Well, I don’t actually do that Hates Atmosphere. In certain contexts, I might like it. Joe and I can talk about hockey and raising boys. Since he lives next door to my relatives, I know Joe can be a thoughtful and generous neighbour. Over a beer on the back porch, or in the company of our wives, the atmosphere oscillates between agreeable and marginally pleasant.
The problem is that Joe plays golf too.
Even worse, he plays golf with me.
I’ve played golf with more Joe than any other adult in 2021. And in a related story, I crafted the fastest route to the parking lot from every hole in our course. Joe has that effect on me. I hate Joe’s turbulent style, his choppy stroke, and how he reacts to every bad shot as if an evil force is plotting against him. When he hits her on me – and he does a lot – he talks about her for only 45 minutes.
Joe, in fact, is constantly talking on the golf course–about his golf, about my golf, about how the players ahead are painfully slow and any bunker he just hits doesn’t belong where it is. When I struggle, which I often do with him, Joe has no shortage of suggestions for what I should do differently. (Play with someone else, perhaps? That’s something Joe didn’t mention.)
Joe likes to undermine my mental style of golf, thinking I bury any raw mathematical instincts I have under the rubble of swing theory and self-doubt. Joe’s feedback isn’t really the problem. The problem is when he gives it to the top of my back.
As golfers, we are the opposite. I am a varying ball striker who is able to put good points together with a wedge and hit the ball. Joe is a former college baseball player who hits long distances in fairway and then spends unnecessary hits around the green. One of Joe’s favorite photos is of me in the driveway, standing over my approach shot. “That faraway spot is my drive,” he wrote in the text accompanying our group chat. I hate that Joe also thinks he’s so funny.
The text thread is a diverse mix of condescending swing advice, third-degree insults, and ridiculous bets (we once bet Joe’s right to use our street as a shortcut—he now beeps every time he drives and shakes the dog). Joe says I am swinging like a baby. I suggest he sees a stroke neurologist. A few months ago news broke of a new course opening in the next city.
“I just looked it up,” Joe wrote in a text message. “You have to live in the city to join.”
I replied eagerly, “Maybe you should move there.” “I can help you search.”
The other two members of our quartet, Thomas and Lon, claim that their only primary interest is that the enmities of Benny and Joe go on forever, and the entertainment value seems very rich. As such, they worry just as much when the conversation becomes too apt or too dark. The potential breaking point was this past August, a run where I hit the ball crooked and Joe was there to unload every foul. He said I was quitting on the swing. The angle of the spine was very steep.
“Do you just shut up?” I begged. Joe somehow heard that as an invitation to speak louder.
On the 15th hole, after I cut an approach shot and Joe rushed to report that I still wasn’t in the green, I finally had enough. “I’m out of here,” I said, before turning angrily into the parking lot.
Later that night, when Joe and I saw each other, I was expecting an apology. The problem is that he expected one, too.
Joe refers to my “fifteenth tantrum” at least twice a week.
Time is scarce and golf is hard. If you’re wondering why I subject my fragile psyche to someone who sneaks in so easily, I sometimes ask myself the same question.
The first answer is exactly because Golf is tough, and how in the face of frustration, our instinct is to direct our anger inward. There is a lot that I don’t like about the way golf is played. Playing with Joe, it’s easier to focus on what I don’t like about him.
Plus, as much as golf is considered a solitary pursuit, a competitor can sharpen our focus in ways a golf hole can never do. On the way to the first tee, or while standing six feet tall on the green, I could think of the target score or the Nassau $10 on the line. I find silencing Joe is the best motivation of all.
Of course, I should probably point out that Joe isn’t like that Atmosphere With other golfers – that means I was probably the only one who gifted a dozen Callaway golf balls with his face (above) on their birthday. Others think it’s fun company. I once heard another golfer say Joe, “What a great guy.” I felt strangely betrayed.
According to Joe, the tension between us started with a simple fairway exchange a few years ago, when he offered me a yard space, and I got back that I already had one.
He likes to say, “I started it.”
I may not remember it that way, but at some point I have to identify Joe as a suitable opponent. Other men do not work. Thomas is very good. Very nice color. I have similar relationships with some of my oldest friends from high school, a group of guys whose affection usually takes the form of penetrating insults. My wife never understood that I’m not sure I can explain it either.
But one reason may be related to age and the expectation of civility that comes with it. I try not to get attacked at work or at home, but at some point, especially after three eight-foot-highs, I appreciate how Joe and I don’t overburden ourselves with fitness. One of the nicest things I can say about Joe is that I rarely feel compelled to be nice to him.
Every golfer could use someone like this – as much as it pains me to admit it.