From the ArchivesJuly 7, 2015

Survivors and Thrivers: The Real World Intrudes

Coping in a crazy world

John Lennon once remarked that "Life is just what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." So true. Life is also what happens while you were playing golf or hitting balls or watching the Masters. We golfers know that better than anyone, because we often talk about the golf course as a parallel universe that we step into and out of. When I am playing golf on vacation, I will often ask in the golf shop after a round: "What happened in the real world today?" On Sept. 11, 2001, the real world intruded on us all--bursting into our parallel golf universe and erasing our pretense that we can walk out on the course and leave the world behind. It happened without warning. Nobody shouted "Fore." The real world doesn't do that.

So what next? It is said that America will never be quite the same after Sept. 11, and surely that is true, and surely the impact on golf of the terror attacks and the retaliations pales in significance compared to their impact on other things. That is only right. Golf is just a game. But since it is our game, part of what gives joy to our lives, there is no shame in asking where golf fits into all this.

First, a word about the victims. When I looked at the faces in the paper of all those dead firefighters and police officers, I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with President Clinton. Clinton told me that whenever he visited a city in America his motorcade always had a police-motorcycle escort, and before he would fly off he would always try to spend a few minutes with the cops, shaking hands and chatting. The thing that always struck him, Clinton said, was how many of them loved golf. "They're all golfers," he said. "They always want to talk to me about golf."

Of course, the head pro of any public course in America could tell you the same thing. Cops and firefighters, partly because they work odd hours and partly because they can't afford fancy clubs, are the backbone of many public courses, particularly around New York. These guys love the game, and the game now salutes and mourns those who died.

Indeed, thinking about all those police and firefighters, I was reminded of a story the late Jim Murray once told: "I'm gambling that when we get into the next life, Saint Peter will look at us and ask, 'Golfer?' And when we nod, he will step aside and say, 'Go right in; you've suffered enough.' One warning: If you do go in and the first thing you see is a par 3 surrounded by water, it ain't heaven."

I have no doubt that all those police and firefighters, and all the other innocents, ended up in heaven, with nothing but wide fairways and soft greens.

GOLF AND SANITY

Golf's real contribution is the one it can make to healing. The world changed on Sept. 11, but it did not end. The terrorists frightened us, but only we can now imprison ourselves, and I, for one, will not be imprisoned. I'm traveling, dining out, visiting New York and hitting the links--and I hope you are, too. Remember what the immortal Harvey Penick once said: "Golf has probably kept more people sane than psychiatrists have."

I am not a psychiatrist, but I do have a little practical experience in such matters. I was a member of the Beirut Golf and Country Club back in the early 1980s, when suicide bombing first began in Beirut, with the attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks. Beirutis broke down into two main groups--"survivors" and "thrivers."

Survivors were those Beirutis who did not know how to view their environment selectively. They took in too much information. They worried about every car they walked by; they were terrified by every plane that flew overhead. In the end, they took in so much information that they were paralyzed. They never wanted to leave home.

Thrivers were those Beirutis who learned to view their environment very selectively and to not take in too much info. A fighter jet is flying overhead. OK. Does it seem like it's here to bomb my neighborhood? No. Then I'm going to hit balls.

KING OF THE THRIVERS

The king of all Beirut thrivers was my friend George Beaver. George was a rosy-cheeked Englishman, who had been a salesman for International Harvester in the Middle East and had lived in Beirut since the 1950s, because, he told me, "of the absence of taxes, the availability of household help and the low cost of whiskey." He retired to Beirut for the same reasons. When I got to know George in 1979, he was 89 years old. He had played golf, by himself, almost every day since the Lebanese civil war began in 1975. He always walked the course with just three clubs: a driver, a 5-iron and a putter. Sometimes he played the course backward, other days he played only his favorite holes, or those not covered with shrapnel. Only the most intense fighting in the summer of 1982 kept him off the course, until the Israeli army invaded right up the first fairway, making it truly "a dangerous par 5."

When I asked George why he kept playing, he just shrugged his shoulders and repeated the motto of every Beirut thriver: "I know I am crazy to do it, but I would be even crazier if I didn't."

George Beaver died a natural death a few years later. But, bless his heart, he taught me that the key to coping with a crazy world is to play whatever mind game necessary to get you out the door, and then just live your life. If your number is up, your number is up--but why not go down swinging?

Which is why, I have to confess, the first thing I seek when I visit a country in turmoil is the golf course. Where better to chill out and reconnect with humanity? I was in Iran a few years ago and played at Tehran Golf Club on a beautiful plateau at the foot of the snow-capped Elburz Mountains. There were only 13 holes, because the Revolutionary Guards had grabbed five to put up housing. But I made my way around with a Korean businessman, and The New York Times' Iran stringer--a woman who walked along covered head to toe in a black chador, applauding every shot and delighting in the idea that her colleague was actually playing golf in the Ayatollah's backyard.

It was much safer playing in Israel, where my regular partner was the then-President, Irish-born Chaim Herzog. There were so few golfers in Israel at the time that we found each other. The President's security guards used to carry Uzi submachine guns with them in steel briefcases as they escorted us around the Caesaria Golf Club, at the time the nation's only course. You get used to it. As George Beaver would say: Is the Uzi pointed at you? No. Then putt out.

Yes, in the future, when an airliner roars overhead in our backswings, we might grip our clubs a little tighter than usual, or lift our heads a little sooner--at least for a while. But you get used it, and you play through it. And not only should you not feel guilty about it, you should feel good about it--not just for yourself, but for the caddie or the club or the resort you also will be supporting.

One of golf's oldest toasts goes: "May you live long enough to shoot your age." For the many golfers who perished in this terrorist war, that wish will never be fulfilled. Your heart breaks at the thought. For the rest of us, though, we honor the dead and we lift up our country most meaningfully by going on living life to the full--and that includes golf. This is no time to walk in.

George Beaver lived long enough to shoot his age in crazy Beirut--not despite playing golf, but because of it. The same goes for us. This is no time to hide in the basement. For the country's sanity, and for the economy's sake, we need to shop, spend, invest, travel, fly, and, yes, play 18--with a new sleeve of balls and a hot dog every time. Sure, it seems a little crazy, but you'll be even crazier if you don't.

Editor's note: Contributing Editor Thomas L. Friedman is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times.