck. Shaded, or sun-blanched as appropriate, with a little extra room, so someone can cook some meat. A view of the finishing hole, that place from which you just came. The kind and swift attentions of the staff. Beers stacked and chilled. Behind the bar, the barman; behind him, bottles, both rare and reliable, racked cheek-by-jowl. The tables: oversized, for the calculating of scores, the cataloguing of pockets. I like a fire. I have to believe that somewhere nearby is a deck or two of playing cards. My favorites have been defined by the company I keep. And where I'm sitting--literally.
I'd take pains to cite a certain large, brown leather couch in the Wildhorse Grille at Talking Stick
in Scottsdale, where I sat last winter circled by three ruddy friends--George, Carl and David. We did what golfers do--complained, bragged, sighed, ordered sandwiches, wondered aloud about other golfers, gathered our wits, planned the night ahead. We chopped up the memories of the afternoon. Eventually, I loudly declared that the couch was mine, that I was buying it. That's how much I loved it just then. Much mention of my needy, lazy ass followed. But I was including my view of the desert, and the pure bliss of no television in my sightline.
I'd just come to see it all.
I hadn't noticed this--the couch, the view, the quiet--that very morning. That's not my way. I had to play through 18 holes to see it clearly. To see what I really needed. Can't be bought, of course. But if you're lucky, you might just find it when you're at the right bar at the end of everything that's right about the game.