Final SayMarch 12, 2012

Friendships Built Through Golf Are Deeper, Enduring, Different

Seems to me there's something different about the friendships we make through golf, an extra dimension, a deeper link. Like most people, I have friends who cover a wide swath of the human spectrum. Writer friends, neighbor friends, childhood friends, parents of my kids' friends friends. Some are closer to me than others, naturally, but I've noticed lately that a disproportionate number of the people I really care about play golf. And so I wonder: What is it about the game that breeds such strong fellow-feeling?

It's not an easy question to answer because my golf friends are so different from each other. There's an ex-priest, a retired Army colonel, gym teachers, math teachers, an athletic director, an air traffic controller, a photographer, a psychotherapist, a couple of doctors, a novelist, a fluid-dynamics engineer, a private investigator, insurance and money-management guys, magazine editors. Men and women, easygoing and intense, my 10- and 14-year-old daughters and an 82-year-old uncle, people with OBAMA 2012 stickers on their car and people who think he's a Marxist troublemaker, churchgoers and atheists, millionaires and guys who can't afford to replace their 15-year-old driver--they form a museum of human variability. Golf, it sometimes seems, is the only thing we have in common--but it's enough.

A lot has been said about the way the game can humble us, and surely that's part of the fiber of a golf friendship. Difficult as it might be to attach the word "humble" to certain tour players or denizens of the local club, the deal with golf--at any level--is that the moment you set foot on the first tee you're signing up to periodically make a fool of yourself. Nobody escapes. From Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot to Hunter Mahan at the Ryder Cup, there's an abundance of proof that even the most remarkable degree of skill can't protect you from the "What a stupid I am" syndrome. Let's not get into my opening hole five-putt in a tournament at Wyantenuck CC in Great Barrington, Mass.

So what? What does a quadruple bogey have to do with friendship?

My theory is that we all walk around wearing an outfit with a thread or two of pretend in it. Even the most authentic souls sport a layer of armor, and some of us wear a full suit. After about age 5 we need this protection; otherwise we'd be steamrolled by the vicissitudes of life and the egos of office mates. But friendship is about getting to the other side of that steel plate, and the best golf friendships seem to specialize in that.

It takes about three holes to get a good sense of the other players in a foursome, and if you tee it up with someone 30 times a year for decades, you can probably sketch out a map of his DNA. But the answer to the golf-friendship question goes beyond humility and authenticity. I read somewhere--a Russian novel, it must have been--that the people you love are the people you suffer with. Let's not overstate the travails of the great game. A bad round is not military combat, cancer or oral surgery, so "suffering" might be too strong a word. At the same time, just about every golf outing includes moments of failure, disappointment, even heartbreak. How we face those things speaks volumes about the creature we are underneath the mask of the personality.

Or maybe the answer has something to do with the fact that golf is not a virtual activity. You are out in the air, away from texts, emails, status updates and tweets. You are not "friending" people. You are, in the philosopher Martin Buber's term, "truly present" to them, wrestling with yourself in plain view, sweating, looking foolish, dealing with injury, disability, or age, competing or encouraging, trying, against great odds, to do something well.

It's amazing, you smack a little white ball across a few miles of mowed turf and it shows you--and your mates--exactly how human you all are: flawed, full of hope, willing to push hard against the limits of your ability, ready to laugh, curse, weep, try and keep trying. All the ingredients of true friendship.