When golfers look back on a year, they typically think first of their best rounds—either in quantity of strokes or quality of a course. Rarely is the first round of a year the most memorable, or, at least, the most defining. For me, though, such is the case. I played like crap on a crap course, characteristics that would normally add up to a completely forgettable experience. And yet I’m drawn to a day in late May because I also normally don’t break the law.
In case the statute of limitations hasn’t passed on such a violation more than six months later, I will keep the details of the round’s whereabouts to myself. But I believe the surrounding circumstances allow me a pardon for sneaking through a hole in a chain-linked fence to play on a course closed due to COVID-19. Please allow me to explain.
Sadly and stunningly, I lost a dear friend for a second consecutive year. This time, instead of one of my golf buddies dying while on our annual trip, it was the one person I always wanted to have as a golf buddy. And while he didn’t die directly from the disease, the pandemic undoubtedly played a role in him tragically taking his own life.
Christopher (Kiffy) Purvis had it all, from a beautiful family to a great job at Google. He could do anything he set his mind to, including once teaching himself AP physics over the summer so he could teach the subject at a boarding school the following year. He was a gifted athlete as well who earned a spot on the Carnegie Mellon football team, so it was always maddening to me that he didn’t get more into golf, especially since he was a natural on the rare occasions I was able to drag him to the range.
Kiffy was my best friend since childhood, and I had the honor of being his best man at his 2012 wedding. Three years later, he returned the favor. We hadn’t needed golf to bond, sharing plenty of other sports memories, including attending David Wells’ 1998 perfect game together. When we finally played a first round of golf together during my bachelor party in Myrtle Beach in 2015, I couldn’t believe how quickly he’d gotten pretty good thanks to a few lessons taken at the behest of his father-in-law. Actually, I could believe it, because it was Kiffy.
Five years later, I was envisioning more of those shared rounds. Kiffy was excited about an upcoming work relocation from California to New York, and his high school friends couldn’t wait to finally see more of him after more than 15 years of employment around the country. Kiffy was coming home and I had visions of getting him on the course more. Then COVID-19 paused everything. And about six weeks into quarantine, the unthinkable happened.
Kiffy’s death, at 37, was devastating. The Zoom memorial service was both brutal and bizarre. How did this happen? How was any of this happening?
With so much craziness in the world, playing golf was a complete afterthought for the first time in my adult life. Initially not allowed to tee it up at courses closed due to the coronavirus, now I didn’t even want to play. I didn’t want to do much of anything, in fact. And I didn’t do much of anything.
Another long month passed and I finally got talked into playing. Other area courses had opened up but a legal last-minute Friday afternoon tee time would be impossible and I suddenly had the urge to get out there again. I had started to miss my weekend rounds the way Kiffy had missed his weekly pickup basketball games at the YMCA. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s how much of an impact being knocked out of a regular routine can have, and I consider myself fortunate to not have his underlying mental-health issues that were exacerbated by the world suddenly coming to a halt. I’m also extremely lucky for having a beautiful family of my own, and for a job that allows me to work from home. Still, I needed golf again. I needed normal again. Or something like it, at least.
Which brings me back to crawling through a hole in a fence with my golf clubs. That was definitely not normal for me. Neither was even playing that particular course—even when it was open. But oddly, the location had its own connection with Kiffy and was part of the reason I was drawn there. Twenty years before, as high schoolers, we had snuck through that same fence many times to party with others.
My current profession makes me embarrassed by the state our crew would leave a couple of the course’s holes after a night at what was known as “The Woods.” We stayed off the greens, but empty beer cans were always left strewn about—as well as the remnants of a bonfire that Kiffy once did a flip over, getting so close to the flames he burned his eyebrows.
As someone who has never been as daring as Kiffy, I was scared of getting in trouble for returning this May. Happily upon arrival, our foursome saw that we weren’t alone, which put me a little more at ease that we wouldn’t get rounded up by the same paddy wagon we ran from there as teens. There were several other golfers roaming the course, some bikers, a pair of elderly ladies taking a walk, a solo maintenance worker who gave us a wave, and even a family having a picnic. A feeling of joy quickly replaced my fears and pent-up sadness.
And that’s why in a year in which I shot my best score on one of my favorite courses and had the opportunity to play the country’s top-ranked golf course for the first time, I keep thinking back to my first round of 2020. The one that, technically, wasn’t even allowed.
We only played nine scruffy holes, and I couldn’t even tell you which ones they were. I also couldn’t tell you what I shot, because I truly couldn’t have cared less. What mattered most—even more than finally getting out of the house for an extended period of time—was reuniting with friends. Golf and work have for some time been my best sources of human interaction outside my family. Now, they are pretty much the only options. And by being forced to work from home exclusively the past nine months, I’ve even grown to miss my three-hour round-trip commutes to the office.
But unlike trekking into New York City, social distancing on a golf course comes easy—and it doesn’t prevent you from being social. It’s no wonder rounds are way up since the start of the pandemic. So much so that booking tee times the rest of the year was difficult, leading my golf group to get creative with where we played on weekends. I promise, though, we went through the front entrances at these other places.
Hopefully, the days of crawling through a fence to play a sport I love are over. Hopefully, the days of writing about a friend I love passing in his prime are over. And hopefully, there’s an after-life where Kiffy can truly take up the game I always pestered him about. If there is, he’s going to be really good by the time we get to play that second round. And I’ll gladly get my butt kicked.
If you are struggling with mental-health issues, feel alone or simple need a person to talk to, here are a few places to go for assistance.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Text “NAMI” to 741741
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Text “TALK” to 741741