If you thought finding the perfect best-ball partner was hard, wait until the time comes when you feel you need to dump that person. Replacing one golf partner with another—firing one guy in favor of someone else is what it amounts to—is one of the most dreaded and difficult tasks in golf. It’s unsavory because, unlike a divorce where you can hire a lawyer to handle the messiest parts of the breakup, you must deliver the message yourself. But given that it’s an inevitable part of club life, the question remains: how should you go about it?
The parting of ways usually happens after you notice that your partner, at one time a honey badger who seemed to ram home every four-footer that mattered, hasn’t made one in forever. You notice that your respective handicaps, which made you a simpatico, ham-and-egging nightmare for other teams, no longer mesh. Behavioral tics that previously went unnoticed—say, the way your partner loudly fastens/unfastens the Velcro on his glove exactly three times before every shot—suddenly looms front and center in your consciousness. Truth be told, both partners usually sense when a change is needed. But someone has to initiate the breakup.
Charlie Epps, the famed Houston teacher and club pro who has 45 years of experience running member-guests and member-members, says dumping a partner naturally occurs in the lead-up to a tournament instead of after a disastrous one has just concluded. Human nature. He also says the decision is always rooted in self-interest. “It’s easy to dump a partner when you plan to be gone on vacation,” he says. “The hard part is dumping a partner while still fully intending to play in the tournament, but with someone else.”
Epps says that you, as the dumper, should always give the dumpee plenty of notice—three months at least if it’s the big member-member—so the person has time to find a replacement. Epps also suggests whispering to your club pro your intention to cut a partner loose, and to ask him to approach the aggrieved party right away with suggestions for other candidates. “It’s a little outside the pro’s job description, but they usually are willing to help,” he says. “A nice tip might be in order.” Another key, he says, is to always do the dumping face to face, preferably while you’re playing together casually. Respect is important. Never ghost a partner by not answering emails or being non-committal, and never tell him you intend to play when you don’t.
As for the actual dumping, there are two approaches. One is to be utterly honest, which isn’t easy because it can hurt feelings and take the starch out of a friendship that is otherwise good. The other is to cite a reason that contains some of the truth, but not the blunt worst of it. This can be acceptable, the equivalent of complimenting a 50-something that the white belt he’s wearing looks smashing.
Here are proven methods of giving a partner the hook:
• “We’ve been playing terribly together, and our games just aren’t meshing. Let’s take a year off and see if it helps.” By “this year” you probably mean forever, and your partner knows it. But it doesn’t mean you can’t play on Saturday mornings and doesn’t mean you can’t be friends.
• “I’ve promised Fred for years we’d play together sometime, and it just seems like this is a good year to keep my promise.” Said with a tone that suggests your promise to Fred was made recklessly—and that you might regret it—your current partner will find it hard to take offense at this.
• “Let’s try different partners but make sure we play a practice round together. We’ll have a blast.” Says Epps: “You’re telling your soon-to-be ex how much fun he’s been to play with and that you want to keep doing it, but under different circumstances. Everybody likes a win-win.”
• “There might be some good business on the line if I play with Fred this year. Do you mind if I ask him to play?” Put the onus on your partner, and make sure you haven’t already nailed down arrangements with Fred. Of course, there should be some existential possibility that you and Fred will do business together, so the whole thing doesn’t come off like a ruse.
• “I’m not sure I’m even playing this year.” This is true in the sense that nothing in life is certain, and evil forces might force you to go to Disneyland on vacation during tournament week, at gunpoint. But this type of waffling is the coward’s way out and should be avoided. If you do use this technique, be prepared to settle for one of the leftover players skulking around after all the good players are taken. This happened to Don Hanson Jr. during his first year at our club. A fine player who didn’t yet know anyone, he fell in with a shaky 23-handicapper shoe salesman nicknamed Eddie the Shoe because he owned a chain of wholesale shoe stores. The Shoe wore sneakers and carried a ball-retriever. He also played way over his head that week, making eight natural pars on holes where he was receiving two shots. Hanson, a solid 4, shot rounds of 74-74-71-72. They won easily. As a footnote, the next year, Eddie the Shoe was sick and couldn’t make it. He suggested his neophyte son, his handicap even higher than his dad’s, take his place. Hanson took Shoe Jr. under his wing and, telling him where to hit it along with all kinds of encouragement, elicited fantastic results. Shoe Jr. tore it up, and Hanson won his third major title in two years. You should have seen the better players howl.
• “I have a habit of trying too hard when I play with you because I don’t want to let you down.” The classic it’s-not-you-it’s-me excuse, err, reason. It might not tell the whole story, but if in fact you try hard, there’s sufficient truth to be legitimate. Being tactful is not a sin.
• “Sorry to break the news, but I’ve invited so-and-so. He’s just a little better than you.” There’s a guy at my club in Connecticut—his name is Mike Lipsett—who one April invited me to play in our club’s fall O’Sullivan tournament, one of four “majors” on the calendar. My schedule being empty and the O’Sullivan not being played until October, I accepted. Mike, who owns a pest-extermination business and goes by the nickname Bug Man, is a lion under pressure. A month before the tournament, I was having a beer with Mike in the grillroom and mentioned I was looking forward to our O’Sullivan collaboration. Bug Man clapped me on the back and said to me exactly what I quoted above. He exterminated me before we even played. Only the surprise of it kept me from weeping into Bug Man’s shirt. Today I just think it’s funny.