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Grudge Match

Find a golf partner to hate the way I hate my golf partner

A weekend rivalry brings out my worst. I highly recommend it

OK fine, I don’t actually hate Joe. In certain contexts, I might even like him. Joe and I can talk about hockey, and about raising boys. Since he lives next to my in-laws, I know Joe can be a thoughtful and generous neighbor. Over beers on the back porch, or in the company of our wives, Joe fluctuates between tolerable and marginally enjoyable.

The problem is that Joe also plays golf.

Even worse is that he plays golf with me.

I played more golf with Joe than any other adult in 2021. In a related story, I have formulated the fastest route to the parking lot from every hole on our course. Joe has that effect on me. I hate Joe’s fidgety setup, and his choppy putting stroke, and how he reacts to every bad shot as if some sinister force is conspiring against him. When he hits it by me—which he does plenty—he only talks about it for the next 45 minutes.

Joe, in fact, talks incessantly on the golf course—about his golf, about my golf, about how the guys in front of us are painfully slow and whatever bunker he just hit into doesn’t belong where it does. When I struggle, which I do often with him around, Joe has no shortage of suggestions for what I should do differently. (Play with someone else, maybe? This is one thing Joe doesn’t mention).

Joe (left) paying me after a loss, documented for the record.

Joe loves to undermine my cerebral approach to golf, believing I bury any raw athletic instincts I have under a rubble of swing theory and self doubt. Joe’s feedback isn’t really the problem. The problem is when he gives it at the top of my backswing.

As golfers, we are opposites. I am an uneven ball-striker capable of scraping together a decent score with my wedge and putter. Joe is a former college baseball player who hits towering drives far down the fairway and then spends unnecessary strokes arounds the green. One of Joe’s favorite images is of me in the fairway, standing over my approach shot. “That speck far off in the distance,” he wrote in the accompanying text to our group chat, “is my drive.” I hate that Joe also thinks he is so funny.

The text thread is an assorted mix of condescending swing tips, third-grade insults, and absurd bets (we once bet on Joe’s right to use our street as a shortcut—he now honks every time he drives by and rattles the dog). Joe says I swing like a baby. I suggest his putting stroke should be seen by a neurologist. A few months ago word came out that a new course was opening in the next town over.

“I just looked it up,” Joe texted. “You have to live in town to join.”

“Maybe you should move there,” I replied eagerly. “I can help you look.”

There is much I don’t like about the way I play golf. Playing with Joe, it’s easier to focus on what I don’t like about him.

The two other members of our foursome, Thomas and Lon, claim their only rooting interest is that the hostilities between Joe and I continue in perpetuity, the entertainment value apparently too rich. As such, they worry equally when the conversation turns too congenial or too dark. A potential breaking point was last August, a round in which I was hitting the ball crooked and Joe was there to unpack every miscue. I was quitting on the swing, he said. My spine angle was too steep.

"Sam def. Joe 1 up". Some of the sweetest words in golf.

“Will you just shut up?” I pleaded. Joe somehow heard that as an invitation to speak louder.

On the 15th hole, after I chunked an approach shot and Joe was quick to report I still wasn’t on the green, I finally had enough. “I’m out of here,” I said, before trudging angrily to the parking lot.

Later that night, when Joe and I saw one another, I was expecting an apology. The problem is he expected one as well.

Joe references my “15th hole tantrum” at least twice a week.

Time is scarce, and golf is hard. If you’re wondering why I would subject my fragile psyche to someone who infiltrates it so easily, I sometimes ask myself the same question.

The first answer is precisely because golf is hard, and how in the face of frustration, our instinct is to channel our rage within. There is much I don’t like about the way I play golf. Playing with Joe, it’s easier to focus on what I don’t like about him.

Plus, as much as golf is an isolated pursuit, a rival can sharpen our focus in ways a golf hole never can. On the way to the first tee, or while standing over six-footers on the practice green, I could think about a target score or the $10 Nassau at stake. I find silencing Joe to be the best motivation of all.

Of course, I should probably note that Joe is not Joe with other golfers—which is to say, I was probably the only person gifted a dozen Callaway golf balls with his face on it (above) for their birthday. Other people even believe him to be pleasant company. I once overheard another golfer say of Joe, “What a great guy.” I felt oddly betrayed.

By Joe's telling, the tension between us began with a simple exchange in the fairway a few years ago, when he offered me a yardage, and I snapped back that I already had one.

“You started it,” he likes to say.

"That speck far off in the distance is my drive," Joe texted the group.

I might not remember it this way, but at some point I must have identified Joe as a fitting adversary. The other guys don’t work. Thomas is too good. Lon is too nice. I have similar relationships with some of my oldest friends from high school, a group of men whose affection usually takes the form of piercing insults. My wife has never understood it. I’m not sure I can explain it either.

But one reason might be tied to age, and the expectation of civility that comes with it. I try not to lash out at work, or at home, but at some point, particularly after three-putting from eight feet, I appreciate how Joe and I don’t burden ourselves with decorum. One of the nicest things I can say about Joe is I rarely feel compelled to be nice to him.

Every golfer can use someone like that—much as it pains me to admit it.