The Next One’s Good

Can we keep politics off the course this season?

March 24, 2021


Golf as refuge—my favorite subject. Now the challenge isn’t a pandemic, but politics. As we return to our courses this spring, I’m concerned that the divisiveness in the country might spill over into golf. Do we simply check our politics at the clubhouse door and avoid all conversation about the news, or does the civility among golfing friends make us more open to seeing the good in those who hold an opposing point of view?

My ulterior motive is to find the best priest and rabbi joke that makes the point. So I went to Marc Gellman, the Long Island rabbi who—like most old golfers I know—retired to Florida, where there are no income taxes but plenty of tee times.

“Politics is ridiculous,” he says to me. “Friendships are more precious than family because you get to choose your friends, but be realistic: Not everybody at the club is your friend.”

Channeling “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” politics comes from the Greek word politiká, meaning affairs of the cities. Don’t we play golf to escape those affairs? The nature of a golf club might be to associate with kindred spirits, but the kindredness is golf—not money or religion or political philosophy. Years ago I joined a place where the club president congratulated me by saying, “You’re lucky you got in. You’re the kind of guy who might invite Bill Clinton to the member-guest.” I don’t even know Bill Clinton, except I heard he put out feelers to join another club I belong to and, well, he never got in. The closest I’ve ever gotten to being political on the golf course was not letting George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle and Nick Brady play through, but there was a group right in front of us.

How do you keep politics from ruining the golf? The rabbi says there are two answers, and the first is from a Muslim. He calls it the Lesson of Muhammad Ali—you slip the punch.

“Ali was not the hardest hitter, but he had the fastest twitch muscles of any heavyweight fighter,” Gellman says. “Slipping” is a technique in which the boxer moves his head to either side so that the opponent’s punch slips past. It was the basis of Ali’s genius. (Only later in his career when he lost his speed did Ali resort to rope-a-doping—not a good technique at the golf club.) “When a golfer starts talking about politics, you slip the punch,” says Gellman. “You say, ‘How about those Mets?’ Or, ‘You should see this new wedge I got.’ They’ll get the message.”

The second approach can be summed up in a single word: Lie. Gellman says it comes from the rabbinical teaching: “You must always say the bride is beautiful.” Feel free to revise as “the groom is handsome.” Lying is the only morally good thing to do in many instances. The Ten Commandments say nothing about lying. Bearing false witness is in there, but that’s meant to address perjury in court. Lying is OK.

Gellman gives an example. A rabbi who shall remain nameless wants to join a club in, say, Boca Raton. His sponsor is a close friend of 40 years and a Trump hater. After a round they have a drink back at the house, and the sponsor announces, “I cannot keep as a friend anybody who voted for Trump.” The rabbi takes a moment pondering his choices and replies, “I don’t ever share my politics, conservative as I am, but even I could not vote for Trump.” The moment passes and the lying rabbi becomes a member of the club.

Back to the priest and rabbi joke. Here it is: Pat and Maury have played golf together every Friday for 25 years. One week Maury says to Pat, “You and I talk B.S., golf, sports all the time, but we avoid our religions. Let me ask you seriously, Father, do you believe that Jesus did all those miracles, like the loaves and fishes?” Pat says, “Rabbi, I’m glad you brought it up. I’ve been meaning to ask if you really believe Moses parted the Red Sea?”

After a pause, Maury replies: “Pat, that was Moses.”

Can golf be part of the solution? Meh, I don’t think so.