A Most Difficult Game

Sunday Letter | #348

Purple-skied rainbow over a golf course. Rolling hills, green with flag in lower left corner.
Misty twilight at Leslie Park, Ann Arbor, MI

The first job I ever had as a kid was as a caddie at Oakland Hills Country Club. The year was 1996, and I remember this because a newly-pro golfer named Tiger Woods had just played in the U.S. Open there. The first day of training for my caddie cohort, a local news station pulled aside all of the Black kids for interviews (though, not us Asian kids—neither me nor my friend Ken).

Not that I’d registered it as unusual then. The world sees Tiger as a Black golfer first and so did I. I don’t think, at that moment in time, I even knew that Tiger was mixed race. Ken and I caddied mostly on Sundays, the only days we weren’t at school or Saturday Chinese school and our parents could give us rides. I’d always get bigger tips—I think because I was smaller and scrawnier, and the golfers took pity. One round, I even lost someone’s pitching wedge and momentarily freaked out, only to find it by the green on the previous hole.

That was my earliest brush with the sport. In high school I played casually with Ken and some other friends, but the number of actual rounds I played I can count on two hands. In hindsight, the game wasn’t accessible to me—largely because I couldn’t afford to play. During and after college, golf rarely if ever even crossed my mind; none of my friends played (or if they did, they never talked about it). And despite Tiger, despite Happy Gilmore, my (very valid) associations of golf with elitism, country club racism, and its reputation as an old-man sport—it all turned me off. My Meijer-bought box-set clubs stayed in my parents’ garage or basement, until they were either sold or ruined by a flood.

I’m recounting all this because, this summer, I’ve been playing golf again. It started when one of Julia’s brothers-in-law suggested that we play the University of Michigan course the morning of the wedding, as a way to unwind, while the bridal party was having their hair and makeup done. The week before, just so I wouldn’t entirely embarrass myself, I went to Topgolf with my dad and brother as practice, then played nine holes with a high school friend who happened to be in town. My swing came instantly back—faults and all.

If you’ve been getting these letters for a while, you’ve probably seen how my various hobbies wax and wane. Golf has had a long return, but it certainly has me in its gravity now. I’ll tell you why: out of all the ball sports, golf is the one that’s most purely a mental game. You’re less reacting at high-speed to your competitors than you are battling yourself. Every shot is a free throw, a serve, a pitch; Michael Jordan recently called it the toughest sport. I’ve even started reading a golf-themed shonen manga (to give you an idea of my current level of obsession).

For me, it’s been a way to think about my writing routines (alluded to in this letter a few weeks ago). It’s also been a reason to spend more time outside—some added excitement to a walk in the woods, and retrain my pandemic-atrophied human-interaction muscles. The sport has also felt more accessible than it ever has before, though the perceptions of elitism are still very much there (and might be why I hesitated even writing about it here until now). I’ve been particularly enjoying Adventures in Golf, which is a Bourdainian series that takes you to golf courses and communities all over the world. The host and producer, Erik Anders Lang, also has a company, Random Golf Club, with a similar mission: to help make the sport more accessible to all. Local RGC chapters all over the world host meetups for likeminded golfers, and this past Sunday, I went to my first in Metro Detroit.

All this is to say: prepare for more golf/writing analogies this fall. At least until it gets too cold to play.