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Illustration by Salini PereraIllustration by Salini Perera

This summer, Ian Brown explores how Canadians are reclaiming their lives from quarantine, whether it’s the thrill of a haircut, the risk of a hug or a chance – finally! – to jump in a pool again.

I HAVE to say the brilliance of golf as an antidote to COVID-19 claustrophobia did not leap instantly to mind as I scuttled down a treeless fairway in a roaring downpour trying not to be struck by the bolts of lightning forking to earth in a 180-degree arc in front of me.

“There’s no need to run,” one of the men in my threesome muttered, as if trying to avoid becoming a human spiedino was somehow undignified.

We had decided to play golf in defiance of the severe storm and lightning warnings on our – may I say this? – exceptionally accurate cellphone weather apps. After all: We had a Sunday tee time at the only privately owned public golf course in the city of Toronto in the summer of COVID-19. That is not a thing to throw away simply to stay alive.

We slunk back to the clubhouse. We waited 20 minutes for the rain and lightning to let up, and set off again. By the fifth hole, though the lightning had waned, we were still huddled under a massive willow, waiting for a fresh monsoon to subside. The greens were so sodden each putt created a wake. This is true.

We finished the round regardless. Who knew when our next tee availability would come along? As Canadians across the country step out from under the pandemic and its shifting shutdowns, golf is “emerging as one of the safest recreational activities for Canadians to enjoy,” according to Golf Canada, producing “a very surprising but special moment for golf.”

With the PGA championship being played this weekend (albeit to no crowd), the 600-year-old, $100-billion golf industry, fading since the glory days of Tiger Woods and the 2008 financial crisis, is at least momentarily back on its feet. COVID-19 is a good part of why.

The number of rounds of golf played in Canada in 2020 is up nearly 20 per cent over last year, despite a five-week delay to the start of the season. Junior golf programs are stuffed and brigades of casual golfers have returned to the game, while a raft of new players (more than 2.5 million North Americans a year, a third of them women and a quarter of them non-white) are taking up the most frustrating game on earth, in large part thanks to the pandemic. Meanwhile the average cost of a round on a public course has fallen to less than $50. For a long time the ancient habit of whacking a small disobedient ball though a lush landscape was an exclusive path to the WASPish ideal of fresh air and socializing with one’s peers while staying as far as possible from other, less appetizing human beings. Now, a broad third of North America either plays or watches or reads about the game, and it keeps the coronavirus at bay, to boot. At least for the time being, despite the fact that Donald Trump plays it, golf is once again an honourable pastime.

For my second round at Flemingdon Park, a fetching nine-hole course at the bottom of a ravine in the middle of the city of Toronto – my second round in four years, I hasten to add – I signed up as a single player willing to join any group that had room for an extra.

The pandemic has boosted golf, but also changed it. Physical distancing means fewer players on a course at once, to prevent them bunching up at shorter holes. Flemingdonused to process 240 golfers a day; mid-COVID, it’s lucky to squeeze in 190. The odds of finding an empty tee time across most of the country are slim. And speaking of teeing off: Congregating in a knot while your friend hits his flailing slice is a no-no. These days, you stand with your golf bag, alone.

The coronavirus has altered the delicate etiquette of golf as well. Prepandemic, a civilized golfer held or removed the flag marking the hole on a green (the “pin”) while the most distant player putted. But touching the pin during the pandemic is dangerous, and can cost you a stroke at some clubs. Instead, “pin caddies” let you lift a horizontal lever with your putter, and pop your ball out mechanically. Of course this requires that you got the ball into the hole in the first place.

Ball washers are gone, group scorecards are verboten. So are rakes in sand traps. This means that Rule 12 of the sacred Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf, covering bunkers, is now impacted by Rule 16 (Relief from Altered Course Conditions): Because traps can’t be raked, a golf club can now offer a player in a bunker automatic “relief” to a better lie within or even – the very idea! – outside the bunker. Many punctilious handicappers – who like the rules to be consistent, so they can compare their performances to other golfers on other courses in a meaningful way – consider this treason.

Some aspects of golf are unchanged, of course. The deep green embrace of a well-designed hole, still damp as the hand of the rising sun reaches across it, prevails. The coronavirus hasn’t made the game any easier, either, a thought that recurs as you watch your latest shot hobble off in the wrong direction – ”the fat shot that sputters forward under the shadow of its divot, the thin shot that skims across the green like a maimed bird,” as the writer John Updike once described a few. Updike never felt co-ordinated enough to play good tennis or baseball. But the fact that a golf ball sits still while you address it (golf is almost unique in this regard: It’s the T-Ball of adult sports) made him think an intelligent player had an advantage on the golf course. “I felt I had a game I couldn’t panic in, one wherein I might ruminate my way to prowess.” He was completely wrong, of course, but he was still a good writer.

I met my new companions at a safe distance, beside the first tee: Orestes Pedroso, a credit analyst at the Bank of Nova Scotia, and Russ Orr, a retired welding technologist.

Orestes was in his late 40s: He had a graceful self-taught swing but kept trying to kill the ball. This was his first game at Flemingdon. “That’s a heck of a legend to live up to,” I said, after he told me his name. Orestes, after all, was the son of Agamemnon, and avenged his father’s murder by killing his mother Clytemnestra and her lover. “Yes,” Orestes laughed, “it is.” He then clouted the ball 225 yards off the first tee.

Russ was Orestes’s polar opposite. A recently retired welding engineering technologist, he was playing his 22nd game since May 21st-twice a week, like clockwork. I was criss-crossing the fairway like an ocean liner being pursued by a submarine, as the Oldest Member, P.G. Wodehouse’s brilliant creation, once described my style of play. Russ golfed in a straight line. He was a rationalist. He made notes on his scorecard. COVID-19 had indefinitely postponed his plans to travel the world with his wife, “but golf is a miniaturized vacation.” He was full of good advice. “It’s not nine holes,” he told me, having watched me play. “It’s nine separate games. And that last game is no longer the one that is before me.” He paused. “The thing that I find about golf,” he continued, “is that you have to put your ego aside and attack the green pragmatically. And maybe you play bogey golf.” He meant that shooting one over par – a four or a five or a six – was a decent compromise with the human longing for perfection. “But it’s a hell of a lot better than playing an eight.”

Alas, I scored eight on four separate holes and shot a 59 for the nine-hole round. Still, it’s hard to think ill of anyone you share a round of golf with. Eventually, in any party of golfers, every player will make a shot that earns the praise of the others. Golfers call this camaraderie.

I reserved a third round as a wandering single, but the threat of another thunderstorm scared everyone off. “There’s gonna be a little rain at eight,” the starter said, avoiding my gaze through his physical-distancing hutch. “And there’s a remote possibility of lightning. If you see a flash, come in. But if you go out alone now, you probably have an hour and a half.”

A round of golf on your own is a true pandemic luxury. We tell ourselves we miss connecting with each other because of the lockdown, that physical distancing has kept us apart, and that is sometimes true. But the pandemic has also forced us together, into the same shelters, to see the same faces and think the same thoughts. We think we feel lonely when what we actually feel is emotional claustrophobia, a lack of self-connection. It’s one thing, an often rewarding thing, to choose to be alone. It’s an entirely different and less rewarding thing to have artificial isolation forced upon you by a pandemic. No wonder peoples’ mental distress is off the charts – anxiety, sleep disorders, anger management, eating disorders – as any number of surveys have found.

But a solitary round of golf in a valley in a city gripped by a pandemic? It was like breaking out of Alcatraz. I was racing up the third fairway before I thought to slow down. I remembered what Russ said about ego, and started taking notes. I shot a 52. I shanked two wedge shots, underhit four more, lost three balls. But on the eighth hole I finally abandoned the clownish oversized Titleist driver someone gave me years ago (because he couldn’t hit it) and teed off instead with my old metal three wood. My modest drive dropped 25 yards from the green. I chipped on and two-putted for par. The grace I had suddenly found abandoned me on the very next hole. But that par gave me hope, and hope arrived at on my own felt genuine. Arnold Haultain, a 19th-century duffer and naturalist, spent most of his life in Canada, where he wrote The Mystery of Golf, sometimes said to be the best book ever written about the sport. Haultain considered golf the most impossible pastime. It required mastery not just of the entire body, at full power and at its most delicate and restrained, but of the mind (to stay calm) and the moral spirit (to keep from being discouraged) as well. He would have made it through this pandemic like a pro.

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