I made my long awaited (in my mind) return to the golf course last week. No press conferences. No media stakeouts. Just me, my clubs, and a balky putter. At some point there will be apologies to my wife and family since the next eight months I'll be sneaking off with my other loves (all 14 of them, with a few substitutes depending on my mood). I'd like to blame the layoff for by abysmal start to the year, not the distractions caused by my infidelity this winter (demoing irons and drivers for hours on end, leaving my current player-club relationships in serious jeopardy).
Unlike a certain big name golfer, I couldn't possibly wait for the Masters. But I did choose a controlled environment to kick off my season, and got away from my familiar surroundings, heading across the country for a solo golf trip in Nevada that reintroduced me to the joys of traveling and playing alone, with strangers, and (unfortunately) the rigors of being joined by my buddies after three days by myself.
One of the problems I run into as a golf addict is it's hard to find friends who want to build entire vacations around chasing the small ball. Sure, they'll play once or twice, but when I think of a golf trip, I want to fly in early enough to be on the first tee that afternoon. I want to play 36 because I hate to waste sunlight. And I want to fly out late enough to get in a farewell round before leaving for the airport.
As my group of pals has started playing more, we've gotten closer to planning actual golf vacations, we're just not there yet. So I've taken to the next best thing. Last week I headed out two days early, got in 18 straight off the plane, 36 on day two (plus six more holes before exhaustion caught up to me), then 18 with the crew before we embarked on four days of guy time in the casinos.
Playing golf and eating alone in a restaurant are two of those things many people just can't fathom. Maybe it was my years living away from friends and family and a desire to be left alone while I ate that broke me of the stigma (my wife would say it's that I don't like to be bothered, which I'll give her). My first solo golf trip was years ago when my odd work schedule broke in a way I had five straight days off and I hopped in the car at midnight and was on the first tee in Myrtle Beach at 9 a.m. That trip was completely spur of the moment, and it was great. I knew there would be many more in my future.
While some people might think it's anti-social - OK, it is anti-social - I just see traveling alone as a way to set your own course, and let golf be the focus. When you're hungry, you eat. If you want drive-thru tacos, you have tacos. If you want steak, you find a steakhouse. You don't worry about Larry who is a vegetarian, or Barry whose wife won't let him go to Hooters (he'll blame acid reflux), or Gary who's so cheap you know when you're short on the bill, he's the culprit. There might be time for carousing, but if I need an extra hour on the putting green, I'm not racing back so they can catch the last half of happy hour.
I see traveling alone as a badge of honor. It's also a double-edged sword in terms of tee times. Often the best deals come as a single, it just requires some calling around and having a strategy, and being flexible with your itinerary. You won't get in on all the golf specials, but honestly, you can normally do better booking them yourself anyway. It's also entirely my call where to play. There are no concerns about Larry shooting 125 and needing someplace ultra forgiving, Barry staying up way too late one night and blowing the morning tee time (or worse, making it, stinking of the night before for 18 holes, riding in my cart of course), or Gary's wallet unable to open far enough to enjoy anything more than the same muni we could have played at home.
But the thing I like most about heading out for three days of golf all by myself are the people I will meet. One of my favorites is being paired with a husband and wife, or parents and a kid. Since they're the most likely twosomes out there, it's fairly common to hook up as a single. There's a level of bonding that doesn't normally happen when you run into a couple of random hackers. Normally it goes like this: the dad is afraid his wife or kid will slow us down (and embarrass him) and try to convince me to find another group, or to play through. I'll talk him into it and he'll shank one off the first tee. I'll pound one down the middle, then the wife pokes one right out into the fairway. I make a comment about how sweet that swing was, the husband blushes, and it's like we're lifelong friends. That was the case last week, when I caught up to a threesome on an absolutely spectacular day at Coyote Springs, about an hour outside Vegas. I was floored after four or five holes when the mom told me their 20-something daughter had only been playing for a year. I told her she hits it better and is far more enjoyable to play with than the pals who would be meeting me in a couple days, swearing up a storm and racking up more thrown clubs than pars.
I'm not one for getting deep into the lives of new playing partners, but it's fun to get a snapshot. Where they're from, how their trip is going, what trick did Mr. New Golf Friend use to convince Mrs. New Golf Friend to pick up the clubs. I have to admit, it's often more enjoyable and always more relaxed than running into and joining up with three guys on the back nine who are about to finish an 18-pack of what must be lukewarm Coors Lights and grinding over their $3 nassau, with Mr. Callaway irons holing out from the fringe for a six to surge ahead after Mr. Rental Set's three-putt snowman.
Of course then there's the beauty of playing 18 alone. I did this at Paiute Resort in Las Vegas, where I was the first off the tee in the morning and took my sweet time, knowing I had another round coming in the afternoon and expecting to run into foursomes. Pretty sure I've never been able to take three hours and change to play a round solo, but I just went with the flow, took a bunch of pictures, scribbled some notes as I went, and enjoyed the sun. On that day, the goal was to soak in the golf course, it wasn't about racing through 36 holes in record time.
Just like the rest of the trip, out there alone, I got to do things the way I wanted. And in the end, what better way to spend a few days golfing than in the company of new friends, old friends and simply no one else at all?