Public, Please

An educated decision to live the muni life

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This spring, I stood terrified on the sixth green at Winged Foot’s West Course. After starting with three doubles, a quad and five shanks, I was somehow staring down a 20-foot birdie putt. 

The sun was shining, the course was brimming with happy golfers and my heart was jackhammering through the polo that I had carefully ironed the night before. 

I nestled the trembling putter head behind the ball, only to watch it bump my Titleist a half revolution toward its target. I stepped away, unsure of both my ruling and my worthiness to occupy this patch of grass. After a brief round of reassurances from everyone, I dutifully replaced my ball. And three-putted. 

The golf world can be a benevolent place. Over the years, a handful of friends have welcomed me inside the gates of hallowed clubs with pedigree dripping from ivy-covered walls, offering golf experiences I once spoke of only in hypotheticals.

public, please
There can be liberation in dropping the mores of country club life and embracing the casual joy of a public round. Photo by Christian Hafer

And while I’m forever grateful for their generosity, I’m finally ready to admit that club life is not for me.

Growing up, my crew wore out our local munis. We didn’t know anyone who belonged to a club, and we tracked our net ball count (balls found vs. balls lost) with far more zeal than our scores. 

Golf truly set its hooks in me after college, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole: architects, template holes, the whole thing. Seeking connection, I found an active Whatsapp thread of Boston-area diehards. Along with dozens of my fellow plebeians, the group contained a few whales—folks who could unfurl drawbridges at citadels of the game across the Northeast.

Quick break for a portrait of the protagonist: Think only child, perfectionist, an affable candy shell concealing a soft-baked center roiling with incandescent self-loathing upon hitting a miserable golf shot. Or, as my baseball coach once said when someone suggested I pitch, “We can’t throw Vogel. That kid’s a head case.”

Once I visited a few private clubs, the old anxiety returned: Where do I go? Where do I not go? Can I text my host to ask? Can I even text? It never got much better on the course. By the back nine of that New York round, my host was gleefully referring to me as Scrambled Eggs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he still sings “The Ballad of Scrambled Eggs,” the one about the boy who spent weeks anticipating one round of golf, drove for six hours and nearly broke down in tears hitting a ball around a big green field.

Turns out I’m a public guy. I went to public school. The guys in my wedding were the same guys whose houses I slept over at in third grade. And a few rounds in the sport’s stratosphere have produced a handful of highlights, too much heartache and a longing for my roots. 

Instead of chasing platinum-level scorecards, I’m sticking with what initially drew me to the game: great friends, scruffy local layouts and a half-day of fun with a resting heart rate (and the dent in my wallet) sitting firmly in the double digits. It’s comfortable here outside the gates.