I was standing on the 18th green at PGA National’s Champion Course when I had a moment of clarity and gratitude in the midst of one of the strangest years ever.
That particular spot seems an odd place for such a feeling. After all, it comes at the end of one of the most grueling golf experiences in the world: a course that drives even the PGA Tour’s best to frustration every February, when it hosts the Honda Classic.
Having just played 36 holes in steady 15 mile per hour winds, I felt frustrated, too. My entire foursome did. None of us had played particularly well, and holing out to close out the Palm Beach County Golf Association’s Tour Championship meant that our frustration could finally dissolve to relief. The post-round fist- and elbow-bumps were mostly cheerful; even though we’d tackled a massive challenge, we’d gotten through it together.
Sure, I had been trying to beat them, and vice versa, but rather than the image of serious, hard-nosed golf that the elite game often projects, our foursome had something a little more convivial going on. Unlike those for whom it is an office, for competitive amateurs like us, the golf course is a valuable refuge from home and work, a vital part of a balanced life.
Third places have a number of important community-building attributes. Depending on their location, social classes and backgrounds can be 'leveled-out' in ways that are unfortunately rare these days, with people feeling they are treated as social equals.
The need for balance in various aspects of life is a platitude so widely accepted that it is often taken for granted. But 2020 has put a big, nasty thumb on the scale as the coronavirus pandemic has threatened the equilibrium most of try to maintain between home life, work and leisure.
Sociologists refer to these distinct divisions in contemporary life as places. The “first place” is the home, the center of family life. The “second place” is one's place of work. For most, this has been a space wholly distinct from the home, where people develop their livelihoods and cultivate the means for maintaining the other aspects of their lives and those of the ones who depend on them.
Then there's what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called the "third place." In simple terms, third places are where people spend time outside of their first and second places. Third places are where an individual interacts and exchanges ideas and information with others. This forges a sense of community and, on a larger scale, a healthy society. Third places are, “more like the living room of society at large," according to an article by the community development organization Shelterforce.
"Third places have a number of important community-building attributes," reads another piece, published by the Brookings Institute's Stuart M. Butler and Carmen Diaz. "Depending on their location, social classes and backgrounds can be 'leveled-out' in ways that are unfortunately rare these days, with people feeling they are treated as social equals."
Events of the year 2020 – primarily the global pandemic – have threatened that balance. On top of unexpectedly smashing together the first and second places for most working people, the pandemic has also denied access to many of our valued third places and radically changed others.
Since March, most of these community "living rooms" have been off-limits due to various local, regional and statewide advisories about potential indoor transmission of COVID-19. Bars, cafes, libraries and other public meeting areas that serve as important third places had been shuttered for months, and are only slowly reopening in most regions.
Lucky for millions of us, there’s golf. Even though they have had to change many procedures to meet the challenges of the pandemic, golf courses are currently more valuable third places than ever. The spike in rounds played across the country since May is clear evidence of people rediscovering the ways in which golf mixes safe outdoor recreation, camaraderie and competition. People are hungry for safe interaction with others, and golf provides it.
The golf course has been an essential third place for me this year, too. Even though I work out of my house, the road has also been an office in recent years. But a nonexistent travel schedule has seen me play about half as many rounds as I would in a normal year, meaning I've spent far more time in my home office than I expected at 2020’s outset. But what I lost in opportunities to continue exploring and documenting golf in unfamiliar locales, I gained in a sense of community around fellow competitive players.
Despite being something of an outsider, driving an hour or so down from my Vero Beach home to play against golfers mostly from the Stuart-Jupiter-West Palm Beach corridor this summer, playing more tournaments has helped me feel accepted as an equal by an already well-established community within the greater golf culture. That sense of belonging is tremendously valuable to me.
Fighting a fearsome layout like the Champion alongside respected fellow players is a dose of psychic medicine in a year like this. The camaraderie and mutual respect that comes out of the shared struggle strengthens a community. It has helped me see the golf course, especially in this year of busted routines, as a first-rate third place.