Green. That’s all I see in front of me. Pure green, of varying shades; the deep green of the rough, the foreboding green of the trees, and there, in the middle, safety; the friendly light green of the wide open fairway.
I look down. Amidst the green is a round dot of white. My golf ball, teed up and ready for action. I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. I tighten my grip. And I swing.
For the first time in 2020, golf is back.
Two weeks ago, Los Angeles County opened golf courses for public use. Despite the host of restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, courses have been running a brisk business ever since. California has moved more cautiously in its reopening than other states; golf represents one of the few opportunities for organized physical activity at present.
Luckily for me, it’s my favorite form of physical activity. It is not hyperbole to say that golf is as much a part of my identity as my name. As soon as I conquered gravity and learned to stand on two legs, my dad put a golf club in my hand. I’ve owned a set of golf clubs ever since.
So many memories of my life are tied directly to golf. When I returned home from a life-changing study abroad excursion in 2015, I went straight from the airport to the golf course, jetlag be damned. When I turned in my senior thesis, I celebrated with a round of golf; when I turned in my master’s thesis, I did the same. I’ve met some of the dearest friends I’ll ever have in this life on the golf course. Foremost among them is my dad. Golf is our shared bond. We’ve spent countless hours together on the golf course. We would take a day to ourselves every family vacation and sneak out for a round. We would play almost every Saturday in the fall – the course was bound to be empty, as college football is king in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We would play late into the evening in those long summer days, our shadows growing long and then fading in the twilight as we putt out on eighteen, the sky a serene backdrop of purple and orange. Every time I hit a good shot on the golf course, I still think to myself, “Damn, I wish Dad could have seen that.”
Golf is also my oasis. Anytime I’m struggling—be it a major life change, a romantic breakup, or just a bad day, I flee to the golf course. It is a safety blanket of rolling hills and tree-lined fairways. I am not necessarily relaxed at the golf course—I hit far too many slices for that—but I am at peace there. The rest of the world fades to black, and all that matters is the green, the fairway, the direction of the wind, and the yardage to the pin.
All that to say, living for weeks in the California sunshine and not being able to enjoy it on the golf course was a special form of torment.
Now, of course, the moratorium has been lifted; the gates have been opened and we reemerge into the world. But like everything in the time of COVID-19, the Renaissance painting we left has morphed into a surrealist remake. Everything is recognizable, yet everything is ever so slightly askew, like a pair of out-of-date eyeglasses.
Golf is still golf, to be sure, but the little changes serve as a constant reminder of the world beyond the course. Masks are required around the clubhouse and common areas, no exceptions. Only one individual is allowed in the pro shop to check in at any time. Social distancing is the dogma of the day.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the social aspects of the game. Every round begins with introductions and handshakes. It is rote muscle memory. “Hi, I’m Scott, pleased to meet you,” I say as I extend my hand. But now I say my introductions from afar, with a slight head nod, hands at my sides like actors with no roles, no lines in this stage play.
Golf is a social game; if you’re spending four hours in one place with a person, you naturally look for some way to enjoy their company. For all their utility in preventing the spread of disease, facemasks make that hard. The masks obscure smiles, smirks, little facial ticks that imbue an individual with personality and character. They are eyes without a face. Our faces are vibrant reminders of our shared humanity; our facemasks obstruct that bond.
Normally socialization begins on the walk down the first fairway. It starts as simple small talk. “How long have you been playing golf for?” “Do you live in this area?” “What do you do for work?” Trite conversations, perhaps, but the Pyramids started as small blocks before becoming towering monuments.
Now, my walk down the first fairway is done in silence. We all walk (or ride) in our own bubble, so ingrained is the practice of social distancing. We walk with a collective sense of shared trauma. It is not the sharp stab of pain brought on by the loss of a loved one—though far too many have felt that particular form of anguish lately. It is a dull ache at all that has been lost, all that has changed in a heartbeat. It is the niggling insecurity, the omnipresent understanding that we currently live in a dangerous world; that any activity outside of the confines of our house, even one as safe and benign as a round of golf, comes with the risk of disease, infection, and death.
Is this what every interaction will look like in the wake of this virus? Living our lives with a pernicious storm cloud of disease hanging over every breath, every word, every activity? Is there even a normal left to return to?
But humanity finds a way. We do not make a conscious decision to eschew fear for normality, but we grow comfortable with the new normal. We settle into old habits, old routines. Soon conversation seeps back into the round. The coronavirus inevitably comes up as a topic of discussion—how can it not, so pervasive is it in our everyday lives—but it is an abstract, a threat that is out there, not in here, not on this golf course. The masks come off, proverbially and literally. We all maintain proper social distancing, and plenty of research has demonstrated that the risks of spreading the virus are far lower in outdoor environments. By the back nine, the surreal has faded into the background; for a little while, we have escaped. Everything feels normal again.
The round concludes. The last putt is holed on the eighteenth. And it is time for handshakes, cordialities, and farewells. Only now there are no handshakes, and the cordialities feel stilted and uncoordinated, like a dance move we still don’t know how to perform. Our oasis has dried up; time to return to the world we left, the one stricken by a novel coronavirus, the one where paranoia, misinformation, and insecurity pervade our daily lives. As we depart, I accompany my farewells with a now-common refrain: “Stay safe.”
“Normal” as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. The virus wiped that away. But the new normal does not have to be a world of fear. We learn to live with it. We learn to adapt, and adopt new measures to live the closest representation of our former lives while minimizing the risks of our new circumstances.
Golf is back, though it has its surrealities. Everything will, for a time. But as we adapt, the fear becomes normalized and fades to grey. What remains is the vibrant and unbridled joy we feel in participating in the activities we love. The new normal doesn’t have to be so dreadful after all.