A Covidian Walk on the Golf Course

I walk for exercise. When self-isolation and physical distancing began, parks officially closed but were nonetheless overcrowded. As a one-time golfer, I turned to golf courses, which are closed to the game, but are park-like settings where distancing is easy.

There are three golf courses within 15 minutes’ drive of my suburban Toronto home. They occupy the Don River valley, with its meandering river surrounded by hilly terrain. This setting makes for courses that are both picturesque and challenging.

Don Valley is a municipal golf course, steps from the York Mills subway station, occupying much of Hoggs Hollow – a depression surrounded by hills in all directions. The city barred the parking lot and put up signs announcing that the course is closed but made no attempt to block walkers.

The Donalda Club has a professional calibre golf course that opened in 1961. Though the club is signed as private property, as a community service during the pandemic it decided to open the course to walkers if they stay on the paved paths and maintain physical distancing.

The Rosedale Golf Club is Toronto’s most venerable, with a course that opened in 1909 and has twice hosted the Canadian Open. Though the course is open to dog walkers in the winter, the club’s interpretation of social responsibility during the pandemic was the opposite of Donalda’s. It put up snow fences blocking any access to the course from the clubhouse and signs forbidding trespassing. Much as I wanted to walk it, and even though climbing a snow fence wouldn’t be too difficult for a spry septuagenarian, a trespassing citation would be undignified.

(I have been to the Rosedale Golf Club once in my life, for a dinner given by the Harvard Club of Toronto in June 1969, two months after the Strike. The university sent Oscar Handlin, a politically conservative sociologist, to explain to anxious alumni what had happened. I met Handlin at drinks, and he asked me what I was majoring in. I replied, “Social Studies,” which he knew to be a leftist hotbed, and he rolled his eyes. In his after-dinner speech, Handlin blamed student unrest on a loosening of “the silken bands of authority.” If Harvard students hadn’t been allowed to go to the dining hall without a coat and tie, starting in 1967, and if they hadn’t been allowed to have guests over at night, starting in 1968, they wouldn’t have occupied buildings in 1969. Vietnam had nothing to do with it. I rolled my eyes.)

So I began walking the Don Valley and Donalda courses often from mid-March when the ground was hard and still had snowy patches to early May when the grass is soft and lush and the trees are budding. It has been a pleasant surprise that there are so few other walkers. Golfers do not appear to be interested in a course if they are not permitted to play it. And to non-golfers, the courses are hiding in plain sight. I share the courses with a handful of people walking their dogs and young children. Having neither, I don a beret and running shoes to present myself as an amiable eccentric.

My life-long relationship to golf has been conflicted. I began playing as a teen and could hit the ball well but was erratic. From university on, I rejected golf because it was too time-consuming and insufficiently aerobic. On the few occasions I played, my shots have become shorter and more erratic. I have a shoulder injury (requiring surgery that was scheduled and then postponed due to the pandemic) that will likely prevent me from playing again.

On my first walks, I was engaged in an intense inner dialogue about whether to accept a retirement incentive offered by the University of Toronto, where I have taught for thirty years. My ultimate decision to accept the package was influenced by my growing realization that the pandemic would move the classroom online, a development I would not embrace. This matter settled, I have become more in the moment. I now have three walking mantras: the anthropologist from another planet; reconnoitre, respect, and respond; and great shot, Sandy!

Imagine an anthropologist from another planet visiting a closed golf course devoid of hole markers and flags. How would she make sense of the place? She would see a park consisting of numerous long and narrow open fields, usually bordered by streams or forest. The fields contain different types of grass, in some places long and unkempt; in other places manicured, soft, and spongy; and in still other places deep green and carpet-like. She would notice several flat-topped mounds that are on the end of each field opposite the green carpet-like area on the other. Finally, if she looked carefully she would find small plaques with numbers between 150 and 600 set into the mounds and one or more sand-filled holes 10 centimetres in diameter in the carpet-like areas. Would she be able to deduce the nature of the activity earthlings practice there?

Rather than walking randomly around the course, as a dog or child-walker might, I resolutely walk all 18 holes in order. Don Valley was easy to decode, as I remember it from my youth. I had never played Donalda, so I downloaded a map and distance table to make sense of it. I used the plaques to identify the holes and began to appreciate and respect how the architect used the terrain to design a demanding course. The river runs alongside many fairways and crosses them once or even twice. One green is almost surrounded by the river, penalizing errant approach shots. The architect took advantage of hills to create obstacles on the fairways or to confront the golfer with elevated greens or tees. Climbing the hills adds aerobic intensity to my walks. Then I think about how to respond, determining whether to hit a long shot intended to cross the river or whether to hit close to the river on one shot and cross it on an easier subsequent shot. Without a club in my hands, I can nonetheless think through a round of golf, visualizing the required shots.

I have the benefit of visualization without the burden of realization. And because I am visualizing, I can cheerfully stride down the centre of the fairway, enjoying the springy fairway grass, the breeze, and the increasing warmth of the sun, congratulating myself on the great shot I imagine I have just made, and contemplating how my next shot will rise to the next challenge the architect has set for me. I greet the groundskeepers, who are ever more frequently out on the course, and, at a socially appropriate distance, tell them I am playing imaginary golf and having an excellent day.

These walks and mantras will all come to an end as soon as the courses open to golfers and close to walkers. The societal catastrophe of the pandemic has been mitigated for me by an unexpected opportunity to walk two excellent golf courses at a time of year when they would normally be restricted to golfers.

When life begins to open up, I will resume walking on neighbourhood streets, trails, parks, and conservation areas, and all of these walks will continue to be enjoyable and invigorating. But the recent golf course walks have been a unique and powerful experience. I intend to continue them – with appropriate attire – in late fall winter, and early spring, after the courses close and before they reopen to golfers. And I will definitely reconnoitre the Rosedale Golf Club and pay my respects to the architect who designed it over a century ago.


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