Well, the dumbest I can remember, anyway

I once dislocated my shoulder while playing golf. Not some extreme, full-contact, Florida-only variant, either. Just regular golf.

It happened on the second shot of the fourth hole when I was playing a round with my then-father-in-law and two of his friends, which is how most of my golf happened in those days. I recall thinking for just the briefest of instants that I’d made decent contact before a searing, tearing pain shot through my left shoulder. My arm was suddenly loose and wobbly and basically unresponsive. Despite the pain, I was clear-headed enough to recognize what had happened, and to understand that having the shoulder reset later would only hurt more. So I did the logical thing: I dropped the club and, with my right hand, slammed the shoulder back into place. Then I collapsed in agony.

The rest of the foursome stood around me in a loose circle and watched me writhe on the fairway for a few seconds. This entire incident confused my father-in-law’s friends: what kind of a marshmallow gets hurt playing golf? But my father-in-law knew exactly what kind of marshmallow that happens to, because his daughter had married one several years before.

Eventually I got to my feet and made my way back to the cart. The guys in the pro shop wouldn’t even give me a pro-rated refund, the cheap bastards.

I never did figure out how or why it happened. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how to swing a golf club; I’d been doing that for several years by that point, even if I didn’t usually do it very well. I didn’t hit a rock buried just below the surface of the fairway; I already knew what that felt like because I’d done it a couple years earlier. I’d gotten a fist full of bees and a ruined four-iron for my trouble then.

This is not the only noteworthy sports injury I’ve ever had—I also tore up my knee playing soccer once when I happened to shift my weight too quickly, an injury that still bothers me 20 years later, and of course there were always injuries whenever we played hallway lacrosse in college, because injuries were the whole point of hallway lacrosse—but it’s definitely the dumbest.

The author, doing a sport that isn’t golf

I’ve never been good at sports, but I’ve always liked them. Both as a player and a spectator. I love—or, rather, always loved—the occasional fleeting gratification of diving to the corner of the net, just barely getting my fingertips on a roaring shot from the striker and nudging it wide, or swinging straight through the ball and really connecting on a 265-yard drive, connecting in that way that you hear the contact between club head and ball but feel no resistance whatsoever, when you know you’ve just sent that ball flying straight and true and pure, right down the middle of the fairway. Those moments were few and far between enough for me to still remember most of them—as I said, I’ve never been good at this stuff. But I miss it sometimes, that feeling.

Something you hear from time to time is that sports are good for building character and self-confidence. It’s become an accepted nugget of folk wisdom. But I think the only people who really believe this—or even pretend to believe it—are the ones who were good at sports at an early age. I was not one of those people. I couldn’t hit. Couldn’t pass. Couldn’t run, by which I mean, I was dead-ass slow. My classmates were merciless, mocking not just my skills, but my right to even exist as a person in their presence. They took every opportunity to discourage me from playing with them, typically by picking me last for their stupid recess teams when they were unable to just straight-up exclude me from playing. (Kids are little shits; there’s just no way around that. Yes, even yours. Sorry.) This experience was not, it may surprise you to learn, a character-building one. Instead, it is almost certainly why I had almost no self-confidence or sense of self-worth until I was well into my twenties and had actually accomplished some minor things in life.

It’s probably also why I’ve always gravitated more toward individual sports, like golf or sailing or cycling, that don’t even necessarily require an opponent. Even when I played soccer, I was the goalkeeper, the least soccer-like position in the game. I found a comfortable groove for myself there between the pipes. I could use my hands, hardly had to run at all, and got to wear a completely different shirt than the rest of my team. On the team, but not of it. Something about that appealed to me.

I know that these days, golf isn’t something thoughtful, left-leaning people are supposed to enjoy. It’s classist. It’s wasteful. It’s environmentally degrading. I can’t deny any of that; it’s all true. But even in the highly-engineered facsimile of nature that is the golf course, I like the walk. I like the quiet, the solitude, the repetition and routine of the driving range, the practice of mind in addressing the ball and becoming uncomfortably aware of every muscle in your body as you stand over it, preparing to initiate the backswing. Just being alone with myself in a contest of skill, if I so chose, between me and the land.

I haven’t played golf since I left Florida almost eight years ago; there’s nowhere in my small San Francisco apartment to store a set of clubs. But when I did play, I usually went at unpopular times on off-peak days because the guy in the pro shop would always try to dump me in with a group of people I didn’t even know. You know, because of capitalism. Lone golfers aren’t economically optimal for golf courses, so they do everything they can to discourage solo play. And these people were usually very into golf. Some of them even had handicaps and wanted to talk about them, or about the course they’d played the previous week, or how I was slowing everyone else down with my garbage shots into the woods. This was a miserable experience because I wasn’t there to meet new people or make business connections or even to talk to anyone at all. Especially not to the kind of person who willingly plays golf.

That’s the paradox. I love golf. I can’t stand other golfers. And there seems to be no way to reconcile the two.