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A Shoulder to Drive On

Men struggle with healthy friendships, but solutions can be found on the course

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Photo by: Could be the Day
Photo by: Could be the Day
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

I did not recognize the number. I watched it buzz on my phone and let the panic settle. To think there was a time not so long ago when we blindly picked up ringing phones in our kitchens—how we survived such savagery, I don’t know. I braced for a voice from the IRS or the Philadelphia Inquirer or my state representative, and pressed the green button.

I was greeted by an interlocutor more frightening than any of the above: It was a guy. A guy I knew—knew him well, but not all that well. His name was Sean, and after obligatory pleasantries he got down to the business of his call: “Just thought I’d give you a ring to chat.”

Chat? I had to look it up: “Talk in a friendly and informal way.” How dare he, I thought. I had seen my wife succeed in this “chatting” on numerous occasions—daily with her mom and sister—so I tried to mimic her for the next five minutes, describing the family’s status and noting career developments while simultaneously entering Sean’s number in my contacts as “DO NOT ANSWER.” 

Sean’s outreach seemed an assault on my time and independence, and, somehow, a slight to me as a man. And yet if I had recognized the number as a golf buddy, I would have answered in the middle of dinner, in the middle of the night, wherever, whenever, because such calls are safe and transactional: Tee time—was I in or out?

It’s taken me years to realize that it wasn’t Sean who had been warped by the world, but probably me.

It is well-documented sociology that men struggle with genuine friendships. Many call it a crisis, and studies have deemed adult-male loneliness a greater threat to men’s health than smoking or obesity. Loners live with an increased risk for cancer, stroke and heart disease, while their friend-healthy female counterparts reap the rewards of community and connection. It isn’t always that way. In early adolescence, boys bond as well as girls do. They’re able to recognize and react to their peers’ emotional states, as well as share their feelings and be vulnerable with their buddies. But somewhere around the age of 15—the same age male depression begins to spike—dudes start shutting down. Young men believe it’s time to stop needing or seeking friends, describing it as a sign of weakness or femininity. And thus begins the lonely road of the American male. 

It’s possible that our fondness for solitude likely spun out of some genetic hangover from millennia of Darwinian competition, some evolutionary suspicion of other guys in search of a mate or a meal. The distractions of modernity have only made retreat easier, and when men do converse with other men, scholars describe them as “shoulder-to-shoulder” interactions, while women excel at “face-to-face” friendships. (Take a look around your next cocktail party and watch women speak directly to one another while guys lip their drinks and eye a blank television, waiting for someone to turn the game on.) Whatever the root cause, I perused the studies and came to a happy conclusion: Thank you, golf. Because you are saving my life.

I quit cigarettes for plenty of reasons, but not wanting to be that guy who dropped a crushed butt in the fairway was a big one. Walking so many courses has saved me from shocking weigh-ins, but, perhaps most importantly, also has delivered actual friends, bonded over the four-hour pursuit of a little white ball. 

They may not be bonds of psychotherapeutic perfection. Golf talk is relatively superficial, and necessarily so; I’m often more interested in beating my playing partners than taking their emotional inventory. The wife of my regular golf buddy, Marty, always asks for updates after our rounds: How are Tom’s kids? His wife, Allyson? How was their trip to Florida? His weekly response: I don’t know. For years, this has baffled her. Didn’t you just spend half the day with him? What did you talk about? Which, in turn, confused Marty. And me. What did we talk about? Golf, I guess. And stuff.

But sometimes that stuff really does matter. It was on the golf course where another friend confided that his marriage had dissolved into an acrimonious mess, that he was losing his kids and was holding on by a thin thread. A dozen guys have told me somewhere on a tee box that they wanted to quit drinking, knowing I’d kicked the sauce years before. I’ve heard on-course confessions of infidelity, of financial jeopardy, of teens who hated their father’s guts with heartbreaking and inscrutable intensity. 

I’ve learned that Golfer X still smoked a lot of pot, or that the Eagles were a lock this Sunday, or that Marty slept in the nude, which was all entertaining and handy material, especially when it came to picking roommates on golf trips. Between the standard club gossip about who is getting suspended for yelling at a waiter, or who has been blackballed for slow play, real talk slips through. Waiting to hit on a backed-up par 3 can become a mini-confessional, because golf friendships possess some of those vital elements that the therapists approve of: trust and genuine vulnerability. 

I have seen scores of alpha males turn fragile on a first tee, and witnessed bulls of the business world spiral into meek apologizers, humbled by our game. And humility is essential to real male bonds, so the studies say. The trials of a round of golf can break us down to where, by the 16th hole, four quiet acquaintances have transformed into comrades rowing a lifeboat. We dream of golf that feels easy, forgetting that its struggles give us the gift of vulnerability that we carefully avoid elsewhere in our lives. And vulnerability, it seems, is the prescription for true friendships, which can do much more for our well-being than grow our Christmas card list. 

I’m still not waiting for Sean to call and chat, and my friendship skills might never match the proficiency of my wife’s and daughters’. But at least I have the golf course, where walking shoulder to shoulder is better than walking alone.