What happens when you go to a public golf course all alone — at least in a city dense with golfers like New York or Los Angeles, where I grew up — is somebody puts your name on a waiting list and, after some time, plugs you into a group of strangers with whom you’ll spend the next five hours in close proximity. I spend most of the rest of my life avoiding intimate time with strangers. Imagine if, going to a movie alone, you had to shake hands with everyone in your row. Or if, on a solo trip to a restaurant, the host seated you at a table with a party of three and expected you to converse with them until midnight. Not my thing — and possibly why I dread being seated at the odds-and-ends table at weddings.
But knocking around with strangers on golf courses has always been, for me, something different. And, weirdly, I’ve been doing it most of my life. I contracted the golf virus when I turned 10, right as Tiger won his third consecutive United States Amateur title. I started playing, mostly with my grandma, several days a week, and before long I was heading out solo any afternoon I could, getting dropped off after school. These were public golf courses around Los Angeles, among the busiest in the country, which is why you don’t end up playing by yourself much. At one favorite, Los Verdes, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, I remember fivesomes stacked up sunup to sundown. I would hop out of mom’s minivan, give my name to the starter, practice my putting. When I would hear my name called (“Riley, single, off the waiting list”), I would throw down my cash for the junior rate (5 bucks, usually), stroll up to my unsuspecting adult playing partners on the first tee, and we would be off.
Conversation on a golf course is its own kind of chatter. The small talk is relevant: There is always the shift in the wind or the yardage to the pin or the speed of this green versus that last one to blab about. Golf is also forward-moving. You’re never just stuck there. A lot of people with children say it’s easier to talk to them in the car; when everyone’s staring straight ahead, the revelations start to flow. Golf is like that. Your eyes are always directed down the fairway, even if you’re talking about layoffs or dead dads. The overlaps with strangers may not always be obvious. But you feel around. You shine your flashlight into the cave and see if maybe you’re fans of the same burger chain or whatever.
A significant slice of the pie chart of useless stuff I learned in those years came from the strangers I golfed with, people who, remember, were playing a public golf course in the middle of a weekday afternoon with a tween. Never live in Boston. Vacation in Thailand. I remember two middle-aged brothers imploring me to take two commandments away from our time together: 1) Never get married. 2) Date strippers. I remember, one summer afternoon, asking a guy I was paired with what he “did for a living,” and when he told me, I asked if he knew our family friend, who I thought did the same thing. He went pale and explained that our family friend was in fact his boss, that he’d called in sick that day, that he would appreciate it if I, 12-year-old “Riley-single,” would mind not narcing on him to his superior.