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Friday, November 14, 2014


An incident happened on the golf course the other day. A group of older men confronted a group of younger men about the pace of play. This often happens, especially on public courses. In this instance, it was serious. The four old men were white; the four young men they confronted were black.

The four older men were regulars on the course. Once a week, every week, on Wednesday or Thursday, they played the same course together. They were retired from a lifetime of toil so that they could play rapidly in the middle of the week rather than slowly on Sunday. They usually started at 8 o’clock and expected to finish by around noon. Sometimes, though, they were unable to secure their usual time, and had to begin an hour later. This often meant that the round would take up to an hour longer. This was because younger men usually began later and played more slowly.

You might think younger men would play more quickly than the older group, but that is usually not the case. For one thing, the older men, playing every week for years, are used to the course. They don’t hit the ball as far, and thus tend to avoid trouble. Younger men have work and other obligations that prevent them from practice and regular play, especially in mid-week.  So, when they get together with friends for a rare mid-week golf outing, they want to have fun. Being young, they can sometimes hit the ball longer — when they actually do make contact — but that usually means more trouble because they are bound to hit it with a “banana slice” or a “duck hook,” results that are as bad as they sound.   

Golf is a game that demands frequent practice. It will humble even the most talented and skilled. The dilettante cannot possibly hope to successfully navigate the course without frustration. He will spend precious time searching for lost balls. He will be forced to hack out of forests, dig out of sand traps, and slash through deep grass.

Young men, by their nature, will not accept these truths. They still retain the optimism and competitiveness that keeps them running the rat race of mid-life. When they play this game with their peers, who are roughly equal in their ineptitude, they will act like adolescent males. They will tease, challenge, and try to humiliate their friends. If one reaches the green in seven, and the other in eight, they will slow down to now seriously compete to see who can score lowest on the hole that the card says should be finished in four strokes.  

For the old men, waiting to hit every ball while the four ahead of them tacked from the rough on the left to the trees on the right, inching their way toward the distant green, and then waiting more while the four athletes measured three-footers for eight to win the hole and so better the chance to avoid paying for the beers, the wait was agonizing. Old men measure events in the amount of time remaining; they can’t spend precious time waiting for something to happen. They resent traffic jams, supermarket lines, and most of all, doctor’s offices. They cannot be placed “on hold.”

So, here’s what happened. On the very first tee, while the old men were waiting for the group of young men to begin, they noticed some things that they recognized immediately were going to slow the round. First, the young men insisted on playing from the tee that required the longest, straightest drives. This position should be restricted to the pros or best amateurs, but it is common for boys and young men, no matter the lack of skill, to want to get their money’s worth, which they think forces them to  swing as hard and as often as possible. Efficiency and economical preservation of effort are skills the older players have learned in order to survive in this game. The young, most of whom will soon abandon the game for marriage, children, work, and other games and less time consuming sports, are ignorant of this.   

The second item of concern was that three of the young men, when flubbing their first tries, played a second ball. This is known as a Mulligan and it is acceptable on the first tee, recognizing the natural nervousness of duffers to cause a stumble at the start. But to the old men, it was an “uh-oh” moment. The third issue the men observed with trepidation was the jocularity with which the young men faced the embarrassment of their fellows’ failures. Golf to the experienced older player, while still a social event, permitting good fellowship among old friends, is far more serious, once the round has begun. The experienced serious older golfer knows when to josh and when to shush.

That brings up an additional point that must be emphasized. Golf has lasted a few hundred years with some lasting traditions. It began as a gentleman’s game that required gentility and patience, but one invented by the irascible Scots whose temperaments were carved by their intemperate climate. They played the game against cruel nature; they played angry at the ground, the rain, the cold. To prevent homicides during the game, they carved out strict rules of conduct among players.

Play the ball as it lies, call a penalty on yourself even if no one is looking, and most of all, be considerate of others on the course. That means moving along at a decent pace, spend no more than five minutes searching for a lost ball. Many other rules are meant to encourage an orderly and more rapid completion of each hole. The old men knew and respected these traditions and appreciated their importance. The young men didn’t know the rules. The young are often contemptuous of tradition, assuming that any rules made by previous generations are stupid, and are probably designed to hamper their enjoyment of life. They feel it is their privilege, even their duty to break the rules and find pleasure in the mere act of doing so.

As the old men watched the preceding group as they scrambled along, the pace met their expectations. They had anticipated the delays, but by the twelfth hole, they had had enough. While on that green, they noticed the foursome ahead of them to be standing on the next tee. The fairway ahead of them was vacant, meaning that the preceding group was not a cause for delay. Protocol required that the group should tee off as soon as they can safely do so. Things slow down when some players who are unfamiliar with the course or with their own lack of skill, delude themselves that they might reach the faraway golfers ahead of them. They wait, and wait. When they finally strike the ball, they dribble it a few yards forward or worse, many yards sideways.

This group was even more egregious. They not only waited far too long. They were talking to each other so vigorously that they did not notice the vast space ahead of them. They were having fun socializing. The men on the green behind them were not. They anticipated another long wait. They were furious at the inconsiderate antisocial behavior of the group. When they finally got to the tee, the others had just departed. By the time they had finished their work on the next green, the old men who were again waiting in the fairway were grumbling to each other about the criminality of the conduct. It was time for action.

In this particular situation, the generation gap was not the only problem. The other was the cultural attitude separating the races. I need to emphasize the point that if race was not involved — let’s say, if the foursomes were all white — the old men would still have been fuming, and a confrontation might have taken place anyway. But the added element of race — as always in America — complicated the issue immensely.  

At this point, I have to make what may seem to be a strange reference. Do you remember the movie, Deliverance? In my memory, it is about man’s nature as a hunter, an instinct that is suppressed beneath civilization’s veneer, but which when released can lead to dramatic consequences. The four characters who experience the event in the movie all act differently. For one, played by Burt Reynolds, it is a challenge to his manhood. Violent sport sparks his competitive soul.

Among the group of old men, one saw himself as Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. He was long past his prime as an athlete, but deep within, the tiny little fire still glowed. He had played high school football at what he remembered was a high level. He had been a lawyer, proud of his aggressive defense tactics, and now, at seventy, he clung to this self-image. And at this moment, to mix a movie metaphor, he was mad as hell and was not going to take it anymore. He raced his cart forward to the green and challenged the group for their lassitude.  

From the vantage of about 150 yards away, the confrontation went this way. The old man drove his cart up to the tee where the four young African American men had just teed off and were walking back to their carts. After a pause, the old man stood near his cart. A man in an orange shirt looked back to him, and words seemed to be exchanged. Then the man in orange walked quickly toward the old man and they stood face to face, like umpire and manager in a baseball dispute. A few seconds later a second African American man began to walk up. He took his friend’s arm and they retreated to their cart, which drove off.

When the three other old men reached the green, the first man was still excited. He related his story to the others. He had told the men that they were too far behind. The man in orange denied this. The old man had insisted; the young man then became angry, called him a bitch and challenged him. “He expected me to back off, but I didn’t. Then his friend said, ‘Okay, we’ll speed up.’” Eventually the old man’s pulse slowed. “When he threatened me, I was going to say, ‘If you do, I’ll own you!”
He meant that if he was assaulted, he would sue him. But the old man had wisely held his tongue, realizing that to an African-American, the words, “I’ll own you” had a completely different connotation that might have provoked far more violence.

This leads to other aspects of this incident. The four old men had been reluctant to press the issue of the bad behavior for more hours than they would have, had the transgressors been four young white men — and that reluctance was caused in great part by fear. White men are afraid to confront African American men because of a prejudgment based on the reputation for unreasonable violence. Rationally, the old men knew that golfing African Americans were not the same as gangsters on the corner in a ‘hood or riding in a black Escalade playing hip hop that reverbs until your teeth rattle. The old men were influenced by racial stereotypes that supports profiling.

Another aspect is the history these old men have lived through. Men now seventy or so grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when race relations were a central topic of debate. These men happened to be of the part of their generation that was sympathetic to the civil rights movement, especially in its earlier, peaceful iteration. They remembered fondly Dr. King and the marches, the fight for integration, and supported the passage of voting rights laws. They praised the concept of diversity and denounced the idea of discrimination. They admired Mohammed Ali, Hank Aaron, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter, and (three out of the four) Barack Obama.

But they had been worried by the ghetto riots of the late 60’s, the Black Panthers, and the rage of Malcolm X. They each had experienced friction at school with African American students, either in sports, lunchrooms, hallways, or playgrounds. They were ambivalent about affirmative action in colleges and work, and had sent their children to private schools as the public education system they had survived now degraded and appeared to be biased in favor of the poor who were predominately of colors other than white.

The tension of the situation was not one-sided. The African-American men brought with them to the golf course their own set of prejudices. To begin with, they were fully aware of the history of the game as a white man’s domain. Even though this particular course was by no means a country club, it was a public course in the heart of the white (or at least mostly white) part of the city. Well brought up young men can tire of their parents’ reminders to behave themselves in company so as to not discredit their families. Some old men remembered a time when the warnings included the impression they might give of their People — Jews, the Irish, Italians, or other identifiable attachments. Young black men can easily tire of the reminder to represent.

In the final analysis, the incident does permit a glimmer of hope for the future. From the perspective of the old white men, the incident was a success. No one was shot, and the rest of the round proceeded at an acceptable pace. The old man who had braved the threat felt vindicated, and has something over his more timid friends forever. The other three had benefitted from their friend’s reckless risk taking behavior (aka courage). As one of the men said afterwards, “It is like that in every war; most stay safe in their foxholes while the few dare to charge the enemy!”

The final cause for optimism lies in my realization that the incident provided statistical proof of progress. Only 25% of the African American men wished to be combative, while 75% were conciliatory. The exact same percentages applied to the old white men.

That is an interesting coincidence, don’t you think?