Stranger Danger

Stranger Danger

Perhaps the most awkward situation in golf is being paired with people you have never met. Golf is already a sport that exposes your mental and physical weaknesses, and to introduce your insecurities to complete strangers is just downright cruel. Unless you are an extreme extrovert, my guess is most golfers prefer to play with a friend or at least someone they already know.

Such was the case last Saturday when I made a last-minute tee time at Windy Harbor Golf Club, just outside Jacksonville. Due to typical weekend traffic on the course, I was paired up with a group of guys I met for the first time by #1 tee. There were five of them in all, and we drew names to pick our threesome.
As I soon learned, these guys get together every weekend to play, and to keep it interesting, put a few wagers on the side. Each of them were at least twice my age, with the oldest pushing 80. Cigars were lit, jokes were exchanged and we walked up to the first tee.

If the first tee shot isn’t daunting enough playing alone, pulling driver and standing up there in front of 5-minute-old acquaintances is enough to make any weekend warrior’s knees knock. To my surprise and good fortune, I cranked one out in the middle of the fairway, about 100 yards from the green. I quickly climbed in my cart and took off with my group.

A bit of embarrassment set in when I realized the gentlemen I was playing with were walking with pull carts in 90 degree Florida heat. What’s more, a recent downpour left some of the fairways soggy, so I was relegated to parking on the cart path and walking into the fairway with a few irons in hand while the savvy locals approached their shots armed with their entire bag before I even arrived at mine.

I missed the green short with my approach but managed to save par. Scrambling often earns instant credibility and my playing partners decided to bring me into their conversation. Charlie Davis, a man who looked like he spent his entire adult life in the southern sun mixed with a dash of Clint Eastwood, took me under his wing and became my personal caddie, describing every hole in detail as we arrived at each tee.

Charlie told me where to hit it, what kind of shot I needed to play, suggested a club to use and where the trouble was on every hole for the next four hours. He and his pal, Cary, had played Windy Harbor so many times they knew the track like Jack Nicklaus knows Augusta National.

Charlie Davis and Cary enjoyed a banter that only paused while they swung their clubs, but picked up where they left off as soon as the ball was in the air. I had never heard so many old golf anecdotes and idioms in my life. After a particularly terrible shot I hit, Charlie was quick to remind me that “a dry ball is a happy ball.” Even better, Cary left a birdie putt short on the back nine and Charlie observed he needed just another six inches. Without hesitation, Cary responded, “I’ve heard that before.”

Some might have been annoyed by the constant chatter, but I found it to be incredibly relaxing and entertaining. These guys didn’t take themselves or the game too seriously, but man could they play.

Charlie didn’t miss a fairway on the front nine and only a handful on the back. Cary was a bit younger and had some power, knocking it near my drives with a 2-iron at times (a club I’ve never swung in my life, much less own). If it wasn’t for me, I’m pretty sure the two of them would have played 18 holes in 3 hours, walking, and making par on half.

When it was all said and done, I missed 89 with a 3-putt on 18 and was a little disappointed with my scoring overall. But I quickly forgot about the extra putts and wayward tee shots with the customary 18th green handshake. Charlie invited me back to play anytime with the group, and complimented me on my swing and rhythm.

As I left Windy Harbor, I barely reflected on my score as I thought about the 4 hours spent with some new golf buddies about 30-40 years my senior, guys I would have never had the pleasure of meeting if it were up to me and my aversion to golf strangers. Not only did I pick up some invaluable tips including playing your own game and taking bad shots in stride, but I also learned something about making golf more about the time spent with interesting people and less focus on hitting a white ball 90 times.

Thanks to Cary and Charlie Davis, I’ll be back to Windy Harbor soon and the next time I get a chance to play with someone new, I won’t think twice.