The golf course is a valuable 'third place,' now more than ever

A year of busted routines offers the opportunity to appreciate the game in new ways.
With built-in social distancing that still fosters a sense of community, golf courses are being regarded as first-rate 'third places' in 2020. Pictured here are golfers at Biddeford-Saco Country Club in Maine.

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.

PGA National's Champion Course is not exactly the most tranquil and friendly golf course in the world, but it can still serve as a source of appreciation for the game.

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.

Has the golf course served as a refuge for you and your friends this year? Tell us about it in the comments!

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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Commented on

Tim, I cannot begin to say what playing golf at my local community course (Broadmoor Golf Links in Western NC) has meant to me. When my wife and I returned in mid March from a trip to the Sandhills region of NC, COVID 19 was not on the radar. Suddenly, one week later, it was. I feared the closing of Broadmoor, which thankfully, never happened. I bought a golf net and hitting mats in case, but never had to set them up. My golf buddies and I have walked twice a week without interruption. We, being COVID-aware, compared notes to stay safe.

My physical, mental, and emotional health are so much better because of walking golf, and a great staff at Broadmoor Golf Links who kept it all going throughout.
They even sponsored an appreciation food and beverage event for all.

Jim R

Commented on

Ha! Awesome to see my home club as the lead off photo! Biddeford-Saco has a great crowd covering the whole handicap spectrum, yet, you can't tell the difference between the low and the high handicaps when you finish your round and relax with everyone, socially distanced of course!

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The golf course is a valuable 'third place,' now more than ever