The summer before last, I was sitting on a bench on a golf course on Martha’s Vineyard, waiting for the slowpokes ahead of me to putt out, and passing the time by admiring the sharply demarcated tan lines around my ankles. As is the case with many avid golfers, in high summer I appear to be wearing white socks even when I’m barefoot. (“Your feet look like replacement parts,” a non-player told me once. “Too bad they didn’t have them in your color.”) For variety, I also studied my shins, and marveled that so many of my freckles resembled tiny bugs.
Then I gasped: Quite a few of those freckles were tiny bugs. Even without my bifocals, I could tell that they were deer ticks, at least a dozen of them on each leg. About an hour before, I had waded into a patch of tall grass (in order to take a whiz), and the ticks must have ambushed me there. I carefully removed all of them before teeing off, and made a mental note to add a pair of tweezers to my golf bag.
Lyme disease, which is transmitted by tick bites, is a significant hazard for golfers in my part of the country—especially for those of us who occasionally venture beyond closely mown areas, seldom play in long pants tucked into socks, and sometimes forget to bathe in DEET. I didn’t get sick that time—deer ticks usually can’t infect you unless they’re embedded for a day or two—but the experience reminded me to be more careful.
Nevertheless, in 2006 I did come down with Lyme, for the third time in ten years. (I’ve had it once more since then, and so has my dog.) Because I’m a veteran, I recognized the symptoms right away: flu-like aches and pains, throbbing head, a hip that hurt every time I swung a club. My doctor, whose handicap is 14, prescribed an antibiotic, even though neither of us could find evidence of a bite. I began taking the pills immediately, but still got so sick that I had to miss not only a week’s worth of golf but also my daughter’s college graduation. A blood test later proved that I’d had both Lyme and ehrlichiosis, another tick-borne disease, which is like Lyme delivered by sledge hammer. It is possible to get Lyme and ehrlichiosis from the same tick bite, as I probably did—most likely while playing golf.
While my daughter was receiving her diploma, I was shivering in bed at home. I felt so ill that I called my wife and told her that I was going to check myself into the hospital. She called my regular golf buddy Bill, who drove over immediately and took me back to his house instead. Bill’s wife, Martha—who introduced me to golf, twenty years ago, by taking me out for nine holes—is a registered nurse. She gave me orange Jell-o and a Popsicle, and Bill made me white toast cut into star shapes. That night, they put me to bed in their son’s old room, and the next morning I felt well enough to go home. When I thanked them for taking such good care of me, Bill said, “Hey, what are golf buddies for?”
Two great things about about links golf in the British Isles and Ireland: hardly any lightning and no Lyme-bearing ticks. In 2008, eight friends from home and I spent a week playing golf in Scotland. Toward the end of the trip, Stanley suddenly got the sweats and felt lousy. He knew it was Lyme—he’s had it more often than I have—so he went to the medical clinic just down the road from Cruden Bay Golf Club. The doctor there had heard about Lyme but never seen a case. He looked it up in a book, agreed that Stanley’s symptoms matched the description, and prescribed doxycycline—no charge for the visit or the pills. It was Stanley’s seventieth birthday, so we all pitched in and got him a caddie. That’s Stanley below, on the mend at Cruden Bay, holding a birthday balloon that we also gave him. (We found it in a trash can.) Hey, what are golf buddies for?