Afternoon Communion

When golf is far more than an ancient game

I had not planned to play on a holiday. It’s usually too busy, crowded, slow. But the Monday observance of Independence Day was bright and sunny, and my wife had agreed to meet me afterward on the patio at the golf club after the round for a late meal and a beer or two, a nice way to end the long weekend.

I was teamed with two men, brothers. They were walkers like me, which would make the round flow nicely, no golf cart drivers to alter the pace of things.

“So nice of you to join us, today,” one of the men said at the first tee, looking directly into my eyes, smiling, and shaking my hand while touching my shoulder with the other. “We are so pleased.”

The other did the same, taking my hand, and saying, “How wonderful it is to have you along.”

Teaming up with others on a golf course as a single player is not unusual. And introducing yourself is standard procedure. But this was different. The men—both about 65 years of age, of Indian descent—were enthusiastically, even what some might see as oddly gracious in the execution of golf course etiquette. The way this usually works is a simple hello, a wave, and maybe a smile. Then you tee it up and get on with it. This exchange, however, was deeply warm and welcoming, as if I had been invited into their home for dinner.

We played the opening hole, rolling our golf pull carts down the fairway, exchanging niceties about the course’s good conditions despite recent hot days, and the benefits of a straw hat in the afternoon heat. At the second tee, a par-3, as we waited for the group in front of us to leave the green, we talked about where we lived, our careers, how often we played the course, the usual small-talk of golfers as they anticipate the next shot. Only a half-an-hour had passed, but like most who play the game know, character begins to reveal itself early in a round. A player who fully plays out the hole, putting even the shortest putt into the bottom of the cup, is one kind of golfer compared to the one who picks up the remaining downhill two-footer and calls it “good.” They are two kinds of people. These gentlemen, and that’s what they were—gentlemen—played out every shot. They congratulated each other on well-hit drives and smart wedge play, and congratulated me on my first-hole par. They were genuine, authentic, and it fast become clear it was going to be an enjoyable day. What I had not anticipated was how it would also become an afternoon of communal revelation.

A few holes later, we stood before a tee where some players often mistakenly believe they have the skill to hit their first shot all the way to the green some 300 yards away. It’s a delusional belief. Very few—even the very best—would have the skills to accomplish such a feat. Still, two players, considerably younger, were waiting until the group in front of them stepped off the green. The two believed, with all of their hearts, that they might be able to sail their drives through a steady breeze, over trees, over a pond, and land their balls safely on a small putting surface surrounded by sand traps. Earlier in the round, from our vantage point, we were able to observe these young men. They were clearly not that good at the game. Still, they waited for the green to clear. And, as I had done during many earlier rounds, I became irritated. Really? You think you can make that happen? You can hit your drive that far, that straight, that accurately? As I inwardly grumbled, one of my new partners, waiting along with me, stepped to my side.

“Don’t you love the human spirit,” he said.

I was puzzled.

“That young man believes he can do what so few can. And he truly thinks so. Isn’t that a marvelous thing?”

“Well,” I said, questioning his assessment. “I see this a lot, guys thinking they are far better than they are. It holds up play. It slows everything down. Now we are waiting for no good reason.”

“Ah,” my partner said, “but isn’t that just it? That spirit is what makes us believe in our dreams and goals. That belief, that spirit is go strong. Isn’t it, in the end, a good thing?”

I thought for a moment. “Goodness,” I said, surprised. “That is certainly another way of seeing this.”

“The human spirit is what keeps all of us going. It is everything, is it not?”

Why was it that I had never thought of it that way? Why had I always seen this as negative behavior, the behavior of fools? How dare the delusional dreams of silly men slow down my play, my afternoon, and dilute my amusement. From where does that view of the world come—this belief in the strength of the human capacity to develop, dream, and achieve? Religion? Culture? Family?

Spiritual thinkers will tell you that the human spirit is the core of our being, our essence, a heavenly component transformed by a deep desire to find happiness and meaning. It’s what the Dalai Lama teaches. Big hitter, The Lama. “Caddy Shack” was far deeper than a lot of us may have ever considered. And my afternoon had turned far more philosophical than what I had expected when I paid my greens fee at the clubhouse.

We played another two holes and as we walked to the 8th tee, one of the brothers had a question.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, pulling a brown paper bag from his golf bag. “My wife always makes us something to eat. I have plenty.”

I politely said no thank you. But he insisted.

“Oh, you must.” he said. “Do you like Indian food?”

I did.

“This is dhokla.” He spelled it for me. “We eat a lot of it.” From another brown bag, he delivered a small plastic container. “Please, take it. I have a spoon for you.”

“That is so kind,” I said, opening the container.

“The red sauce is hot. The green, not so much. Do you like hot?”

That depended on what hot meant. But, yes, a little heat was good.

I sat on the bench at the tee box, mixed the sauces, and took a bite. And a second.

“This is magnificent,” I said.

“There are many recipes. My wife has been making it like this for many years.”

I asked the name again. He spelled it again. And I told him how much my wife loved Indian food.

“Oh, good, I have more,” he said. “Here.” He handed me another brown bag. Another container. More dhokla. “Take it home to her. You must.”

“Oh, no, no. I cannot take your food,” I insisted. “You’ve already given me enough.”

“Oh, please. We have plenty. Please.”

I placed the gift in the large pocket of my golf bag. “So kind,” I said.

“What a wonderful day, new friend. I’m so happy you like it.”

Finishing what remained of the food he’d given me, and licking the spoon, I thought again about those young men on the tee a few holes back, waiting to hit the golf shots of their lives, and about how my view of that moment had changed with a simple shift in vision. And how now, with a simple act, my round of holiday golf had become far more than an ancient game.

What was that quote? I thought. Something about kindness.

I tried to recall something I had once heard or read, a certain phrase, but I couldn’t place it exactly. Couldn’t remember who had said or written the words that hovered just below the surface of my memory. Walking down the 9th fairway, the last hole I would play with my new friends, I struggled, searching my mind for some sliver of recollection. “Something divine, was it?” I asked myself. “Who said that? Divine, something?”

On the ninth green, after the putts had rolled in, we shook hands again and exchanged phone numbers. One brother promised to text to me the name of a great Indian restaurant. “It’s far north, but you’ll love it,” he said. And as I crossed the parking lot to the 10th tee, and the two of them walked to their car, it suddenly came to me. Yes, yes. The phrase, who said it, wrote it. Kindness, yes, that’s it.

I turned toward the clubhouse entrance where my golf partners were packing away their clubs. “It was Thoreau,” I said across the parking lot, as if they might hear me from this distance, as if they would understand what I had been thinking. “Henry David Thoreau said it,” I continued. “It was Thoreau.”

The brothers could not hear me and did not turn to look. They were leaving now, driving out from the lot and onto the road in the low afternoon sun.

“Pure kindness is a divine affinity,” I whispered to myself. “Henry David Thoreau. That’s who said it. It was Henry David Thoreau. A divine affinity. Your kindness. That’s what it was.”

Walking down the 10th fairway, I texted my wife. I have a present for you.