Friday, June 13, 2008

What Makes Golf Great

Discussions abound about what makes golf great: the history of the game, the challenge, golf course design, player personalities, character of the players, camaraderie with your playing partners… Some commentators wax poetic. Others speak with reverence, describing certain courses as “hallowed ground.”

Great friendships grow around golf. Generally, you meet other golfers when one of your buddies invites one of his or her buddies to play with you. Over time, your circle of available playmates can grow quite large. But beyond this obvious mechanism, golf is an amazing random matchmaker.

I’m not talking about traditional arranged marriage matchmaking. Rather, I’m referring to how golf can create situations that throw strangers together, occasionally resulting in great friendships. Here’s how it works:

Especially on municipal golf courses, but also on many public courses, single players or two friends might arrive hoping to play. In the interest of accommodating the most possible players, the golf course management pairs these people with other pairs or singles to create a foursome. As it takes about four hours to play a round of golf, this group of strangers has plenty of time to get acquainted.

Generally, people get along well because they’re all there to play golf; they have something in common. In most cases, they finish the round and never again see the people they met that day. However, now and again, the strangers hit it off, and lifelong friendships take root. Of course, if you regularly play at a particular golf course, you’re likely to get paired repeatedly with other players who also play there often. This gives friendship more opportunity to get started, and for a lot of golfers it’s the whole point of joining a club.

I’ve had three great relationships that started through this kind of blind draw. I met my buddy Heber, who lives in Lewisburg, when we played together because we’d each gone to the course alone one day—much of my social circle in Lewisburg grew out of that friendship. I played many rounds over the course of three seasons with Bucknell’s women’s club champion because our abilities were well matched, and we tended to play well against each other.

Then there’s my buddy Roger who was a single paired with a twosome he didn’t know at a public course in Connecticut. On my way back to Pennsylvania from a consulting job in Connecticut, I stopped at this golf course and was put in with them. I can’t remember many rounds where I’ve enjoyed the company more. (On a later trip through Connecticut, Roger and I played a round together and discussed Non-Overlapping Magisteria… a topic we’d learned of independently, and one that I’d never expect to arise in a random social encounter.)

Roger has joined me, Heber, and a childhood friend of mine for a few golf vacations since then, and I try to schedule my trips to Boston so we can visit or even play a round on my way through. Twice I’ve invited myself to Roger’s place for weekends of golf at his home course. And, while I don’t get many visitors in rural Pennsylvania, he has made the trip twice—he’s here now… and that’s what inspired the topic: golf’s tendency to make great friends out of strangers is part of what makes the game great.

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