John Daly's extraordinary blast from the depths of the Road Hole
bunker on the 71st hole of last summer's British Open may well
be framed in time as the shot that enabled golf's most exciting
player to finally put some powerful ghosts to rest. In a
slightly different and more private way, the shot performed
something of this final rite for me, too, because a little bit
of who I am is spread in that sand trap.
Earlier last year I walked up to that bunker, untied a velvet
knot and sprinkled a satchel of my father's ashes in and around
the bunker where so many greats and near greats and total
unknowns have gone down in flames. The three friendly
Australians I was playing with, strangers only a few hours
before, put down their clubs and pumped my hand. One of them
slapped me on the back and said, in that funny sideways way
Aussies have of cutting the baloney, "Guess every time you see
this hole on the telly, you'll get a right old blast out of Pop."
My new mates didn't know the half of it. I did get a blast out
of my pop, especially on the golf course. One afternoon 30 years
ago, in the soft upland hills of North Carolina, my father put a
golf club in my hand, showed me the Vardon grip and explained
that this confounding game could take me on a wondrous journey.
Those were the exact and somewhat perfumey words he used: "a
wondrous journey." I had no idea it could take us so far
together. Golf became our means of communicating through the
Gobi of adolescence into the forested terrors of young manhood,
the way we found balance in an unbalanced cosmos. We played the
day I went off to college. We played a few days after my high
school sweetheart was shot dead, incomprehensibly, by a
17-year-old with a .38. We played on holidays and birthdays and
on hundreds of no-name days that nobody but us would remember.
One day in Washington, D.C., somewhere in the mid-'80s, I got
tired of being a political reporter and suddenly, almost
grievously, missed the game. I hadn't played two rounds in six
years. My chest ached every night. So I called my dad from the
vice president's office and asked if I could just come home. He
picked me up at the airport in Raleigh and hauled me straight to
Pinehurst. We played like old times, except that I couldn't
break 100. He didn't ask what was troubling me. All he
said--exact words again--was, "Do something you love." Simple
and sweet, like his golf swing. I became a golf writer, and the
chest pains ceased.
We talked about making a sentimental pilgrimage. During the war,
when Dad was a sergeant in the Eighth Army Air Corps, he learned
to play while stationed in England near Royal Lytham, site of
next week's Open. The epiphany occurred when he took a train to
Scotland and played the great linksland courses there,
especially the Old Course at St. Andrews. He said nothing in
the world compared to the glory and pain of the Road Hole.
Somehow our journey always got delayed. Then he called to say he
had weeks to live. An old nemesis, cancer, had come back with a
vengeance. So we dropped everything and went. We started at
Royal Lytham and ended up in St. Andrews, where we sat for three
days hoping our names would appear on the daily ballot sheet.
They never did. Dad steadfastly refused to let me use my
connections to get us on. We settled for a final 36-hole
putting match on the Himalayas and a stroll around the course on
the evening before Dad returned home.
At the Road Hole, as the haints of the Old Course swirled in the
darkening sea wind around us, I learned he once made birdie in
the most extraordinary way--blasting in from the infamous
bunker. He assured me it was dumb luck, but I'd been around this
game, and him, too long to accept that. His short game was his
strength. I never quite matched it, but his love for the game
became mine, and that's enough.
When I returned to scatter his ashes, there was only one spot to
finally commend him back to dust. It was good to see Daly bury
some of his own ghosts there, too, in the company of a gentle
man I know would heartily approve.
James Dodson is a contributing editor of Golf magazine. His
book, Final Rounds, an account of the journey back to Scotland
with his father, will be published in October by Bantam Books.