I wrote a story that Thursday, March 12, approximately six weeks and four lifetimes ago, about the fans who decided to attend the first round of the Players Championship. By then, it was obvious that the coronavirus had become a force that would bring the country to its knees, but they came anyway, shoulder to shoulder around the 18th green, COVID be damned. It was around noon, and minutes earlier PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan held a press conference announcing that the rest of the tournament would be played without fans. These were the last paying members of the public who would see professional golf in person, at least that weekend and possibly much longer. They were eager to talk.
Most of them were older, most were men, and all were defiant. A great number seemed to blame the government, but in a nebulous, nonspecific way, as if some group of killjoys behind the scenes had conspired to ruin their good time. They seemed to take a certain pride in being there…they were facing down not just a virus, but also the hyper-reactive weaklings in charge who wanted them to be afraid.
It didn’t seem particularly wise, to make that trip, but then again, I’d been offered the same choice a few days earlier. My editors told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t have to go. My answer: Hell yes, I’m going. You couldn’t keep me away. It was the Players Championship, which is reason enough, but I also had a book to write about the 2020 Ryder Cup, and if I made a habit of missing tournaments like these, I’d be missing great material. I was at Bay Hill the week before for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, my first event of the year, and I’d gotten off to a surprisingly fast start, landing interviews with Henrik Stenson and Kevin Kisner, securing future talks with Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell, and making inroads with a few others. Rory McIlroy mercilessly rejected me, but Rory McIlroy always mercilessly rejects me, so I wasn’t too down. In the middle of the week, I met with Tony Jacklin, the man who transformed the Ryder Cup as the first successful European captain, for three fascinating hours at his club in Bradenton. And less than 24 hours before that final Thursday, I sat down with Paul McGinley, for my money the greatest and smartest captain in Ryder Cup history. I had high expectations, but he exceeded them.
The omens were good. These were the days of action. A year earlier, I’d torn the ACL in my right knee playing tennis, and for months all I could do was sit on my patio, work online, and make plans. The idea for the book was born in those hours, and now life was speeding up in a way that felt right. So much about the coming year would be difficult—I’d be away from my wife and daughter for long weeks, the work would be endless, and I’d have to recalibrate my ego into what I call “golf mindset,” in which every day is filled with the task of asking millionaire athletes for their time when most of them want nothing to do with you, many of them despise you, and they’re very free about letting you know. Sometimes, you have to talk to their agents, and that’s even worse.
It wouldn’t all be fun. Still, I was ready. I felt infused with the kind of frantic energy you need for this type of project, the kind that keeps you from realizing how exhausted you are until you pass the finish line, and there was no way I’d miss the Players. So I knew that I had no right to judge the fans who had come out for the opening round—I was right there with them, among the crowds, shaking hands with people who wanted to shake hands and nodding or doing an awkward elbow bump with those who didn’t. It didn’t seem possible that all of this could come to a screeching halt. In many ways—in selfish ways—it didn’t seem fair.
But even then, the writing was on the wall. The week had already delivered a series of shocks, and the big blow came the night before when the NBA suspended its season after two players on the Utah Jazz tested positive. I was looking forward to watching the ACC basketball tournament on my computer in the media center that afternoon, but that too was soon canceled, partly because Duke had unilaterally backed out. I didn’t want to believe that golf would fall next, and the incremental response by the PGA Tour indicated that they didn’t want it to happen either, but there was no resisting the collective pressure of the other governing bodies…or reality. The “we’re playing, but without fans” edict lasted about six hours. That night, they announced that the tournament was over.
I drove home to North Carolina the next day, and six weeks later, I’m still here.
The speed with which it happened took me by surprise. We’ve had other near pandemics in our lifetimes, but none have ever materialized as an imminent danger in America. I certainly didn’t take it seriously in the lead-up, and in a case of hilarious and/or tragic timing, I actually quit my day job one week before it all went to hell. The moment felt right—I was sick of writing about politics, I had freelance work to sustain me, and it was time to focus on the book. I made the call, which was an easy one because I had a good boss and digital media is in such dire straits that an employee leaving on his or her own terms is considered a better result than the endless layoffs sweeping the industry. It felt like I’d made the choice before the choice was made for me. Afterward, I felt good, aside from one nagging thought: “I hope this virus doesn’t screw things up.”
Of course, a slight delay in the golf season is just about the least meaningful consequence of the pandemic, so even privately I wouldn’t let myself whine. But I couldn’t help comparing the rhythms of COVID-19 to my torn ACL—how something can be peripheral and only vaguely inconvenient until the hour comes when it’s monumental.
A year earlier, playing against my friend Sam on a lovely Saturday morning at the courts by my house, I was unbeatable. Our matches were usually very competitive, and I had written about our “rivalry” before, but this time I was drubbing him. I’d figured out something with my serve, and by the middle of the second set the only question was how soon it would end. I kept pushing, no let-up in sight, and soon it was match point. He won that one, I fought for another, he won that one too.
On my third match point, I chased a tightly angled shot to my left, flailed at it, and planted my right leg hard in an attempt to change directions fast. My knee wobbled in a way that was visually unsettling and very unnatural, and I let out a scream based more on what I’d seen than what I felt. Seconds later, I felt silly—aside from an initial burst of pain, it didn’t hurt at all. My wife was at the park with our daughter, and when she got to my side and saw that I wasn’t actually dying, she lightly mocked me. I stood up, walked it off, and considered finishing the match—I was so close to winning. My friend talked me out of it.
Another friend invited me to a party that night, and I almost went, but at the last minute the swelling and a slight feeling of instability kept me home. The days passed. I saw a doctor, who did a few tests and told me the ligaments felt fine, but that sometimes the swelling can disguise damage, so I should get an MRI to be safe. I got the test, and returned to the doctor expecting good results. Instead, that brief painless wobble turned out to be the start of a nightmare. He told me that my physical life was basically over for a year, and that even with a successful surgery I’d never be quite the same.
COVID-19 was like that—something minor, something irritating, but ultimately something temporary. And then, in a flash, it’s everything.
In zoom chats with friends, in phone calls with my family, in conversations with our babysitter and my wife and whoever else comes into my orbit in these days of isolation, we all have the same problem: We can’t put this into words. “It’s strange,” is our inadequate refrain. I can’t exactly say it’s hard, because most days I’m still just sitting in my office writing like before. I don’t know anybody with the virus, I’m not stuck in an apartment like friends of mine who live in cities, and I haven’t lost any work (that I didn’t already quit on my own). My wife works in healthcare, but she’s not regularly around COVID patients, so it doesn’t feel like any of us are overly exposed.
Still, there’s something terrible about it, even if it feels slightly shameful to complain. We live with a bizarre combination of inaction, boredom, and the underlying, indistinct sense that this is more ominous than we currently understand. The actual danger is unclear, but the dread is tangible. It hits all the beats of a dystopian movie—in the beginning, it’s just a little weird that you can’t buy toilet paper, that everyone’s wearing masks, and that our leadership is so unsuited to the moment that we’re literally being advised to drink bleach (and some people are apparently doing it).
And in the end, of course…zombies.
Watching my own response has been fascinating. I’m eating too much, exercising too little, and in certain ways succumbing to a kind of lifestyle lethargy that I should get around to kicking now-ish. I haven’t been lazy about work, which is good, but that’s about all I can check off on the positive side of the list. I don’t go to bed before 2 a.m. anymore, which means I’m usually operating at about 50% energy until 9 p.m., when I’m suddenly wide awake. I write all day, I watch my daughter, I hang out with my wife, I treat myself to Indian food once a week, and sometimes I make up games in my backyard with the one friend I’m allowed to see in person because our daughters share a babysitter. (We have a full seven-game backyard Olympics, each event involving a tennis ball. Our favorite is one where we try to throw the ball into a fire pit and hope it doesn’t bounce out. Desperate times call for desperate games.)
And, crucially, I play a shit-ton of online poker—specifically no-limit Texas Hold ’em. So much, in fact, that I wrote a short treatise on how to go from “terrible” to “decent,” which I refuse to link here because when I shared it with the poker experts on Reddit, they told me it was stupid. Still, as of last night I’ve won $78 in six weeks playing with a group of about 30 friends, and while that probably equals out to about $1/game, you could do worse when it comes to entertaining yourself in the pandemic.
What I’ve learned in that time can be summed up pretty easily: You have to know a few basics about which cards are actually good, how to play them, and how not to play them, but once you do that, everything comes down to patience, mental discipline, and luck. You can’t control luck—bad beats, to use the lingo, are going to find you—but the first two elements are entirely within your grasp. In fact, you can survive a good deal of bad luck if you manage to curb your stupider impulses.
Sometimes I can do it, but sometimes the brain revolts. The funny thing is, I can almost tell when a game starts whether I’ll have the focus to make the necessary commitment and give myself a chance to win. On the bad days, I sense a grinning little demon in my brain, and it’s clear to me that eventually the demon and I will conspire to go all-in on a weak hand, or to chase a hopeless straight, or to throw idiotic amounts of bluff money straight into the best hand on the table.
No matter what, it’s fun—even when it’s enraging. It gets the competitive juices flowing, which fills a need, and while it feels just a little foolish to have dedicated this much energy to poker at a time when I could be working hard on something material, I rationalize it by admitting that on some level, I need this. Force me into a shell? Great. I’ll go to the depths of that shell. Just watch me. I need to be sitting on my porch at 1 a.m., my hands a little numb from the cold, eating Pirate Booty brand puffed rice snacks and drinking a Coronita with lemon juice (I bought them thinking they were full-sized Coronas…also, we ran out of limes), clicking away at digital poker chips while zoom chatting with people who were strangers a month ago and are now, in these strange days, my best friends in the world.
The main characteristic of anxiety is worry about the future, but the great irony is that this worry doesn’t prepare you very well when the dreaded future comes to pass. Let’s say you’ve spent the last decade terrified of a global pandemic…what good does it do you, now that the pandemic is here?
I don’t endorse the defiant men and women who went to the Players Championship that Thursday, and when I view myself from a distance, I don’t endorse how I’ve spent the weeks since I returned from Florida. Then again, I find it all very understandable—even for people with comfortable lives, there’s so much to fear at the margins, and it’s a human reaction to decide, even for a little while, that you won’t be a captive to your own mind, or to those who insist on caution. They’re right, of course, but if there’s one thing that’s become clear about Americans, it’s that we hate being told what to do, even when the advice is critical. We have a responsibility to ourselves, and to our communities, but there are bad beats galore that defy our careful plans. Should I never play tennis again because I don’t want to suffer through another torn ACL, or should I take the risk? Should I shove all-in with ace-six, when I know somebody else has a pocket pair? Should I go to the Players Championship because I know I’ll have fun or have work to do, even if there’s a chance I could die or kill somebody else?
And if sometimes we diverge from the path of discipline, if we recognize the world as too chaotic to conform to our illusions of control and opt for the short-term benefit, our reward is a sense of power that comes from grabbing the reins. The impulse may be rooted in ignorance, but it feels like courage.
All of this, needless to say, could end up in unthinkable disaster. But that’s for another day. In the moment that counts, the moment called “now” which is the only moment that ever truly exists, we’re fortified by the belief that we can step out in the storm and walk between the raindrops.
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