Bryson DeChambeau is on steroids, the man I have just met tells me. He’s sure of it. I have not brought Bryson DeChambeau up to this person, made no indication that I do or do not think he became the most talked-about golfer since Tiger Woods through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But we are standing on the first tee of the local public golf course, and this is the sort of thing that qualifies as an ice-breaker with the people you get paired with. It’s like going on Twitter and accusing the Clintons of having something to do with the death of Jeffery Epstein: It’s probably not factually accurate, but it speaks to a higher sense of unfairness that transcends any political alignment chart.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t have these kinds of conversations, because golf courses were not crowded like they are now. Even on a Sunday, I could just show up, give the pro shop person eighteen dollars to play nine holes and buy three used balls out of the bucket next to the counter, and within 15 minutes, I’d be teeing off. Alone. But while the supply of golf has remained static over the past year, demand for golf has skyrocketed. Golf is one of the few ways to hang out with people while maintaining social distance, and golf courses themselves were largely exempt from stay-at-home orders throughout the country. Besides, the pandemic has turned so many of us into early retirees.
Bryson DeChambeau must be on steroids because the PGA doesn’t test for them, the man I just met continues. Later, I will look up the PGA’s official drug policy and see that they actually do test for steroids; but, for now, I shrug and mumble something about how all the chemical analogs out there at this point probably mean that you can take supplements which offer the benefit of steroids without showing up on a pee test.
But the man I just met has a PhD in applied mathematics. He used to be a quant on Wall Street, then a floor trader. He’s the guy who figured out that if Pepsi stock is going up and Coke stock is going down, you can short Pepsi while going long on Coca-Cola and make a lot of money. They’re basically the same thing, right, so each price will deviate to the mean, he says. So you take both trades, bundle them as a single financial product, and sell them on the Japanese market, everybody makes money. So: Bryson DeChambeau is on steroids, you have to do the Pepsi/Coke stock thing specifically in Japan, and he will not be taking any questions because it’s our turn to tee off. He hooks every shot he doesn’t send skittering on the ground and still ends up beating me on two holes.
Another day, I play golf with a man who has no left knee. Well he has a left knee, just no left meniscus. He’s been meaning to get a new one ever since it happened, he says —“it” being the time he was a high school wrestling coach and a kid took him out from behind while he was teaching one of the freshmen how to grapple. A snapping noise occurred. It happened 25 years ago, and every time he was going to get it fixed, something ended up getting in the way. Last year, he finally retired for good and was going to get the procedure. But then COVID-19 hit, and his wife needed ankle surgery, and if they were both laid up in the house who was going to pick up the groceries?
After it happened, he became the school’s athletic director, and he seems really happy when I tell him my dad used to be a high school principal. He can’t really turn his body when he swings because of the knee thing, but there isn’t a putt he doesn’t make. Besides, he plays in a little league on Tuesdays and they’re all too old to give a shit anymore so they play from the front tees and he says it’s more fun that way. On the 16th tee box, he plops a ball right in the water and then pulls another out of his pocket and hits it onto the green, a sequence of motions so seamless it seems like he planned the whole thing. He makes the putt.
Soon after North Carolina’s dreaded six-week winter fades and it’s shorts weather again, I run into a pair of chefs getting ready to tee off on the eighth hole. They’re in the early 30s and have tattoos. I’m in my early 30s and have tattoos. Etiquette dictates that we have to play together, but it also makes sociological sense.
One of them didn’t play golf before the pandemic because he was too busy running the fancy sandwich shop in the new food hall downtown. The guy he’s playing with, his buddy, got him into the game; he’s been down south for the past nine months because it didn’t make sense to stay cooped up in New York without a job. Now he’s just hanging out and ghostwriting recipes for cooking blogs. It’s a thing, he says, seriously, before puring a seven-iron up onto the green. He’d give me his number, the buddy tells me, but he’s headed back to the city because rent’s gotten so cheap that he pulled the trigger on a studio up there. He thinks he’ll have a job to come back to, too. The sandwich shop guy slices a drive into a creek. I tell him to concentrate on straightening his left knee on his downswing. Not that I know anything other than a couple things, but I can tell he’s falling backwards as comes down on it and that makes him use his driver less as an instrument to hit golf balls and more as a counterweight to keep him on his feet. Thinking about straightening your knee sort of automatically puts more weight on your front foot and mitigates the falling feeling, I explain. It’s a quick fix to keep him in play, and it works. I hit the fairway and knock my pitching wedge to ten feet. I make par.