Winter shows signs of concession, and on cue, golfers get antsy. A frosty, white landscape transitions to shades of green. The countdown begins.
“How soon can we play?” is the perennial springtime refrain.
But as the coronavirus pandemic has made so much of the familiar feel foreign, even the arrival of spring has been muted.
Hugs and high-fives are frowned upon, verboten. Coughs and sneezes have become stress-inducers. Bar stools have spent weeks collecting dust. Masked shoppers file into grocery stores where, just three months ago, they’d have been profiled as security risks — only now they’re the well-intentioned ones.
What will golf be like now?
An oasis as it has always been, I’m relieved to say.
The chance to enjoy a Saturday afternoon game felt every bit as right and natural and safe as I could have hoped.
It felt normal.
The signs posted at Champlain Country Club in Swanton told me the ways in which this wouldn’t quite be golf as normal: No bunker rakes, no trash cans, no touching the flagstick, no congregating after the round is done. Disinfecting tools were visible by the carts. Traffic inside the pro shop was limited to two people at a time.
I’d played a quick nine holes earlier in the week at John P. Larkin Country Club in Windsor, so I knew the drill. That wasn’t much different than solo rounds I’d played before. I almost never take out the pin when I’m by myself — it’s most time-efficient — and there isn’t much socializing to do anyway.
As I rolled some warm-up putts on the practice green, Evan Russell and Jake Orr rehashed some of the highlights from their morning at Essex Country Club. Brock Paquette arrived soon thereafter with similar info from his round earlier that day at Burlington Country Club. How refreshing it was to hear friends I’d made through the game talk about anything other than life becoming askew.
At last, banter!
I hadn’t seen any of them in person in exactly two months — and I only saw them on that Saturday in the middle of March because the America East men’s basketball championship, which I was supposed to cover at the University of Vermont, had been canceled.
And the wait to get out on the course again together was even longer than that, with pandemic restrictions prolonging Vermont golf’s offseason by more than a month.
Yet the first tee ritual was the same: Settle on the teams, the stakes for the game, the strokes to be given.
Brock and Jake would each get two shots on each nine, I’d get four. Evan, the former pro and two-time Vermont Amateur winner, would be playing straight-up. Without hard-copy scorecards — casualties to the pandemic conditions like the rakes — Jake had to resort to his iPhone to look up the handicap holes on which strokes would be given.
“I’m going to be giving so many shots this summer,” Evan joked, shaking his head.
Two tee shots sailed up the right side of the opening hole. The other two went down the left. Jake’s snapped sharply toward the tree line and as we marched closer, the back-and-forth kidding continued — his ball hadn’t gone very far at all.
“Power outage!” Brock quipped, harking back to a long-running inside joke.
The four hours that flowed after those steps from the first tee hit on everything that makes the game so unique and beguiling: good shots and bad shots, laughs and curses, green grass and budding leaves, a soft breeze and glimmers of sunshine.
Golf, unlike anything I’ve done since mid-March, cut through the quiet tension that has come to characterize everyday life. It always did, but the sense is even more heightened now. Grinding for par never felt so liberating.
After finishing the eighth hole, part of a rough front nine, Jake said something that seemed particularly poignant. He had already played 10 times since courses opened on May 7, and most of it was frustratingly below his standards.
It hadn’t turned him off the game a bit.
“Golf is one of the only things we can do right now,” said Jake, a math teacher and soccer coach at Essex High School. “When I get home, all I want to do is go play more.”
To be outside again, to experience good-natured competition again, to be amongst friends again was nothing short of uplifting.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the return to earth came at the end, after I rallied for a trio of clutch pars that allowed Evan and I to seal victories on the back nine and for the 18-hole match.
The moment yearned for a round of beverages on Champlain’s deck overlooking the 18th green.
The new status quo called on us to head to our cars and say so long until next time.
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