Giving up golf after contracting the virus is a lesson in perspective

May 05, 2020
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In some parts of the world, April might actually be the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot wrote, but here in the high hills of western New England, it’s the month when we start playing golf again. In normal times. Yes, April can be windy and raw, and sure, we might even see a little snow, but we dress for the weather and go out and play. We’ve been waiting since November, after all. We’ve been putting on the carpet, getting stronger in the gym, dreaming weird golf dreams, and, if we’re lucky, squeezing out a week at Myrtle Beach.

This April, in Massachusetts at least, the courses sat groomed and empty, a group of guys all cleaned up for dates who never show. I’d be tempted to complain bitterly about it if not for the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are sick and dying, tens of thousands risking their lives to care for the infected, millions out of work, and people all over the world imprisoned in their homes or apartments, unable to visit loved ones, get married or bury their dead.

Giving up golf is a lesson in perspective, but that doesn’t make it much easier. In my case, there are a couple of twists to the story. The virus caught me early—the weird dry cough and tight chest, four days of the most intense fatigue I’ve ever experienced, a little nausea and achiness, but no fever, no shortness of breath, no worried trip to the ER. “A mild case of COVID,” my doctor said, and I was always much more worried for our daughter with cystic fibrosis and for my wife’s 97-year-old mother than for myself. I stayed home for 45 straight days, following a strategy of keeping busy and sane, watching the weather slowly brighten and scratching one golf tournament after the next off the calendar.

I’m not a particularly fearful type and have been through a medical textbook of other ailments in my decades on this earth, so the intense anxiety that often accompanies a diagnosis wasn’t part of the picture for me. No one I saw on the day of my first symptoms has complained of illness, my wife’s been healthy, but the sneakiest part of COVID is the fact that a quarter or more of the people who carry it around don’t even know they’re positive for the virus. I consider myself very lucky: I work at home anyway. We have a mostly empty country road to walk on, a big yard to putter around in. Besides not being able to go into the nearby town for ethnic lunches and to see a few close friends, the main impact of the virus on my life has to do with a forced hiatus from golf. Annoying and frustrating, but, as I remind myself daily, not tragic.

Working against that rational self-counseling is the other twist: After two years away from my favorite course, I rejoined it over the winter, paid 100 percent of the dues ahead of time, in fact. I love that place, dream about it, write about it, have a thousand memories there. I play it (very well!) in my mind before I fall asleep. I remember particular shots, both great and awful, and particular rounds with my wife and our young daughters, with a beloved cousin and wonderful pals, in cold and heat and rain, alone at dusk, and closing up the place one frigid October evening with a friend who loves the game as much as I do.

It hurts not to play. Maybe because of our endless winters, we cherish every decent day in these parts, knowing how fast the season slips away. And, as we age, how fast the years go by. We convince ourselves it would be safe to get out on the course, even now—solo, or one to a cart, or knocking putts off a raised cup so we don’t have to touch the flagstick. I think that’s true. But I also think it’s true that some of us would end up scoffing at the social-distancing rules, shaking hands, gathering for a beer, standing close on the green to help a partner line up a putt, helping to spread the sneaky microscopic bug that has closed down the entire hemisphere and caused so much misery.

So, along with many others, I’ll wait. The pandemic will ease. The restrictions will lift. I’ll be out on that favorite course again, cursing bad shots and dreaming of perfection, as always. But maybe appreciating, even more than I used to, the great gift of being able to play golf in such a troubled world.

Roland Merullo is a novelist who lives in Williamsburg, Mass., and has been a past contributor to Golf Digest and Golf World.