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Why I wake up at 5 a.m. to golf alone

It’s a scramble off the first tee to buy myself some distance from the foursome behind me, but I settle into a rhythm by the second hole. A Bill Murray-inspired narration begins in my head:

“Cinderella story … to take an early lead in the Masters … Mike steps up to drive.”

On the grass, the dew glistens, bright as fresh snow. Judging by the breeze off the nearby Potomac River, you’d never know the forecast was 90 degrees by noon.

work-life-balance-badgeI was 11 or 12 the last time I played golf so early on a regular basis. Back then, I played with my dad, my best friend, and his dad on Saturday mornings. At that age, I craved that time with friends, with other people. I constantly worried about being well liked.

Now in my mid-30s, I’m surrounded by people I love. My wife and two kids are a daily source of joy. I’m lucky enough to like my job and the folks in our office. But a full life leaves little time for time alone.

There is an irrational fear based on social stigma that going solo to a public activity like dinner or a movie won’t be as enjoyable as going with a group. A study that’s set to publish in the Journal of Consumer Research in August found that people opt out of doing things all the time simply because they don’t want to go alone. But the study also found they’d be happier if they just took the stag by the horns.

Golf can be a social game. A number of my friends regularly play together. But on the scales of my work/life balance – it’s hard for me to pull off. When you factor in travel time, golf with the guys takes about six hours on a weekend day. That’s precious time when work already takes me away from my wife and kids for most of the week.

It’s often said that millennial dads are different, more engaged parents. Born in 1980, I’m on the old tip of the millennial spear. (I used to think of myself as Generation Y when that was a thing.) I can’t speak for a whole cohort, but can say this: time with my family is sacred.

At that hour, I play behind the guy cutting the grass, leaving a single set of footprints across the course.To my surprise, a psychologist recently said I was an introvert. I knew the definition, but couldn’t fully grasp how it applied to me — until I began golfing alone.

Golfing alone allows my mind to go fallow for a few hours. It offers me the space to think through conflicts at work or home. It helps me recharge emotionally.

I leave the house quietly so not to wake the family. It’s a public course, halfway between home and work, and it sits on a point surrounded by the river. Driving in, I pass the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. The Washington Monument is visible above the trees.

If I get to the course by 6 a.m., I can finish 18 holes by 9. I walk. At that hour, I play behind the guy cutting the grass, leaving a single set of footprints across the course.

Birds chirp. Helicopters hum. I share the course with a family of foxes.

Throughout the morning, the movie Caddyshack continues to play out in my head. When I’m putting, I surrender to Chevy Chase:

“I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.”

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