2006: Slice of life: Golf and marriage

John Steinbreder

It has been more than 13 years since I last lived as a married man, yet I retain vivid memories of life under that regimen and the many ways it vexed me. Perhaps no recollection is so clear as the place where golf resided in that union, and I was reminded of that not long ago by my former spouse, who allowed that the first thing she asked a prospective suitor in the years after our divorce was whether he played golf.

“If he did, then I told him we were done before we even started,” she said, her tongue only slightly planted in cheek.

“I hated the game that much.”

I wondered why golf had taken on such sinister connotations with her – and why it ranked higher on my

ex-wife’s list of things about which to quiz a date than, say, sexual history or criminal convictions. But then I thought of the many comments I had heard from friends over the years on the incompatibility so many of them found between the sport and the spouse.

“I’ve tried for years to remind my wife that I’m not doing drugs or robbing gas stations when I head out on Saturday or Sunday mornings,” says one pal. “I am playing golf with my friends. But I still get a pretty sour reaction whenever I say I have plans to tee it up.”

In fact, things get so tense at his home when it comes to games at the club that he is wont to say, “I have to check in with the War Department,” when we ask if he is available to play.

That sense of conflict seems to be a fact of life for most male golfers I know. And the strangeness of the nefarious place the game seems to hold in the minds of many wives and significant others is perhaps best illustrated by the story of the man who plays 18 one morning with his good friends and then heads to the bar. He proceeds to swill tequila and subsequently escorts a waitress to a nearby motel. Mortified at the conclusion of his tryst, he decides to tell all to his wife when he gets home. And it is with tremendous guilt that he relates the tale of his carnal misconduct as soon as he walks in the door, several hours after he was due back. His wife listens carefully, then sneers at him and says: “You son of a bitch, you played 36 holes, didn’t you?”

Stories abound of fellows who have met the wrath of their wives after tarrying too long on the links.

One guy I know pulled into his driveway just

as his marital partner was emptying a can of kerosene on the pile of golf shirts and sweaters she had built on the asphalt. “Fortunately, I grabbed them before she was able to light a match,” he says. “But the dry cleaning bill was enormous.”

Then, there is the tale of former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who came home after a rather long and alcoholic outing at a New York country club to find that his beloved Martha had taken a pair of scissors to every pair of pants in his closet and sliced each just above the knees, making a bold statement as to her feelings about the game and creating a new type of Bermuda shorts in the process.

I have learned over the years that men react to that apparently inevitable clash over golf in a variety of ways. There are those who cower at the slightest hint of spousal discontent, such as a childhood friend whose first wife would bark the same words each time he headed out the door to his club: “Don’t be late.” So terrified was he at the prospects of missing curfew that he developed a reputation as something of a fast finisher. In other words, he generally had to sprint through the last few holes to make it home by the appointed time.

Not everyone, of course, succumbs to terror so easily. In fact, another pal rose to almost heroic stature

at his club last summer when he completed what has come to be known as the marital Grand Slam. That entailed playing 18 holes on Easter morning, Mother’s Day, his wife’s birthday and their wedding anniversary. And he managed to do all that without instigating a court action by his wife (though he has never revealed how much of the summer he had to sleep in the guest room).

As time goes on in a relationship, however, I’ve found the tension over golf can wane.

In fact, my friend Jenkins says his wife of 30 years actually gave up fighting him on the sport a decade ago. That’s partly because she has come to enjoy the peace and quiet of his being gone four or five hours each weekend morning.

It also stems, no doubt, from the great relief she feels at his being out of the house on those lazy days, lest he develop any amorous notions and attempt something that in long-term marriages can be as challenging – and unlikely – as backing up a 4-iron.

Not surprisingly, Jenkins delights in the calm that has recently enveloped the golf aspect of his marriage. But he also confesses a certain hollowness at his newfound freedom, averring, “If I wasn’t married, I probably wouldn’t tee it up so much.”

Alas, I never made it to that point.

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