Today was my least favorite day on a golf course. The ugliness of the outside world invaded the sacred spaces between the first tee and the eighteenth green in a way that left me blindsided, hurt, and angry, not because of my play or my score or course conditions, but because of my friend, Thomas.
I had a window of time for a quick round of golf before, the honey-do list and preparing for an upcoming trip would require my full attention. I reached out to my friend, Thomas, with whom I was long overdue to share a round, and the golf date was set.
Thomas is a novice golfer, desperately trying to improve. He’s caught the golf-bug full bore, throwing himself into improving through lessons, equipment, and playing as often as he can. He’s young and strong enough to generate club-head speed north of 120 mph, which is quite entertaining to watch up close, especially when he loses control of one.
He’s a veteran, a fire fighter, an utterly polite Kentucky gentleman. He walks and carries his bag, plays fast, and has picked up good golf etiquette already. He’s a dream golf partner.
Thomas happens to be black, a small detailed that I wish still didn’t matter. But while we played our third hole today, me from our fairway, him from an adjacent one (that I’ve played from many times, myself) on a course here in central Kentucky, Thomas got accosted for being a black man on a golf course.
I saw the entire incident, but I was too far away to hear what was said. Watching from a distance, I assumed that perhaps a friend working at the course had recognized Thomas and stopped to chat for a second. However, when he re-joined me on the green, he told me what had happened, in painful detail, with confusion in his voice, with a just a slight hint of resentment.
He told me that the employee, who I’d never seen before at this particular golf course, accused Thomas of jumping onto the course without paying. Stealing. He suspected Thomas had jumped onto the course from the surrounding neighborhood, and jumped onto the ninth hole, which is ridiculous, because the 9th tee is in the geometric center of the golf course. Thomas’s bright, phosphoric-white golf bag being the choice of those trying not to draw attention to themselves on golf courses everywhere.
The employee demanded to know who he was playing with, to which I assume Thomas pointed at me. He then demanded to see Thomas’s receipt, which was laughable because I’d heard the pro shop clerk tell Thomas that the printer wasn’t working when we checked in and paid. When Thomas obviously couldn’t produce a receipt, the man was indignant.
This isn’t a course that employs marshals or rangers. This employee was coming back to the pro shop from somewhere else on the course, probably putting out the water jugs or changing trash cans. He affirmatively chose to go out of his way to stop Thomas on purpose.
Most damning, the employee only approached Thomas with his accusations. He didn’t come over to give me the same inquiry, despite my being only 75 yards away. And he didn’t bother to question the younger white guy that was actually playing the adjacent 9th hole on the other side of the same fairway Thomas was playing our hole from. Nope, Thomas had to be the master thief interrupting play at the golf course on this day.
My heart sank as it became clear from Thomas’s details what had happened. “I didn’t know Golfing While Black was a crime, Thomas,” I blurted out, in stunned disbelief.
“It happens,” shrugged Thomas, as he sighed a deep breath and tried to concentrate on his next putt. In that instant, my heart broke a little bit more, because the obvious fact that he has to deal with that kind of nonsense in perpetuity hit me in a way that I’d personally mostly escaped.
My blood boiled, and I felt completely deflated and impotent simultaneously. I’ve never been so embarrassed and angry at the same time. The racism and bigotry that dominated much of the American conversation for the past couple of years finally found me, making the conversation real and personal, on a golf course, of all places.
“It’s still Kentucky,” I grumbled, heavy on disdain and disgust.
“Yes it is.”
It was a helpless feeling, because this was a problem, but I couldn’t provide a solution. Thomas showed more grace and composure than I could have in the moment or its wake. If I’d been within earshot while he was being interrogated, I surely would’ve gotten myself banned from the premises for life. We commiserated about the evil and absurdity of what just happened for the rest of that hole and the next, and then went back about our golf games by the next tee box.
In the grand scheme of things, it might not even register as a memorable annoyance for Thomas. This wasn’t a dangerous situation, there was no threat of force or violence involved. It was a jackass at a golf course, not an interaction with law enforcement or gun-toting rednecks, thank God.
Yet for me, a bystander that will never actually experience what Thomas suffered, it shattered the illusion that Lexington is as sophisticated and welcoming as its leaders and citizens seem to think it is, that our fair town represents a liberal oasis in a sea of politically red communities. A lot of naivety got excised as a result of this morning’s nine holes.
I played really well on my way to being two over par for nine holes, recovering from the emotional numbing that would persist for the rest of the day. Our conversation meandered through our mutual interests in real estate, gentrification in downtown Lexington, Texas-rig large mouth bass fishing, and us having older men around us that embody the rule of never judging a book by its cover.
I dare say we managed to enjoy ourselves, except for, you know, Thomas being treated like he didn’t belong at the golf course by an actual course employee.
One of the golf professionals at this course is a friend of mine, with whom I hope to have a conversation about today. Will it do any good? I don’t know. There are supposed to be two sides to every story, but I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which I’m convinced this was a big misunderstanding.
I wish I didn’t learn what I learned today. My life was more comfortable and convenient before I saw that hurt and exasperation on Thomas’s face with my own eyes, heard his resignation with my own ears. I didn’t want to write this column; in fact, I wish I couldn’t.
Most of all, I pray he doesn’t let the bastards get him down, and I get to play another 9 holes with my friend some day soon, because my golfing world is better with him in it.