Ultimately, golf is larger than the game itself; done right, it ought to send tendrils out into the way you live life and the things you choose to value. I love a game of pick-up basketball, but it’s never taught me a damn thing about decorum or maleness or standards, just how to throw an elbow. Golf taught me lessons about what I expect from myself. Golf gave me a code. But not the one posted on the club rule board. It’s one I developed over many years, by myself.
So I walked alone onto the first tee of my local club and went through my routine of expectation. It wasn’t a litany of rules that rolled out, but a series of behaviors. I tucked in my shirt. I turned off my cellphone. I checked the crease on my pants. I Sharpied three balls with my own mark and made sure I had nothing in my pockets but three tees, a pencil and a scorecard. I pulled my hat down tight and put on my sunglasses. Only then did I take a deep breath and pluck my driver from my bag. I didn’t go over the rules in my head—I know the rules—and I didn’t remind myself to play honestly. I am honest. Everything I’d just done—every step in the routine—reminded me of that. If I straightened up, I knew that the game would straighten out in front of me because of it.
Satisfied, I gazed out into the heat of an Indiana afternoon. There was a foursome in front of me. They waved me along, but I held up my hand. I was good. I didn’t need to play through. By my standards, a single has no inherent rights. I took a long look at the fairway. I brushed the front of my pants. Retied my shoes. No one was watching. But I knew where I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there. A golfer always does.
Tom Chiarella is a writer-at-large at Esquire.