Another thing I enjoy about public-course golf is getting paired with strangers on the first tee. To friends who aren’t golfers, I liken it to the pleasure of pickup basketball: You show up by yourself, meet people with whom you share merely a desire to play, and then spend the next few hours banging elbows with them. No one has any idea who you are. You simply become known for your game.
For example, one morning at daybreak not long ago on the famous Black course at Bethpage—the first muni, I’ll note, to host a U.S. Open—I found myself on the first tee with the following: a rangy member of the Queens College golf team who had an impossibly wide arc and hit the ball a mile; a middle-aged Korean dry cleaner with perfectly pressed trousers and a spaghetti-like swing that somehow worked; and a plodding, fortysomething out-of-towner who was visiting his in-laws on Long Island. None of us exchanged phone numbers afterward and I can’t remember any of their names, but that morning we hunted for each other’s stray balls, lined up putts together and chatted here and there before parting ways on the hill above the eighteenth green.
Showing up solo at a resort, of course, is another story. If you arrive as a single or a twosome, you stand a chance of having to play with a vacationing husband and wife for whom a round of golf is just another luxury amenity— in other words, they could take it or leave it. But when you arrive at a muni in the lonely stillness before sunrise, chances are your playing partners will be serious about the game. If they weren’t, they’d have stayed in bed.
That certainly describes the wiry fiftyish publinxer named John who came up to me one day last summer as we walked off the first green at Bethpage Red (a worthy understudy to the Black). Playing off the white tees, I had just parred the hole while he struggled to make bogey from the blues. But he wanted action.
"Tell you what," he said. "I’ll give you that hole and spot you the white tees." That meant I’d start one up and could continue playing from the shorter markers.
"Sure," I replied, liking my chances.
He wasn’t trying to hustle me—we settled on a measly dollar Nassau—but still the game was on. My pulse quickened and I skied my drive, only to watch John bomb one down the middle and stride off, pull cart in tow, a model of determination. He won that hole to even the match and went on to win the next one, too. I managed to shake off my nerves and started swinging smoothly again, but there was no catching this guy. John found the fairway off almost every tee and rifled irons into the greens. He even drained a couple of thirty-footers. When I penciled in the final numbers, I saw that he had shot two over par for those last seventeen holes. Thank God we were only playing for a few bucks.