amish golf. Photo: Christian Hafer

Lonely as a Cloud

In praise of the mood-altering, life-changing solo round

My late friend John Derr, the legendary CBS broadcaster and blithe spirit who helped bring the Masters to television, loved to say that golf is unique among outdoor sports because “you can almost play it from cradle to grave and all by yourself—a cure, I find, for anything that ails you.”

The Ageless One-Derr, as some of us called him, knew what he was talking about. Before he was 9 years old, he created a two-hole golf course in an apple orchard behind his father’s house in Gastonia, North Carolina, recording his first ace with a cut-down mashie and a self-taught swing. 

Not long before he passed away at age 97, in 2015—moments after watching his horse gallop home to the Triple Crown at Belmont, an event he also helped bring to television—Derr, who was blind in one eye, bookended his long and distinguished life in golf by making his final ace. During one of our last suppers together, I asked him how many he’d recorded. I knew it was somewhere in the double digits.

“At my age, who can keep count?” he replied with a shrug, adding wryly, “Besides, I was playing my favorite way: alone. There’s only one reliable witness.”  

 Like Derr, many of us who started out early in golf did so entirely on our own, playing solo, learning the game from the ground up. 

My first golf was on a modest nine-hole par-3 track in the rolling countryside outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. With a vintage Bobby Jones Spalding wedge, a couple of my dad’s spare clubs and a secondhand Bulls Eye putter from his bag, I wore out that cow pasture for the better part of two long, hot Carolina summers, playing alone before or after swim practice, learning what worked and what didn’t, trying out shots I saw on TV, learning the rules of play as I plugged along before finally setting foot onto a regulation golf course. 

Something about those private tutorials and the pleasures of solo golf penetrated my bloodstream. Even after I graduated to my dad’s club course around age 13, I spent countless hours on late afternoons and idle Saturdays chasing Old Man Par all by myself, alone but never lonely, because I was free to take as many mulligans as I liked, inventing scenarios where I needed to make a crucial 20-footer to rob Arnie or Jack of yet another green jacket or claret jug.

Looking back, mine was a childhood shaped by the heat and solitude of sleepy towns and an upbeat, golf-mad newspaperman father who hauled his young family to several posts across the deep South, never staying long enough for me to build a circle of playmates. When my dad introduced me to golf at age 10, the same year Palmer blazed onto the world stage in living Technicolor (1960), I found a game in the bosom of nature perfectly suited to an introspective kid like me. That Christmas, I even asked Santa for a tangerine-colored alpaca sweater like the one I saw the King wear at the Masters—and magically received it. Suddenly, I believed more in Arnold Palmer than Santa Claus. 

In college, as an editor on the school newspaper, I thought nothing of slipping away from campus to a funky little course carved deep in the green fastness of eastern North Carolina, a sparsely groomed but oddly charming track favored by local tobacco farmers and their wives. I always carried a notebook and a book or two in my golf bag, playing at my own quirky pace, pausing here or there to read or think, to jot down a sudden thought or simply watch a red-tailed hawk soar on afternoon thermals. For me, solo golf became—had always been, I realize now—like walking meditation, my version of Wordsworth’s Lake District hikes, connective tissue to worlds both seen and unseen, a living landscape I could actually play a game through. I enjoyed playing competitively with my college chums from time to time. But I loved playing alone almost any old time. 

To hear him tell it, golf changed my father’s life for the better during dark days prior to D-Day on England’s Lancaster coast, where he took up the game playing—frequently by himself—with clubs borrowed from a gracious Lytham member who was away serving somewhere in Burma. The two things he brought home from war in Europe were a wooden box filled with French perfume for my mother and a living passion for golf that would carry him to his own reward.

Clearly, apples don’t fall far from trees. At age 30, weary of writing about murder and mayhem in my native New South for the oldest Sunday magazine in America, I took my old man’s advice after a rare round at Pinehurst—“Why don’t you try writing about something you love for a change?”—and fled to a green river in Vermont, where I took up fly-fishing and began knocking the rust off a golf game that had been mothballed for almost eight years during my workaholic time in the home of Bobby Jones. I hacked around a pretty nine-holer where Rudyard Kipling reportedly played not long after he published The Just So Stories. Little by little, my pulse slowed, my golf game returned and I discovered that I was thrilled to still be alive and kicking. Solo golf helped save me, too.

For the better part of the next three decades, rather miraculously, I was blessed to travel and write about life’s greatest game, gathering tales of the turf from the most interesting tribe of sports-minded folk on Earth while playing classic golf courses I’d grown up only dreaming about. Though I loved playing with local members, I often arranged to play any golf course I fancied alone for the first circuit, like a first date with Nature, enabling me to study the landscape and possibly hear the architect’s whispered voice, to soak in the quiet, note the breeze, watch the skies and just be. 

The first time I played the Old Course at St. Andrews, I simply walked up as a single and got placed with two Australians and a crazy Norwegian who made the round a jolly affair. We remain in touch to this day, proving my Everyman theory that golf is the most intimate yet socially rewarding game on the planet, an elegant paradox that drives you inward even as you outwardly face wind, rain and whatever else the gods can think to hurl at you—all in good company with people who are no longer strangers by journey’s end. 

These days, though I have a regular group of buddies I play with most summer Saturdays, it’s the quiet, solitary times when I shoulder my clubs—hickories, more often than not—and slip off to hike a few holes in the late evening, as the shadows lengthen, that seem to cure anything that ails me. 

Besides, with all the memories in my head, I’m never truly alone. Somehow, wherever they’ve gone, I think my dad and the Ageless One-Derr would agree. 

Jim Dodson is the author of 14 books, including Final Rounds, American Triumvirate and Arnold Palmer’s memoir, A Golfer’s Life. He lives in North Carolina, where he wishes he had more time to play golf—especially alone.