One of the more interesting traditions in golf is the handshake at the end of the round. It’s an agreeable gesture, and one that suggests the just-finished match was somehow comparable to gentlemanly combat.
But there’s another good reason to shake hands. Call it sudden and fleeting friendship. I’ve seen it happen countless times: at both heavily starched clubs and weather-beaten munis.
Some bond occurs during a round. Four strangers meet on the 1st tee, eye one another carefully and set off. A few hours later, they will be striding off the 18th, wreathed in convivial grins and sticking out their paws like old lodge brothers.
Acrimony is possible, of course, even if it’s unspoken. Like all social interactions, there is always the danger of some livid fractiousness. Curiously enough, it will likely have nothing to do with politics.
The golf course might be the last place left on the planet where snorting political opposites can meet in charmed equanimity. In golf, there is, however, a real social chasm that divides people. Religious differences have nothing on this. Economic disparity, you say? No, it’s much more grave than that. It’s all about pace.
Take those four strangers on the 1st tee. As they work their way down the fairway, they are glancing nervously at one another’s golf game and get-up, dealing with the gnawing fear that one of them might be the jerk who ends up trashing the afternoon round.
The gaper who views a round of golf as an excuse for laughing it up with pals and a cooler of beer on the back of a cart, this guy will be a little trepidatious about sharing a round with some lean and hungry police dog of a player.
You know the guy — pressed and immaculate, hits a 2-iron farther than you hit your driver, finds time to count everybody else’s strokes and penalties. As my mother used to say, a real pill.
But if, like me, you hate carts and love a good, zesty walk and a snappy tempo, the sight of a guy weaving up to the first tee in a golf cart, steering with his elbows as he juggles a mug of beer and a slice of pepperoni pizza… this is enough to make you grind your teeth into powder.
The handicap system might make it possible for players of various skills to play together, but there is no equivalent system for balancing out the fast players and those who play at what might politely be called a leisurely pace.
The brisk players don’t call it that, of course. Especially when they’re trimming their jets on the tee-box of a par 3, their faces turning steamed lobster red while the cheery schmoozers on the green ahead pause to finish off some magnificent shaggy-dog story. If the jolly putters only dared look back at the tee-box, they would see the walking definition of Lock & Load.
I would count myself among the game’s hot-footers, even while I know there are some scratch players among my acquaintance who consider me slower than Bolivian mail. It’s all relative. I hate to be one of those seething schmucks, forever jingling the change in his pocket as he waits in the fairway, but that’s the way I’m wired.
It was one of those chance meetings on the golf course, however, that changed my whole attitude. After work one day I had stopped off at a short executive course for a fast nine. I had, alas, not quite left the office tensions behind. Ripping along at an over-caffeinated pace, I was just butchering the ball.
After hockey-sticking the ball around the 3rd green, I stormed up to the next tee-box and came upon an old man, sitting alone. A sad smile came over him and he waved me through. “Go on, feller,” he said.
Stooped, frail and quavery, he was in shocking shape. Studying him more closely, I was gripped by the fear that he was minutes away from death. I throttled back instantly and said, ever so casually, that I’d be glad to join him if he so obliged. He was so tiny, so sparrowlike, I figured that if something happened I could carry him back to the clubhouse on my back.
After bunting a short little drive up the fairway, he confessed that he’d just left the hospital, where his insides had been keelhauled. He had spent four months on his back, dreaming of the watercolors he’d paint someday and thinking of this very course. We poked along in the gloaming, talking of all these matters.
When we were done, I walked him back to his car. He pulled out a little portable canvas seat so he could change his shoes. He told me to look in the trunk, and there I saw some of his new watercolors.
The lines were done by a shaky hand, but they were bold. I helped him put his clubs away and we shook hands one last time. As he drove off, it occurred to me that after joining up with him, I had played out the last six holes in level par.
After that, whenever I’ve felt my nerves ratcheting up like a paint-making machine and my game about to go spiraling out of control, I try to think of the calm deliberation I felt that evening with the old man. Next to him, I felt like Hercules. So why not feel that way all the time?
A year later I saw that man again. He was on the next fairway over and waved heartily as he strode down the fairway. He still had that determined stride; stronger, but calm and paced.
That day a year ago, I thought I was helping him; but it was he who taught me a lesson of a lifetime.
Chris Hodenfield Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Golf Book