Finally, I came across a photo I could connect with. After mindlessly left-swiping through hundreds of mundane Tinder images (a left-swipe means, "Nope, I'm not interested"), I stopped at a photo of a guy standing on the seventh tee at Pebble Beach. Right-swipe. Match! That meant he'd seen my photos, too, and he was intrigued. I messaged him first: "Seventh tee at Pebble Beach! Jealous you've played there." He was stunned I could identify the hole. After a few messages back and forth (he was funny and sarcastic and wrote in full, grammatically correct sentences), we agreed to grab a drink.
Golf, the only apparent thing we had in common, compelled us to transition from exchanging messages on a mobile-only dating app to clinking beers in real life. "It's been shown over and over that people who have shared interests and do lots of activities together have higher satisfaction rates," says Dr. Galena Rhoades, a psychology professor at the University of Denver. "What might make golf a more important match than other activities is the amount of time that it can take up in someone's life. It's a serious commitment."
The rise of online dating has, among other things, made it easier for people to narrow down who they're looking for. Want to find someone who's tall enough? Easy. How about someone who has at least a master's degree? Done. Or a person who prefers dogs over cats? You got it. Tinder, a mobile-only app that has generated more than one billion matches, helps singles sort other singles by location. Other sites, like Match.com and OKCupid, allow you to winnow your search based on religion, political affiliation, interests, etc.
Limiting the field of potential dates, however, isn't always the key to finding that perfect person. "People think they might know what they need in a partner, but those needs can end up being quite superficial," Rhoades says. "Limitations can narrow the field too much. That said, I wouldn't consider golf a superficial quality, mostly because of the time commitment it demands. It's smart for golfers to find someone who's a golfer."
Samantha, a 26-year-old Californian-turned-New Yorker, agrees. The last nongolfer she dated was back in high school. "Golfers are just who I'm attracted to," says Samantha, who has a 1.4 Index. "Looking for golfers doesn't make dating easier, but your options are better. They're higher quality." Samantha learned to play golf when she was 14 and says that one of her first memories of the sport is going to the range with her mom. "Look at all these golfers," her mom told her, sweeping her index finger across the practice tee. "These guys are nice, and they have manners." Over time, Samantha has learned that Mom was right.
As a young single female who'd recently moved to a city that values a metropolitan lifestyle over an outdoorsy one, Samantha knew her chances of finding an avid golfer in Manhattan were slim. But she was hopeful. She frequented Chelsea Piers (a four-level, high-tech driving range on the Hudson River) in part to keep her game fresh, but also to meet guys. After flirting with several men there but never converting those exchanges into dates, Samantha turned to Tinder. She considered only guys who made mention of the sport, whether it was through a photo they'd posted or a reference in their short bio. On a cold day in February, she came across a guy with whom she'd flirted at Chelsea Piers in December. "I was trying to hit on him, and he wasn't having it," Samantha says. "Turns out, he had just come out of a long relationship and wasn't ready to date. But he went home that night and told his brother all about me. He even tried to find me on Facebook and Google." In time, each right-swiped the other on Tinder, and they've been dating since. Samantha competed at a Division I university, and he played for a Division III college. "We talk about golf on every single date, but it doesn't dominate the conversation. He just really likes that he can talk to me about it."
This sentiment is common among golfers who date other golfers. One woman in her late 20s, whom we'll call Elizabeth, got stood up on New Year's Eve in 2010. She turned to Match.com to find a serious relationship, making up a whimsical user name that contained the word "golf." Many men were immediately interested. "The first messages I got were always about golf," she says. "As a woman, golf is a huge differentiator. Most women just say, 'Yeah, I love to eat and drink and have fun.' So golf really sets you apart."
After using Match for several months and going on more than a dozen golf dates, Elizabeth was growing increasingly unenthused with the online-dating scene. She received a message from a guy whose user name was a famous golf resort. The subject line, "Nice Posture!" didn't impress her. Four days later, he sent a follow-up email with the subject line, "Taking a Mulligan." In more than 400 words, he explained why they should either "hit balls at Chelsea Piers" or play at a private course he'd recently joined.
The two played 18 holes on their first date. "I got into a total stranger's car, which in hindsight probably wasn't the smartest idea, but it was a full day of getting to know each other, and it didn't feel forced," Elizabeth says. "It was way better than going to dinner. Golf is such a nice launch pad for getting to know someone."
Though a four-hour first date might seem daunting, it can be far less awkward than a typical first date. Sitting across a table from a stranger in the corner of a dimly lit bar while forcing conversation over alcoholic beverages is hardly an ideal way to meet anyone. The awkward pauses inherent in those conversations (and in any conversation) feel far less awkward outside and on a golf course, where a shared experience and outdoor stimuli provide for natural talking points.
Elizabeth and her man have now been dating for nearly three years. Turns out she was the first and only person he ever messaged. "Looking for golfers is a nice way to meet a successful man," Elizabeth says. "Golfers and success kind of align. He and I are both pursuing our goals together, and it's awesome."
Though the majority of low-handicap women who play golf almost always exclusively seek male golfers, the reverse isn't true. Far more men play golf than women. In fact, 80 percent of golfers in the United States are male, according to the National Golf Foundation. "A girl's pool of potential dates is much bigger than a guy's," Rhoades says. "It's a more realistic expectation for women to find male golfers than it is for men to find female golfers."
Ryan, a 33-year-old avid golfer and a divorced father of two girls, says it's his dream to find a woman who loves the game and plays well. "Half my time is already devoted to my daughters," he says, "and golf takes up the majority of the rest of my free time." When Ryan reentered the dating scene, he used Tinder. "There have been times when I've seen women who are playing golf in their photos, and I've right-swiped even though I'd never consider right-swiping otherwise," he says. "One of those women saw a photo of me standing in front of that huge leader board at Augusta National, and she asked me where that was. I never messaged her back."
Ryan took one woman he met on Tinder to the driving range. "She was left-handed and a beginner but really athletic. Even so, golf takes too long to learn. I just don't have the time for that."
Ryan admits that his ideal situation involves finding a woman who plays well, even though he knows it's highly unlikely. "I feel like there are two kinds of guys," he says. "Some would love to play golf with a significant other, but others feel like, No, that's my time with the guys, away from family. Those guys are basically looking for a girl who's secure enough to let their guy disappear for five hours. They're looking for a girl who understands that just because we love golf so much doesn't mean we don't love you."
On top of all the popular dating sites, such as eHarmony, Plenty Of Fish and Zoosk, exist enterprises whose specific charge is to help golfers find other golfers. There's the American Singles Golf Association, with 62 chapters across the country that regularly host golf outings, clinics and dinner parties so people can meet in person. The association estimates that three-quarters of its membership is between 45 and 60. For the online crowd there's GolfMates.com, which charges $70 for three months of full membership, and the free DateAGolfer.com.
Though both ensure that the matches you encounter have an interest in golf, the scale of these sites is far smaller than the scale of the more popular dating sites, which attract millions of users. When I created a profile on DateAGolfer, I found just three guys based in New York City who were within my age range (25 to 35 years old).
Back to that guy I found on Tinder with the Pebble Beach photo. After meeting for beers that first time in December, he and I went on several dates over the following weeks (including one to a driving range, of course), and we teed it up twice in California. We thoroughly enjoyed each round. But it was winter in New York City, and the dates we spent off the golf course became less interesting. Sure, being a golfer is, for me, a must-have quality in any guy I date, but it isn't the whole story. A great bond you have over one common interest isn't enough to sustain any meaningful relationship. But it's a great place to start.
CONNECTING GOLF PALS, NOT LOVERS
Not looking for love? There are a number of apps that help golfers interested in the game interact in the digital space. Some apps let you find playing partners in your area, and others are geared toward enhancing socialization among golfers you already know. GolfMatch is the former. After you download the app and create a profile indicating your preferences, such as which tees you normally play and whether you're looking for a competitive or friendly game, the app finds matches of like-minded golfers close by. Co-founder and CEO Peter Kratsios, a former collegiate player, recalls his beginner friends often lamenting feeling like burdens to strangers they were paired with. "How much better would it be if you could pick who you were getting paired with before arriving at the course?" Kratsios says. "Seeing the way our society has gone, that we're now so accepting of communities like Tinder and Meetup, things don't have to be unexpected." Foursum, an app that launched last August and had almost 100,000 downloads as of early June (like GolfMatch, it's free), operates on similar social principles. Foursum organizes leader boards among friends and tracks the achievements of the people you follow, which you can comment on. "Golf's naturally a social sport," says Foursum CEO Matt Eldridge. "Being able to post comments on your buddy's round is a positive experience we wanted to create." Game Golf hardware ($249) is a set of sensors that attach to your clubs and belt to calculate how far you hit shots and other key stats. The corresponding app makes this information available to you and friends you want to compete with. Now you have a way to try to outdrive a buddy who lives several states away. Or see what courses he has been playing lately. It might be a new world for you, but many others are curious, too.